Monday, April 21, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Karren LaLonde Alenier

Thank you so much to D.C.-area poet Karren LaLonde Alenier for today's thoughts on Gertrude Stein's  Tender Buttons. Karren LaLonde Alenier is author of the libretto Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, an opera collaboration with composer William Banfield and director Nancy Rhodes of New York’s Encompass New Opera Theatre. Her book The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas provides snapshots of contemporary American opera and how her own opera came to Broadway in 2005 with a favorable review in The New York Times. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently On a Bed of Gardenias: Jane & Paul Bowles. She writes a monthly column on Gertrude Stein and the arts for Scene4 Magazine. She has been an officer of The Word Works since 1986. More information at http://alenier.blogspot.com/.




I am reading Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein and having so much fun, other activities like sleeping, eating, and paying bills sometimes get short changed. Yes, this is the same experimental poem that critics love to hate.

In October 2013, inspired by a panel discussion sponsored by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, I decided I would start blogging my own personal study of Stein’s first book of poetry. If I felt I could sustain interest in such a project than I would open the study of Tender Buttons to other students of Filreis’ Modern Poetry Massive Open Online Course, taking the work inside the MOOC’s discussion forum where I operate as a “Community Teaching Assistant.”

Tender Buttons is divided into three sections. The first two sections have titled subpoems. By the fifth subpoem “A Piece of Coffee.” [NB. All the subpoems end with periods as part of the title] in Section 1 “Objects,” I was ready to commit to the project and seek a community to study with me. Thus, within the Modern Poetry MOOC, I have established a working international group with as many as 20 people, but the silent audience draws from a registered community of over 40,000.

One aspect of this project that intensely interests me now is how to evaluate any experimental poetry. I brought up that question in a panel at the Associated Writing Programs convention held in Seattle recently. The panel entitled “Is It Really That Difficult? The Problem with ‘Difficult’ Poetry” seduced me when the first panelist to speak invoked Gertrude Stein’s name and work as an example. I had not intended to stay, but went there with new Word Works author Barbara G.S. Hagerty. Unfortunately, the panelists had not thought through this question and offered there was audience for any work of poetry no matter its quality. Both Barbara and I who write ludically and have a comic sensibility (and no, her middle initials do not stand for Gertrude Stein) were not amused by the collective response from this panel.

So far in the study of Tender Buttons, I have come to believe that interesting experimental poetry, worth the time I will spend reading it, offers these two things—underneath is something substantive, like philosophy or science (some kind of thought process or as Stein put it in the opening subpoem, “a system to pointing”) and the writer has some kind of strategy for what is being written. I’m very open to a work being inconsistent, but like Chaos Theory, I believe a grand design must be in place. I invite you to follow the progress of the Tender Buttons study and to sign up now for the next ModPo MOOC that begins its third presentation in September 2014. After the ModPo course opens, find the Tender Buttons study group in the discussion forum and join in.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Janlori Goldman

It has been a pleasure to work with the recent Toadlily Press poets, like Janlori Goldman. Here she kindly shares how her 30 poems in 30 days April writing group works. Great idea. Have you been writing a poem draft a day this month?

Janlori Goldman is a poet and teacher. Her first chapbook, ‘Akhmatova’s Egg,’ was published in 2013 by Toadlily Press. Gerald Stern chose her poem ‘At The Cubbyhole Bar’ for the Raynes Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, Calyx, Contrary, Mead, Gertrude, Storyscape Journal, The Mom Egg, The Sow’s Ear, and other journals.  In May 2014, Janlori will co-launch The Wide Shore, a global journal of women’s poetry.  Janlori teaches at Columbia University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.


Writing 30 poems in 30 thirty days: isolation and community

Every April morning I wake up an hour earlier than usual to write. I sit in a dim room, write the first thing that comes (grey day, quiet river, pigeon roosting on air conditioner) and go from there. At some point in, maybe 20 or 30 lines, some phrase arrives that announces ‘done for now.’ I do a quick re-read, usually scratch the image that got me rolling, and type the roughest draft of a poem into an email to send to 6 stunning poets who will do the same thing each day for National Poetry Month. We are a community of writers, seeing each other through 30 days of 30 poems, all agreeing to send fresh, unpolished work, and open to a blank page the next day.

I get the sense that many poets around the country are creating lines that in May and June and July may serve up the generative bits for poems that we will publish, share, and recognize as having been written in a rare combination of isolation and community. Knowing that our rawest scribblings are read each day by a trusted ensemble of dedicated writers makes its mark on the poet and the poems, though I can not say just how or why this is— but most of us don’t even begin to imagine an audience of even one until draft after draft after draft, until we’ve stood in front of the mirror to hear the poem in the room, feels its cadence in our mouth, make changes on the spot to let music enter.

My 30/30 group requires something that breaks the usual pattern, a trust exercise of dropping first utterances back into someone’s waiting arms. During the day I may get a cheering email:  ‘strong language,’ ‘beautifully wrought phrase,’ or ‘this is going to be a kick-ass poem!’  Are any of us surprised at the end of April to see how we’ve absorbed someone else’s words or images or style as our own, how we are influenced by our community to express the greatest form of flattery?

I am grateful to Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, a remarkable poet and leader in our community, who assembles and introduces us, guides the process, and lets it fly for the month. And then in May we try to meet, read a few of our 30/30 poems to each other, and if a few lines urged us on to a more finished poem, we read those too. By the time May arrives, we are all a bit weary from the marathon of writing every day, and the daily reading and responding to each other’s poems, but there is a deep satisfaction of rich work and bonds formed that we carry through to the following April.

Monday, April 14, 2014

National Poetry Month Guest Blogger: John Copenhaver

It was a pleasure to meet John on the bus from the Brattleboro airport to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference a few years ago. What a lovely surprise to discover we both lived in Washington, D.C. and be able to continue our conversation both virtually and in-person. While a fiction writer, today he writes about poetry, specifically his grandmother's work.

John Copenhaver placed as a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Dodging and Burning.  In 2011 he was invited to be a fellow in genre fiction at the Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.  He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2012 and 2013, and the Tin House conference in 2013.  He graduated with his MFA in fiction from George Mason, where he served as executive editor of the literary magazine Phoebe.  He has published in several regional journals, including Timber Creek Review and The Roanoke Review, and was the first runner-up in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest.  He also keeps a blog, Talking the Walk, about the intersection of the teaching and writing life.


Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.


Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Debbie Benson

It was a treat to read, The Dead Outnumber, the beautiful new chapbook by Debbie Benson, whom I met a few years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Have you gotten your copy yet? Below she discusses what it means to be a poet in addition to other pursuits. Since many of us wear hats on top of (below?) our poetry hat, her post will resound with you.

Debbie Benson is a New Yorker, native Ohioan, and clinical psychology doctoral candidate. She currently works at a state psychiatric hospital. She holds degrees in English, philosophy, and psychology from Kenyon College, NYU, and Yeshiva University, as well as an MFA from the New School. She is a past recipient of the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize (Southern California Review) and the Vern Cowles Prize for a Trinity of Poems (Southeast Missouri State University Press). Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2013, The Cape Rock, Barrow Street, elimae, Enizagam, LIT, and other journals. Her first poetry chapbook, The Dead Outnumber, was recently released by Finishing Line Press.


On Avocation

Over the last five years, going to interviews has become an unfortunately well-versed part of my professional life. To meet training requirements as a clinical psychologist, a surprising number of yearly clinical placements is required, necessitating an exponentially greater number of interviews. One must navigate, year after year, a maze of city hospitals, college counseling centers, analytic societies, and the like, and find new places to practice becoming a psychologist, while logging the requisite hours of therapy work (often clumsy first attempts at healing) and supervision. At interviews for these positions, where I answer questions, wiggle, and feel uncomfortably visible—true to my poet DNA, you might say—I have encountered a common question asked of me. Potential supervisors thumb through my CV, which is rife with hints of art and oddity, and, noting an MFA in poetry in the black hole of my vocational history, almost inevitably ask:  “What made you change your mind?”

A misguided, if haunting, question to be sure. A poet understands that there is an unrelenting impulse for using words in the best ways, and this will follow her around with the bossiness of a command hallucination even whilst wood-cutting, popsicle-selling, or law enforcing. The answer, of course, was that I had never changed my mind, and hadn’t planned to. I had chosen a profession that I thought would facilitate poetry by not crushing my spirit completely, that would preserve my independence of thought and curiosity, and that would keep both vocations reasonably cohesive by shared proximity to narrative, language, and efforts at unearthing meaning. I had also hoped to offer a direct human service of a different, more physical sort—my craving for which had not been fully satisfied in creative isolation.

Vocation, some sources say, refers literally to a “call,” while avocation is the counterpoint, or “call away.” At best (and by “best,” I mean, “other worst”), avocation is known as the hobby directing passionate use of one’s “spare” time. At worst (that is, the worse “worst”), avocation is the yarn that pulls you gradually from the more purposive path. I wouldn’t dare, at this point, impose this dichotomy onto my experience of having dual careers, because it inaccurately trivializes one, and also because the two careers have become so symbiotic. However, it does seem fairly clear that poetry is my Superman and psychology is my Clark Kent—a comparison I also would likely not have made, except that I write and offer therapy using different names! I will instead say that there are ways that psychology makes my poetry possible, in part by helping to fund it, in part by forcing me to create more efficiently (even more prolifically than before) in my sparse free time, and in part by shaping me into a more careful observer. An inevitable side effect of hearing so many perspectives from patients each day is that my own presumptions begin to fade. My range of creative options seems to increase with that flexibility of ego. There are days that poetry saves me (a la Superman), too, when I’ve metabolized too much on the job to bear or contain—when I feel I must declare or preserve my own voice in the rubble.

And yes, as I’ve hinted above, there are the practicalities. This is something many writers do not hasten to discuss—probably because it will have absolutely no bearing on their decision to be a writer. And it shouldn’t. But there is still the task of making a living, which poetry does not promise. This often leads to compromises in time and mental space, which we had originally hoped to reserve more proportionately for twiddling about line breaks, feverishly revising a new manuscript, or posing oneself privy to the proper fountain of gushing epiphany. But to those concerned, take heart. Where Woolf’s “money and a room of her own” seems sometimes out of reach, I am here to attest that we poets may yet find inspiration, and even creative wellspring, in the diversification of our lives.



Monday, April 7, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Leslie LaChance

Today we welcome Leslie LaChance, editor of of Mixitini Matrix: AJournal of Creative Collaboration. She kindly shares her thoughts on creative collaboration. I was excited to meet Leslie at the recent AWP conference, where we tabled for Toadlily Press. If you haven't read her collection of poems, How She Got That Way, published by Toadlily Press (2013) in the chapbook quartet Mend & Hone, I really recommend it.

Leslie lives in Nashville, Tennessee and teaches writing and literature at The University of Tennessee at Martin.




Plays Well With Others: Why I Like Group Work
Nearly two decades ago, I was cruising the interwebs in an attempt to teach myself something about an emerging publication form: the online magazine.  It was a fad, detractors scoffed; e-zines would never be as important as their stalwart print counterparts, they declared. Easy to laugh at such snobbery now, right? Back then I flirted with lots of the early adopters but really fell for Born Magazine and, later, Broadsided, both focusing on collaborative work, pairing writers and artists responding to each other’s creations.
In a fit of boldness, I sent some pieces to Broadsided, and when one was accepted, the poem was passed on to artist Elizabeth Terhune, who created a shadowy, moody watercolor in response to my shadowy, moody poem “Mahogany.”  I’d never met, spoken to, or corresponded with Elizabeth, and yet, when I saw the finished broadside incorporating her painting, I felt as if my words, indeed the soul of the poem, had been directly translated into pigment and shape. I was amazed and deeply touched by how well this artist and the editors who paired us had read the poem and made it into something new. The collaborative experience with Broadsided was rich, surprising, and, well, fun.
That moment was just one in a long series of affirmations that nearly everything creative I had been doing -- music, art, writing, performing -- came from or developed into a collaborative effort, broadly defined. I wrote songs with friends; I made collages from found images and texts; I wrote poems in response to other poems or art, participated in writing groups, and performed poems and plays in ensemble events.  I’d also collaborated on several locally circulating print publications over the years, including a broadside series, which was celebrated in an art show and performance in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was living at the time. Sure collaborative work can be fraught with personal conflict, boundary issues, and other kinds of messiness, but it also fires the imagination. And when I know other artists or writers are likely to hold me accountable on a project I do with them, collaboration becomes its own kind of discipline. It helps me to be more productive when I feel connected to a community of writers and artists I can turn to for inspiration and advice.
So, when I decided to get more serious about creating an online publication, I ended up following the early lead of the ones I’d loved and made collaboration the centerpiece of this new project.  The publication itself, Mixitini Matrix, was born of a collaborative process; writers Mattie Davenport, Kate Hein, and Brittney Reed, and designer Jeff Wilkerson shaped the publication from the start. We thought it was a cool idea, but when I began to approach other writers and artists about submitting work, I heard over and over again “I don’t play well with others,” and “Oh, I hate group work,” or “I’m kind of a loner.”  Clearly they were not thinking of collaboration in the same terms as my co-founders and I were. 
Certainly, working in solitude is an important part of the creative process for many artists and writers. And, understandably, creative people have a great deal invested in the notion of uniqueness and originality. That may have a bit to do with our Romantic notion of the divinely inspired artist-as-visionary, and certainly we don’t intend to undervalue that important aspect of creativity. But I think most artists and writers would readily admit that other creative thinkers have shaped their work in some way, which is, truly, the broadest form of collaboration. So, what we’re trying to do at Mixitini is to keep that definition of collaboration broad and to encourage artists and writers to celebrate this aspect of their work, to reveal how influence and collaborative efforts bring them to their unique vision. Of course in considering submissions, we look for work created by two or more people, but we’re not limited to that. We also consider translations, ekphrastics, homages, collages, remixes, riffs, multi-genre works, and other collaborative possibilities in the belief that one of the most vital sources for art is art itself.  Collaborative practice is a kind of lively, ongoing conversation. Engaging with art, writing back to it, appropriating and reshaping it can energize our own work. Mixitini Matrix gives us the chance to continue that freewheeling, associative art of conversation, and to honor it.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

National Poetry Month Guest Blogger: Hila Ratzabi

Thank you to Hila Ratzabi for today's post on ecopoetry and resources, too. Don't miss her upcoming workshop and reading:

Hila Ratzabi will be teaching an interactive, generative ecopoetry workshop on Monday, April 7th, at the Head & the Hand Workshop in Philadelphia, 6:30pm. For more details and to register click here. She is also organizing DERAILED: An Ecopoetry Reading on the Schuylkill, on April 12th, Philly Poetry Day, 3pm.

Hila Ratzabi was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and received an Amy Award. She was a finalist in the Narrative Fifth Annual Poetry Contest (2013). She is the author of the chapbook The Apparatus of Visible Things (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry is published or forthcoming in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Drunken Boat, The Normal School, H_NGM_N, Cortland Review, and others. She has received scholarships and fellowships to the Willapa Bay AiR residency, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Arctic Circle Residency. She is the editor-in-chief of Storyscape. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.



An Unexpected Muse: Climate Change and Ecopoetry

When the skies broke open in late October 2012, hauling Hurricane Sandy onto the east coast, I was in the midst of a writing lull. For a few years, poems had sputtered out of me very occasionally, but nothing I was particularly excited about. The place where poems came from was mostly dry. I had been writing out of habit, and somehow lost my center. Whatever the reasons were for this dry spell, it was painful. Then the hurricane happened and something snapped in me.

I was in Philadelphia, stuck in the house for three days, alternating between watching the storm on TV and through the window. The weather maps showed the center of storm about to land right on top of us. I was terrified. Somehow, though, we were not the ones to get badly hit. Instead my hometown of New York City was crushed, and I watched the drama unfold on Facebook as friends offered each other places to stay, volunteered to help the homeless, plodded through flooded subways––scenes of devastation and resilience. I watched the destruction of the Jersey Shore on the news. Marveling at the fact that the storm seemed to pass right over us, and our cable TV never died, I witnessed the hurricane in terrible silence.

And then the poems came. One by one they spoke to me as I read the news. They replied to the headlines in many tones of voice: with snark, with cries, with shouts. It seemed that a new kind of poetry was emerging in me. Poetry came from a place of incomprehension: Is this really the world? I couldn’t handle the news, but I decided that instead of looking away, which had been my habitual way of coping, I would turn toward the world. Climate change was becoming my obsession, and now that it had landed at my front door, it was personal.

At some point I realized what I had stumbled onto was ecopoetry. I can’t remember when I first heard the term, but its most basic definition is poetry that addresses ecological themes. Researching further, I learned that ecopoetry also refers to experimental practices of poetry that arise from an ecological vantage point, often deemphasizing the poetic “I,” turning attention away from the human being and toward the earth. There’s a lot of theory circling around the term “ecopoetics,” which is useful and interesting in its own right. Reading theory has even sparked poems for me, but I don’t rely on theory as a formula for writing. I’m allowing myself to inhabit the terrifying space of awareness of climate change, and writing out of this feeling of terror.

The poems have surprised me. Suddenly poems came from weather news, from the “prepper” phenomenon, from Inuit folklore. These were topics I never could have imagined writing about before, but there they were. Another thing has surprised me about this process: what I thought would be a depressing project has become comforting. Reading about climate change is certainly horrific, because the truth about what we’ve done to the planet is dire. But by investing myself in this information, by forcing myself to make something out of it, I have found solace in writing and sharing poems. It’s not permanent solace, and I don’t know if it will make a difference in the long run. According to some calculations, we’re already past hope for “fixing” climate change. So what do we have left when we’ve exhausted our supplies of hope? Acceptance. Insistence on making something beautiful out of this chaos. Maybe all we have left are poems.

Sources on Ecopoetry:
The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street
The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy
Earth Shattering: Ecopoems, edited by Neil Astley
Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, by Forrest Gander and John Kinsella

Thursday, April 3, 2014

National Poetry Month: Upcoming Readings

I'm looking forward to reading at two Washington, D.C., library branches with other local poets this month. I'd love to see you there!

Georgetown Neighborhood Library
Finishing Line Press reading: David Ebenbach, Chloe Yelena Miller, W.M. Rivera, and Pia Taavila-Borsheim
Wednesday, April 9th, 7 PM
Facebook event page

Chevy Chase Neighborhood Library (D.C.)
Poetry reading: Dan Brady, Michael Gushue and Chloe Yelena Miller
Wednesday, April 23rd, 7 PM
Facebook event page