Archive for Sense of Place

Pennsylvania Reading….

To celebrate the record low temperatures in my part of the world (can one really celebrate that?), I have been catching up on some of my reading about books from my homestate.  Take a look at my Book Picks for reviews on Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns and Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman.


Brackish Friday

BrackishI fell in love with the poetry of Jeff Newberry years ago, and that love shows through in my review of Brackish posted today at Rattle. Take a look!  Yes, I spend some time in the opening paragraph reminiscing about my years growing up in a blue-collar town, but most of the review focuses on the working-class world of the Florida Gulf Coast.   Brackish is one of the best collections I have read this year!

Written on Water

written on water

A few years ago, poet Helen Ruggieri posted a call for submissions for poetry that explored the landscape of and around the Allegheny River. I submitted a few poems and they were accepted.  Then, a series of events occurred that stalled the publication of the anthology. For a long time, it didn’t seem like this project was going to make it to the page.

But today, I’m happy to report that Helen’s persistence has paid off!  My poems join work by Julia Kasdorf, Phil Terman, and Maggie Anderson (among many others) in Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, and while I have yet to see a hard copy, everything I have read through electronic versions looks wonderful.  And the cover is beautiful!

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is now available for preorder.   Take a look at the homepage of Mayapple Press for more details.  As for me, I can’t wait for my copy!

Read This Book: The Girl Factory by Karen Dietrich

Factory Girl

I know the landscape of Karen Dietrich’s memoir, The Girl Factory.  It’s a small factory town in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s a household where parents work different shifts at the local factory — a mother who works days, while the father takes the “Hoot Owl” (A term used by my family for the night shift — also called The Graveyard Shift).  It’s a house filled with pets and superstition and complicated love.

Certainly, it was this familiar landscape that drew me into The Girl Factory, a memoir about a young girl growing up in the 80’s in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.  But it was the lyrical language that made me stay.

I knew Dietrich’s work as a poet (and because we both attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), but even I was surprised about how she was able to find poetic prose in a dusty and rusty small factory town, especially when the subjects found in her book lead to deeper dirt than what coats the physical surface.

Dietrich starts her book in 1985, when an employer of the Anchor Glass plant (the factory where both of her parents work) goes on a shooting spree killing four supervisors and then himself.  It’s this moment, when the family finds out about the shooting, that Dietrich explains: “There are moments that separate before from after, minutes in time that freeze like a photograph, capture a flash that indicates change.  I start to realize that everything I’ve lived so far has been the before. I don’t know what the after will be.”

What follows as the “after”  is a coming-of-age story about class issues and family relationships, a book that integrates the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s, and a work that is able to explore even the darker findings of Dietrich’s childhood without losing the lyrical grace of her poetic language.

I have followed Dietrich’s work as a poet (see my review about her chapbook Anchor Glass here), and I preordered The Girl Factory over six months ago.  It didn’t disappoint.  In an age where memoirs are seemingly everywhere — this book certainly stands out as a must read. You can read more about Dietrich and her work at her website.

August Poetry Pick: Rust Fish


Fans of the Scrapper Poet know that I love coming-of-age poetry books, so I’m happy to add Rust Fish by Maya Jewell Zeller to my collection.  Zeller’s debut book tells the story of a girl growing up in the working-class world of the Pacific Northwest.  Using narrative poems that often invoke a strong sense of place, Zeller recounts the uncertainty and brutal life of children, while balancing resilience and hope in her stories.

Rust Fish is divided into four parts, each part beginning with a poem titled “Rust Fish.” The poems, obviously contain images of fish, a symbol may seem somewhat expected in literature of the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, many of us when we think of this part of the country get the instant mental image of salmon struggling against the current to return to their streams to spawn.  Still, the fish found in Zeller’s collection do the unexpected — they are metal decorations that break free at night, fish that long for the moon to bleach them beautiful, or beautiful creatures that can take you to heaven in their gills.  Each poem acts as a preface to the section it proceeds, as the reader is guided through the life of a girl who lives a rough and tumble life.

From the start, we see a strong and tough heroine, and often Zeller’s poems explore gender roles and battles, often relaying violence and heartache.  In “Sibling Rivalry” a child gets revenge on her brother who drills a hole in her Skipper doll: “When I was done/I mutilated Joe/the way a boy tortures beetles/or dismantles toy girls.”  In another poem, a quiet observer watches a neighbor boy lash live crickets to the railroad tracks: “their bodies immobile/and bound in blue fishing line/eyes like tiny moons orbiting a lost planet.”  In yet another poem, “Cousins” the speaker steps away from the mayhem and ponders her role as a girl: “I’ve already had a bath, but the skin/on my soles was creased/from summer running, the callus/of being seven. So Heather/bought a bottle of nail/polish to her room, put me/on the edge of the bed.”  Watching her cousin paint her toenails, the narrator believes she is “the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen.”

Class struggles also abound in this collection, especially shown in such poems as “Saturday Shopping” where the young narrator renames the colors of the clothes in the thrift shop where “black was outhouse hole/or old tire” and “reds ranged/from dictionary cover to hot pepper.” Certainly, the physical landscape, whether its manmade or natural, tells many stories of this hardscrabble life. In the poem, “In the Season of Rivers” the narrator explains that “We learned to drive on mud/slick roads” in a world where “some floods/brought cows across the fields.” In another poem, “The Summer Sky and I Made a Game of Collecting Trespasses” the narrator recounts adventures in dangerous and desolate places questioning, “How many times/did we think about torching/that old barn down, or the unlocked house/strewn with rain-soaked porn.”

Organized in a chronological format, readers follow this young girl as she grows up learning lessons and dreaming what would seem to be impossible dreams, all the while struggling to find a place in this world.  In “Goddammit” she explains that they all “learned to swear from our fathers/when they’re chopping wood/and miss the log.”  In “She Dreams of Being an Artists” the narrator sees beauty in her breath against the frost on a windowpane.”  Certainly, in later poems, the narrator sees a bit of herself in the children in her neighborhood and in her students.  Indeed, in “Neighborhood Kids,” the narrator is pleased when some little boys want the tomatoes from her garden until she learns, at the end of the poem, that they aren’t eating them, but using them as balls and hitting them with their baseball bats.

Rust Fish is a delightful exploration of how sense of place intertwines with story and how we are part of the physical landscape around us.  Rugged and beautiful, Zeller’s poetry is not to be missed — for more information, see the poet’s website here.

June Poetry Pick: Afterimage


My mother loved photographs.  She carefully labeled them, organized them, and then stored them in photograph albums.  Obviously, she is not the only one who did this, but today, it seems, outside of those who keep photographs in their scrapbooks, photographs are stored on computers, cell phones, and digital cameras.  Benjamin Vogt’s collection of poems, Afterimage, reminds me of the time before digital pictures were the norm.  Using family photographs to trace personal history, Afterimage explores how we define personal identity.

Vogt begins his collection with a poem titled “Three Photos That Define Me” which contains three stanzas.  The first stanza describes a section of Interstate 40 between Oklahoma City and Weatherford where the El Reno prison is located.  The poet doesn’t focus on the prison itself, but rather the landscape where “a sign warns that hitchhiker may be/escaping convicts” and where “a gray shirt lies flattened/on the white line of the highway.”  In the second stanza, the poet writes a miniature portrait of a little girl who comes walking in from a field where “cows have been grazing on the bent/stalks of butter-colored wheat.”  Finally, in the third stanza, we see what we will come to believe is the poet himself: “One child wears a Pepsi sweater, leans away/from grandma’s goodbye kisses.”  These brief stanzas provide a perfect prologue to this collection that serves as an elegy to a Midwest of the past and to the people who lived there.  Indeed, the poems that follow will incorporate people in worn landscapes, in a hardscrabble world where determination, or perhaps just plain stubbornness, guides their daily lives.

The poems weave in and out of the past.  Often, these poems tell stories, so much so that I forgot that I was reading a collection based on photographs.  For instance, in “High School Mixer” we read about a young boy’s adventure at a dance where “he’s clearly used to something else — not girls/that’s brutally clear.”  Other poems are poetic profiles of people.   For instance, in “Uncle with Landscape — Kansas, 1954” the poet offers a portrait of a small boy standing in a farmhouse yard where “spades and rusted buckets lean/against a toppled silo.”  In yet another poem,  “Mildred, Two Fords, and Her Friends at 16 — 1938” a work plucked from another time period, we see the story of more than one girl in a single poem, but mostly clearly hear the voice of the narrator who states, “But it’s just a blur–/who I was, the girls, the sudden stir/of dust-filled shadows on these roads.”

There are also poems of lyrical moments, often told from a narrator who seems to be in deep meditation with the natural world around him.  “Fishing,” for instance, serves as a love poem of sorts:  “I’ll cast your soul out over the lily pads in June/skip it along the smooth evening surface/hit the pink reflections of the sunset behind/my hapless expressions.” In another work, “July, Just Outside Columbus” the poet catalogs the sexual tension of the landscape through the insect world — indeed, the language is so gentle and rich that the reader will forget that the poem is about insects (or is it?).  The lines are visually striking, and we see that “fireflies are hovering over corn” and that “Beetle bodies pulse/bright chemicals like breath released/into the body light the ground ahead.”  My favorite lines start the second stanza:  “Males are calling, their incandescent lust/an impatient spark, the female’s waiting glow/a calm amongst this storm that binds desire to action.”

Those who read this collection wanting a clear chronological narrative arc will not find it.  These poems bounce back and forth through time, carefully cataloging individual moments in history and the present.  Readers will find stories, stories of grandparents, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers — people of the past and fading landscapes, and hopeful glimpses of the future.

For more information about Afterimage and poet Benjamin Vogt, visit his website.

Earth’s Eye

Penn State Behrend is once again hosting Earth’s Eye: A Festival of Writing, an event I attended last year (and had a blast even though the weather was a bit crazy).  This year’s festival is on Saturday, September 7 and the featured guest is writer Lia Purpura.  Consider pre-registering for the event at the great low price of $36!  (I’m trying not to sound like an infomercial.) Check out the website for more information.

This Week With Jo McDougall

Today is the official start of the Chautauqua summer, and during this upcoming week, I will be taking a workshop with poet/memoirist Jo McDougall, whose work I discovered years ago.  If minimalist writing was associated with poetry, this is how I would categorize McDougall’s work.  Using sparse lines and stark images, McDougall is able to capture both a sense of place and true human emotion in tight, precise poems.  She is from the Arkansas Delta but now lives in Kansas, and it’s apparent from her poetry that she is inspired by both her physical surroundings and the everyday person — especially those who come from working-class backgrounds.  I tend to go overboard with details in my drafts of poems (I just hate to let a good image go!), so I think it will be interesting to work with a poet who is known for her tight lines and images.

In other news, I will also be teaching a craft of fiction class at our local library.  I was planning on posting an announcement/invitation on this blog to invite local students, but the class filled up weeks ago!  I have spent the weekend putting the finishing touches on my lesson plans, so now I am ready to go.

February Poetry Pick: Mud Cakes

MudCakesWeb“On the playground it always came down/to the same thing: Doug had the toy lightsabor/and I didn’t,” so says the narrator in “Being Luke” a poem that highlights the major themes in Jason Schossler’s Mud Cakes.  Schossler’s first collection of poetry is a coming-of-age story in America, complete with explorations of religion, family dynamics and pop culture.  Acting as an umbrella over the collection, however, is Schossler’s depiction of place, and how this place influences our personal identities in today’s world.

Ashtabula, Ohio, located on the rural shores of Lake Erie, is the location for the poems in this collection.  From the first poem, “Steinbeck’s Route,” Schossler sets the stage for this landscape: “Think of him in hunting cap and naval cap/as he bucketed into Ashtabula County//lightly crusted with the dirt of travel/the overloaded springs of his camper sighing//under the weight of double bed and four-burner stove/in front of Dunk’s Home Diner. ” The narrator’s take on Steinbeck’s journey is fictional, as he later explains, “He wrote nothing of our town//neither of the lake-polished driftwood/along the beach nor the oily waves that sloshed//against the piers.”  Thus, when the narrator ends the poem with Steinbeck leaving, “it wasn’t for lack of friendly face” but because “the road away from here/seemed broad and straight and sweet”  — we see reflections that certainly mirror the mixed emotions of home shown throughout most of this collection.

Other poems further explore the landscape of the narrator’s world.  In “Amelia Avenue” we find children at play on “asphalt softening” in a world full of “helicopter seeds and soda-pop caps.”  In “Garage” we find a narrator missing his father among a landscape of “hubcaps, a railroad lantern, bucks of nails/a Sanka can of spark plugs.”  And in one of my favorite poems, “Potholes” the poet describes the landscape in terms of the road conditions.  “The gravel mouth by Dairy Queen,” for instance, “drank in rainwater/and oak sprigs.” Indeed, the damaged road affects vehicles, “blown tires, cracked axles, bent rims” but leaves a bigger fear with the narrator, who says, upon approaching “asphalt that will only break again like poorly/mended bone” that if he hesitates and idles too long “the road might disappear beneath me.”

Lyrical explorations of landscape are important in this collection. Yet, readers will immediately see that narratives are the predominant form of poetry in this book. Schossler, himself, talks a little about influences in story telling here on his website, and in his work, we see memories told through images of pop culture and childhood play.  In “Mud Cakes” we see a mother eat her children’s earthy creations full of “thistle seed/red mushroom, dried beetle shells” and in “New Toy” we see a narrator contemplating all the reasons there wouldn’t be something new to play with:  “An empty gas tank/was a constant nemesis/as were cracked engine blocks/and broken water pipes.”  Many other poems display a later period in time, as shown in “September” where a narrator teetering on the edge of those precarious adolescent years notices two girls “in swimsuits and sandals/towels hugging hips/like some shy part of themselves/carrying the smell of that dark place/that circles dock and harbor.”

Schossler’s work was brand new to me.  I purchased the book because I couldn’t resist the cover, and when I flipped through the pages, I was drawn in by the poet’s stories. It wasn’t until I got the book home, that I realized that the collection takes place in a community located less than two hours from where I currently live.  As someone who is drawn to place, especially those places that are often pushed aside in the literary world, I love that Mud Cakes narrates a world where children learn how to be resilient and hopeful even though they are immersed in the struggles going on around them.

More information can be found on Schossler’s website and at Bona Fide Books.

2012: Best Poetry Collections of the Year

Wow.  It’s been another great year of poetry reading! On Wednesday, I listed my chapbook picks of the year. Below, I have listed some of my choice selections concerning full length collections of poetry, although I have to admit that it was hard to narrow my list down to ten books.  As noted, throughout this past year, I have provided longer reviews with some of these books, so you can click on the listed links for more information.

The Wishing Tomb by Amanda Auchter (Perugia Press)  New Orleans takes center stage in Auchter’s second poetry collection.   Exploring the Crescent City’s deep history through  a strong lyrical voice, Auchter presents a diverse and mysterious past that has created this resilient city.

 Notes to the Beloved by Michelle Bitting  (Sacramento Poetry Center Press)  Winner of the 2011 Sacramento Poetry Center Book Contest, Notes to the Beloved is collection that makes the familiar, including everyday fairy tales and portraits of wayward boys,  just a bit more surreal.

 Red Army Red by Jehanne Dubrow (Triquarterly) In her fourth full-length collection, Dubrow remembers the Cold War from behind the Iron Curtain in a variety of works intertwining coming-of-age stories with the larger, more political world.

 Plume by Kathleen Flenniken (University of Washington)  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.  See my review here.

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter by Sandee Gertz Umbach (Bottom Dog Press) Part exploration of place and history, part coming-of-age narrative, Gertz’s debut collection of poetry brings the reader to the heart of working-class Pennsylvania with her thoughtful narratives of growing up near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  See my complete review here.

In Broken Latin by Annette Spaulding-Convy (University of Arkansas Press) A woman’s spiritual journey is chronicled in Spaulding-Convy’s semi-autographical collection of poems that includes both narratives and lyrical musings.  See my complete review here.  

Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider (LSU Press) A book length elegy mourning the death of a beloved cousin, these poems also explore Midwestern life in its gritty elegance.  I posted a more complete review here.

The Death of Flying Things by Gabriel Welsch (WordTech)  Welsch returns to rural Pennsylvania (a favorite place of mine, if I do say so myself) in his second collection, where he explores both the wonder and tragedy of  rural life.

Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins (White Pine Press) Blending both historical and personal pasts, Wilkins returns to the hardscrabble landscape of the American west, depicting the lives of the people who live there.

The Road to Happiness by Johnathon Williams (Antilever Press) In his debut collections, Williams goes on a road trip through the landscape of rural Arkansas, chronicling a family’s past through narrative poems full of gravel and grit.

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