Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Two Newly Published Poems

April 3, 2014

I have a couple of new poems up at the fine journal “Vending Machine Press.”  You can find them here.

There’s some really fine work in that issue, but I especially liked “Milk Crates” by Melanie Teague, which I thought showed some really fine use of enjambment and a killer last stanza.

Now, of  course, I saw these are “new” poems but really, they are  newly available. “Subway Poem” stems from a trip to DC for an academic conference a couple of years after I had moved away from the NoVa area after graduate school.

Spoiler Alert: I don’t miss Northern Virginia. I sometimes miss parts of DC, but not often.

Essential Faults was part of a project I did a couple of summers ago, where I wrote a poem for all of Wallace Stevens’s “Materia Poetica” statements. I don’t remember which that one was inspired by. But perhaps I ought to send some more of those out to places. I’ve managed to place two of them, I guess, but I wrote 40 of the damn things, so perhaps I ought to put more of them to work.

This sort of makes me feel as though I ought to spend a little more time on poetry. That sounds like a worthwhile project for summer vacation; right now it’s all revising Paladin all the time.


Teach me now to listen

August 30, 2013

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

– Seamus Heaney, Clearances

When I learned this morning that Seamus Heaney had passed away, just before the start of my first class of the day, I felt a kind of devastation. I say “a kind of” because as much as I love the man and his work and what it has done for my life of the mind, and for the world, it isn’t the same kind of devastation as losing a father, or a brother, or a best friend, all of which I have lost.

And yet it was a devastation nonetheless. Seamus Heaney was the first poet whose work I sought out on my own. He was the first poet I recognized as important not because a teacher told me so but because my own instinct screamed it at me. His work, and that of his fellow Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, had a profound effect on the decisions I made in college to major in English, concentrate in Irish Studies, get an M.A. in the same with the intent to get a Ph.D., then say “hang it all” and get an M.F.A. instead. One of the essays I wrote for my M.F.A. Comprehensive Exam spent quite a lot of time talking about Heaney’s contribution to the tradition of the sonnet in English.

While I have lamented some of my choices in academics here and there, there has never been a moment in my life that I have regretted picking up any of Heaney’s books and losing myself in the humbly glorious language.

There are an awful lot of things I could try to say about Heaney but I don’t want to delve into the kind of academic speak I have more or less left behind and I’m afraid I would. This morning I thought, briefly, about trying to read one of his poems aloud to my students, who, despite having received a stellar high school English education to date, had a 100% “never heard of him” rate. But then I realized if I did I would probably break down, at least a bit, before I got to the end of it. There’d be no coming back from that in front of students in the first week of their senior year. Instead I left them with the brief anecdote of hearing him read twice while in undergrad, and having a few minutes of interaction with him the second time, and how he took a moment to sign my copy of his selected poems while he had a jumbo shrimp dangling from his mouth. I don’t offer this anecdote to be glib or to denigrate him in any way; I think it was awfully decent of him to take the time to inscribe a book to some dumb undergrad who was chirping at him about poetry and how he wanted to be a poet. He would’ve had every right to tell me to go away, but if there’s anything you keep hearing about Heaney today, it’s how approachable, how humble he was. Let’s reiterate this moment; a Nobel Laureate had no free hand to hold a pen to sign some annoying undergrad’s book, so he freed up a hand just to sign it. How many Nobel Laureates would do that? Frankly I’m not sure how many Laureates I’d want to ask to do that, but that’s a separate issue.

In the end I will quote not one of his poems, because I don’t know how I could choose, but from his Nobel lecture. I keep returning to this lecture and to this paragraph in general, because it says a lot of what I believe about why I consciously choose to engage in certain traditions.

“Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”


Part of writing, part of living any kind of examined life, is choosing your values. We have a tendency to be perhaps either too mutely accepting or too nihilistically dismissive of those values or beliefs that are in some way native to us, to what is handed to us or what we grow up with. Either is bad, but Heaney asks us to do the work of looking for that in our local, clannish, backwards existences which is good. Identifying that good, lifting it out, is the first step to carrying it forward and outward into the world. Heaney did that in his poetry for nearly fifty years. I’m hesitant to believe the rest of the world will ever follow his lead, but if we ever are, the poetry will be there, showing us how.

Teaching and Poetry

September 28, 2010

Today I told a friend of mine that I really think in order to write effectively, often, and well, I needed to do one of two things:

A: Get out of teaching

B: Stop giving a shit about teaching

He told me that’s not true; that I’m not drawing from the same battery, that I’m just fatigued at the end of the day. I don’t think I agree with that, honestly. To me, teaching English (or writing, comp, rhetoric, lit, whatever you feel like calling it) absolutely draws on the same energy as writing poetry if you’re doing it well. I suppose if you’re teaching in exactly the right situation, that energy becomes a feedback loop of a kind; the teaching actually helps feed the poetry. In my case, though, that clearly isn’t happening, as I’ve written very little of consequence in the past two years and four months, since finishing my MFA. Could it just be fatigue? I suppose it could; I definitely get more active in the summer.

But what I mean is I feel that my teaching, the only way I know how to do it, involves giving not only a great deal of time but a great deal of my creative energy. My teaching is very performative; I am in front of the class, on my feet any time that they aren’t directly working on a test, quiz, or prompt. I am clawing and scratching and tearing and pulling (figuratively speaking) to get them to think. I am talking and joking and projecting not only my voice, but a character that isn’t me so much as it is some guy who will say almost anything to provoke a thoughtful response. I sometimes deliberately make them angry; I say outrageous things to keep them paying attention (I think most of them realize that these are jokes but I am sometimes not sure). I rarely if ever use notes; I let the text we’re working with dictate the discussion we have and sometimes it goes places I am not prepared for, but I’ll go with it. I’ll have notes in the text, sure, but I don’t stand in front of the class and deliver a lecture more than a handful of times in a semester. I don’t think any of this is out of the ordinary for some English teachers, though I definitely had some in the past who just stood up there and spouted the things they wanted us to repeat later.

Hell, come to think of it, I even have props; a yardstick or stick I use to pound my podium or the odd empty desk if I need to grab attention. I throw things (mostly candy, but I always throw new books to the students – carefully. It helps them bond with the new text, I think, when they have to catch it). I even have a ‘costume,’ of a sort; I wear a sportcoat every day no matter how hot it gets in the building; it started as a way to help cover the fact that I was surely sweating through my shirt (my school has no AC and is a brick oven the first two weeks and the last two weeks of any year). Now I can’t teach without it; doing so is unthinkable, because it’s become a noted part of the ‘character’ I ‘play’, and there’s a certain intimidation factor in those first two weeks, as kids are complaining nonstop about the heat and a little awed at the one person in the building wearing a sport coat and a tie.

But the point of this is not to pat myself on the back or explain my teaching style (there are plenty of things I could do better, believe me). The point is, I’m not sure I can keep doing that and write anything worth reading. I get home and my brain is done, my creative centers are fried, my psychic energy is drained. I’ve got nothing left. I can work out; in fact, I crave doing that because I need a physical release. But I want to do anything except write, and of course, there are always papers to grade, as I’m teaching two lit courses and four comp courses at the high school, one college comp course, and I tutor on the weekends online for the same college. This could be part of the problem.

This isn’t just meant to be whiny; plenty of teachers come home and write. Plenty of people with other jobs come home and write good, readable books. I’m genuinely concerned that I can’t keep teaching this way, and hope to have enough of myself left at the end of a day  to write anything worthwhile.

What do you think? Same energy? Same battery? Am I just a whiny punk who needs to shut up and put up (or alternately, give up?) Some way to balance these two? Should I take up pig farming or get a job on a loading dock somewhere?

Pigafetta is My Wife by Joe Hall.

July 7, 2010

Love, like 16th Century European exploration, is an act of daring courage and discovery; simultaneously it is essentially destined to destroy both the actor and object, the explorer and the explored.

At least this is, I think, the thesis, or a thesis, or a possible thesis for Joe Hall’s Pigafetta is My Wife. Thesis is, of course, a terrible word to use in regards to a book of poems, but that does seem to be an inescapable, underlying theme; love is ineluctably both exploration and destruction. What exactly is destroyed? The self, certainly, the object of love/exploration, probably.

This book moves (effortlessly, it should be noted) between Magellan’s circumnavigation, as narrated by Antonio Pigafetta (real dude, it should also be noted, in case anyone reading isn’t aware) and a series of discussions with a lover who is at times present, at times distant.

Enough book-jacket type talk; is it any good? Yes, of course it is. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bothered to finish reading it, much less read it four times, much less be writing about it on this here blog. What exactly is good about it? Well if love-as-destruction juxtaposed with Magellan’s voyage isn’t enough for you on the face of it let me explore what in particular is good about this book.

First of all, call me old fashioned if you will, but one of the first things I want in poetry is for it to be beautiful; this book is.

“…If prayers
are swift, deranged birds

I am letting them loose from the decks of my body
Look for them. Two years

& more promised, seven months
apart, what gifts are there
to give? A ring

to describe your finger or another book
in which to write what is your pleasure or
Dear Joe Hello? the tools to bind a book

& how much flesh is the book?
& how much bread is the book”

Beautiful. And there is plenty more; that’s just one of many passages that impressed me with breathless enjambment and pause, with startling imagery (prayers/are swift, deranged birds), with the nonstop play with and re-invention of the length and shape of the line, and in fact, of the page itself. There are plenty of other passages I’d like to quote, that I want you, who is readings this, to see and be struck by, but I can’t because WordPress just isn’t going to give me the right space. The right space is in the book and in lines that are sometimes almost impossibly long; Hall sometimes strings a line along absolutely as far as it can or should go, and then just a syllable or two farther.

So we have beauty, and we have invention. We also have something that the book blurb from poet Dan Beachy-Quick called the “making necessary of history,” a phrase that only sounds curious until you read the book, when it simply becomes true. Why, I can hear you asking, would someone juxtapose their relationship with the experiences of Antonio Pigafetta? Well I don’t pretend to have the only answer but I suspect it lies in more than just the fact that Pigafetta was one of the 18 (out of 250) to successfully circumnavigate, but also in that he was a devoted and accurate chronicler but perhaps most importantly (I’m guessing here) that he was a linguist who was able to successfully translate one of the Philippine languages; he began the ultimately impossible work of bridging the cultural gap of language. He helped lay invaluable groundwork for future exploration and colonization – which, as we know leads pretty inevitably to damage, destruction, and identities forever changed for both colonizer and colonized – much, you see, like love.

The work is new and beautiful, the language is smart, the lines inventive and dazzling, the history is, as the blurb says, necessary, and there are things at stake in this book. That’s the final ingredient that ought to have you going to Black Ocean’s Site and buying the book. The epistles to the lover matter to the speaker, and they come to matter to us, because they are speaking to important questions about how we relate to the other (if you must, the Other) whether she is a lover several states away or a member of an island culture incomprehensible to a 16th Century European scholar. No matter the nature of the journey we return, if we return, perhaps wounded, perhaps enlightened, probably both, but inevitably changed. Pigafetta Is My Wife is worth spending time with not only for its beauty and invention, but because it wants you to think.

Full disclosure: This probably cannot in any way be construed as a purely objective review. I know the author, in fact I was in a number of grad school classes with him and saw some of these poems in earlier draft form. They were good then, they’re better now, and you should buy the book anyway.

30 Minute Writing Challenge

June 28, 2010

My friend and generally intimidating genius over here threw me a challenge tonight; we both write for thirty minutes then critique.

Then the weak punk got too drunk to stay awake long enough to read what I’d written, and to be perfectly honest, I was three minutes late, tops.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote.

Fear and Danger and Loathing and Other Unpleasantness

The danger is in the approach
of the day that evades revision

The light is bad – no
the light is going
and that is not the same.
If the light is bad
it is the wine
that suffers, and
the hand that pours.
Without the light
to show its color
what is the wine
but water
or rotten juice
or the hand but
invisible actor
lost, forgotten
in the cloistering dark

On Love Poetry

I never wrote a poem worth a damn
for a girl. Stuck behind old joys
I would wearily crank
the engine of cliche and phrase.
Oh, I got what I was after,
a fumbling in the doorway
of a bar on a warm May night
But I have never written to or for
or any other preposition
without feeling a little sick,
like winning a rigged game.

In my memory your skin is unfreckled
and veined in its translucence.
But every day was war, an excuse
to force me to prove devotion
or servitude. But no matter
how beautiful your breasts
or how sweet your mouth,
a war of the smallest things,
a dish, a stray word, a phone call,
is not worth fighting. In a dream,
the last I dreamed of you,
I snapped and broke your jaw
with a jab, jab, hook,
that I felt to my toes,
better than any punches
I’ve thrown awake.
Despite all my conditioning
I glowed in triumph and woke
to clenched fists
and my frightened wife.

Note: Please understand I in no way advocate violence against women. I think most people reading this would know that but it seems worth a gloss.
Anyway, is there anything salvageable here?