Category Archives: Poetry

Writeliving Interview: Matthew Olzmann

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Photo by Evans Tasiopoulos 

I’m thrilled to get a chance to interview one of my favorite poets and fellow Michigander Matthew Olzmann. Yes, I can still call myself that after so many years in California. Matthew’s work is imaginative, rich, accessible, playful, and memorable. Consider getting his newest book Contradictions in the Design, from Alice James Books, for the holidays.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Too many to really list, but Wisława Szymborska, Robert Hayden and Larry Levis are writers whose work I’ve returned to with great frequency. My teacher Stephen Dobyns. My wife Vievee Francis—my discussions with her are always a part of my writing.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I’m always working on several things at once. Maybe five or six poems plus a story or essay. I tend to shuffle between them as I revise. I work on something and take it as far as I can go with it then, when I get stuck, I shift to something else and eventually circle back.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Instead of finding your “voice” find a bunch of “voices.” Try on a lot of new things, new approaches, new ideas, etcetera. See what fits, what you might grow into and what’s challenging. Make mistakes. Your voice will be somewhere between all these things.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

It makes you more aware of the choices you make and the things you value in writing. Having to articulate what might seem to be intuitive or intangible causes me to be more conscious of how I approach a piece of writing. Discussing a poem—whether it’s a poem I know and love by a writer I admire, or a new poem by a student that I’m reading for the first time—requires a careful attention to how a poem is put together. You notice what effects the poem produces, and then you try to describe how those effects are produced. It’s a discipline, a type of study, that deepens your relationship to the craft.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working a on new manuscript of (mostly) epistolary poems, and some scattered poems which are unrelated to that project. Also some short prose—flash fiction and lyric essays.

How has growing up and living in Michigan affected your writing?

It’s provided the landscape that’s become the backdrop for many of my poems. It’s introduced me to some of my closest friends in the writing world. It provided the first communities of writers that I was a part of, communities that probably continue to impact my writing and worldview in both pronounced and subtle manners.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

House of Water by Matthew Nienow. Look by Solmaz Sharif. Also really looking forward to reading Overpour by Jane Wong, Vanessa Hua’s collection of stories Deceit and Other Possibilities, and Mike Scalise’s memoir The Brand New Catastrophe.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Not really. The “dream” of writing, I think, is kept alive solely by your love for it. You have to find time to write and to do that you might have to sacrifice something else. Those sacrifices might be significant, but you do that because you love writing. Writers write because they love books or stories or poems. And any obstacles I’ve faced aren’t incredibly unique to me. I went to four colleges before finishing my undergraduate degree. It took 12 years with a lot of time off in between. I tried to learn to write on my own for awhile. A lot of rejections. There’s the realization that the gap between the poems you want to write and the poems you’re capable of writing might be vast. And you go back to work. I hesitate to call any of this “adversity” because I’m doing something I love.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I wrestled in high school. I played trumpet for three years and hated it. I’ve had jobs as a theater usher, a grocery store cashier and as a medical courier.

About the Author:

Matthew Olzmann is the author of two poetry collections: Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design (both from Alice James Books). His writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Eight Stages of Writing a Poem

Guest Blog Post by Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky photo

1 Fishing

This is the beginning, looking for an image, sound, snippet of language anything that could launch my imagination into something that might hold my interest long enough to begin a poem. Just because this starts the poem doesn’t guarantee it will survive as the first line or even be in the finished poem.

2 Collecting

Once I have the way in a begin collecting lines that might relate to the opening even in the most obscure way. At first blush, the new lines might only relate on an emotional level. But this is like brainstorming, there are no bad lines. I write them down, whatever I come up with, collecting a page or two of stray images of statements.

3 Expanding/Building

I look at what I have and assess the possibilities. Now I’m applying some rational logic to what’s on the page. I’m trying to see what lines I want to elaborate on, perhaps look for interesting words –– I might pick up a book of someone else’s poetry, read something and find a word I haven’t ever used in a poem and use that as the point of expansion. This stage is most emotional.

4 Shaping

The cutting begins. I toss out the lines that stick out and haven’t found a way to cement themselves into the emotional heart of the poem. This is also where I begin to pay attention to the lineation of the poem, enjambment and whatnot. The look of the poem begins to show itself. This stage is all about craft.

5 Titling

The DNA of a poem is in the title. This is crucial and where the intent –– though not what started the poem –– of what I’ve put on the page announces itself. The title is the emotional introduction to the poem.

6 Reading

I ask some trusted readers, all accomplished poets, to read the poem and provide comments.

7 Revising

I have comments from my readers. And because some time has passed I don’t have any emotional attachment to the poem. I look at the comments and start revising, I don’t always use the comments but usually use most of them, or at least use them as questions to ask the poem. Revision phase is also craft, and is very clinical. It has little to do with creating art, it’s all about “writing,” sandpapering and clarity.

8 Evaluating

This is one of the toughest, if not the toughest phases. I have to decide if the poem is any good. Do I want to throw it away? Or harvest any of the lines for some other poem? Should I revise, shape or build again? Do I want to send it out? Do I want to put it in my manuscript? It often take weeks, months or longer to answer those questions.

 

 

 

 

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Writeliving Interview – Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass Photo

Ellen Bass is a writer I admire and continued proof that California yields some of our best poets (yes, I’m West Coast biased). Ellen is able to write about her life in a way that transcends confessional poetry and draws on themes of family and community. Her work is compassionate and passionate, and spiced with humor and insight into what makes us tick. Please enjoy this window into her creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My first major influence was Florence Howe, my teacher at Goucher College, with whom I later co-edited No More Masks!, the first major anthology of poetry by women, published by Doubleday in 1973. Florence’s generous mentorship opened the doors of poetry to me and changed my life forever.

I was immensely fortunate to study with Anne Sexton when she taught in Boston University’s MA in Creative Writing Program. Without her encouragement I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try to make a life of poetry.

My third mentor, the brilliant poet Dorianne Laux, taught me just about everything I know about the craft. I owe her an immense debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but can only hope to pass on.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wish I had a creative process that I could describe, but every poem seems to have its own process and what worked for one poem rarely works for the next. I try anything and everything! Sometimes I think about a subject for a long time before I see a way to nudge my thoughts or feelings toward a poem. Sometimes I write many not-so-good poems grappling with the same theme before one succeeds. Sometimes I imitate a poem I admire. Sometimes I just start writing without any idea where it might lead. Sometimes I hear a writing suggestion that piques my interest and I decide to try it. Sometimes a poem seems almost to just offer itself up whole. Usually I’m grappling with an experience, an event, a feeling, a thought that I want to explore. Often I make lists of words that I find in some way interesting or that catch my eye and I try to include them in a poem. I think all poets fall somewhere on a bell curve from logical thinking to wild thinking. I think I fall toward the logical thinking and so I’m always trying to do things that will loosen up that rational impulse and allow more strangeness into my poems.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Paradoxically, I think that often the best way to find your own voice and subject matter is to study the poems you most admire. Examine them, take them apart, see what makes them tick, imitate them. That will help to train your ear, your eye, and your sensibility. It will teach you how broad the range of voice and subject and approach can be and then when you write you’ll have widened the scope of what’s possible. Beyond that, each of us has our own unique life experience within which copious matter is packed. Sometimes it’s a question of opening ourselves to the subjects that we didn’t recognize as worthy of poems. And then I’d add, Be brave.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

I love teaching. Besides the obvious privilege of diving into poetry with people who are also excited about it, teaching also gives me a place to feel competent, something I never feel writing poems. I never sit down to write a poem thinking, I can do this! But although there’s always more to learn about teaching, I feel basically capable in that arena. It’s a wonderful respite from doubt and the many failures that writing poetry consists of.

What are you currently working on?

I never have a “poetry project.” I just pray for the next poem—and do my part by sitting down and trying.

How has writing both non-fiction and poetry books influenced each genre?

Well, writing non-fiction has taken me away from poetry. I simply am not capable of doing both at the same time. After spending six or eight hours writing non-fiction, the last thing my brain wants to do is arrange more words. So I’ve given up non-fiction—at least non-fiction books. Not only was non-fiction not good for my poetry, but I think my poetry was also not helpful for the non-fiction I wrote. Had I been a creative non-fiction writer, it would have been different, but my non-fiction books are what I think of as “functional non-fiction.” They’re not there to please aesthetically, but to give people information that they may need—in some situations desperately need. So it was important not to have writing that called any attention to itself. I had to strip down my overly “literary” style. We wanted the writing to be invisible so it didn’t get in the way of its usefulness.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Yes! So much gets me excited. I’ve been reading Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland—I could go on and on! I also just finished the “Edith Trilogy” by the Australian writer Frank Moorehouse which is the story of one woman’s life braided with the story of The League of Nations. Each book is the size of the Bible and I was so sad when they came to an end.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything I would call true adversity. I’ve always just tried to do what I wanted to do—in life as well as in writing. Sometimes that hasn’t been the wisest path, but it seems to be the one I’ve chosen. It’s hard to know what the best choices will be so I believe one’s deepest desires and passions are as good a compass as any. I’m a ridiculously optimistic person and although I also am a worrier, the hope that it would work out tended to trump the worries so I kept plodding forward. I’m also a very practical person so I knew from the beginning I’d have to put food on the table along with writing and I accepted that.

Actually, as I think about it, it’s the other way around. It’s writing that has helped me overcome adversity!

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Hmmm. So many of my quirks have been included in my poetry. But I don’t think I’ve revealed one of my special talents—I’m quite good at finding lost things—which also requires some of the same qualities that are necessary for poetry—perseverance, strategy, patience, intuition, perfectionism, a willingness to not overlook the obvious—and of course luck.

About the Author:

Ellen Bass’s poetry includes Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973. Her non-fiction books include The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008), which has been translated into twelve languages, and Free Your Mind: The Book for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth (HarperCollins, 1996). Her work has frequently been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are two Pushcart Prizes, Lambda Literary Award, Elliston Book Award, Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, Larry Levis Prize from Missouri ReviewNew Letters Prize, and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. www.ellenbass.com

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Writeliving Interview – C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young Photo

As someone who has juggled a career along with writing in multiple genres, C. Dale Young has been a source of inspiration for me, not just for his writing (which is superb) but also for his commitment to his craft. Hope you enjoy the interview.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Although this is a common question, it is also an incredibly difficult one to answer. I suspect my response, if asked about literary influences, would change daily, if not hourly. I will answer this from a slightly different perspective, answer it without the “influence” part.

After my first year of graduate school, I felt as if I were not cut out to be a writer. I felt discouraged and decided to quit. A teacher of mine, the poet Donald Justice, told me to just keep going. He told me he felt I understood what made a poem a poem. To say this encouragement was huge at the time would be an understatement. And again, in my last semester of graduate school, when I worried that I would never write poems again once I started medical school, it was Don who told me: “You always find time to do the things you want to do.” That statement is one I have carried with me ever since. It gave me permission to become a doctor and to keep on writing. So, I would say Don has been a pivotal presence for me, one without whom I am not sure I would be writing today.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

With poems, I tend to come up with the last line first. I sometimes carry it around for months. Eventually I come up with a first line. The mystery of writing the poem for me is connecting the A to the Z. I draft fairly quickly. I might spend two or three hours getting down a draft. In revision, it could take months or years for me to get the poem to the point where I would send it out to a magazine or journal.

With fiction, I never have any idea how it ends. I come up with a sentence. I toy around with it until I am sure it isn’t a line for a poem. And then, I just rush headlong into it. I bang it out. And then, as with poems, it could take months to years for me to get the story ready for publication.

How has your profession as a physician impacted your own writing?

Medicine takes up 50-60 hours or more of my time each week. It means I have to always work to be a writer. I have to make time to read, time to draft, time to revise. I do so early in the morning before work, on weekends or days off. I always feel the urgency of time or, better yet, the lack of time.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Don’t worry. You already have a voice. All you need is to become comfortable with the tools to let that voice be heard. So read, read widely. Don’t be wed to any draft. Remember that revision means re vision, to look again. No one else on this earth has your exact life and experience. So, spend your time worrying about something other than “your voice.” It comes whether you like it or not.

How has your work as a magazine editor and teacher impacted your creative process?

I edited poetry for the New England Review for 19 years. It taught me not to take rejection seriously. It also taught me that publishing is not writing. So what if someone rejects your poem or story. Send it out again. Editors do not owe us anything because we send work unsolicited. Being an editor taught me to have thicker skin, to not be rude as a writer. I might think my poem is the next great ode, but chances are it isn’t. As for my actual creative process, neither editing nor teaching has much impacted it other than limiting my time. Writing is, after all, a solitary act.

As a writer who engages with other writers and readers in a blog and on Facebook, what advice can you give about the role of social media in a writer’s development?

Social media can be great for helping one feel s/he is part of a community. But it can also be a huge distraction. People love controversy within social media. There are the fights and the always present bullying. Will social media help one develop as a writer? I doubt it. Can it help you find like-minded souls? Yes. Can those like-minded souls introduce you to things and books that might change your life? Yes. But do you need social media to develop as a writer? No.

What are you currently working on?

I finished a linked collection of stories last year. I wanted to write one more story about the main character’s mother. But I quickly realized it was something larger than a short story. So, I am writing a novel. It is in a sense a prequel to the linked collection of stories. It deals with the three generations of this family that precede the main character in the linked story collection. At this point, I have written about 60,000 words (roughly 265 pages of manuscript). I feel I am about 70% done. I am just banging it out, typos and all. Once I have the whole draft down, the real work will begin.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Rick Barot’s Chord, his recently published collection of poems, is truly magnificent. I have already read it twice. I also recently re-read Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn and marveled at his economy of language and the ways in which he can manipulate image across an entire novel. I have also been re-reading some of Eudora Welty’s stories. My God, she is just so sickeningly good.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Writing means everything to me. I could give up many things in my life, but I cannot imagine not writing. With that said, writing is a privilege. One writes when one can. I don’t believe in overcoming adversity as a writer, but I am biased, terribly biased. I watch people work to overcome cancer every day. That is adversity. Writers, myself included, love to wallow in the misery of this slight or that slight. But that isn’t really writing any way. That is the business of writing. When you are deep in the process of drafting, when time stops and you are outside of time absorbed in getting the words down, in getting the words right, that is writing. And that is an incredible thing. The rest of it is all business. I have overcome many adversities in my life, but none related to writing. Maybe I am the lesser for that.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Just before starting college, I was in a terrible auto accident. I broke my neck. It is surprising enough I am alive. It is surprising enough I can walk. I was originally told I might not walk again. But I did. I may appear crazed in my constant desire to work, but it betrays something very different than ambition. I think many think I am just overly ambitious. I’m not. I work hard and work so much because I know I am on borrowed time. I became a doctor and practice medicine because I owed it to those people who saved me to do the same for others. I feel grateful every day to be alive, to walk. I live with an immense amount of pain, but I am alive. I will work hard and write until the day they roll me into the grave, because I know this is borrowed time. I escaped the grave once before. I may not escape it the next time.

About the Author:

C. Dale Young is the author of four collections of poetry including The Halo, forthcoming from Four Way Books in early 2016, and a collection of stories The Affliction, due out from Four Way Books in early 2018. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, he practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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Writeliving Interview – Richard Garcia

Richard Garcia Author

Richard Garcia, aside from being one of America’s premier poets, is a teacher who has had more impact on my writing than anyone else. His voice is still in my ear  as I work, telling me to take risks, to find the poem outside of the poem you thought you were writing. His students — past and present — love him and his impact goes way beyond his righteous books of poetry.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Many writings I would have read in my late teens and early twenties, the coming of age time. Mostly in a more imaginative mode, Spanish, French, and South American. Surrealism and fabulism. But what made me want to begin in earnest was reading Whispering to Fool the Wind by Alberto Rios. It was very much like I had wanted to write when I had written some years before, and although I was not writing when I read his book, it did make me feel like I could get on the right track. I liked his American, Mexican, playful, dark and serious humor.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I was at a reading listening to a poet answer that question and it seemed to me that everything she was describing was part of a ritual. Get up at this time, coffee, go to the place, sharpen the pencil, not just any pencil but the #2 such-and-such, now get the pad that you like to write in… So if you do this every day in just this manner every day, she will come, the muse will come to you.

So many of your former students have had successes of their own. How has being a teacher affected your own writing?

By learning to teach I have learned to teach myself.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Try to ignore your subject matter, your obsessions. Suppress the agenda. Go into the place. Your subject matter will be waiting there for you anyway. It may be in an unfamiliar guise or in disguise, and you won’t recognize it. But don’t worry, it will find you. As for voice remember that you are more than one person. You have voices you don’t know about, and they don’t even know each other.

I loved your prose poem book The Chair. Do you have a different process for writing prose poems?

Sometimes I can’t get the lines right, and then I notice that the narrative has a fable-like quality. Then I know it is a prose poem. The prose poem might be pissed. It coulda been a poem or even a story. But now it knows it won’t get to be in those nice lines and stanzas. And even if it is a story, it will be a story in which nothing happens.

What are you currently working on?

I have been finding poems in my laptop files. It is easier to find poems than to write poems.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Anything by Terrence Hayes. And I found an article I had lost years ago and searched for online unsuccessfully, until now. It is about a strange garden in Italy. Edmund Wilson, “The Monsters of Bomarzo.”

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Of course there are the heroes that overcome real trouble. As for myself I think of the adversity of the everyday. Even without outside help I can provide my own adversity. I am my own adversity. Having no adversity can be an adversity.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I can play the jaw harp. I am really a sensitive guy.

About the Author:

Poet and writer Richard Garcia was born in San Francisco and started writing in his teenage years. He is the author of six books of poetry: The Flying Garcias (University of Pittsburg Press, 1991); Rancho Notorious (BOA Editions, 2001); The Persistence of Objects (BOA Editions, 2006); Chickenhead, a chapbook of prose poems (Foothills Publishing, 2009); The Other Odyssey (Dream Horse Press, 2013); and The Chair (BOA Editions, 2014). He has also written My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits, a bilingual children’s book (Children’s Book Press,1978). He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares, the Georgetown Review Poetry Prize, and the American Poetry Journal Book Prize. His poems appear in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Colorado Review, and The Georgia Review, and in several anthologies, among them The Best American Poetry 2005, Touching the Fire, Seriously Funny and The Best of the Prose Poem. From 1991-2002, he was a Poet-in-Residence at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where he conducted poetry and art workshops for hospitalized children. Garcia teaches creative writing in the Antioch University Low-Residency MFA program. He lives on James Island, South Carolina, with his wife, Katherine Williams, and their dogs Sully and Max.

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Writeliving Interview – Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch photo

Photo by Michael Lionstar

When I think of poetry, I think of Edward Hirsch. He has had a lasting influence on my writing and reading ever since I had the opportunity after graduate school to spend some with him and other LA writers discussing the works of other poets. I’ve enjoyed his poetry and prose over the years, and I’m thrilled he took the time to share his creative life with us.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My grandfather, who died when I was eight-years-old, used to copy his poems into the backs of his books. I’m not sure why. After his death, my grandmother gave all his books away, and his poems were lost. When I was in my twenties, increasingly dissatisfied with the coldness of Anglo-American modernism, I turned to some Eastern European poets for guidance. I felt I heard my grandfather’s voice coming back to me in a modified key. I’m thinking of the Hungarian poets Attila József and Miklós Radnóti, the Czech poet Jiří Orten, and the Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I try to work every day. I read intensely, respond to the poets who matter most to me, and try to stay inside the feeling of the poem. Every poem is an attempt to work something out—nothing is figured out in advance, either emotionally or formally. I counsel myself to be vigilant and pay attention.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter to write about?

Be brave, go deeper and further. Find models. Try to take your work to its furthest logical conclusion.

After completing Gabriel, such a well-received and personal book of poetry, are you able to share what you’re currently working on?

I’ve been trying to write poems of spiritual inquiry. One is called “God and Me,” another is a variation on a verse from psalm 77 (When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted). That’s the tenor.

What has your passion and advocacy for poetry brought to other aspects of your life?

It has brought me a deep feeling of fulfilling my vocation. It has connected me more deeply to myself while also linking me to other people. I’ve found a community of other people who are also befriended by poetry.

About the Author:

Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poems, including Gabriel: A Poem, a book-length elegy for his son, and five books of prose, among them A Poet’s Glossary, a full compendium of poetry terms.

 

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Internet Literary News – Remembering Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell photo

On Veteran’s Day, I wanted to give a shout out to one of our most influential veteran poets Galway Kinnell, who recently passed away.

He never looked away from the messiness of our lives and our country, and has been a big influence on my writing.

Below, please enjoy one of my favorites from him, part of his book-length poem The Book of Nightmares.

Martin Ott

Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight

1

You scream, waking from a nightmare.

When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
hard,
as if clinging could save us. I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

2

I have heard you tell
the sun, don’t go down, I have stood by
as you told the flower, don’t grow old,
don’t die. Little Maud,

I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
I would let nothing of you go, ever,

until washerwomen
feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands,
and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades,
and rats walk away from the cultures of the plague,
and iron twists weapons toward the true north,
and grease refuses to slide in the machinery of progress,
and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men,
and lovers no longer whisper to the presence beside them in the
dark, O corpse-to-be …

And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
this the nightmare you wake screaming from:
being forever
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.

3

In a restaurant once, everyone
quietly eating, you clambered up
on my lap: to all
the mouthfuls rising toward
all the mouths, at the top of your voice
you cried
your one word, caca! caca! caca!
and each spoonful
stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering
steam.

Yes,
you cling because
I, like you, only sooner
than you, will go down
the path of vanished alphabets,
the roadlessness
to the other side of the darkness,

your arms
like the shoes left behind,
like the adjectives in the halting speech
of old men,
which once could call up the lost nouns.

4

And you yourself,
some impossible Tuesday
in the year Two Thousand and Nine, will walk out
among the black stones
of the field, in the rain,

and the stones saying
over their one word, ci-gît, ci-gît, ci-gît,

and the raindrops
hitting you on the fontanel
over and over, and you standing there
unable to let them in.

5

If one day it happens
you find yourself with someone you love
in a café at one end
of the Pont Mirabeau, at the zinc bar
where white wine stands in upward opening glasses,

and if you commit then, as we did, the error
of thinking,
one day all this will only be memory,

learn,
as you stand
at this end of the bridge which arcs,
from love, you think, into enduring love,
learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come – to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
the mouth
which tells you, here,
here is the world
. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.

The still undanced cadence of vanishing.

6

In the light the moon
sends back, I can see in your eyes

the hand that waved once
in my father’s eyes, a tiny kite
wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look:

and the angel
of all mortal things lets go the string.

7

Back you go, into your crib.

The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.
Your eyes close inside your head,
in sleep. Already
in your dreams the hours begin to sing.

Little sleep’s-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love
.

from The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell
Copyright © by Galway Kinnell

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Poetry Spotlight: Jamaal May

Jamaal May

When I first read the poem “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May, I acted like an unabashed fanboy and contacted him, asking if I could spotlight it on Writeliving.

I have read the poem now countless times and I still feel as strongly about it as I did the first time. It isn’t just that the subject matter has my heart as  a writer who grew up in Michigan.

What I love about this poem is not easy for me to break down. There is an alchemy here, a poet’s brew that intoxicates. Still, here goes:

  • Simplicity: there is a real skill in using common words to portray something universal and resonant. The poem shows us that this is possible to accomplish without making readers look up words in a dictionary.
  • Mystery: the poem spirals in and around important  issues of place, belonging and perception without being preachy.
  • Repetition: the mournful tone, like a song, carries a rhythm that circles back on itself and expands as it goes.

These elements make the poem masterful. However, what really sets this work apart is how artfully “they” is weaved into the narrative.

For me, this poem is as complex as Detroit. It makes me a better poet and it makes me yearn for Michigan. Thanks, Jamaal!

– Martin Ott

 

THERE ARE BIRDS HERE

for Detroit

 

There are birds here,

so many birds here

is what I was trying to say

when they said those birds were metaphors

for what is trapped

between fences

and buildings. No.

 

The birds are here

to root around for bread

the girl’s hands tear

and toss like confetti. No,

 

I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,

I said confetti, and no

not the confetti

a tank can make of a building.

I mean the confetti

a boy can’t stop smiling about,

and no his smile isn’t much

like a skeleton at all. And no

his neighborhood is not like a warzone.

 

I am trying to say

his neighborhood

is as tattered and feathered

as anything else,

as shadow pierced by sun

and light parted

by shadow-dance as anything else,

but they won’t stop saying

 

how lovely the ruins,

how ruined the lovely

children must be in your birdless city.

 

Previously published in Poetry

 

About the Author:

Jamaal May is the author of Hum (Alice James Books), which received the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Silver Medal, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. In 2014 Jamaal received over a dozen awards and honors including the Spirit of Detroit Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Poems appear widely in magazines and anthologies like NYTimes.comPoetryThe New Republic, PloughsharesPlease Excuse this Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation (Penguin), and Best American Poetry 2014 (Scribner). Jamaal is a Kenyon Review Fellow and co-directs Organic Weapon Arts with Tarfia Faizullah.

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Internet Literary News, June 2014

Pablo Neruda photo

In June, poets were in the news with freshly discovered work from a master, a new US Poet Laureate, the loss of an influential voice, and insights into Anne Sexton’s Pulitzer Prize selection. All this, plus more from Hachette v. Amazon.

Martin Ott

Newruda

Do you sometimes wonder what the world would be like if one of your favorite writers published new work? Seix Barral, Pablo Neruda’s longtime publisher, announced that 20 Neruda poems have been discovered in his archives and will be published in late 2014 / early 2015.

Pulitzer Prize Poetry Politics

Interested in how Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize? In the Poetry Foundation blog, David Trinidad gives us insights into the world of Pulitzer Prize judging  by digging into the Chronicles of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and revealing how judges’ arguments over books by Plath and Roethke provided the backdrop for Sexton’s selection.

New US Poet Laureate Will Do…?

I’ve always thought it was cool that our country had a post for a poet, but I’ve always wondered what it practically means for the art, craft, and popularity of what is, in actuality, a niche market filled with more writers per reader than any other genre. Best of luck to our new US Poet Laureate Charles Wright, who was quoted as saying upon selection: “I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do…but as soon as I find out, I’ll do it.”

Alan Grossman RIP

The poetry world was saddened by the loss of influential poet and scholar Alan Grossman. Winner of countless awards, Grossman was known for a serious style that bridged Romantic and Modernist traditions.

Amazon Looking to Bury the Hachette?

Yes, it’s all about money. As Amazon and one of the big publishing houses Hachette dig in for a fight over pricing and revenue, Evan Hughes at Slate provides insights into a lost opportunity by publishers to thwart the latest Amazon power grab. Chuck Wendig also provides an even handed and humorous look at these two “stompy  corporation” on his blog that I highly recommend.

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Writeliving Interview – Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath Photo

Campbell McGrath has been a major influence on my work, particularly my poetic collaborations with John F. Buckley about America on Brooklyn Arts Press. I’m excited that he took the time to share insights into his writing life with us. Please check out his advice on voice–priceless!

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Always tricky to limit the list of influences, but a pretty obvious answer for me is Walt Whitman, who opened up the scope of American poetry for all who have followed him. In that same American vein, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, despite their different genres, have been important models for me, along with poets like James Wright and Richard Hugo. On the other hand, poets like Rilke, Transtromer and Basho have taught me essential things–I can’t imagine my poetry without their influence. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And these days, the sea is full of icebergs.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, in general the writing process is two-part: the mysterious, internal process by which inspiration guides you to the poem in its original state; and then the hard work of developing and revising the poem to its final form. The first of these resists too much helpful advice from me, or anyone else. Usually my first drafts show up in notebooks, or scrawled on a piece of paper somewhere. From there, I work up a first draft on the computer, print it out, and revise it by hand– then go back and forth between the computer screen and the printed page. The poem has distinct identities in those two mediums, I think. Also, I am a big fan of solving problems in my sleep, and I always try to read the latest draft of a new poem before bedtime, and often wake up with just the missing word or image.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I studied poetry in high school, in college, and in an MFA program–and learned a lot. But I only really LEARNED a lot of those things when I became a teacher. When you know you have to stand before a class full of kinds and field their questions, you suddenly realize where the holes and weak points are in your own learning. So you get busy and really master material that you have only digested casually before. I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, but I still find teaching to be personally educational as well as enriching.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Keep writing. Finding one’s voice is an essential starting point for all writers. You can’t find it by thinking about writing– you can only find it while actually writing. The process, like the old Magic 8-ball fortune teller, reveals all the answers. Also I would say this: find your voice, write enough poems in that voice to really master it, and then abandon it. Find another, larger, more ambitious voice– or to switch metaphors, grow your voice, like a plant, for a single seedling to an entire forest.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

No.

How has American history and culture influenced your writing?

I write about America very often–about place, travels, culture, and society–which is the world that created me, and that I still struggle to comprehend. So, it has “influenced” me doubly–by shaping my world and making the person I am, that’s the first level. Then it has re-influenced me in that I take up various aspects of our history, say, to write about, as in my fairly recent book, SHANNON: A POEM OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. It’s a big world, with lots to write about, but I find America endlessly intriguing.

How would you finish this sentence: “A poem is…?”

…a piece of art made entirely of words.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Writing poetry is nothing but adversity. It’s really hard, it takes up all your time, it obsesses you–but it pays little or nothing. So you need a day job, and poetry is therefore a second, unpaid career you practice in your time off. I happen to be at the lucky end of this spectrum, with a good teaching job, and the receipt of several awards which paid me actual cash money. But even so–poets get all the respect in the world from me, simply for persevering in the face of economic reality.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I am a big sports fan–Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins, Miami Heat, New Zealand All Blacks, Barcelona–that’s five sports but I could ​ name others if I tried.

About the Author:

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012).  He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami Beach and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.

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