Archive for November, 2013

With December Right Around the Corner….

In the last few days, we have survived Winter Storm Boreas, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday — a trio of events that have made the last week a bit more chaotic than normal (Although, I admit, while I have many family members who love Black Friday sales, I sleep in…actually saving a lot of money!). I have the rest of this weekend to catch up a bit with grading papers and reading a pile of chapbooks that are sitting on my nightstand.

And speaking of chapbooks, writer William Kelley Woolfitt has posted an interview where I talk, no gush, a bit about chapbooks.  Yes, I talk about Stealing Dust and Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, but I also spend a great deal of time discussing other poets’ chapbooks.  The website has other great interviews in its archives including posts by Justin Hamm and Michael Meyerhofer.  Take a look!

In other good news, the latest issue of Flycatcher is live!  It’s a beautiful issue featuring poems by Rupert Fike, Thomas Rain Crowe, Valerie Neiman, and Mike James.  And yes, two of my poems are also featured.  Happy Reading!


Wrestling with Sestinas and Other Adventures in Form

sestinas twoI have a love/hate relationship with the sestina.  I love to read sestinas — I love the way poets experiment with the form, playing with the end words, while twisting meanings, tenses and even spellings.  I also love to teach the sestina.  The sestina has a fixed pattern  — much like other forms that I teach (the pantoum, the ghazal and the villanelle), so many of my nonmajors suddenly see patterns and organization that they didn’t see before.

But I hate writing sestinas.

I admit it — it’s probably lack of patience or lack of imagination when it comes to linguistics and/or language, but every time I start playing with the sestina, I throw my notebook down in a huff.  The only time I managed to actually finish a sestina, I showed my poem (rather proudly, I might add) to a colleague, who read my piece, frowned, and said, “It’s a sestina, all right.”

Not exactly comforting words.

Still, The Incredible Sestina Anthology edited by Daniel Nester makes me want to try the sestina again.  In this collection, Nester brings to together a wide range of poets who have succeeded with the sestina.  Included are works by poets Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Marilyn Hacker, Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel and Patricia Smith.  It’s not the kind of book that you want to sit down and read in one sitting. Instead, it’s a collection you want to put by your nightstand, where you can read three or four sestinas before you go to sleep.  (This way, you can dream in sestinas — which has happened to me before — it’s a little funky.)

In the last week or so, we have been working with forms in my Writing About Literature classes.  Even though it’s not a creative writing course, I do take a class period to have students experiment with form.  For many, the sestina is the biggest challenge; however, many of my students do enjoy the pantoum and the ghazal.

Today, as I am finishing this post, we are under our first Lake Effect Snow Warning of the season.  The wind is blowing and snowflakes are flying.  It’s a good day to stay inside, bundle up, and try that sestina again.

Books that Shaped Work

The US Department of Labor has recently launched a new project titled “Books That Shaped Work” and the public is invited to help compile a list of books about work, workers, and workplaces.  The list already includes such classics as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis — but there are many more.  I think the list could use some more poetry, don’t you? Click here to read the complete list so far.  The site also includes information about how you can add your own suggestions.


Child Artists for Typhoon Haiyan Relief

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, (and my neighbor to the north) is co-sponsoring a fundraiser to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan.  Take a look at the website here, and read how you can not only help the victims, but also help support two young (and excited!) artists.  (In fact, I just looked at the site and the donations are rolling in so quickly that these two young artists are going to be very, very busy in the next few weeks!)

The Writing Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Mundane

When I teach creative writing, I like to show clips of movies that depict the writing life.  One of my favorites is the 80’s dark comedy, Throw Momma From the Train starring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito.  If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, let me refresh your memory.  One of the main characters is a community college professor who is suffering from writer’s block.  While struggling with his writing, he is also teaching creative writing and battling his own feelings of anger against his ex-wife who has allegedly stolen his novel.

When I show clips of this movie to my students and ask them to comment about the writing life, many respond that it’s “mundane” (after they get over the initial shock that yes, writers used to write on typewriters!!!)

I’ve been thinking about this movie (and my student responses) the last few weeks as I slowly try to clean up my poetry files in preparation for the new year.  Yes, there are good things about the writing life.  Wonderful new work that falls from your pen or pencil or keyboard. The acceptances, of course.  Attending writing conferences and readings. Correspondence between writers.  Working with editors.  Just the simple act of reading a great poem, or a wonderful collection, or a fantastic book.

Then there’s the bad.  One word.  Rejection.  That’s all you need in this category.

Finally, there is the mundane.  Waiting for responses — any kind of responses.  Sending out single works and collections.  Writing cover letters.  Figuring out individual submission managers.  Tracking down seemingly lost submissions.  Reorganizing manuscripts.  Sometimes, revising, especially if you can’t get a work quite right would also fall into this category.

Lately, most of my writing life seems to fall into this third category.  I have been tracking down seemingly lost poems, withdrawing poems from journals that are either taking too long (yes, I believe that over 12 months is way too long) or are shutting down (if the website has not been updated in over 9 months, I believe that is a warning sign).  This past year has not been a good one when it comes to submissions and I want to start off the new year with a fresh slate — or as fresh as I can get it.

November Poetry Pick: Render An Apocalypse


The format of Render: An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell reminds me of a survival manual.  Or a religious tract.  Or both.  Thin, with a cover that looks like it has been made out of cardboard,  this collection contains poems with such titles as “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Wean a Hog,” and “How to Build a Root Cellar.”  Indeed, these are directions for survival.  And much more.

Certainly, at first glance, the content of the poems sound practical, if not a bit brutal and violent.  But hey, afterall, with a collection title containing the word, “apocalypse” one may expect a bit of brutality.  For instance, in “How to Be Civilized,” the poet states, “Make the pig think/she has a choice//she can defecate/away from her feed//she can still be clean.”  In another poem, “How to Kill a Hog,” the poet explains the directions for after the kill: “Gather her organs up/into your arms//like you once did your mother’s robes/when you were a boy who knew nothing//but the scent of sweat and silk.”

Taken at the literal level, the poems could be seen as mere instructions for physical survival.  But they are more — metaphors dug from the dirt and grit of farm life that explore all aspects of our daily lives. In “How to Be an Animal” the poet cautions us saying, “Forget you ran with them//Wild among trees/wild in your cheer” as if telling us that mere survival means distancing ourselves from what we once were.   In “How to Build a Root Cellar” the poet juxtaposes the physical act of digging with finding and struggling with our own identities: “To build a root cellar//burrow cold from the ground” and “Call your own name until/you have one.”

Render: An Apocalypse was the winner of the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book prize.  You can read more about Rebecca Gayle Howell and her work on her website.

Rounding up Rattlesnakes

November is pushing its way through my semester, and as my sparse blog posts indicate, I have been a bit behind in grading papers, creating lesson plans, and working on my own writing.  However, I did want to provide a quick link to the newest issue of Stirring:A Literary Collection where my poem, “To the Youngest Girl at the Rattlesnake Roundup” has been published.   Rattlesnakes, with the strange lore that sometimes haunts their sections of the rural world, make up an interesting part of  my Pennsylvania landscape.  Rattlesnake Roundups are very controversial and many groups are fighting to disband them.   However, in my world, believe it or not, Rattlesnake Roundups were more family affairs. like the one held in Noxen, Pennsylvania.