Liz Ahl Poetry


The Last Man on the Moon

On December 11, 1972, 42 years ago, Apollo 17 landed on the moon. It was the final Apollo mission. I have long been obsessed with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions; with the space race to the moon. So obsessed, that I have a whole series of poems on this subject. It’s a series I’m still working on. Here’s one of the early ones, a sestina about the Moon Shot. Here’s a more recent one, in honor of today’s anniversary:

Last Man

            for Eugene Cernan

The politics of timing are a boon
to famous men like Armstrong who got there first.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?

Remember winners, the heroes of high noon,
spotlit by lucky honor, fit to burst.
The politics of timing are a boon.

History might have whistled a different tune,
or things that went badly could have gone much worse.
Who knows? The name of the last man on the moon

doesn’t inspire the awe-bedazzled swoon
of Armstrong. Strong-arm. One step in the dust.
The politics of timing are a boon

to men like him. The stories that balloon
from chance to headlines shout about who’s first.
Who knows the name of the last man? On the moon,

the footprints of Apollo are cocooned
from passing time (a hero’s only curse).
The politics of timing are a boon.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?

 


Holiday Shopping and Beyond

IMG_6371This summer, I spent four weeks working on my own poetry at the Playa artist residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon. While there, I met many talented & hardworking artists and writers. One in particular, poet Charles Goodrich, had brought some of his books with him to share via the common building’s little lending library. I devoured them all, and of course had to buy copies. I bought an extra copy of his most recent poetry collection, A Scripture of Crows, for a former student who I thought of when reading it. Another of Charles’ books, Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden, made me think immediately of my friend Tabitha, a master gardener, and so I bought her a copy, too.

I loved giving them these books, especially since it was not particularly likely that either Dan or Tabitha would stumble upon them otherwise. I felt like I had found treasure to share.

For me, writing and reading poetry is largely about making connections. Sure, there’s a ton of solitude at the core of being a writer, but for me, if there’s no community at some point, I start to wonder what the point of making art is. I’m definitely more of a Whitman than a Dickinson. (I love me some Emily, though; don’t get the wrong idea!) My writing wants a reader. My reading wants a conversation. I love the communities that can spring up around the making and sharing of stories and poems. As New Hampshire Writers’ Week draws to a close, I’d like to emphasize the importance of reading and sharing and gifting books.

As this item from the New Hampshire Writers’ Project suggests, an important way to support writers is to buy their books. And at this time of year, many people are shopping for gifts for others. No-brainer, right?  Below, I’ve listed just a few Granite State authors you may or may not have heard of before, along with information about their books. Add your own NH authors with books for sale in the comments! And, here’s what I really want you to do:

1. Buy one or more of these books by New Hampshire authors as a gift for a reader in your life. Yes, you may gift yourself.

2. Consider buying aforementioned books at (or ordering them through) an independent New Hampshire bookseller.

3. Consider requesting that your local/town library order copies of these books, so that many readers — especially those who might not be able to buy books — can enjoy the work of New Hampshire writers.

Happy reading!

Katie Umans, Flock Book (poems)

Pat Fargnoli, Winter (poems)

S Stephanie, So This Is What It Has Come To (poems)

Jennifer Militello, Body Thesaurus (poems)

Lisa Rogak, One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another and Angry Optimist: The Life & Times of Jon Stewart  (nonfiction)

Kathy Solomon, Transit of Venus (poems)

Jessica Purdy, Learning the Names (poems)

Kristin Waterfield Duisberg, After (novel)

Martha Carlson-Bradley, Sea Called Fruitfulness (poetry)

Ivy Page, Any Other Branch (poetry) and Creative Writing Workshop: A Guidebook for the Creative Writer (edited with Lisa Sisler)

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Flirting with Robert Frost

Yankees are what they always were.

                        -Robert Frost, “Brown’s Descent”

When the paved road faded away to hardscrabble gravel and ruts on Bridgewater Mountain, my Toyota started rattling like a bad carnival ride and I considered stopping and turning around. No one was expecting me up there, so no one would miss me or wonder where I was. I could just pull off into the next long driveway and make my way slowly back down to the pavement, across Clay Brook, and back to the house I’d moved into a few weeks before. There was still some unpacking and arranging to do – shelving books, finishing the kitchen, hanging the solid old mirrors – and I still had some work to finish on my syllabi for the fall semester. Should I keep going? Turn around?

The pros and cons rattled around in my head as the car rattled up the mountain. Familiar, shorthand arguments I’d played out dozens of times in my life when I moved somewhere new and didn’t know anyone yet. That day, I was still living almost anonymously, in the space before really settling in, before making my first big forays into connecting with the place and the people. I’d met a couple of neighbors, but was mostly spending literally days without speaking to anyone, and not really minding it. Would I stay silent in the comfort of my solitude for a while longer, listening to music and alphabetizing record albums, or would this be the day to step outside and admit that, yes, I actually lived here now? I kept driving. The road got steeper and there hadn’t been any homes for a few minutes – just thick, dense second-growth forest on either side, the occasional stone wall stretching back into the trees, a reminder of those who’d lived here long ago and gone away.

My destination was the Old Town House on top of the mountain, the 103rd Annual Old Home Day Observance in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, population around 700. Old Home Days were a tradition started by the governor in 1899, partly in response to declining New Hampshire population. He came up with the idea of an “Old Home Week,” when those who had been born in New Hampshire and moved away would return to their hometowns to celebrate, reunite, and reminisce with family and friends. A neighbor who had introduced herself while I was moving in told me I absolutely had to come. She had even given me a tour of the “mountain” in her big truck a couple of weeks before Old Home Day, narrating so much history, ecology and gossip that I wish I’d been taking notes or surreptitiously recording her. It was too much to keep track of – the families who’d lived here so long, the community dynamics, the black bear and moose, winter weather. My neighbor’s family had deep Bridgewater roots, and she showed me their land up on top of the mountain – old camp cabins, a broad meadow, and breathtaking views of other, distant mountains, the names of which I forgot as soon as she mentioned them. She seemed to enjoy showing me around, introducing the new girl to the neighborhood. After the impromptu tour, her husband made us Manhattans in enormous tumblers, and then sent me home, a little drunk, with a bunch of cucumbers.

Growing up a military brat, I became an expert at being The New Girl; grew so accustomed to it, I rarely imagined being any other kind of girl. When you’re new, you’ve got every excuse. Out of state license plates make for great ice-breakers, and help forgive the occasional traffic gaffe, and pardon the confused requests for directions, advice, et cetera. I love the permission I’m granted, as New Girl, to be a little wide-eyed, a little fresh-faced. Moving every couple of years growing up, I learned both to treasure being new and alone, a tourist in my own life, and to shed the newness and just plunge forward, as if these kids on the school bus had known me since kindergarten, as if I belonged the way they belonged. But I’m not sure the newness ever fully faded – and if it came close, it was probably time to move again.

Everything my neighbor told me about Old Home Day intrigued me – the fact that it had been going strong for over one hundred years, that families who’d been here for that long (and longer) regularly attended. Now I lived in Bridgewater, and this just seemed like the next logical step. Never mind that I’d only lived here for a month – I’d just head on up with my camera, my Nebraska plates and my New Girl game face, walking my favorite tightrope: armored in my outsider status, yet trying to inch my way inside.

About a week before Old Home Day, I had spotted my first moose, a hulking cow, drinking from a ditch next to the road. She’d slowly lifted her head, a thin stream of water pouring from her wet, round muzzle. I slowed down, and we eyed one another as I crept past, then left her; in my rear-view, she bowed her head again to continue slurping the cool water left by long-awaited showers.

Though I used the moose to mark my arrival in New Hampshire, I had actually seen the moose in Vermont. I had been to Bread Loaf for a friend’s afternoon poetry reading and I was driving home on Route 125, a “memorial” highway to Robert Frost. When I first noticed the signs that memorialize him (the Frost rest area, the Frost “interpretive nature hike” down the road), I scowled a little. Frost wasn’t from Vermont. Wasn’t he from New Hampshire? He’s ours. Ours. The embrace of those vowels, the way I invoked the third person, the “us” I insisted on becoming a part of. Already, in my head, I was defending our ownership of Frost, using Frost as the crotchety old crowbar to squeak my way into the “us” of New Hampshire. He’s handy that way. And Vermont borrows Robert Frost. I guess I borrowed the moose. A fair trade, though maybe I needed the moose more. And truly, Frost is the U.S. of A’s.

I was a student at Robert Frost Middle School in northern Virginia, where my family lived for a three-year stretch. It was, overall, a wretched experience – hundreds of thirteen-year-olds doing time in the purgatory between elementary school and high school. Some days, the teachers insisted that we were grown up now, that we should be more mature and responsible and upstanding. Other days though, we were treated like the babies we suspected we still were. It was horrible. That day at Bread Loaf, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a few years. Somehow, we discovered that we’d both attended Robert Frost middle school – so on the drive home, Frost was already on my mind, just a little bit, somewhere in the back.

In high school, as an aspiring poet having just barely escaped middle school alive, I read and dismissed Robert Frost – he seemed too traditional, too old-school, too nice. In college poetry classes, I was similarly unimpressed. I wanted Plath and Sexton. I wanted Ginsberg and Rich and cummings. I wanted to write free-verse poems, work which Frost likened to “playing tennis without a net.” Later, in graduate school, I came around a bit, attracted by the notion that Frost was not, in fact, a sweet, endearing poet-farmer, but rather a skilled (re)maker of his own image and sometimes cantankerous grouch, even in the poems we were taught to love and accept as mere reflections on the rural, natural world. Consider “The Road Not Taken,” one of the “greatest hits,” of high school graduation recitals, offered and interpreted as an invitation to “take the road less traveled by” as some sort of brave, adventurous, morally superior choice in living. At its heart, this poem is more aptly read as pointing to the randomness of choice, with its repeated emphasis that both the roads looked pretty much the same that day; that no matter which way you go, you may find yourself years later, second- or third-guessing yourself. Frost himself admitted that the poem was written to poke fun at his friend, Edward Thomas, who was always berating himself after their country walks, constantly convinced they should have taken a different path. This poem, elevated to some kind of credo by American culture, is just one excellent example of Frost’s grumpy mischief-making. It is recited, on “appropriate occasions,” with the very bizarre combination of wistfulness and grandiosity that Frost was poking fun at in the poem. Starting to read Frost in more depth and with the benefit of more life experience allowed me to make a little more space for him in my personal canon.

From 1911 to 1912, Frost lived in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and taught education and psychology at what was then known as Plymouth Normal School. I, too, had come here to teach – to start my first full-time, tenure-track job as an English professor at Plymouth State College. Among the classes I teach is the poetry workshop, which met, when I first joined the faculty, in the renovated and expanded “Frost House,” where The Man Himself lived and wrote at that time. Occasionally, as I taught my first few classes, I wondered if there was any kind of Frost “vibe” still lingering in the walls or in some dank, undiscovered sub-basement. Is Frost a friendly ghost? As I drafted my first lines about a mushroom growing in my yard, I felt him as a poltergeist, rearranging the furniture in my poetry-house, cackling as I rolled my eyes, shook my head. A poem about a mushroom?

After a few more bone-shaking minutes on the road, I came upon Old Home Cemetery, behind an old stone wall and shaded by enormous trees. Even from the car, I could see that the thin stones jutting from the ground, some at skewed angles, some broken, were very old. A little ways past the cemetery, I came upon the first few cars and trucks parked on the side of the road, and then, around a gentle bend, there was the white Town House with its small front porch. It was late morning, nice and cool for August, and people were already gathering on the green space around the Town House, some on lawn chairs next to coolers, mingling, enjoying the weather.

Inside, benches were lined up, like church pews, facing the front of the building, where there was a raised platform, something like a stage. On the walls were dozens of framed photographs – spanning nearly a century – of the town gathered together on Old Home Day, posing as a group in front of this very building. I studied them, imagining how still everyone must have had to be as those earliest photographs were made, men in summer suits and hats, women in long white dresses with cinched waists, some holding parasols. Beneath the photographs, around the edges of the room, were tables with crafts and baked goods for sale. I bought a brownie and a book from the Historical Society.

As people continued to arrive for the day’s events, I strolled back down the road a bit to the cemetery to take some pictures and poke around. A woman was there with her son, pointing out gravestones with familiar family names, telling him who was related to whom, tracing from ancestors to current neighbors, to relatives, to him. I recognized one family name – the ancestors of the guy who collected my garbage each week. And another – the ancestors of the man who lived down the road from me and worked in the hardware store.

Aside from the neighbor who had given me tour, I didn’t really know anyone at Old Home Day. I met a couple of people who used my car’s Nebraska plates as a conversation-starter. At noon, we watched the hand full of Bridgewater Boy Scouts, who’d camped out the night before, raise and salute the flag in front of the Town House. Following the flag-raising and some remarks, I posed with everyone else for the annual town photograph. Standing for the picture was standing on a familiar tightrope – I was so new, no one knew who I was, and yet I lived in Bridgewater now, so I got to be in the photo, which would serve as the cover of next year’s Old Home Day program. I stood in line for the “Bean Hole Beans,” which had been cooking overnight in huge cast iron cauldrons buried underground. As they had been doing for years, the “bean crew” had come the night before, prepared the beans, dug the pits, started the fires, buried the cauldrons. As they had been doing for years, they unearthed the beans as the rest of us watched, using a rope pulley to hoist the cauldrons from the pits as everyone applauded. As they had been doing for years, the residents of Bridgewater, the “summer people,” and the folks from other towns lined up with paper plates and plastic forks to get their (our) beans and bread. I wasn’t able to stay the entire day – so I missed the children’s games, the annual meeting, the hymns and historic flag presentation, and the evening’s square dancing. But even as I headed down the unpaved road, to Bridgewater’s edge, where my rental house was, I kept thinking about the photograph, about me in it, about having my own tiny part in the enormous tide of years and tradition. I imagined, briefly, fifty years into the future, this year’s photograph framed on the wall of the Town House, with the others.

Reading my recently acquired Bicentennial History of Bridgewater New Hampshire, 1788-1988, I discovered that at Old Home Day in 1915, Robert Frost gave a poetry reading. Further, the book notes that Frost “summered in Bridgewater at Webster Farms for several years” and “wrote ‘Brown’s Descent’ based on a local story.” Even little Bridgewater gets a piece of him. Even me, imagining him there, here – he as a part of the “us” I was continuing to pursue in my first few years as a New Hampshire resident. A New Hampshire writer, for whatever that was worth. Of course, it’s impossible for me to ever truly belong to the “us.” Even if never leave the state again, even if I die here, I’ll still be “from away.”

I love the honeymoon with a place, when romance is still alive, when there is mystery and adventure to be had. During that first year in Bridgewater, in New Hampshire, there was so much that shone in newness for me – the brook babbling at the edge of my yard, the gray flying squirrels living in the walls, the transfer station with its gossip and treasures, the wild turkeys in the field up the road. Tax-free booze. Living in a whole house all by myself, a house with an upstairs and a basement, with a mud room and a garage. The wood stove. The wood pile, with its resident chipmunk. “Live Free or Die” license plates. The town spring, icy cold water perpetually running from its pipe that sticks out of the side of a hill and into an old cement trough. People are always there, filling bottles and jugs. The town common, with its gazebo, on Main Street. It all felt so fresh. Even the heating oil tank in the basement seemed exotic to me – but it was just another enormous, dark, common thing, like the moose I suppose.

I both longed for and dreaded the inevitable time when those new things would become common to me, when the landscape would become a mere backdrop to my daily, normal life. I longed for it because it’s a great feeling – the comfort of a home you’ve been in long enough to take for granted. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to really live somewhere, for a long time, for years, to know and be known in the thick of a place and its people. I dreaded it because, for most of my life, I’ve been the New Girl in nearly every way that matters – the world has shone for me in its strangeness. I have moved through it, always, as a stranger myself, each house or apartment a way station rather than a destination. Most people outside my immediate family remain deeply mysterious to me – so unknowable – distant childhoods, extended families, history I’d never even think to ask about. This is just how most people seem to me – distant, but attractive because of it. I don’t feel isolated by this distance, or, rather, that isolation is just the life I’ve lived, the only way I’ve known to live it.

When I’d lived in New Hampshire for a year or so, people asked me whether I liked it, whether I’d stay. Now it’s over a dozen years later, and I’m still here. I’ve bought a house with a partner I love, achieved tenure at what’s now known as Plymouth State University, made some great friends, and come to love so much about the state and my town. I do like it here, very much and for many reasons, but I’m still baffled by the question – will you stay? – that is mostly one I ask of myself silently, from time to time, when an old itch to move on strikes. Will I stay? For the first time in my life, I could do it, I could stay. But how will I know when I’ve decided that? And how to decide? And why decide? In the spaces between these absurd questions, I can just make out the plaintive, over-rehearsed voice of the high school valedictorian: “And that has made all the difference…” I don’t imagine most people decide to live someplace all their lives; they just do. I know that when things start to feel common, I usually get antsy and start eyeing the horizon. I think I have feared what lies beyond the newness, because, to me, that unexplored terrain has been the truly strange landscape: years unspooling, unquestioned, into a dim and distant future. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, poet Mark Doty considers the “fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go.” He puts into words what I’m wondering, at least partly: “how to live in connection without feeling suffocated, compromised, erased? We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” Settling down. I still can’t imagine it – I feel like I’ve got no frame of reference for it. And yet I think I’m doing it. Or I’ve done it.

I still keep my eyes open for rare moose and all the other sights and sounds and experiences that still ring new to me; I keep my eyes open for the black bear, the “ice out,” the Old Home Days. I say “I live in New Hampshire,” but not “I’m from New Hampshire.” I still roll my eyes a little as I write lines about the mushroom, the chipmunk, the wood pile, the acorns, the sugar maple. And I suppose I continue to nurture a flirtation with crotchety old Robert Frost, who, to be plain about it, was originally from California.


New Hampshire Writers’ Week 2014

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Like Robert Frost, I’m not really from New Hampshire. But I’m happy to be a member of the NHWP, to celebrate writers who live here — whether they’ve got “generations in the ground” or not. There’s a lot of talent and good will among writers and readers in the granite state, and during the upcoming “New Hampshire Writers’ Week,” there will be many opportunities to enjoy the wealth of words. For my part, I’ll do some special NH-themed posts that week. What will you be up to? Lots of writing, at the very least, I hope.


Hotel Room

Note: As I got into writing this piece, it did occur to me that, while crappy hotel rooms have been the exception rather than the rule of my own experience, I really could write this essay’s opposite, given, if not the PERCENTAGE of hotel rooms that have been crappy, the often bizarre and memorable WAYS in which their crappiness has manifested itself. Maybe I will still write that essay. Or maybe you will.

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The pleasures of the hotel room are many. The pleasures of the hotel room are simple. It isn’t luxury, exactly—not the hotels where I stay, anyhow—but pleasure, simply. The hotel room is cool, or warm, as needed. The hotel room is not on the first floor. The hotel room has more pillows than you would ever allow yourself at home—why wouldn’t you allow yourself these extra pillows? They aren’t expensive, and they swaddle you perfectly. And there’s the bolster—the decorative pillow—which I so enjoy, but which I also don’t require at home. The bolster would actually annoy me at home, its purely decorative cylinder. But here—the bolster is part of the pleasure.

Since we’re apparently already in bed, let’s talk about those cool sheets, infused with something magical—likely a chemical from the hotel laundry—that must be like tryptophan—it draws me into sleep. The sheets, the covers, the comforters—the bed is a big, poofy nest.

Next to the bed is a chair, which is mostly for show, unless there’s a table. Many times there is not a table. There is the desk, though—the chair and desk and the complimentary internet service and the place to plug in all your stuff. The telephone is on the desk, offering its multitude of single-button wishes—hotel info, reservations, front desk, hotel operator, housekeeping, maintenance, messages—and most nights I don’t even pick up the receiver!

The hotel room is sometimes home to a microwave and/or mini-fridge. Sometimes there are treats in the fridge, for sale, but usually I am not staying in that fancy of a hotel. There is also sometimes a safe, which you think would only appear in a fancy hotel, but sometimes the place you need the safe the most is not the most fancy hotel. Food for thought. I have used a safe before. Which reminds me of the locks on the door—especially that metal bar thingie that I always forget I’ve engaged so when I try to leave in the morning, I startle myself briefly, trapped.

The hotel room is home to the gigantic television set, which is actually hooked up to cable, unlike the not-so-gigantic television at home, which is only for playing Wii and watching DVDs. The hotel room television is the home of HBO and Showtime. My particular weaknesses, however, are competitive cooking shows and home or bathroom or garden renovation shows. They never fail to puff me up with “I should try that” ridiculousness.

The hotel room has a thick, plush, vinyl binder full of laminated pages—menus, services, phone numbers, taxis. The hotel room has a breakfast room service menu cleverly fashioned to hang on your door. I never use it, though—as much praise as I have for the hotel room, its pancakes are simply too expensive. Not worth it. The hotel room has free coffee—usually pretty shitty, but still—complimentary! The hotel room coffee makers, located most often in the hotel room bathrooms, are getting smaller and smaller—this one makes just one cup at a time, in a very clever way. Hotel rooms can be pretty clever. Sure, they could give me a little more sugar and creamer in my complimentary individually wrapped coffee accessory packet. The packet includes one napkin—why a napkin, when there’s all this complimentary toilet paper and kleenix and towels? One red plastic coffee stirrer, two small sugar packets, one small creamer packet, and one pink packet of sugar substitute. Pink! Who, besides my mother, even uses that anymore? I need more regular sugar, or at least, a yellow packet of sugar substitute. These are trifles, of course, and don’t fundamentally alter the fact that I am drinking a complimentary cup of shitty hotel coffee as the sun hoists its fat ass over the building across the parking lot.

As long as we are in the bathroom (making our coffee), let us consider the bathroom. A shower with more than adequate pressure—sometimes with an adjustable head. Paper-wrapped soap for the body, paper-wrapped soap for the face, AND even liquid body wash if neither of these soaps will suffice. And a small bottle of moisturizer, a small bottle of mouthwash, a small bottle of shampoo, a small bottle of conditioner. Sometimes a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner in ONE, which I prefer, as I prefer the yellow carcinogenic sugar substitute to the pink. Small things. And the towels. In my good hotel room, a bounty of towels. And, sometimes, really soft ones. Always white. Rolled up and stowed in cubbies—sometimes one is folded into a clever shape—hospitality origami—and left propped on the toilet tank or next to the sink. Speaking of the sink—often there is an ice bucket there, with at least a couple of plastic cups wrapped in more plastic.

The pleasure of the hotel rooms is bittersweet. I arrive exhausted, usually from a day’s driving, and am comforted by all I mention above. But too soon I am asleep, lullabyed down by a gutsy bathroom renovation, and in the morning, there is rarely time to really appreciate all those comforts because I am usually back on the road, or off to the conference sessions, or to the airport for the early nonstop. Someday I’ll treat myself to two nights for no reason—arrive right at check-in time and stay in, order in, use all the towels, watch all the channels, use the telephone and all the toiletries and multiple buckets of ice from the machine down the hall. I think I know the pleasure of the hotel room now—but just wait. I have no idea.


(Still) Catching Up on (Still More) Reading

Greetings blog-o-verse! I write to you from the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon, where I’m on the downslope of a four-week stay. I plan to post a piece about my experiences here, but that one will take some time to get written, I think. While here, I’ve been drafting many new poems, poking at some older ones, and catching up on some reading. I wanted to take some time here to call out stuff I’ve read that I’ve particularly enjoyed, especially (but not entirely) by writers I haven’t encountered before. My primary interest here is to share my enthusiasm for works I’ve encountered, to maybe give a tiny signal boost to work I really enjoyed. There are so many writers out there diligently composing and revising—mostly alone—and it just occurs to me that boosting such work is something I want to do more of. This is nothing new, of course—several writers I admire have been doing this for years—championing work they admire not because they are obligated as teachers or friends, but because they are enthusiastic readers and lovers of the word. So, in that spirit—my recent readerly enthusiasms from a few literary journals.

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One of the journals on my pile was Ploughshares (Winter 2013-2014), for me an always-reliable source of good stuff to read. I remain haunted by Randi Beck’s story, “By Morning, New Mercies,” and its troubled (to put it lightly) narrator, Ellis Howard. The darkness of this story drew me in laid me flat. Marie Potoczny’s sad and fantastical “Fat” asked for multiple reads as its first-person narrator had it out with her body in bizarre, resonant ways. What an ending. I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Young’s poems, and “Pity” from this issue of Ploughshares is now among my favorites. Its handful of physical details—the “dozen turkey decoys deflating, / bright empty shells” and the pool “now drained, flooding the street // in mock calamity” were well-chosen. Finally, this issue also featured two poems by Josephine Yu, winner of the Ploughshares “Emerging Writer’s Contest” winner in poetry. I loved her rich excess of senses, and the speculating, roving voice and eye. I look forward to reading more from her.

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Even though I think I’ve already gushed about them somewhere else (Facebook?), I want to again call attention to April Bernard’s poems, “Bloody Mary” and “Anger,” from the June 2014 issue of Poetry. They are sublime. I keep reading them aloud (unasked, unbidden) to whoever will stand still enough when I’ve got the issue at hand. Bernard will be reading at Plymouth State University on September 18 at 7PM—I wish I could be there to hear her read.

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Not on my original pile, but culled from the “finished with” pile of a fellow writer on retreat, The Missouri Review “Ghosts” issue (36.2, 2013) was a lot of fun. Nathan Oates’ ghost story “Mile Point Road” was terrific and actually very scary. Pamela Painter’s dark and hilarious “The Brochures” made me laugh out loud in several parts. “Last Flight” by Peter Levine was another favorite—I love the deftly managed twist in the story, the tension between what both characters reveal and conceal. And Aaron Baker’s collection of poems about the death of his father were really moving, very fine, especially “Rural Especial Scene,” which, apologies to the next reader (I’ll leave the journals I’m reading on the shelf of my cabin at Playa for the next resident)—I had to cut out and scotch-tape into my writing notebook.

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I think I might have tweeted this general sentiment before, but I’ll get slightly more specific here: River Styx’s 39th Anniversary issue (91/92) is spectacular. I’m keeping the issue—I can’t bear to part with it. Now, I’ve always relied on River Styx to deliver good stuff, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time. In particular, I’ve dog-eared and re-read and fawned over:

Ellen Bass’ “Chalcid Wasps Emerging,” shines with its perfect language of description and its delicious sounds and rhythms.

Dick Davis’ translations of “Ten Epigrams by Medieval Persian Women Poets” (poems from Az Rabe’eh ta Parvin, ed. Parvin Shakiba)—what a collection! Sharp humor, sweet romance, sadness.

Stephen Dunn’s poem, “Bad Taste” about a writing class gone very wrong and “Masculine,” a great vignette about “being a man.” The darkness in both of these sort of creeps up on me.

Albert Goldbarth’s “Impossible Flying,” not a particularly long poem for him, still reminds me of what a master he is at the grand, expansive, sometimes operatic long poem. Andrea Marcusa’s “Map of Djerba” is a lovely short story about a young boy navigating loss and a huge change in his life. It doesn’t hurt that Star Wars features somewhat prominently in the story as well. Kevin Mims’ “First Frost” is a funny and (not too) clever grudging homage to The Man Himself.

Alison Pelegrin’s “The Comet Thief,” which explores how hard it can be to “undo ennui,” even if one no longer wants to be “corrupter of amazement.” A bittersweet poem that leaves me thinking about what I pay attention to and why.

When I write poems in meter and rhyme, I aspire for them to have the affect of A.E. Stallings “Epiphany,” which is just gorgeous in its evocation of place and time and a mystical moment. Kind of a high bar, yeah.

I am a sucker for poems like “The Ocularist Talks About His Craft,” by Jeanne Wagner—a persona poem buoyed by rich details of the artificial eye-maker’s craft.

I am also a great fan of poems like Robert Wrigley’s “Zippo,” which enter and explore and riff on the lives and histories of apparently simple, everyday objects.

I have been reading a few novels, and of course individual poetry collections. Maybe I’ll blog about those soon. I hope you’ll check out at least one of these writers further—buy a book for yourself, or for someone you think would appreciate it—or subscribe to a literary journal. At the very least, I encourage you to try to do what I’m trying to do—reach out to authors themselves via social media or email with a brief note letting them know they’ve got a fan. I’ve gotten just a couple of those notes over years of publishing—and they are powerful medicine for the lonely writing hours. Happy reading!


Catching Up On Reading

Away for writing retreat at Seal Rock, Oregon, I’m working to catch up on a stack of literary journals that I subscribe to. Reading new work puts me in the writing place, for sure. Today I dug into Crab Orchard Review’s Winter/Spring 2013 (Vol. 18, No. 1 — which I don’t understand how I missed, since I already read/enjoyed Vol. 18, No. 2, but, whatever).

CoRCOVERCOR is one of my favorite journals because of the variety of work and the fact that I always find stuff I like by writers I haven’t heard of before. In this issue, as always, there was much to enjoy, but I’d like to call out a few SUPER SPECIAL favorites. Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s “Lovers in the Age of Airmail,” which I thought made really smart use of couplets and concluded with a bang-on image — “rivulets of water gliding / off the blades of a swimmer’s shoulders / when he steps from the sea.” Al Maginnes’ “Elegy for a Name” was a gorgeous and fitting tribute to the late poet Jake Adam York and his important work about the history and memory of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Ashley Anna McHugh’s facility with the sonnet — especially with full and slant end rhymes — had me rereading “Memento” and “Omen” several times. Aisha Sharif’s writing about the hijab in “The Fitting Room” and “To the White Boy Who Pulled Off My Hijab in 7th Grade Gym” was so memorable — both her poems begin in anecdote but end in a more expansive place, definitely in conversation with the world as well as with the self. Finally, Ocean Vuong’s “Daily Bread,” which interrogated itself and its reader and was well-fueled by sound & senses.

Of the writers above, Vuong and Maginnes were the only ones whose work I had read previously. I am so happy to have some new writers to read and I look forward to reading more from them. Thanks, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, and all the folks at Crab Orchard Review, for delivering me regular doses of great reading. If you’d like to check out any of the work I mention above, the issue is available online HERE. If you like what you see, consider a subscription!

 


Scratching, Eating, Sleeping

What is it that feels so good about having written a poem? How to describe that satisfaction, even when the poem itself is just a draft, still needs some obvious work? I brainstorm metaphors to try to pin it down — scratching an itch, eating a good meal, getting a good night’s sleep. It’s like scratching an itch because, after having written, I’ve attended to something that was nagging at me, something that wanted my attention. I have soothed and quieted the nagging thing. It’s like eating a good meal because there was something empty that got filled, but not just with junk. With something delicious. It’s like getting a good night’s sleep because there’s a clarity at the end of it, a sense of being ready for the (rest of the) day, a pair of clear eyes. A vigor. I’ll bet I could come up with another three metaphors, and another, and another. I’ll bet if I really kept track of it, I’d find that the nature of the satisfaction of completing a poem varied from poem to poem, or maybe across the “lifespan” of my poet-life. The “goodness” of poem-writing is dazzling in its variety. Writing a poem is like pruning the lilac. Like taking out all the trash, every scrap of it, even from the basement. Like making love. Like getting drunk. Like getting sober. Writing a poem feels so good.


Where were you when I lost my memory?

In today’s Christian Science Monitor, a headline asks, “Where were you when the Challenger exploded? Why your memory might be wrong.” The story that follows pairs pretty nicely with a poem I wrote, gosh, at least ten years ago. I’m no cognitive neuroscientist, but I, too, wondered about the link between emotion/stress and memory. Scientists, do the research; poets, write the poems. Everybody’s got their angle.

Here’s me reading the poem.

The first bit is an epigraph from Eduardo Galeano.

And here’s a PDF of the poem, because I can’t figure out how to paste it into a blog post without it looking all wack.

Defining Moment


Liz’s List for AWP 2014: Seattle

IMG_0318 The first writers’ conference I ever attended was in Seattle, in March, 1979. I was almost ten years old. It was the Seattle Pacific University Young Author’s Conference. A highlight of the event (okay, the only thing I actually remember about the event) was the fact that copies of our works, which had earned us a place at this prestigious gathering of our elementary school peers, would be held in the University Library so that future readers could benefit from our genius and artistry.

Alas.

Flash forward, thirty-five years. I will be attending another writers’ conference in Seattle. Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program in writing is a “Major Sponsor” of this conference, which is a bit bigger than the now-defunct Young Author’s Conference. I did not have to submit work in order to attend, but I will be on a panel about chapbooks with other writers from Slapering Hol press, who published my first chapbook.

I speak, of course, of the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, which is nearly upon us. From February 26 to March 2, upwards of ten thousand writers will descend upon Seattle. I am one such writer, and I’ve been attending this conference since 1993 as a graduate student. I’m excited to see the conference travel to Seattle — my family lives in the area, my brother in Seattle and my folks out on the Hood Canal.

AIRPLANE

As it has been in recent years, the schedule is packed to the rafters with not only the traditional conference fare of panels and readings and book signings and caucuses, but also with, oh, I don’t know, a jillion and a half “off-site events” (mostly readings) in Seattle bars, restaurants, and bookstores. For three full (9AM until bedtime) days, the Washington State Convention Center and Sheraton and, well a great chunk of the city, will be teeming with the AWPers (rhymes with soulful barbaric YAWPers?).

And let me not forget (how could I??) the book fair — tables and booths occupied by literary journals, zines, small presses, gigantic presses, in-between presses, literary centers, etc. On Saturday, the book fair is free and open to the public, and I recommend checking it out. Many publishers offer great discounts on Saturday because they don’t want to have to ship all their wares home. Even when the book fair was shoehorned into unsuitably small or weirdly-arranged spaces, I have always found much to love in all those pages and all those page-passionate folks at those tables. Each year I subscribe to a different and/or new-to-me literary journal. I figure, I can’t subscribe to them ALL, but I can support the cause by treating myself each year in this way. For me the book fair is the consistently best part of the conference — well, okay, second-best, after the fact that so many writer-friends I love and admire attend and it’s the one yearly chance I get to see most of them.

Even with all the action and activity of the conference itself, many attendees want to get out, get away, see the city — some are foodies looking to experience the local cuisine; others want to check out the museums, or just find a good bar that’s not crammed full of (shudder) other poets. In this spirit then, I offer a few personal recommendations of things to taste or see or do while in the Emerald City. Seattle is rich with great food and drink and culture and sights, so I did NOT even try to make this list comprehensive or exhaustive. This is just my personal, VERY pared down “must-hit” list. If you’re Yelping, I’ve got a few reviews up of other Seattle places.

THE PHO – Green Leaf

PHO

Seattle is home to the International District (“The I.D.”), which is almost the only place I ever eat when visiting. There are great eats of all stripes all over town, but maybe because I live in rural northern New England, all I want to do when I’m in Seattle is chow down on cuisines from Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, etc. If you only have the time or inclination to sample one bowl of Pho while visiting, I must, with religious zeal, recommend Green Leaf (either location — the newer one is more convenient to the conference location, but not in the I.D.!). Rare beef and brisket pho. Their fresh rolls are also pretty spectacular, but the broth in that pho is revelatory. Like I said, religious zeal.

THE BEER – Sound Brewery

I didn’t understand beer until Sound Brewery. Made in the little town of Poulsbo, right near where my parents live, these beers are just brilliant. The Monk’s Indiscretion and the Dubbel Entendre, both Belgians, are a couple of my faves. On their list of Seattle establishments that (sometimes – call ahead if you care) carry their brews, I’d recommend Brouwer’s, which is kind of out of the way, but you’ll never want to leave, or the Pine Box, just up in Capitol Hill, which used to be a funeral home. Brouwer’s, though, definitely has something for every drinker. So I guess this will be as close as I get to a bar recommendation as well. There are just too dang many.

THE BREAKFAST – Skillet Diner

SKILLET

Like me, I imagine you aren’t inclined to expect that Seattle is going to offer something awesome in the area of biscuits and gravy. Seafood, sure! Real deal Vietnamese in the I.D.? Check. Coffee, coffee, coffee? Check check check. While the biscuits and gravy at Skillet weren’t exactly the type you’d get in, say, central Virginia, they were SPECTACULAR. The sage sausage gravy was a holy thing. The “big boy” biscuit was immense & delicious, but not too too heavy. Next time I’m there, I want to try one of the daily “scrambles.” Or the cornmeal & pork belly (!) waffles (!!).

THE PAPER NERD MECCA – Paper Hammer

I am sooooo gay for paper. Letterpress-anything, screened posters, handmade papers, embossing, stationery, calling cards, etc. So the first time I entered Paper Hammer, I had seizures of joy. It’s dangerously close to the Sheraton & Convention Center as well.

THE BOOKSTORE(S) – Open Books and Left Bank Books

Really? Bookfair not enough? Here I have to break my “one recommendation per category ONLY” rule. You understand. There are two things I cannot visit Seattle without doing. One is slurping up a bowl of Green Leaf Pho. The other is making a visit to Open Books, a beautiful, friendly, luscious poetry-only bookstore. JanMisc2009 001The challenge for conference-goers is that it’s about 5 miles from the Convention Center, but to make it worth your while, Open Books will be offering a 15% discount on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the conference to anybody with an AWP Conference badge. They will also have slightly longer hours those days – 11:00 to 7:00 – and will be open that Sunday as well, as it’s the first Sunday of the month, from 12:00-4:00 if you’re still around. They also offer FREE USPS Media Mail shipping for purchases of $25 and up.

LEFTBANKCloser to the conference, I also absolutely adore Left Bank Books. They “specialize in anti-authoritarian, anarchist, independent, radical and small-press titles.” I can easily lose two hours just browsing there, and I always find treasures. I love their selection of ‘zines and pamphlets, as well as the postcards, stickers, and buttons. This place is one of a kind, and right up at the entrance to Pike Place Market. Thursday, March 27th, fellow NH poet Jennifer Militello will be giving a reading with Carrie Etter, Elena Karina Byrne, and Allison Benis White at Left Bank starting at 7:00. Several other off-site events will also be happening at Left Bank Books – you can see the calendar HERE.

THE CAR – Aces for Hire Town Car Service

This recommendation comes from my brother, who has HAD it with the taxi service in Seattle. He recommends that, rather than chancing it with Seattle’s touch-and-go cab situation, you call Aces Town Car, which (according to my brother) charges about a buck more per mile than taxis, but which also has a consistent record of, like, showing up and taking you where you want in a reasonable time. They are gushed about on Yelp and lauded by locals and visitors alike.

THE CLEAR-YOUR-HEAD WALK – Olympic Sculpture Park

sculpturegarden

Well, we will be visiting during the late-ish winter, so chances are that this won’t be the best walking weather. Or it could be gorgeous. If you need to get out and away and about, I’d suggest heading down to the Seattle Art Museum’s sculpture park. It’s pretty big, at a great location, with big-ass art (the Serra is my favorite) and great views (on a nice day) of the water and, across the Sound, the Olympic Peninsula — serious mountains.

THE BOAT – The Bainbridge Island Ferry

FERRYVIEW

So, I’m really only recommending this if you’ve got a chunk of time on a clear/decent day. If it’s crappy, it’s not really worth it unless you just really REALLY love big ferry boats. The ferries are a key component in the Seattle-area transit system. Lots of people ride them every day, like taking the bus or the subway. I’m suggesting that you take a trip on the ferry just to catch the views and get out on the water. Pay to get on, ride it over and just enjoy the mountains, the cityscape, the salt air. The ride each way is approximately 35 minutes. You can get right back on (passenger fare isn’t charged coming back to Seattle), or stroll into Winslow where there are a few cute shops and things. But to me, this recommendation is mostly about the journey, not the destination. $7.85 fare for adults; $3.90 for seniors and youth.

THE SOURCE – The Stranger

For much, MUCH more information about eats, drinks, events, arts and culture in Seattle, check out The Stranger.

Even though it won’t be possible for you to admire my literary juvenilia in person at the Seattle Pacific University library archives, I hope these few recommendations are of use if you find yourself stymied by the overabundance of things you could do while visiting the Emerald City. Besides attend the AWP Conference, I mean.

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