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List Poems

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This week in the Poetry Workshop, it’s reading and writing list poems.  As you can see, my students did a stellar job of coming up with a huge variety of types of list — so many more than I had thought up on my own.

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I wonder about the list as a structure and a form. A list is certainly a kind of repetition, in the way that rhyme is a repetition, or refrain. As a form a list may set up a clear/particular premise or expectation. Included under the umbrella of “list poem” for me are the techniques of anaphora and epistrophe. One student introduced us to a third — epanalepsis.

It seems to me that writing and reading list poems (or “litanies”) brings to the fore particular poetic concerns, at least for me. List poems make me think more about order and arrangement — does a list escalate? Fork out into tangents? How might juxtaposition of dissimilar items work as a kind of energy in a list poem?

If the list is numbered, what do the numbers bring to the table? When to number, when not?

Also: how do you find a way to END a list poem?

Also: titles seem especially important for list poems, or for certain types of list poems.

Also: how does the nature of a list (different types of lists) affect thinking about lines and stanzas? Line = item on list? Stanza = item on list?

Also: what happens to syntax (verbs, especially) with a list? Some kinds of lists are very noun-y.

Also, how might “listing” and narrative/linearity interplay?

POEM PACKET of examples we read in class:

Christopher Smartt: from Jubilate Agno
Stephanie Lenox, “Rejoice in the Petty Thievery of Office Supplies”
Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses”
danez smith, “alternate names for black boys”
Savannah Sipple, “A List of Times I Thought I Was Gay”
“4 Ways of Throwing Something into the Boston Public Gardens Swan Pond,” “the bullshit,” and “non-hierarchial list of love poem ideas,” all by jamie mortara
“Things I Have Failed At” by Baruch Porras-Hernandez
“Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful” by Gretchen Legler

In different days, those two lists I just wrote — a list of things I’m thinking about with list poems and a list of list poems — would perhaps be combined and expanded into more of a little essay. Alas, these days are filled with so many other lists, which even now are glowering at me as I take time away from to share even these scantest, barely-conceived thoughts.

I’ll end with a VERY OLD list poem I wrote when I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska. It took me a while to remember I had written such a poem — but — here it is.

The Neighbors

The ones you never see.
The ones you always see.

The drunk one who stumbles
up onto your porch
to triangulate his walkie-talkie.

The nosy ones.

The slovenly ones.

The ones who are beautiful.

The muzzled dog that barks
anyway, each time you park
or open your door or sneeze loudly.

The ones who speak no English.
The ones who speak only English.
The ones who don’t speak.

The ones who listen.

The kid, the one who steals
lawn ornaments you never liked anyhow.

The shady one, or the one
with shady friends.

The quiet one.

The hooligan.

The one whose window is always blue
and flickering with TV light.

The ones whose windows
are never open.

The dead ones.

The ones who play guitar.

The yelling guy.

The dancing girls.

The naked one.

The ones who go to church
in the windowless white building
on the corner.

The one who hates you.

The one on public access.

The ones who have
two testy Siamese cats.

The mean one.
The scary ones.

The sweet one.

The one who dreamt
last night of you
but who will never say.

The one you dreamt about.

Those who smoke summer evenings
on porches facing yours.

Those who ride bikes.
Those who fly flags.
Those who do Halloween,
candy, decorations, all of it.

The ones you wonder about.

The ones who know your name
and the ones who don’t,
who have barbecues.

The ones who wonder about you.

 

**

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In

Driving home through Crawford Notch then through Franconia Notch last night, I had to take my time, take care to pay some extra attention with my aging eyes and slowing reflexes. The wind was gusting up pretty badly, and rain which might not have been so bad had it been left simply to fall was hurled, hissing and rattling, against my Honda. It was dark, and the roads were fairly empty and of course wet, and very foggy in places — so strange to drive up into the White Mountains and not see the White Mountains! Temperatures were also up around sixty-five degrees — a bit out of character for Halloween in Northern New England.

Weather forecast alerts about gusts of fifty miles an hour in the notches were actually what sent me out into the crazy weather — an event I was up north for was ended early due to those warnings, and I live south of the notches.

I was lucky enough to be a participant in an event connected to Poets Bridging Continents IV — a live reading of work in translation (English and Mandarin) by both New Hampshire and visiting Chinese poets. Two of my poems had been translated in advance — and I had English translations of two poems by a visiting poet, Yue Qui.

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When I first saw my poems in Mandarin I was startled. Startled at the visual differences between English and Mandarin, sure, but also I think startled at myself. Startled at how moved I was, looking at those versions of my poems I couldn’t decipher. I actually got a little choked up. As far as I’m aware, none of my poems have been translated into another language before. The act/art of translation felt like such a generous and intimate thing in that moment — so personal! So patient! So enlarging — literally, an enlarging of the potential readership of my two poems but of course, and maybe more importantly, an enlarging of the poems themselves, into new linguistic territories, and maybe, somehow, I could follow my poems there?

Before the reading, our host and organizer Rodger Martin had organized a family-style dinner at the reading venue, the AMC Highland Center. As I arrived, Rodger greeted me by letting me know that “one of your students is here!” I was more than a little surprised — it was, after all, Halloween, and I hadn’t really mentioned this event to my students because I knew they’d be otherwise occupied — and it’s a bit of a haul — an hour’s drive north from the university. Who could it be?

It turned out that Emily, one of the staff helping with our group dinner that night, was my student — an English major from several years back. What a crazy delight to see her! She had taken my Poetry Workshop four years prior,  before graduating and heading off to earn her M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities at Oregon State University. She was just recently back home in New Hampshire after completing some post-grad work in Arizona. She was working, so we didn’t get to catch up properly (it’s in the calendar now!), but we did talk briefly about an assignment for poetry workshop that she remembered.

Each fall, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the work and personalities of my students a bit, I select for each of them a book from my own poetry shelves. I like pulling a chair up to those shelves, scanning the titles and authors, holding each student (as I have come to know them) in my mind, selecting a book I hope will engage that particular student as a reader and a writer, maybe nudge that student further in their own writing, whatever that might mean. The set of assignments (annotation and sharing of a poem, imitation of a poem, paper responding to the book) has been largely successful over the years, as students seem interested and ready to respond to a collection of poems that has been selected, individually, for THEM.

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To Emily, whose interests in the environment I was aware of at the time, I loaned Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows. I had met Charles the year before at the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon and became a fan of his work. When submitting her paper about this book, Emily wrote: “Thank you so much for sharing his work with me. I don’t know how you knew it, but I think it was a perfect match for me. I will be looking into more of his work.” Emily ended up out in Oregon — meeting and working with Charles. Wild, huh?

That very day, about an hour before I’d headed up north for this dinner and reading, I had just distributed this year’s selected poetry collections to this year’s poetry workshop students. And among them, as it happens, was A Scripture of Crows, which I loaned to a student whose interests/priorities include environmental sustainability and food justice. Coincidence. Connection across the years and miles between three poets — four if you count me, I guess! — a poetry collection doing some serious traveling. How to articulate this circuit of individuals, poems, interests, fellowship? Look at what can happen!

Most of my students’ lives probably aren’t dramatically life-changed by connecting with these books/authors. I do find, though, that most of my students, even some years later, REMEMBER “their” poet’s name and work, and do so fondly. I just met with one student from poetry workshop a couple of years ago who remembered his work with his assigned book by Marcus Wicker as a meaningful reading and writing experience.

Driving home, the wind and rain were certainly at high volume against my car, in my ears. But also — the music and cadence and expression of “my” (?) poems read aloud so well by Yue Qui was still in me, and I wanted to hold on to that reading, that sense of connection and also, a kind of lovely, brief estrangement from my own sense of my own poems? A moving distance. A reintroduction to the strangeness of any language? I am not sure. I am blogging in the rough, people, trying to capture some things before the wind that is STILL raging down here this morning manages to knock the power out.

Here’s one of my two poems from last night — I recited it as the wind was really kicking up around the Highland Center, and the reading of the translation (photo above) was the cut-short evening’s final reading before we scattered in the wake of the threatened nastiness in the notches.

Outage

When the power fails, the room goes dim
in winter’s ashen afternoon. The hum
of the fridge, the sweep of second hand, all pause.
The breathing of the ancient furnace stops
mid-heave. The well-pump won’t draw water
and in each toilet just one flush remains.
The screens that manage our commerce with the world
blink shut. The cordless telephone is mute.
And so we power down ourselves. We slow
our scurry, quieted like the other major appliances
inhabiting this house. We speak rarely
and in dim whispers; move slowly and then
not at all, stalled and sort of thankful for it;
stranded, darkening, waiting to be re-lit.

from Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017)

The power held while we read. Maudelle, one of the other New Hampshire poets translated and featured at the reading, pressed her card into my palm and urged me to give her a call if it seemed too nasty to get through, that I could crash at her place that night. Everybody said rushed goodbyes, photos were taken, cards exchanged. I wish we’d had more time to finish and then to just talk and be together.

But instead we all drove out into the strange, humid, gusty darkness. The poets and translators and others in the group were staying nearby. I drove home, alone, but also full of thoughts of my students, those bookshelves, the generous and strange and impossible art of translation, the music and difficulties of all language — yeah, just a few light thoughts. I drove home down through the invisible mountains I knew were still up there, and poetry was with me.

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October 28-31, 2019: Poetry Bridging Continents IV

I’m so honored to be participating in this event — come see me and a host of other poets — from the U.S. and China — at our reading on October 31 at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch!

Poetry Society of New Hampshire

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Poetry Bridging Continents IV: “Rivers … were made in heaven” (R. Frost) is a four day international gathering open to the public at New England College that brings together New England and leading Chinese New Pastoral poets, scholars, and cultural ambassadors to explore ways to build bridges between two distinct cultures and communities using Pastoral Poetry and literary scholarship as a guide.

The symposium continues the alternating annual gatherings between American and Chinese poets and scholars in the New England region and in China that builds upon the environmental creativity of the New Pastoral scholarship which the Twenty-first Century has birthed on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The New Pastoral Poetry is evolving in the 21st Century into the poetry of The Anthropocene: The geologic period when human activity is the dominant force on the planet’s environment. Pastoral Poetry’s central focus is concerned with the ways language can be…

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The Radiators in Ellen Reed House

^^(sound on if you’d like the full experience, or, well, come by my OFFICE at 7:20AM for the FULL full experience, or around, I think, 2:30 in the afternoon?)^^

They’ve finally turned at least some of the heat at work — and I have grown to love the percussion of it as it comes to life through the arteries and walls of this very old building at the center of my fairly old university campus.

The Radiators in Ellen Reed House

have been pushing their ancient water
through these plaster walls

since Robert Frost taught here –
since long before then, probably.

Maybe they churned and hissed
back when the school was Normal

and even back before the other people
these campus buildings are named for were even born.

Maybe this network of copper tubes reaches back down
to the very invention of water.

The vintage pipes and valves are more cantankerous
than the Man Himself allegedly was —

clanking, cranky, clanging
against themselves

heaving tennis balls of steam
through the building’s shrieking arteries

on thousands of April afternoons like this
when one more winter storm takes aim

with its own foul mood,
at the tender, bobbing tulip-heads.

 

Published in Rappahannock Review (Issue 3.3, August 2016)

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Something Good

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Something Good

          Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
                    –Richard Rodgers

In the untended and ordinary roadside dirt
by the mailbox post, a long stem grew
and today nearing the end of August,
past the last of the blueberries
I’d wanted to pick more of but missed—
come see—a nodding tiger lily, vivid
and shocking in between the green shadows,
the kind of flower one normally plans for
in a carefully arranged garden bed,
a choreography of colors and timing and height
meant to reveal a human’s artful eye and hands,
or, at least credit a handful of bulbs hastily tucked in
before the first frost, forgotten until April
when they start to bust through—not exactly
a surprise, but a gift left hidden,
a long-game plan for delight.

This unplanned delight troubles me
when I slow and stop to check for mail—
its garish, hothouse orange, deep brown speckles,
the pistil, the stamen with its lolling filaments
unsettle me. By what procreative voodoo
did it come to be here, pressing the cheeks
of its petals to the humid air? To me?

What does it say to a life well-tuned
for building happiness from blueprints,
but less prepared for this small flame,
this heart blown suddenly open?

Years ago, you pruned the few blue hydrangea
next to our small house and they didn’t return,
and kept on not returning, and we missed them sorely
and joked gently from time to time of our ineptitude—
how we know almost none of the things we thought
one ought to understand as caretakers
of something so large as a house and acres:
pruning, plumbing, the meaning of a sound
from the basement, from a wall.

And yet this summer, they bloomed,
bounding back unannounced, long-lost friends
full of forgiveness—bygones gone by,
the loving amnesia.

Which is how I find myself
humming that old tune, wondering
if maybe you or I did something good or right,
on purpose or not, buried a little landmine
of that goodness and wandered off.

Maybe there are plans so old and well-laid,
or rough prayers made so many lifetimes ago
we just don’t remember; maybe we were offered a mercy
in that forgetfulness until today, until now,
when such an ancient wish flourishes
like magic as it’s granted.

 

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It’s 2019!

Really. And it’s already February 2019, even though January 2019 felt like it was 2 months long. I did a new-poem-a-day grind in January, which is maybe part of what made it feel extra sloggy. Also plenty of snow-shoveling.

I’m just here to say “hi” by way of some updates!

This week, my villanelle, “Aquarium,” from my very first chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (Slapering Hol, 2008), is featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column.

Last month, my poem, “Putting the Flowers Out,” was published in Atticus Review. It includes the phrase, “piss-ridden,” which I think is a poetry first for me!

I’ve got a couple of readings coming up later this spring, and am anticipating the publication of a new chapbook, called Song and Scar, from No Chair Press. Stay tuned for more info on that as I get it!