Friday, January 29, 2021

stps > slps 2: lucille clifton & janet wong

Before we begin:  it was "Climate Day" at the White House on Wednesday--and about time!  In case you missed it, get summaries here and here.

It's only Week 2 of my "Self-Taught Poetry Survey" and already I want to adjust the name of what I am newly doing here at my juicy little universe.  I'm expanding my universe by grabbing a book of adult poetry off my rather dusty shelves each Friday, choosing a poem I like, and then seeking a companion poem from one of my collections for young readers.  It's not a structured survey and I'm not teaching myself as much as I am studying the work of others.  So to be more honest and less thoughtlessly supremacist,* I'm renaming this project the Self-Led Poetry Study.  It SLaPS, as my son would say.  Or maybe by the end of this post I will have been struck by a better, more poetic name.  Either way, thanks for joining me.

I had forgotten what a big deal Lucille Clifton is to me.  I knew her first as the author of the Everett Anderson books which were so important in my early work with Black and Brown children.  Then I became a Marylander and learned about her important role in the American poetry "establishment." But most of all, her style, brief and fluid and unflinching, leads me.

There's so much to discover and discover anew in BLESSING THE BOATS (BOA Editions, 2000), but I chose this one, without really noticing that its title describes what I am doing.  You know it's a good poem when you think it's about one thing but it turns out to be about a whole different thing too.

        study the masters | Lucille Clifton

like my aunt timmie.
it was her iron,
or one like hers,
that smoothed the sheets
the master poet slept on.
home or hotel, what matters is
he lay himself down on her handiwork
and dreamed.   she dreamed too,   words:
some cherokee, some masai and some
huge and particular as hope.
if you had heard her
chanting as she ironed
you would understand form and line
and discipline and order and


And then, again because I hadn't given it its due, I pulled down A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED & MORE (Pomelo Books, 2019) by our well-known-in-this-community Janet Wong.  Look how she also brings the language and the textures of working outside beneath behind within, of smoothing and crimping to meet the demands of the dominant culture.  These two short poems both deliver words "huge and particular as hope."

Joyce's Beauty Salon | Janet Wong

They call my mother
the perm lady, "Pum Ajima."
Dozens of mad Korean women
come in each month, ugly,
furious with their families,
frustrated by their stubborn,
straight, heavy, hair.
A few hours with Mother
and they leave
carrying a lighter load,
their carefree curls
bouncing out the door.

The named women, their hands, invisible yet so central to the scene, the moment which is minutes, hours, a lifetime; the women who go by names from languages not their own all around us...thank you, Lucille and Janet.

Our host today is Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio, where there is singing, so much singing going on! Go hear the angel voices.


*This set of white supremacy culture definitions has popped up before me in several situations--this one shared by a fellow participant in a study group, so I don't have attribution.  But I'm having to see that I am--despite my efforts to acknowledge and honor other ways--a walking, talking, teaching, writing embodiment of this culture.  Claiming that I can, on a whim, at the drop of a hat, teach myself a general poetry survey, is putting many of the assumptions below into action.  I'm trying to do better.

Friday, January 22, 2021

self-taught poetry survey

Happy New Year all over again, am I right? I'm pretty sure none of us is able to release ourselves fully into the glorious dawning of a new America, knowing as we do that all THAT really is Who We Are--but at least maybe it won't be quite so draining every day.  Maybe we can relax a little.

But how about that Amanda Gorman, friends?! The future looks bright.

In my off-hours, I've been looking selfishly towards a time when I will not be a full-time classroom teacher and can become a full-time poet-teacher-writer.  To this end I hired a local poet to coach me in the ways of adult poetry publishing--journals, chapbooks, full-length collections--and how to start submitting in earnest  Her name is Sarah Ann Winn and we get along very well, not least because she spent 15 years as an elementary school librarian. I HAVE LEARNED SO MUCH.

One thing I have learned is that the 12 years' worth of original poetry published here for you, friends, is unfortunately not available to submit.  Most adult journals consider work posted on a blog as "previously published" and will not accept it for publication.  So I have to start keeping my InstadraftTM poems to myself until I know what they are, which represents a pretty radical change to the way I blog.

So I have an idea, which I will approach in rather a different way than the younger me, which is to say, "Let's see how this goes."  I (like you?) have shelves full of adult poetry books that have never received my full attention.  Each Friday I'll pull one down and find a poem that I like and post it here.  If I can, I'll find a poem for young readers that goes with it in some way, and add that. Welcome to my Self-Taught Poetry Survey: the STPS.

Let's see what Mark McMorris has for us in his book ENTREPOT (Coffee House Press, 2010). [Disambiguation: not the Canadian professional snowboarder.]  From the ToC I choose one that might have bearing on our current moment...and I am right.

Auditions for Utopia--for Donald | Mark McMorris

Say then that there is a room with large windows.

Sunlight filters in from the sky’s reservoir. 

One wall holds a scene of naked olive bodies

and giant ferns, bodies like ferns and ferns

with the aplomb of the forest, and I am indoors.

Not that they vanish but that the mind which drew

inward to disclose the forms of one happiness 

found what it did not gestate--on the island 

whistle and seaside refrain, blades of sunlight 

peeling automata from the senses--and chose

to be its province with its own star-apple trees. 

The mind is an emperor. Or the mind is subject 

to decree from obscure parliaments of language.

And if the latter, the leafy bodies motionless 

in the heat intimate a turn from ordinary sickness 

draft a pledge to labor to liberate the faculty 

from grammars beholden to icy winds and freezing 

waterways winding down to the naval port.

Antidote to tyranny and serfdom, beauty is a face 

alive with secrets but no designs on the soul.

The other wall of the sun-dazzled room shows 

the polis in smoky industrial affray, the emblems 

of feudal lord and banker and sea captain 

in stately parade underneath the parchment heaven. 

Stevedores load gigantic ship holds with cotton.

A locomotive circles the stockyards like a cheetah.

Somewhere else, counter-posed to labial orchids, 

the estates of sugar and coffee transact menace.

Unless the muralist desire the comity of slave 

and feudal lord, or captain and bulky stevedore 

the earlier scene must altogether disappear 

to become the prehistory of advertising perfume: 

langorous beaches kissed by a glittering sun 

where industrialists repose in the elbow of a cove.

The mind is bottomless. The mind is a membrane 

of nothing where beam of light falls toward

a gravity well, curving into the fall, a fragment 

of expanding cracks in a stable law ante bellum 

center-most oleander and the shade it gives.

Only images to keep a body quiet. Little wishes.


Phew...the density, the vocabulary, the transportation.  We have been sold a bill of goods, people, and it is time to open the box, take out all the bubble wrap and packing peanuts and see what's really inside.

As it happens this poem reminds me of one for young readers which is quite familiar. 😊

by me, from SQUEEZE: Poems from a Juicy Universe (WordSong, 2005)

I don't have time this morning to pull a Pádraig Ó Tuama on these poems, but I do wonder from what place inside that box I wrote "Throwing the Roads."

Our host this Poetry Friday is my neighbor and friend Laura Shovan, who, as I hoped, is properly shining the spotlight on that Amanda Gorman.  Let's spend more attention on the battered and less on the beautiful now, okay?

Friday, January 8, 2021

nest & nestlings, à la Irene

My short two-Friday break from blogging has turned out to be both the least and most eventful period you could imagine, for me personally and for our democracy.  There are so many posts I could write today, and yet I'm sticking with the Sunday Swaggers challenge that was set for January, and perhaps it can become a bigger metaphor along the way....

although it seems that at this time, we don't have need of any metaphor.  We have just had the most powerfully honest and revealing story of US play out (yet again, but this was maybe finally loud enough for the people in the back) just 12 miles from my house at the Capitol. May we now move forward from our imagined Garden of Eden in commitment to naked truth and brave change.

I set the poetry challenge for today, knowing that we all were captivated by the concept of Irene Latham's 2020 collection THIS POEM IS A NEST (Wordsong, illustrated by Johanna Wright).  In it Irene uses a longer, 4-part poem organized by season to hatch many, many "Nestlings," found poems constructed by taking words from the longer poem.  

Irene's book includes a direct invitation for readers and writers of all ages to try Nest & Nestlings themselves, and even includes a guide at the end--and who are we to decline such a generous invitation? The main rule is that the words must be kept in the order they are found, and most of us realized quickly that this challenge was trickier than it looks!  

In addition, it really matters what nest poem you choose to begin with, and somewhere I'm sure someone has interviewed Irene about how her Nest came to be and in what relation to her Nestlings. Luckily, there is freedom in being able to use any words for each nestling's title, and in grabbing an s or several to tidy up tenses.

For my experiment, I chose a 2011 poem about a rug.  Not just any rug, of course; the rug I bought for my then-new full-time classroom remains one of the best purchases I have ever made.  The careful reader will notice that the version below used as my Nest is slightly revised, which happened in order to give some of my Nestlings stronger wings.

Here is my Nest, followed by the best of my many, many attempted Nestlings.

As you can see, it was quite difficult to get the Nestlings different enough! But taking PLENTY of time helps, and nest time 😉 I think I might try writing the Nest and the Nestlings simultaneously and see what develops...

Here's where to find the Nests of my fellow Swaggers:

-Catherine at Reading to the Core -Margaret at Reflections on the Teche -Molly at Nix the Comfort Zone
-Linda at A Word Edgewise

A huge thanks to Irene Latham, who Lives Her Poem in so many ways, including her continued commitment to our Poetry Friday community throughout her years of busy publishing success.  

And thanks to the Poetry Sisters, whose monthly challenge inspired our group--I don't think we've ever acknowledged that sufficiently--and to Sylvia Vardell, who is our host today at Poetry for Children, performing her annual service of listing forthcoming poetry books for 2021. Just looking at all the covers has my mouth watering!  HAPPY NEW YEAR OF POETRY to all!