New Issue of Blackbird!

Announcing Blackbird v10 n1 | Spring 2011

Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts published by Virginia Commonweath University, announces its new Spring 2011 issue featuring:

-A new translation and the original versions of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s 1996 book Sorrow Gondola, with an introductory essay by David Wojahn, a letter to Tranströmer by Jean Valentine, audio readings of three of the poems in Swedish, and video of Franz Liszt’s “Lugubre Gondola No. 2” that inspired the poem by the same title

-Audio of Victor Lodato, winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Kathleen Graber, Jean Valentine, Kate Greenstreet, Jake Adam York,
Mathias Svalina, and Allison Titus

--I praised Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth and Allison Titus's Sum of Every Lost Ship in a previous issue of Blackbird; they're great evidence of the important poetry being published these days by Cleveland State University's Poetry Center--

-Poetry by Norman Dubie, Dave Smith, Jennifer Chang, Victoria Chang, Yu Shibuya,
Brittany Cavallaro, Jenny Johnson, Eve Jones, and more

--What a rockstar line-up! in particular out for up & comers Brittany Cavallaro (whose poem I read for Linebreak) and Jenny Johnson (a friend from UVA days who has been studying with the fabulous Gabrielle Calvocoressi)--

-Fiction by Kelly Cherry, Steve Yarbrough, Victor Lodato, Adrian Dorris, Julie Hensley,
Darrin Doyle, Aurelie Sheehan, and Chris Leo

-Reviews of Joshua Poteat, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Keith Montesano,
and Sandra Beasley*

-In gallery, plays by Victor Lodato and Yasmine Rana, an audio essay by Jeff Porter, a video essay by Nick Twemlow and Robyn Schiff, and the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration’s 1951 “Duck and Cover”

*Me! This turns out to be a lovely review of I Was the Jukebox by Laura Van Prooyen, in which she says "Reading I Was the Jukebox cover to cover can hypnotize you."

Read the whole issue online by visiting

Review of Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr

Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr (Harper, 2011)
            It is easy to see why David Orr is one of our preeminent reviewers of poetry. He writes with grace and wit, two attributes necessary to transform a review from something merely serviceable to a form of literary art itself. His new book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, is, however, perhaps misnamed in the portion of the title a grad-school friend of mine cheekily referred to as the “post-colonic.” The term “guide” suggests some sort of schematic layout, perhaps accompanied by a few charts and graphs, along with a chunky glossary. Orr’s graceful little book is better described as an eloquent conversation, as it draws few of the definitive lines one would expect from a “guide.” Orr clearly prefers musing to mapping.
            The first two chapters muse upon first the place of the “personal” and then of the “political” in contemporary poetry. Orr resists drawing any conclusions about how these aspects of poetry either do or should operate in the contemporary literary world. Instead he shows how the questions raised by poets about their work in relation to the personal and the political animates much contemporary poetry. If one is left feeling that these two chapters never really arrive anywhere, the disappointment is more than compensated for by the delightful company along the way to nowhere, especially by Orr aptness with examples, evidence of his wide familiarity with contemporary poetry.
            More schematic is the chapter on “form,” in which Orr offers three categories under that heading: “metrical form,” “resemblance form,” and “mechanical form.” By the first term, he obviously refers to iambic-pentameter and the like. By the third term, he means artificial rules used to generate poems, such as the games of the L=A=N=U=A=U=G=E Poets, though he also applies the terms to syllabics (which seems odd, as I would categorize syllabics as simply another metrical system). Most useful in this chapter is his introduction of the term, “Resemblance Form,” by which he means received forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, etc. The term is useful for the analogy it draws: “Resemblance has no trouble allowing for degree – just think of how one sibling may strongly have the family ‘look,’ while another sibling may show it only weakly” (81). This analogy, if introduced to writing students at the proper moment in their development, could do much to fight off, on the one hand, a slavish conception of form as mere mechanics, and, on the other hand, a too-common disinterest in form altogether. Orr adds a richer critical dimension to this observation when he observes how such an understanding of form helps us to see a particular poem in a rich tradition of poems with the “family resemblance.” I’ll certainly be incorporating the concept into my writing and poetics courses.
            I do have to quibble with one thing Orr says in his chapter on form. In rightly asserting the aural nature of metrical form, Orr contrasts it with what he calls “other formal structures” but will soon call “resemblance forms,” saying “other formal structures – sonnets for instance – are perceived visually” (76). Let’s leave aside the vague “other formal structures” and focus only on the case of the sonnet. If Orr means to say that the sonnet is also perceived visually, then he is correct. He seems to imply by means of contrast, however, that the sonnet is perceived only visually, an assertion I believe to be incorrect. One is, I believe, perfectly capable of recognizing a sonnet as such through purely aural means, as Shakespeare clearly expects his audience to do in Romeo and Juliet, for instance upon the meeting of the star-crossed lovers in Act One, Scene Five. This is perhaps more true of the English sonnet than of its Italian cousin, as the regularity of the quatrains builds the expectation that the concluding couplet confirms. As evidence, listen to Mark Jarman read some of his Unholy Sonnets.
            The next chapter is devoted to “Ambition,” a topic of some controversy in poetry circles. Orr agrees with Donald Hall and others that contemporary poetry inevitably fails when it lacks “ambition,” but Orr wants to carefully define that term rather than sweepingly invoke it in the usual polemical way. This is, next to his observation on “resemblance form,” the most critically useful point in Beautiful and Pointless. Drawing on examples from Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, and (for contrast) Kay Ryan, Orr skillful leads his reader into a crucial distinction between “ambition” and grand style. Citing other critics, he demonstrates that poets are often praised for their ambition as a reward for a certain grandness of style (perhaps to be associated with the legacy of Milton). He concludes with the very commonsense assertion that true ambition ought to be measured by the desire to produce poems “difficult to forget” (131), regardless of the stylistic approach. Such a distinction could do much to deflate a lot of literary windbags and to redeem the reputation of several plain-spoken poets who have fallen into critical neglect.
            In a chapter titled “The Fishbowl” Orr provides a chatty, maybe even gossipy, look at the “pobiz” world of contests, grants, and controversy (including the ruckus). This chapter, like the first two chapters, is more companionable conversation than critical insight. Like Donald Hall’s entertaining essays on the old poetry circuit, it is good airplane reading.
            More interesting, and a natural culmination for the book, is the final chapter, “Why Bother?” Characteristically, Orr does not answer this question in a positive sense; instead, he offers three failed answers. The most interesting part of this chapter is Orr’s deflation of the argument that poetry is important because it teaches us something about language itself or it epitomizes whatever it is that is special or even miraculous about language. By comparing contemporary poetry with other language instances ranging from a parental “I love you” to King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he shows the case for poetry as uniquely powerful language to have been greatly overstated. This is a refreshingly frank confession from someone who has spent his adult life writing about poetry. Orr then also deflates the argument for poetry as a special form of self-knowledge and as a special form of social knowledge. He does this not by arguing that poetry has no power to tell us about ourselves or our social contexts, but rather by showing that poetry does not uniquely do so. Poems are one way to know thyself; some people obviously find others. Again, this is good commonsense. So why bother, then? Orr ultimately admits that he doesn’t know: “I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident” (179). That such a statement might also be made about, say, fly fishing or running marathons is, I think, a good indication of its truthfulness. When we ask too much of poetry, we set ourselves (and maybe more importantly our students) up for certain disappointment.  Orr follows this point up with a moving story involving his father’s stroke and poetry as speech therapy. This personal anecdote adds dimension to Orr’s assertion about the “abundance of our lives,” supporting the statement in the only way such a statement may be supported: empirically.
            Beautiful and Pointless is a fine book. It is not ground-breaking or even mind-changing. It is something that is perhaps even more rare in contemporary literary publishing: it is good company. In that, it joins a “family resemblance” that reaches back through Samuel Johnson and Francis Bacon to Plato’s Socratic dialogues. If that isn’t grand, it is certainly ambitious.


One helluva storm rolled through Knoxville on Tuesday night. 60mph wind. Thunder, like a small earthquake, shook the house. Trees and branches blocked the roads all over the neighborhood. Runoff swept lawn chairs from backyards into the ditch. Power lines were down on our street and we were without power for 18 hours.

The next morning, I managed to get E. to work and myself back home without getting either of us killed on the turnpike, which, in the absence of electricity and traffic signals, I renamed "El Camino del Muerte" after the road in Bolivia.

Who knew that all this time it was the traffic lights that were the true impediment to our turnpike fulfilling its potential and finally becoming Knoxville's Autobahn?

About a half mile from our street, there's a relatively good-sized plot of land with a smallish house and barn, and the folks that live there take in abused horses. Feed them and care for them until they're ready to move to a good home.

When I came home the other day, the three most recent ponies (Indian, I think) were huddled together in the enclosed pasture comforting each other, rubbing their heads against each others' necks and sides. They were, in short, a reminder.

We survived the winter snow and ice without accident or injury. We weathered the April/May tornado and "Hail-ocalypse" unscathed. No water damage to our possessions or our rental house during the most recent storm. The worst of it was having to toss most of our refrigerated/frozen foods. A small price. A blessing.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

James Wright
from Above the River


More James Wright @ Against Oblivion:

"Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me"
"Saint Judas"
"Northern Pike"
"A Blessing"
"Prayer to the Good Poet"
"Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960"
"To the Muse"

Very Special Delivery

So, after an 18-hour drive that took me straight from Mississippi to DC, followed by a belated Father's Day dinner with my folks (Ardeo's scallops and octopus over black lentils), followed by a knock-out Rob Roy perfectly mixed by the owner of the Black Fox in Dupont Circle (oh, I have missed my town!), I was sleeping in this morning. 

A knock on the door at 9:10 AM woke me up. Who was it? Why? Would I have to put clothes on? I walked to my door and peered into the hallway. Nobody there. Whew.

Then I noticed the package someone had left behind. 

My heart skipped a little. I grabbed the scissors and carefully sliced open one end.

My first thought was: Yay! Yay! Yay! (Eloquent, right? That's why they call me a poet.) My second thought was: Funny, I had never thought about my book's physical color...

...and that color turns out to be a lovely robin's-egg blue, with a goldenrod spine. 

No other way to say it: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is here. Oh, sure, you won't see it in a store near you until July 12. But in this moment, a book has been born.

Even though I've reviewed how it would look a hundred times--from text to cover art to even, yes, my own flap copy--I had never imagined this moment. 

Stand up, baby. Shake your tail feathers. Let's dance. 

(Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is available for pre-order now from Barnes & Noble and NOOK, and Kindle, iTunes/iBook, IndieBound, Borders, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, Teaching for Change, and Square Books. Or you can come to my place in DC and try to steal one of these five copies. But be warned: I'll fight you.)


The lonely tree, Sweeden - Nan Goldin
via Artnet
The sky on the twilight of Philippine's death, Winterthur - Nan Goldin
via Matthew Marks Gallery

There’s a scene in Six Feet Under (S.4 E.1) in which Claire Fisher, while attending CalArts I think, has been tasked with “breaking” her eye open in order to see the world in a new way, a way without “all the tired associations we’ve made all our sad lives.” And so, for inspiration, she sits hour after hour in her bedroom staring at photographs by Nan Goldin. Some episodes later she ends up breaking her eye open (with the aid of an idea stolen from a friend) and produces a series of incredibly striking photo-collage masks which the subject of the collage then wears for a portrait.

The real world artist who created these pieces is David Meanix, and he was featured in a article in 2004. Here are some examples of his work from the television show:

Ruth Fisher, via HBO
David Fisher, via

Nate Fisher, via PacEvoluTion

Something about my new work’s been nagging me the last couple weeks while I wait for Praise Nothing news. And last week, I identified the source. While I feel a sense of relief and freedom as I work on the new poems, and while I've begun thinking about them in terms of a manuscript, I’ve noticed that, at times, I'm trying to force the new poems into the old mold, the old manuscript, instead of following my instincts and listening fully with my own idiosyncratic ear, indulging my interests and new obsessions. It’s got me questioning if, like Claire Fisher, I need to break open my eye ear.

Some months back, one of my best friends told me over the phone that he found my poems to be like “sets of delicate china stacked on top of each other,” “balanced, but cold,” “attractive to look at, but not functional [because] if one were to remove a cup or a saucer, the whole damn thing would crash to the floor and shatter.” While I disagreed with some of his characterization and its implications, I appreciated his insight because his feedback was not without some truth. What did some folks in the MFA days call my poems (and my personality)? Oh yeah: aloof.

I want these new poems to be gut punches. And I want to unleash my ear and internal metronome from the formalist structures and strictures I’ve put on myself for the last many years while writing the bulk of the poems that went into Praise Nothing. This is not to talk smack on the manuscript by any means. Just to say I’ve wanted something different lately.

The only feedback I've received so far regarding these new "broken open" poems is one friend said, "And by the way, the poem you sent me--my head definitely exploded." Now, I'm pretty sure he didn't mean that in a good way, and that's completely fine. One craves honesty and directness at these times. But I am glad to know that the new poems do in fact detonate on arrival, so they're not complete duds.

Certainly, there will still be structure and an architecture. I’m going to continue to explore my lineation systems, but within a more formal strophic structure based on measure rather than rhyme. I want to push their limits. I want to let the phrasing, syntax, and grammar have even greater roles in controlling the line, and rely less on accentual measures. In the end, I want to see what it’s like out more toward the middle of the Ferlinghetti’s tightrope without abandoning my lessons learned from Father Wright:
via Modern American Poetry
  • That there are new options out there. For Father Wright, it was “a long image-freighted line (the odd marriage of Emily and Walt) that can carry information (and ‘sincerity’) and a lyric intensity at the same time. Not only will it sing, but it will tell time too.”
  • That one must always think in line rather than line break.
  • I must continue to have an ear-based system of lineation that acts as a “built-in check” against slack free verse, but I want to also strive for lines that are “tactile and unrepentant.”
  • My lineation mantra: “Each line should be a station of the cross.”
  • “Form is finite. Structure is infinite.”

I chose to lead off this entry with two of Nan Goldin's landscapes rather than her portraits because I've always been drawn more to landscape and still life. Since I'm not a photographer, I find that the latter relates much more directly to poetry and how I approach language anyway.

The first Father Wright poem that came to mind this morning when I started thinking about this is one from A Short History of the Shadow. Mostly it's the first part that dovetails with this entry, though the rest of it develops the ideas a whole lot more. Here's an excerpt of the poem and audio, and I urge you to click over to where you can read the full poem and hear the full audio.


from Body & Soul II

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
                                         seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
                             April, and anything's possible.

Charles Wright
from A Short History of the Shadow


A selection of other Charles Wright poems posted at Little Epic Against Oblivion:

"Looking Around" 
"The Monastery at Vršac"
"Roma I"
"Jesuit Graves"
"A Short History of My Life"
"In Praise of Thomas Hardy"
"Blackwater Mountain"

Friends like these...

Very excited to teach my friend William Archila's The Art of Exile to my literature students this fall. Here's a recording of a reading for Poets & Writers William participated in earlier this month.

Poems by William Archila:

"Outhouse" (To listen to a recording of William reading the poem, click here.)

Prose by William Archila:

William Archila's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2010
Writing tips from William Archila via the blog Writers at Work.

Reviews of The Art of Exile:

The Voices Education Project reviews The Art of Exile.
Review of The Art of Exile at Ave. 50 Studio.

Portrait of the Artist as a Sixth Grader

One of the nice things about having stayed in the same area I grew up in (compounded by the power of Facebook) is that I've stayed in touch with old, old friends. Such as my friend Tricia, whose parents live across the street from my grandmother. Every time I went to see her in McLean, Virginia, I hoped I would get the chance to go to the Kuzmack's house and play with Tricia and her sister Steffie in a backyard that had a great big vegetable garden and a playhouse with hippie love beads hanging down in a curtain across its doorway. 

Tricia emailed me the other week to report that her parents, in cleaning out the attic, had run across some old things from Haycock elementary school. Among the papers that had been packed away? "Literature Delight, Volume #6." Our Paris Review. Within the day she'd sent photographs. A rather snazzy-looking compilation, I must say. Check out the brilliant blue of that cover! Check out the apple-dotted i's! I remember lunchtimes in the school library with books ready to be bound--punching the paper holes, lining up the slots, pulling the lever to clamp on the black plastic binding. Breathing in the hot plastic smell of the nearby laminating machine. 

And then...there were the poems. 

"The Storyteller" has to be a nod to L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl, which is about a group of cousins growing up on Prince Edward Island. "Cecily" is an odd name for me to use--whereas I had Jessicas and Adams in my classes, I can't recall a single Cecily. But one of the children in Montgomery's book is named Cecily King. In Montgomery's book, the "Story Girl" Sarah Stanley is the same age as the other children. But I remember always thinking that she seemed preternaturally old in spirit, destined to stay alone with her stories while the others went on to marrying, having children, and moving away. So in the world of my poem, I projected a future of telling stories to the children of friends who were playmates. Oh my. Twenty years ago, and I was already drawn to this notion of a woman choosing to be "the storyteller" even if it set her apart from the pleasures of a normal life.   

Then there is this poem, which won the school's creative writing contest that year. (I also took third place...and I placed in the nonfiction category too, with a humor essay about having a little sister in the house. I was overzealous.)

OK, I was a somewhat melancholy kid. But I will own these poems, if only because in seeing them again after all these years I still have such fresh, sharp memories of their conception. In sixth grade, just as now, I was a girl with brown hair and brown eyes. I remember that being the first year I felt envy of the girls with exotic coloring--and the opening lines of "The New Me" gave me a chance to imagine that doppelganger, prettier Sandra. I'm not sure what it was that I thought would embittered and harden me down the road, but I do know that I was interested in the iterations of language: seeing how much I could advance the story with just tiny changes to the phrasing. And I knew I could get away with dropping down that last standalone line if, rhythmically, it completed the line before it. 

Thanks, Tricia, for this trip down memory lane. I suppose posting juvenilia for the world to see could be a bad idea. But often, when I answer the question of "how long have you been writing poetry?" with "since elementary school," I see a flicker of disbelief in people's eyes. Here you have it, folks. Proof! 

I'll scratch your backlist if you scratch mine

from Hitchcock's I, Confess
Here's another entry as part of my off again / on again commitment to publicly exploring my life in poetry, though right now I wonder what the point of this whole blog project is several years since its inception. Any more, this space seems like an archive for poems I've liked, or a place to refer people on my poetry email list for further reading. Maybe that's all it ever was, with the occasional rant or therapy moment.

There are so many formats and platforms for posting links, and I don't want the blog to become another URL depository. My concern is there's not as much content here as their should be, but I'm unsure how to walk the line of adding more (if I need to) without transforming this blog into an online confessional, although even as I write this the whole thing feels more and more like a reality TV moment of truth: "This is the true story... of eight strangers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World."

Or if not The Real World, then something more in the style and mood of Annie Hall.

Apologies in advance if this entry comes off like a pity party. Not my intent. There's no fishing for support or encouragement happening here. This is more of a test case to see if I can string together a regular sequence of posts describing what first-time manuscript submission has been like for this submitter. Perhaps it'll be worth reading for others out there in the same position, others who suffer the same neurosis and anxiety, others who are looking for camaraderie within this lonely process.

I don't know how long this project will last. I don't know how much longer this blog will last. I've got to finish my dissertation this year, get on the job market, and we've got a baby due to arrive in a few months. Blogging may become an indulgence I cannot justify. We'll see.

But, anyways, here goes.


Last week, I updated my latest manuscript news. The short of it: submission results have been mostly what I'd expected with a bonus number of a few positive responses. People keep telling me I have reason to be more optimistic. I hope they’re right and their support means so much as I continue working and writing.

A couple weeks ago, Keith Montesano posted a new First Book Interview, this one with Bobby C. Rogers who won the Agnes Starrett Lynch Prize for Paper Anniversary. I've posted a few of Rogers' poems on this blog in the last year, and if you click the tag for "Bobby C. Rogers" at the end of this entry, you can find them.

You really should read the full interview by clicking here, but I’d like to call attention to one of Rogers' observations about the process of submitting one's manuscript.

Here's an excerpt of his response to being asked what advice he'd give to people deciding between submitting to contests versus open reading periods:
The advice I would give is envision your book on the backlist of whatever publishing house you send to—it’ll be there soon enough—and ask yourself, “Is this good company to be in?”
I think this is compelling advice. How many backlists did I go through before deciding to send? Dozens and dozens as I narrowed my list. I spent many, many, many hours doing research online, tracking down small press books, reading reviews, reading books by judges, stalking blogs. But what I’m coming to realize now is that when I did check backlists, I was mostly sizing up the previous winners to see if I felt like I could stand with them, and that’s somewhat different than asking if I'd be in “good company.” And I think this distinction has to do with my own self-confidence.

I don’t mean “stand with them” in terms of, “Are my poems as good as theirs?”—though there’s probably some of that. I guess I mean "stand with them" in terms of style and aesthetic, poetics, checking to see if my voice, subject matter, and approach fit with the press’s tradition, history, catalog, etc. And I feel confident that I can stand with the backlists of all of the places to which I sent my manuscript. But then, wait a minute.... I was talking about self-confidence. Hmm.

It’s an odd acknowledgement. I've long known that my neurosis and obsession over the submissions process isn't about the quality of my poems, but in last few days I’m starting to see that my anxiety over this submission process comes from a lack of faith in something else.

I believe in what I can do, that I can write and will continue writing. I believe in Praise Nothing. That’s not at issue. I think, though, there's something going on here more akin to that Annie Hall Groucho Marx joke: "I don't want to be part of any publisher that would have me for an author."

Obviously, it's not all that dramatic, and it's not true. I'd be thrilled to have my manuscript taken by any of the places where it is currently under consideration, and I'll be doing handsprings down the driveway and out into the street if I get "The Call." But, still, how terrible is it that I can identify with that joke?

That said, this little moment of public therapy and acknowledgement of weakness is something I can build on. I need to keep thinking about this. I don’t doubt the value of my work, but maybe I doubt the value of, well—Bishop in my mind saying, “Write it!” —maybe I doubt the value of me. And that's nothing new for poets. It can be hell at times for us and those around us, but I know I'm in good company.

I guess what I need to work on is concentrating on the “good company” part of Rogers’ answer. I need to concentrate on being a good neighbor in poetry, rather than researching to find out why I'm not worth enough to move into the neighborhood.

Republican Debate Liveblog with Allen Ginsberg

Good evening, and welcome to our Little Epic Against Oblivion coverage of the New Hampshire Republican Debate.

We go live now to our political correspondant on the ground, Allen Ginsberg.

Good evening Allen, what's the word where you are? What are your impressions of the candidates so far? Who's standing out?

It looks like all candidates are uniting against one thing and that's President Obama.

"Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.”

Right.... Well, we know where you stand on poetry and the body politic, but our viewers would like your political analysis of the debate on CNN in which right now the candidates--
“Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”

Well, perhaps, but what about the candidates' "common sense solutions" to our nation's problems? The figure tonight seems to be a 5% growth will be required to lift us out of this recession. It seemed the voters in New Hampshire are concerned with returning manufacturing jobs to the United States, creating jobs, and dealing with entitlements. Who is standing out out in response to these important questions about our nation's economy.

“Nobody saves America by sniffing cocaine. Jiggling your knees blankeyed in the rain, when it snows in your nose you catch cold in your brain.”

So, it sounds like you are disappointed with what you're seeing tonight, is that fair?

“It isn't enough for your heart to break because everybody's heart is broken now.”

Um, okay. Well, thanks, Allen. We appreciate your insight and I understand we'll be back to you later in our broadcast after this short break.

In Which I'm a Bit of a Potty Mouth

During my time in Miami earlier this year, I was thrilled to finally meet up with writer and Almost Dorothy author Neil de la Flor. Neil was fabulously generous in showing me around town. He snapped this photo of me one night when we were out for an art walk in Wynwood. We also went to a dance performance that culminated in someone standing on their head--with that head being in a toilet bowl--and singing. You really don't have better bonding experiences than that. 

I was happy to take part in the Potty Mouth series of interviews for Neil's blog. By "happy" I mean "nervous." The man knows how to throw a curveball. Like all good interviews, the topics ranged from jukeboxes to swearing to setbacks to scotch. 
Here's an excerpt:

AD: When I read i was the jukebox, I wasn’t expecting any potty mouth language coming out of your jukebox. In your poem, “In The Deep” you write: the “boys are fifteen/and fuckwild:/Fuck the glass fish…/fuck the nautilus…/fuck her blue rings./fuck her three hearts.” What is it about cursing, especially using the f-bomb, that activates a poem?
SB: Diction is a tricky thing. This poem has two engines: the octopus, all elegance and intelligence, and the brute energy of fifteen-year-old boys. I wanted to get in all those rich anatomical details, but I didn’t want the poem to become a nature study. So I put the observation into the mouths of the boys, complete with their litany of introductory fucks. I’m sure anyone who has ever overheard a teenage conversation that appears to be entirely composed of “Fuck, yeah” can relate.
AD: Fuck, yeah! I love to say that word.
SB: The irony is that while the boys emanate aggression with all those f-bombs, that’s an empty threat. It’s really the octopus, with her quiet handling of the baby doll, that could do some damage.
AD: When doesn’t fuck or cursing work in poet-tree?
SB: Most of the time. There are exceptions: Ntozake Shange‘s “crack annie” comes to mind. But if a poem goes for shock value that isn’t grounded in a particular character or social condition, that poem is going to have a short shelf life. I may be sipping coffee out of a Rumpus mug that reads “Write like a motherfucker,” but the truth is that I hardly ever swear. Nine times out of ten, there is a better and more original way to get your point across.

& later on in the interview...

AD: How’s the memoir coming along? It should be out soon, correct?

SB: Yep, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl will be out in July. Writing a memoir (or any nonfiction book) is very different from the organic process of assembling a poetry collection. In poetry, there is only a minor distance between the Platonic version of a poem in my head and what makes it onto the page. But the gap between a Platonic understanding of my life to date (not to mention all the attending science of food and allergies) and what one “memoir” can capture—that gap seems so big and messy in comparison. I took some risks; I think they were good risks. I just can’t wait to see the damn thing in print.

AD: Can you reveal a morsel from it, a blurb, a line or two, or make an oblique, cobwebbed reference to what it may or may not be about?

SB: The first chapter includes the following references: Mickey Mouse, small town waitresses, malnutrition, a pink polka-dot dress, needles, Reader’s Digest, milk (bad), avocadoes (good), Hippocrates, Red Rover Red Rover, and Russian roulette.

AD: I love hippopotamuses and corn on the cobweb. What do you want to be when you grow up?

SB: A writer. If that doesn’t work out, I’d love to perform trapeze. That’s one art blessedly unchanged by modern technology.

You can read the whole thing here. 

The whole Potty Mouth series is great--other authors featured include Michael Klein, Jericho Brown,  and Emma Trelles, in addition to Lolo Reskin, who runs the very cool Sweat Records and its famous Vegan Waffle Brunch. Neil has a collaborative chapbook coming out with Maureen Seaton, another Florida poet I adore. (I studied with her way back when, at the Indiana University Writers' Conference.) The chapbook is called Sinéad O’Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds, and the cover art by Suzanne Sbarge is absolutely swoon-inducing.

She's a Beauty

Last night a dear friend visiting from Birmingham invited me to tag along on a trip to Water Valley, about twenty minutes outside Oxford. The key to vagabonding, I've found, is to say "Yes" to any and all invitations. You never know what you're going to discover. 

Water Valley is a small town--the main street is named Main Street, the one Thai restaurant fills the exotic culture quotient, and everyone looks forward to the annual Crappie Fest. But there are a ton of artists and musicians living there, and damn if they don't know how to have a good time on a Friday night. A band was playing downtown, and both Bozarts Gallery and the newly opened Yalo Studio had their doors open. We stayed in Yalo for quite a while, lured in by the works of John Henry Toney, Coulter Fussell, and Megan Kingery Patton and the buzz of lively conversation. It didn't hurt that they were serving champagne punch, homemade guacamole with chips and spicy salsa, and great juicy slices of watermelon. 

The moment I saw Megan's work, my hunch was confirmed. This was the woman whose work I had fallen with a year ago, when I visited Taylor Arts. The series I'd seen was from her graduating show at Ole Miss, where she earned her BFA in 2002: a series of haunted and haunting images of girls. Christine, the owner, had explained that the canvasses were inspired in part by the premature passing of Megan's mother, the girls she left behind. 

Megan also happens to waitress at one of the local hangouts, Ajax Diner. On my many trips back to Oxford, I'd always wanted to introduce myself and say I was a fan of her work. But I can be shy sometimes, believe it or not. 

I walked to the very back of the long shotgun space, where a big portrait of two girls sat on an easel. "That's her and her sister," a man standing nearby said to me, before introducing himself as Megan's father. And then I looked down and--on the floor, leaned modestly against the easel's legs--there it was. The painting.

If you've ever been to my apartment, you know I only hang original work on the walls: my mother's prints, things from local DC galleries, work by friends I've met at art colonies over the years. For each of my first two books, I bought a work of art to celebrate publication. But I've been living so lean these past two years--ever since I quit my job and began to rely on my writing--that I haven't been able to buy anything. And I couldn't imagine being able to afford something to celebrate the release of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl come July. 

I asked to be introduced to Megan, who is beautiful--tall, slender, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. I nervously asked about the little painting at the back. Was it still for sale? How much?

"Oh, that old one? I'll give it to you for a hundred dollars."

"Really?" I said. 

My heart bobbled up in my chest like a balloon. I could have kissed her. $100? I'll take it. I'll take it even though that's half of my whole Kroger budget for my time in Oxford. I'll take it even if it means I end up paying the interest to float it on my credit card bill until the next book payment arrives in July. I'll take it, I'll take it, I'll take it.

So here she is. My painting. My girl. My celebration of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Thank you so much, Megan, for trusting me with her. 

No news is good news

image via Open Europe
Since I began submitting to open reading periods and contests, my attitude while playing the manuscript waiting game has been, "No news is good news." Seems about right, no? At the very least, this mantra has been a way to cope with the anxiety I feel on a daily basis as I watch for the mailman to appear at the end of the driveway. My anxiety does not stem from a fear of rejection. Lord knows I’m used to that by now. It’s just an anxiety at having to face the Big Unknown. Every. Day.

Don’t get me wrong. The waiting is anxiety-filled, but it’s also a pleasure. Just like submitting work to magazines and journals, whenever I get a manuscript rejection I have an opportunity to send the work out again.

Hello, Lemons. Meet Sugar and Water.

via Shirt Woot!
I began submitting Praise Nothing in a couple different versions last September. Of the handful of presses I’ve heard back from, not including the one time I withdrew from a contest, the vast majority of rejections have been in the form of announcements, “announcements” meaning the press/contest updates their website or Facebook page and divulges only the name of the winner. Fine. Good. But the one thing that bugs me about this kind of info dump is there’s no way of knowing how far one’s manuscript made it.

Announcements like this are, I think, the lamest form of rejection, though the worst variety of this form must be the one where an announcement’s been made and all your friends have received their official rejections, except yours has yet to show up in the mailbox. Besides the fact that you’ve spent money on a SASE as a guarantee of receiving said official notification, if you’re like me in this situation, there’s always that little bit of your manuscript soul caught in manuscript limbo and you find yourself in the produce aisle reaching for a lemon but coming up with a handful of elaborate scenarios which always end in first book publication despite the winner already being selected.

I know: neurotic.

I’ve also received a couple of the standard “Dear Poet” rejections. This form of rejection is better than nothing. At least something comes in the mail that day. At least you finally know the full results, and that’s a relief.

And, then, on the good side of things, I’ve been a runner-up, finalist, or semifinalist a few times.

In the recent while, though, poetry manuscript news is beginning to trickle in with greater consistency and it’s done so in a weirdly yin yang fashion. Should make for an interesting summer.

A couple weeks ago, I received a standard "Dear Poet" rejection. All good and fine, but still a rejection. Then, only a day later, I received a really nice email from a person at a major poetry press and contest, one different from the “Dear Poet” rejection. Actually this person was associated with a press that’d made an “announcement” months ago. Out of the blue this person took time out of their day to email me some kind words about Praise Nothing, and said they were looking forward to teaching my book one day. Wowza. The poet judging the contest didn't select my manuscript as the winner, obviously, but this person’s note really added some fuel to the fire. It felt like a win.

In another moment of manuscript yin yang, I received my first manuscript “whiplash” rejection. If you’ve ever received one of this variety for a batch of poems, you’ll know what I mean by “whiplash.” If you haven’t, it basically works like this: you send poems to a journal you respect, and within a day or two, or sometimes hours, you find a rejection sitting in your inbox. Whiplash.

So I get the whiplash rejection, and the next day another email. This one from a person at a contest telling me I’m still in the running. That’s all I’m going to say about that for now. Well, I’ll just add that this email was a jolt. I almost didn’t submit to this contest and here I am still under consideration. Yeah, probably one of a hundred or so, but still under consideration: I’ll take it.

I’m not posting all of this out of narcissism, though this is a blog. There’s been a lot of discussion about the contest process on Facebook and at Huffington Post. Sure, there are a lot of things that could be tweaked in the process, and there are issues with the “po-biz” and “industry” (by the way, when can we stop calling it that?). But whatever problems there are, it looks to me after not quite a year of rejection that the process is getting better all the time, and that’s coming from a repeat loser.

So, a toast to all of you who are right there with me plugging along, hunkering down. To your persistence, your belief in your work, your neuroses, and your manuscripts: Cheers! And fists up!