Archive for June, 2010

Sassy Sunday

I always liked the word “sassy” — I guess because I’ve always associated the word with rebellion and attitude.  (And maybe because when I was a kid, I was always in trouble for “sassing” my mother).  So it’s because of the title — Sassing by Karen Head, that I picked up this particular collection of poems.

Sassing is a collection that debunks the stereotype of the delicate Southern Belle.  In fact, poet Karen Head provides a quote by Lee Smith near the start of her collection that foreshadows both subject and tone of the book:

The biggest myth about Southern women is that we are frail types — fainting on our sofas…nobody where I grew up ever acted like that.  We were about as fragile as coal trucks.

The collection is divided into four parts (with a single poem acting as a sort of prelude at the start of the book). The first part and third parts explore family history, while highlighting the strength of Southern women — and the women who make appearances in these poems come in all ages, facing all of life’s obstacles.   In “Aesthetics” the poet explains that as a little girl making mud-cakes was an art that relied on “deciding exactly/the combination of dirt and water.”  In “Economy” the speaker celebrates her grandmother, a survivor from the Great Depression, who teaches how to “clip and re-root almost dead plants/burn paper trash to mix in vegetable beds/tear old dish rags to secure tomatoes.”  In “Confessions of a Shelter Volunteer” the poet explains right from the first line of the poem that “Everything I say is a lie.”   My favorite work in this whole collection is a list poem of sorts.  In “Southern Girls” the speaker lists characteristics and actions of a true Southern woman including drinking tea “with much too sugar,” knowing “how to shell peas” and “eat grits.”  The poem ends with the lines explaining that these same girls always “drag their vowels and smile/when they sass.”

The second part of the collection is a sequence of poems with titles of songs. The poet explains in her notes at the end of the book that “These poems are part of a series of semi-autobiographical poems and the titles reflect the #1 song from the week of my birth for several years of my life.”  Still, for many readers, the explanation isn’t really needed, as they will recognize such titles as “Eye of the Tiger” and “Every Breath You Take.”  Sometimes the correlation between the title of the song and the poem is clear, sometimes it is not.  My favorite poem is “Annie’s Song” (mostly because this song was a favorite of my mother who used to listen to John Denver all the time.)  In this poem, the speaker details her relationship with the outcast in class, a girl named Annie, by explaining “In second grade, we’d learned to sin//already shunning girls like Annie” by detailing the fact that the young classmate never received a valentine.

Karen Head ends her collection with a brief section composed of a single poem titled “Instructions for My buried Clothes” where she explains, “Do not bury me in a suit/I want to go out in sequins./my mother shakes her head/wonders where I learned such excess.”

Whether she is providing pictures of raw strong women or using poetry to artistically explore the general aches and pains of life (including poverty, domestic violence and death), Head’s poetry is rooted in place.  Any reader can see the love she has for her native Georgia.  True, there are several poems that find the persona in other places, but even in these poems, she longs for home.

When I discover a new poet, it’s usually within the pages of a first book.  I am happy to say that Karen Head has published multiple collections (although Sassing is the first work I have ever read by her) and I’m looking forward to tracking down these other fine poems.


Dzanc Summer Sale

It’s that time of year again — bookstores and publishers everywhere are breaking out their red sale stickers.  Check out Dzanc’s summer sale — good deals all around. 

Shake, Rattle and Roll

So, I have lived through my first “earthquake”.  Okay, I admit that Western PA was not the epicenter of the earthquake that hit Canada today, but I did feel some tremors.  I’ve survived tornadoes and floods, but I have never felt the quiver of a quake — oh! and to take away from the theories that pets go crazy during earthquakes, our cat, who is a 17-year-old Diva alley cat from the streets of Pittsburgh, PA, slept through the shaking!  All in all, I will be honest, I was sitting on my bed on the second floor, and when I felt the tremor, I merely thought a big truck had driven by the house, (which would be a bit odd, we live on a small side street) and didn’t think too much more about it until I turned on the news.

Now, round two of Mother Earth.  We are preparing for severe thunderstorms with wind and hail.  Fun, fun, fun!

Dates & Deadlines

It’s nothing like the official first day of summer to get a person kicked into high gear.  I simply can’t believe that June is slipping away so fast.  There’s so much I want to get done before school starts in the fall.

Right now, I’m finishing up an online poetry workshop, but in another week, the official Chautauqua season starts.   I just signed up for classes with poets Maggie Anderson and Todd Davis, but I will also be acting as workshop assistant for poet Stephen Haven.  Good times ahead here.

In another month, I will be presenting a book review/lecture on poet William Heyen’s A Poetics of Hiroshima.  I am knee deep in research right now, so in the next week or so, I hope to start pulling some of my thoughts together.

Last week, I also received a stack of poetry books in the mail.  What’s on my list of summer reading? How to Catch a Falling Knife by Daniel Johnson, More by Barbara Crooker, The Ghost of Cesar Chavez by David Dominguez,
Man on Extremely Small Island by Jason Koo, Closing Distances by Paul Martin and At Any Moment by Jean LeBlanc  (Just to name a few!)

Breaking it Down on a Tuesday Morning

When I was an undergraduate, I took a fiction writing class (I know — what happened to turn me towards poetry — it had nothing to do with the class, except that all my short stories seemed to turn out like soap opera scripts), where the professor taught a lot of minimalist literature, focusing on Raymond Carver. Since that time, I have been fascinated with minimalism, and/or literature that uses Hemingway’s “iceberg principle”. 

I have recently discovered a writer who makes use of the iceberg principle, an idea that suggests that more is underneath the surface than what can be seen on top.  Rusty Barnes’ Breaking it Down is a book of flash fiction which explores the lives of rural working class/poor characters.  Products of their environments, the characters often seem to be  motivated by sex and violence.  For example, the main character in the opening story titled “What Needs to Be Done” tolerates her loveless marriage by having an ongoing affair with her husband’s youngest brother. In another story, “Thunder & Putsy” the main character loses his hunting dog in a violent “accident.”

There’s a toughness in Barnes’ characters — it’s as if every character is all tough sinew, rugged muscle, taut skin.  We never really know for certain what makes these characters do the things they do, but we can certainly guess from their actions — which may be perceived as desperate or sad.  It’s as if every character is operating in survival mode — and survive is what they do: simply making it through each day seems to be the common goal of all the characters found in this collection.

Barnes’ work is so new to me that when I googled his name, I was pleased to see that he grew up near Mansfield, Pennsylvania, which is only a few hours away from where I live now.  (In rural Pennsylvania, three hours is relatively close).  I was also pleased to find his one website that he maintains, Fried Chicken and Coffee, which is a blogazine that explores rural and Appalachian literature.  Since my interest in working-class literature often intersects with Appalachian literature, I know that this is a website I will be visiting often.

A Saturday Meme

January has posted a meme on her blog, and it’s been quite a long while since I’ve done one of these, so here I go..

1. What’s the last thing you wrote?  Believe it or not, I am secretary for our faculty senate on campus — so I just typed the minutes from the last meeting in May.  The last creative thing?  I’m working on a poem about a graffiti artist who stumbles into a western Pennsylvania small town.

2. Is it any good? The faculty minutes? They are a masterpiece! 🙂 No, seriously, I think my new poem has some promising lines, but am a bit worried that I have included some stereotypes.

3. What’s the first thing you ever wrote that you still have? I still have some book reports I wrote when I was in fourth grade.  (Let’s not talk about how long ago that was…) On the more creative side, I have a story I wrote when I was in 8th grade about a young girl who stumbles into a deserted and haunted jailhouse.  Not exactly Stephen King material, but I did have a line that said something like this:  blood oozed between cracks in the brick wall like the filling of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 


4. Favorite genre of writing? Poetry, of course!  But I also enjoy nature writing, memoirs and history.  As I noted in my last blog post, I have recently (re)discovered the short story.

5. How often do you get writer’s block? I don’t know if I believe in writer’s block, but I do suffer from something I call writer’s funk — where I seem to be writing the same poem over and over and over again.  I’m going through that right now. 

6. How do you fix it? In order to fix this issue (which happens a few times a year), I try to read poets’ writing that is most unlike my own work.

7. Do you save everything you write? Yes.  Well, almost everything. 

8. How do you feel about revision? There are some days I like revision; other days, I don’t.  I’m one of those people who tends to “write herself out of a good poem.” 

9. What’s your favorite thing that you’ve written? Poetry wise?  I have a poem titled “Eating Watermelons” that makes me smile when I read it.  It’s one of the few poems I have written where I am a bit more playful with language and theme.

I do a lot of book reviews, and some are better than others.  I believe that the best review I have ever written was a review of Paula Bohince’s Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods published in Green Mountains Review.

10. What’s everyone else’s favorite thing that you’ve written? A lot of people like “Eating Watermelons” — listed above.  However, I’ve had complete strangers email me about my poem, “Beauty Tips from the Girls on Third Shift” which was published in Anti.

11. What writing projects are you working on right now? Oy.  It was a poetry manuscript.  Now, it’s more like another chapbook.  I also am finishing up several book reviews.

12. What’s one genre you have never written, and probably never will? A play.  Dialogue is tricky for me. 

13. Do you write for a living?  It depends on what one means by writing for a living.  I teach at a small rural community college, and of course, that job does include a lot of writing besides lesson plans.  I find that I am often involved in writing letters of recommendations and grant proposals.

14. Quote something you’ve written, the first thing to pop into your mind. “She pins down a child’s secret with a pine needle, police sirens with old thumb tacks” from my poem “The Girl Who Could Catch Echoes”

The Short Story & American Salvage

When I was 18, right around the time that I discovered contemporary American poetry, I fell in love with the short story.  I had always been a reader, but up until the time I went to college, I read mostly popular fiction (horror, especially Stephen King) and of course, all the teen lit one person could get a hold of.  At college, my professors introduced me to the contemporary American short story, and I entered the worlds of Raymond Carver, Sharon Dilworth, Barry Hannah, and Donald Barthelme (yes — I know all these writers are very different, but I had a lot of very different college professors).  Later, in my 20’s when I was jumping from job to job, in and out of grad school classes, etc.  I fell in love with the work of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson.  Then came Lorrie Moore and Melanie Rae Thon.  And then, oddly, (and rather suddenly, I think), I stopped reading short stories.

Why? Perhaps it was because my favorite short story writers went on to write novels.  Or maybe it was because I found a nice steady and stable job, and had more time to read so my attention turned to novels.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that my shelves of short story collections got boxed away.  When I moved, and had extra space, I found room for them once again.  And then, just recently, I purchased a collection that will win me back to the short story genre.

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell  captures the lives of working class/small town people who live in rural Michigan.  In many ways, I think of her stories as a masterful combination of Sharon Dilworth and Raymond Carver.   Capturing both the violence and poverty of her characters’ everyday lives, the author shows how these people live in what most of us would consider bleak and hopeless conditions.  Yet, the characters never come across as mere stereotypes — just painfully real. This little blurb, of course, is not a formal review of this wonderful collection.  Jay Robinson, on his blog, did a wonderful job describing this great read.  Take a look here.  Then, find and read this book.  And finally, if you are a short story reader (and/or writer), please drop me a note to introduce other great collections I am missing.

Three Poems at The Avatar Review

The new issue of The Avatar Review is now live!  I have three poems posted here, and my work joins others including Sarah J. Sloat, Jen Blair, Erica Dawson, and Bill Kirby.

Summer Reading

I had to laugh the other day when I read Kristin’s post about buying remainder books.  I, too, am a cheap book buyer.  I can’t resist yardsales, library booksales, Salvation Army racks, — anything or anywhere that sells cheap books.  As a college professor, I also get offers to buy new books inexpensively, too (For instance, I am allowed to buy 5 new books a year from Random House at the great bargain price of $3 each!).  I will buy almost anything except romances.  The problem is that while I don’t spend a lot of money on books — the books sure do pile up.

When Anthony and I moved, I donated eight boxes (of varying sizes) of books to the local library.  After finally getting my books unpacked, I discovered three more boxes of books that I could live without.   What does amaze me is the constant number of books in my personal library that I have not read.  Right now, the list is at 20.  These are not poetry books — I do a pretty good job of keeping up with my poetry reading — these are novels, memoirs, and works of nonfiction.  I even have a couple of short story collections I have not read.

So, my goal for the summer?  To work through this stack of books.  I have them placed on my endtable in the spare bedroom.  By the end of August, I want that stack gone.  I don’t know if I am going to be able to do it — a few of the books have 800 some pages — not exactly beach reading — but I am going to try.