Friday, January 29, 2016

"I know none of these by name"

Each day my inbox(es) fill with poems-a-day from various sources, and someday I should make a study of how I decide to click and read the comparatively few that I do.  Here's one whose arguably not-very-poetic title caught my eye; I wanted to see where this would go.  My instincts are pretty good, I guess--I loved it.

I Have This Way of Being | Jamaal May

I have this, and this isn’t a mouth
            full of the names of odd flowers
I’ve grown in secret.
            I know none of these by name
but have this garden now,
            and pastel somethings bloom
near the others and others.
            I have this trowel, these overalls,
this ridiculous hat now.
            This isn’t a lung full of air.
Not a fist full of weeds that rise
            yellow then white then windswept.
This is little more than a way...         

Read the rest here, and listen to Jamaal read it himself here.  This poem pleases me because of the tension between the everyday register and the imprecise words on the way to a very deliberate and precise capturing of everything the speaker claims not to know.  (In fact I'm adding this to my collection of "no poems," poems which create their meaning by denying it.)   Wouldn't the title and its stem, "I have this, and this isn't..." be a very interesting poetry prompt for kids?

I also like the feeling of effort in this poem, repeated effort, which must be reminding me of the repeated efforts we are having to make to keep driveway and sidewalks clear,* and "return as sprout" must be about the poor green tips of  a daffodil, which in December thought it must be spring and time to spear up, but which now finds itself smack in the middle of the best path we could forge from the front porch to the sidewalk and is now trampled and muddied but still green.

Catherine is hosting today at Reading to the Core, with Irene Latham's new book in the spotlight--isn't it nice that you can just click to get there instead of digging your way through feet of snow?  Let us be grateful for all that is!

*This morning at 4:15 I stood at the window and watched a noisy little Bobcat bulldozer work its way up our street, hoisting scoops of chunky, icy, frozen snow from the edges of the street and dumping it onto the finally clear, dry sidewalk.  Oof.  More shoveling, with a side of boulder-tossing.

Friday, January 22, 2016

the art of language & novels-in-verse

Let's begin here:

This writing tip from Rick Bursky, poet and UCLA Extension Writers' Program instructor, is ostensibly about "losing your constraints," but the far more fascinating piece for me is the simple assertion that "poetry is the art of language."  POETRY IS THE ART OF LANGUAGE.

Well, duh.  It's not exactly that I didn't know that...but hearing it contrasted so clearly with fiction, "the art of story," has been really striking to me, perhaps because I'm deep into a collection of novels-in-verse.  I'm noodling over questions of attributes and categories of writing and also working to uncover my unconscious biases about what makes poetry poetry and where my strong preferences come from (because, as you may know, none of my preferences tend to be weak).

I recently led a poetry workshop at my congregation where we ventured into the deep woods of "difficult poetry," where I hoped to help folks meet poems in a new way.  Some readers step up to a poem with hand thrust out, making confident, direct eye contact, ready to take a firm grip and have it introduce itself. (Here in these geopolitical parts in and around the DC beltway, it's also customary to include "And what do you do?" as we introduce ourselves, and some folks also hope for that--that the poem will announce its own achievements, or at least its intent.)

In my workshop (titled "Your Heart Has Excellent Peripheral Vision"), I suggested that not all poems respond well to that brain-first approach.  I encouraged people to glance sidelong at a poem, to greet it as you would someone else's pet--sniffing each other out, watching to see how it takes to you and maybe not staring it straight in the eye.  We worked with the idea that the poem's meaning might not come through normal intellectual channels but through its workings on our first-responder senses--which is why the sounds and feels of a poem's language are so important, and why, as Rick Bursky advises, changing the subject can be helpful in writing a poem.  If there IS straight-up narrative, it's like "an almond in a Hershey Bar--nice if it's there but not necessary."

Now then.  Having lived elsewhere in the world, I know that there are many better chocolate bars than a Hershey Bar, and I do tend to like nuts in my chocolate (Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with Whole Hazelnuts for preference).  But the verse novels that I've read, while mainly beautifully written and grippingly plotted and paced, are a different kind of treat--more like nuts enrobed in chocolate than a mainly-chocolate bar studded with some well-placed, protein-rich nuts.  (As I write this I'm continuing my research by comparing a handful of Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Almonds with Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar.) So there's my principal bias, unwrapped in tasty detail.

From a book I read some time ago, entitled Why Women Need Chocolate by Debra Waterhouse, I learned that one of the delights of really good chocolate is that its melting point is just under our body temperature, which leads to that melt-in-your-mouth experience that chocolate lovers love.  Take a bite and wait a bit--don't rush to chomp it to bits--and there it goes, liquefying and spreading all through your mouth, releasing flavors as complex as those of a fine wine.  Senses of sight, smell, taste and touch are reached, and maybe also sound, just as when you crunch a chocolate-covered nut--but the experience is wholly different, warmer and wetter, and the feeling is more of you swimming in it rather than it swimming in you.

This to me is the difference between reading poetry versus reading a novel-in-verse.  The experience is similar, yes, but when it comes to the fundamental character of each genre, they are very distinct...which is making this judging job a mighty interesting challenge.

I want to thank the Poetry Friday blogger who posted the link to Rick Bursky's UCLAXWP tip a couple of weeks ago--there are a lot more 49-second videos there to enjoy.  And now I leave you with a poem I wrote when my elder child, now approaching 17, was a tiny toddler and I was reclaiming my poet identity.

         Why Women Need Chocolate

Dark flecks riding
the billows on a steaming cup.
Sinking suddenly through
after the sugar.

It was potable
and I spelled podible
which seemed entirely

The scissors were left on a low table
during the preparation of dinner.

I couldn’t tell you before
because I didn’t know.

Arranging them
on a white plate
garnished with three raspberries.

It was raining when the alarm went off
and still raining after lunch.

She left her children
at Bright Beginnings
for hours and hours every day.

hot white milk
bitter dipped
fudge truffled morsels

The melting point of chocolate is 96.8 degrees.
Minimally, its flavor is composed of 886 elements.

Smear the charred marshmallow
onto the graham crackers,
lay down the slab of chocolate,
and wait while it melts in the dark.

At my wedding she said,
“You look beautiful
but you really must suck in your stomach.”

Finding half a Snickers bar
behind the frozen spinach.

There is more.

©Heidi Mordhorst 2000 

The round-up today is with Tara at A Teaching Life, where I know I'll find all kinds of chocolate poetry morsels to relish.

P.S.  Could you guess that school is cancelled for me today? Stay safe in the blizzard, all you Eastern Seaboarders!

Friday, January 15, 2016

cybils poetry finalists II

Oops!  My series highlighting the 7 finalists for the 2015 Cybils Poetry Award is...not allowed!  As a new judge, I didn't realize that I shouldn't post anything at all.  So I've now removed the two offending posts, and we must all wait until the official winner announcement on February 14 to read reviews and critiques by me and the other judges.

However, one of the finalists put me in mind of some foodily nonsense I experimented with years I share them with you now, with thoughts of the growing seasons ahead!

  The Produce Cinquains

alien green
inside, alien fuzz
outside—fruit that will never look

shrinking darkly,
the grape adds its juices
to the cloud of vapor on the ho-
thick skins heavy
with Florida sunshine,
so round that they resist being

no matter how
you slice it, the flesh around
its deceptively large stone gets
Wax bean:
the name alone
is unappetizing—
not to mention how it looks fake,
lacks green.

all of August’s
sweet heat accumulates
until the fruit dips within our
how can a thing
that grows in the dark be
as bright as the feathers of a

once a month
I buy one, thinking coleslaw;
three weeks later it goes in the

~Heidi Mordhorst

all rights reserved

The Poetry Friday Roundup is with Keri today at Keri Recommends--go get a bite of poetry produce!

Friday, January 8, 2016

cybils poetry finalists I

Oops!  My series highlighting the 7 finalists for the 2015 Cybils Poetry Award is...not allowed!  As a new judge, I didn't realize that I shouldn't post anything at all.  So I've now removed the two offending posts, and we must all wait until the official winner announcement on February 14 to read reviews and critiques by me and the other judges.

However...the chilly nature of one of the finalists put me in mind of an own poem from Pumpkin Butterfly:  Poems from the Other Side of Nature.  I shared it with my students this week after a very interesting discussion about Epiphany in the Christian story and the question "What year was Jesus born?"

Epiphany Forest

On January 6th, when the presents
and carols and cookies are over,
there’s one last thing to do. 
Just as the Wise Men finally arrive
we undecorate, unlight, strip away the gold star.

On the morning of the 7th,
at the bare gray schoolyard
one by one our dying, drying trees,
still in their stands, are planted
among the cold poles of the equipment.

And on the 8th, when the
first snow finally arrives
we fly out onto the playground
faster than the flakes are falling
to marvel at our frosted Epiphany Forest.

©Heidi Mordhorst

Please join Tabatha for some more of the muscle and grace of great poetry--she's got the Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference today.