Archive for Poetry & Social Conscience

Split this Rock 2013 Contest

Mark Doty will be the judge for the 2013 Split this Rock Poetry Contest.  The contest is open to poets who write “socially engaged” poems.  This theme has many interpretations.  For more details, please visit the website.  Submissions are welcome until November 1, 2012.


Adanna & The Radium Girls

The newest issue of Adanna features my poem, “Sleeping with the Radium Girls.” In case you don’t know the reference, my poem is examining (in a surreal sort of way) the plight of the Radium Girls, a group of female factory workers who were poisoned when they painted watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint that contained radium. 

I’ve mentioned before that the Triangle Fire (another important and tragic event in the history of working-class women) is a very prominent subject in contemporary literature including poetry. Yet, I don’t see as much written about the Radium Girls.  I have read two novels that feature the Radium Girls:  Radium Halos by Shelley Stout  and The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld  but not a lot of poetry. Because the world of poetry and even the world of working-class poetry is so big, it’s quite possible that I’ve missed some good work out there about this particular part of women’s history.  If you happen to know something that I have missed, please leave a link!

A God in the House

I worked retail for many years and one thing that my bosses and my mother agreed on was what was “appropriate” for conversation and what wasn’t.  Talking about the weather was safe.  Talking about religion and/or politics was not.  I think about that advice for some reason when I read poetry.  I don’t know why. I don’t believe we should avoid politics in poetry.  I also don’t believe we should avoid religion.

A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler is a book, obviously, that does not avoid religion.  In this collection, the editors bring together 19 contemporary American poets to talk about spirituality and/or religion and the act of writing. 

In one of the essays, Gerald Stern notes that “Poets — maybe all artists — get away from their own religious upbringing in order to arrive at a condition of faith.” Indeed, his words are echoed in many different ways as a variety of poets explore religion and spirituality in their own lives.  For instance, G.C. Waldrep discusses his time with an Amish community while Gregory Orr places his relationship with religion in the context of family tragedy.  Other poets include Fanny Howe, Annie Finch, Li-Young Lee, and Dunya Mikhail.  My favorite essay is  “The Possibility of God” by Jericho Brown, where the poet talks about his struggle with his religious background, his family and his personal life, while still ending up believing: “I love God. I love liberty. I shame one if I lose the other.  I think of God now as way more patient than I could ever be.  I have to believe that God is better than me and better than all of us. That’s the only thing that could make God God.”

This is a collection that does not pass judgement, nor do any writers believe that one religion or path of spirituality is “better” than another.  The essays are non-academic in nature, and in general, are must reads for anyone interested in how contemporary poets explore spirituality in both personal and writing lives. 

A God in the House is published by Tupelo Press.  Take a look here for more information.

Spring Cleaning with Poetry

Anthony and I have spent the last few days spring cleaning.  It’s always amazing to me how much stuff a couple can gather in a short period of time.  So far, we are getting rid of two bags of clothes and four boxes of books.  Plus, I’ve been trying to download my personal library just a bit, so I have placed many other books on Paperback Swap. But we will still have work that needs to be done.

All of this cleaning reminds me of an anthology I just read, Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework  edited by Pamela Gemin. This collection contains poetry from many of my favorite poets including Jan Beatty, Denise Duhamel, Diane Gilliam Fisher, Allison Joseph, and Judith Vollmer, and as with all anthologies that I read, I was introduced to many new poets as well.

Although I do portray working-class/Rust Belt/blue-collar women in my poems, they seldom are working domestic chores.   Why is that?  I’m not sure — Stealing Dust contains my factory women poems, a sequence I’m rather proud of because we don’t see a lot of factory workers in poetry who are women.  But Stealing Dust also contains a poem titled “Canning Season” which talks about my mother’s kitchen in August.  In “Splintered” I make a passing reference to laundry on clotheslines, but that is it.  Have I deliberately abandoned the traditional women’s world of work at home?  (Or maybe it’s because I’m a terrible housekeeper and don’t want to write about it!)  I’m not sure, but I do believe it’s something that I need to explore  if I am going to continue to write about the working-class world.

April Poetry Pick: Plume by Kathleen Flenniken

I have a poetry prompt that I often give my creative writing students.  I ask them to write a poem (this works well for creative nonfiction, also) about the first historical event they remember.  Sometimes, I put the question another way: When was the first time you realized that you were part of a bigger picture?

I then use myself as an example.  In 1979, I was a little girl worried about spending a whole dollar on penny candy and wondering how I could get my tangled ponytails into Princess Leia buns.  Then, one evening, I walked into our family room and saw my parents staring at strange bloated buildings on the television screen and heard the ever favorite Walter Cronkite talking and I knew from their expressions that something was just not right with my world.   I’m speaking of the accident at Three Mile Island, which is located about three hours from my home.  Of course, I didn’t realize the full importance of the event.  I just knew that my parents were anxious and that something important had happened.  It was years later before I understood what.

It’s no secret that my generation grew up with what I can “nuclear anxiety” and of course, a simple blog post can not detail all the reasons why.  But a recent book, Plume by Kathleen Flenniken, illustrates part of this picture.  Flenniken grew up next door to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and worked at Hanford for three years as a civil engineer and hydrologist.  Plume is a collection of poems that explore both the poet’s place in this world, as well as Hanford’s role in a larger part of America’s nuclear history.

Flenniken starts her story by addressing John F. Kennedy.  In “My Earliest Memory Preserved on Film” she explains her place in the start of Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s history, “I’m sitting on my father’s shoulders/as you dedicate our new reactor and praise us//for shaping history.”  She later says, “A half century later, I click play again and again/for proof you approve–/but the nuclear age is complicated.”

And complicated it is.  We have poems that explore the everyday lives of those who live in the region.  Some poems are more lyrical like “Afternoon’s Wide Horizon” which states, “The atomic age had been a fond friend/where I lived in Atomic City”.  Some poems mourn loss such as “Rattlesnake Mountain” where the ground was a “radioactive burial ground” that the poet also explains is both “sacred” but “ruined”.  Other poems explore the deception of the facility. As the front flap of the book explains, the 1980s brought declassified documents that revealed that the environment had become contaminated and that essentially, the safety promised to the families living in the area was a lie.  And at the same time, the poet’s childhood friend, Carolyn is losing her father to cancer: “Your marrow/blood cells began to err one moment efficient the next/a few gone wrong stunned by exposure to radiation.”

 But this collection also includes other snippets of nuclear history.  In these poems we hear about Physicist John Archibald Wheeler who worked at the Hanford Site and Manhattan Project health physicist Herbert Parker.  But, my favorite poem is “Atomic Man,” a poem about Harold McCluskey who is a “medical miracle” because during an accident he became the most radioactively contaminated human ever to survive.  As McCluskey says in a poet’s persona voice, “If I have a superpower/it might be clearing a room in seconds/or living 10,000 years, fading little by little.”

Plume’s book is a wonderful poetic investigation of what we have done to our world in our pursuit of nuclear power.  It’s a fine addition to my library which does house other books exploring the nuclear age.  More specifically, Christina Pacosz’s Notes from the Red Zone was published as part of Seven Kitchens Press Rebound series.  You can take a look at Dave Bonta’s review of this chapbook here.   Two anthologies, Atomic Ghosts (poetry) and Learning to Glow (prose) both edited by John Bradley, also take a look at our nuclear age.

RIP: Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

American poet and essayist, Adrienne Rich, has died.  I have loved both the poetry and prose of Rich since I was an undergraduate.  Here is a link to one of her most famous works (and a personal favorite), “Diving Into the Wreck.”

2011: Best Chapbooks of the Year

It’s been a great reading year!  While I know many of you are a bit tired of the Best of…. lists that follow headlines this time of year, I couldn’t resist sharing my own lists.  Today, it’s the best chapbooks of 2011!

The Scientific Method by Mary Alexandra Agner (Parallel Press) Exploring subjects ranging from the earth to the sky, Agner reviews the scientific world through a feminist lense, giving voices to women scientists including Florence Nightingale, Barbara McClintock, and Caroline Herschel. If you don’t know as much about science history as you should, (and I am placing myself in this category), then you will find yourself googling the women in Agner’s poems, learning about your scientific world through both history and Agner’s poetic praise.

I Stand Here Shredding Documents by Kristin Berkey-Abbott (Finishing Line Press) In her collection, when Berkey-Abbott asks, “How can I be a woman of mystery/when you see the contents of my grocery cart?” she is asking can we find contentment in today’s modern world? And I believe that the answer is yes! Through descriptions of crowded cubicles, boring office meetings, and traffic jams, the narrators in Berkey-Abbott’s world find a spiritual happiness in what many people may consider the most mundane aspects of our world.

Saint Monica by Mary Biddinger (Black Lawrence Press) Through the persona of Saint Monica and set in the Rust Belt Midwest, Biddinger chronicles the dilemmas and desires of today’s women through poems filled with both innocent longing and unflinching violence.

Fat Girl by Jessie Carty (Sibling Rivalry Press) Stripped to their own nakedness, Carty’s poems explore the struggles of us all as we try to fit into our own bodies. My favorite poem is “Fat Girl on Air Travel” where the narrator is a pro at passing through security by traveling with empty pockets and a full backpack, by holding slip-on shoes in her hand, by explaining, “You just want to pass.”

Anchor Glass by Karen Dietrich (Finishing Line Press) Dietrich’s chapbook debut is a respectful homage to little factory towns – especially little factory towns in Pennsylvania. See my complete review of this chapbook here.

Illinois, My Apologies by Justin Hamm (Rocksaw Press) Hamm’s portrayal of a rough and gritty Midwest will make any reader fall in love with the land and the men who toil there. See my complete review here.

The Mill Hunk’s Daughter Meets the Queen of Sky by Lori Jakiela (Finishing Line Press) Jakiela chronicles both her life at a flight attendant along with her relationship with her factory worker father in this collection of stark, narrative poems. My favorite work? In “My Father the Machinist Said” the narrator of the poem bluntly tells his daughter: “See the world. Fly right/Watch out for cockroaches.//Use your brains, princess./Don’t be like me.//Don’t work with your hands.”

Slow to Burn by Collin Kelley (Seven Kitchens Press) Part of Seven Kitchen Press’s Rebound series, Slow to Burn was originally published in 2006 by Metromania Press. Kelley’s slim volume of narrative poetry explore struggle and loss, and ultimately what it takes to unearth our own identities.

Foreclosure Dogs by Andrew Rihn (Winged City Press) Rihn’s collection of political narrative poetry engages the struggles of the working-class/blue collar people of America.  Working with both landscape and profiles, Rihn never fails to deliver the hard narratives of ordinary, every day lives.

Here Along Cazenovia Creek by Ruth Thompson (Saddle Road Press) Nature poetry at its best, Thompson explores the world of Western New York (Cazenovia Creek is a real place). Perhaps because I personally know the harsh winters of the Snow Belt, I am even more amazed about how she can make a gentle and lyrical poem from a Buffalo snowfall.






The Ways We Work

Everyone is posting recommendations for holiday lists, and the collections all look great, but I want to offer two suggestions for the blue-collar worker that is probably in many of us.

This past March marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  If you don’t know much about this event, you can check the information found here.  Some working-class historians suggest that this tragic event is one of the most written about, and it’s certainly a topic of many poems.   A slim chapbook of poems, Walking Through a River of Fire: One Hundred Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poems, edited by Julia Stein and published by CC Marimbo, was released earlier this year commemorating the anniversary.  Stein includes some of the classic Triangle poems by Chris Llewellyn (from Fragments from the Fire) and Mary Fell (from Persistence of Memory), but there are many other poems that may not be so familiar, even to the working-class literature scholar. 

Another great collection?  Just last week I got a copy of Motif 3: All the Livelong Day edited by Marianne Worthington (MotesBooks). In this collection, the reader will find great poems from such poets as Barbara Cooker, George Ella Lyon, Clay Matthews, and Erin Keane.  (Yep — you will also find one work by yours truly.   “The Union Steward Switches Back to 3rd Shift” can be found on page 213.) 

Overall, What I liked most about this anthology was the sheer variety of poems and short stories about different types of work — there was domestic work, factory work, retail work. My favorite poem is “What Is Not There” by Eileen Malone about a young woman who shucks oysters for a living: “The owner pays her by the plate, replies/of course she can keep any pearl she finds/although there are no pearls in these oysters”.

You can find more information about Walking Through a River of Fire here.

You can find more information about Motif 3: All the Livelong Day here.

Glossy Thursday

The best advice that I have ever received was to read — read everything — even poets who don’t write like you or poets you don’t think you will understand.  I’ve just finished a book that falls into the first category.

Ida Stewart’s book, Gloss, won the Perugia Press’s award for 2011, and because I always love Perugia’s books, I ordered my copy right away.  And then I found out that the book was about the Appalachia region, and I got even more excited.  When the book came in the mail, I dove right in.

At first, I must admit, I was a bit disappointed.  I have always loved the work of other West Virginian poets including Irene McKinney and Maggie Anderson, and I guess I was expecting an imitation of their work, which of course, is unfair all around.  Stewart is not a strict narrative poet — although her poems certainly tell stories.  Instead, she evokes a song like, lyrical quality in her work — almost as if she is trying to capture the echoes of mountains.  Her works are full of wild sarsapilla, of “little moons/of deer eyes,” of split-rail fences. Yet, while there is celebration in her work, Stewart does not ignore the politics of her world, often having her mountains celebrate their own presence or speak against the pillaging of their world. 

Although I live in Northern Appalachia, Stewart’s world is not my world.  My mountains, or “hills” are still intact.  (Pennsylvania is wrestling with another environmental issue, fracking, which has not yet entered the poetry world.  Or maybe it has and I just don’t know about it!) But Stewart’s use of language embraces the natural wonder of our land without falling into cliché — her work really deserves a more careful review on my part, but as time is limited right now, I just want to say that Stewart is on my list of poets whose work I will watch for!

CLSC Book Eleven: American Rust

It’s true that I drift towards working-class literature.  But, I also drift towards novels that take place in Pennsylvania.  Of course, with the nature of Pennsylvania’s working-class history — the two types often overlap.  American Rust is an example of this overlap.  This first novel by Philipp Meyer tells the story of Isaac English who is left to care for his aging father in an old Pennsylvania steel town in the Monongahela River valley.  Tragedy strikes when Isaac sets out to escape the decaying town, along with his friend, Billy Poe.

I read American Rust last year, and had mixed feelings about the book.  I re-read the novel this past week, and found that I still have the same mixed feelings.  I love how Meyer explores the physical landscape on this world — his details are sharp and authentic, so much so that I found his descriptions of decay lovely, and almost poetic. 

However, while I loved the landscape, I just couldn’t get into his characters.  It seemed that almost all of the characters were stereotypes: they simply fit into one of two categories of characters that fall into working-class fiction, especially working-class fiction that falls into dying small towns.  We have the tired, injured workers who are bitter about the past glory days of factory work, and who now drown themselves in beer and prescription drugs.  Then, we have the young, smart adults who flee from their background and never return, except reluctantly  to help family or friends left behind.  And certainly, these people do exist– they are very real characters.  Still, I would like to see a different type of character — one who stays behind out of choice to help, or perhaps one who leaves but willingly comes back to save what can be salvaged out of dying town.  I know those characters exist too.

Still, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair.  I love the work of Tawni O’Dell so much, that I was hoping for another Tawni — and Meyer’s style of writing is much different.  In spite of my mixed feelings about American Rust, I will look forward to Meyer’s future work.  (And I hear, there’s a movie of American Rust in the works…)

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