Poet of the Week Archive: August, 2006
August 7 - 13, 2006: Susan Meyers
Keep and Give Away, from which all of the poems that follow are drawn, is the title of North Carolina native Susan Meyers's new book from the University of South Carolina Press. It may also serve as a metaphor for her life, for it is her giving spirit that characterizes everything she does. It was Susan's generosity that eased my return to my home state over ten years ago when I wasn't sure I wanted to be here. We met at Weymouth in Southern Pines during a North Carolina Poetry Society meeting, and her warm welcome put me quickly at ease. Shortly afterwards, she was elected program chair and then president. It was during her presidency that the society sponsored Sally Buckner's remarkable and important anthology Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry. In the years since we met, our friendship has flourished, and she's welcomed me into her home, her life, her husband Blue's kitchen, and her world of poetry. Though our approaches to our work are different -- she a lyricist and I a storyteller -- our admiration and appreciation for the other's craft and our sharing of both our work in progress and our lives has solidified our friendship.
Her world of poetry is also shaped by a giving spirit. As a lyric poet, she investigates the possibilities of words, sounds, rhythms, and forms, and weaves them into lines that continue to astonish me in poem after poem about nature, fishing, her long relationship with Blue, and her devotion to family, past and present. Her words are at the same time playful and serious, as in the surprisingly complex poem, "Neither the Season, Nor the Place." On the apparent smooth surface of the poem, she rides the lake with Blue and comes upon a gathering of "quivering loons," who in their dipping and rising are "reaching out into the air / like questions that reorder the day." Like the years of a long marriage, the bodies of the loons "glide in a slate cloak / of understatement," knowing instinctively what is right for the moment, and what is not, in the same way she does, as she tells us in her opening lines: "Some mornings I mutter down the hallway / of our marriage and open the only available door." It is neither the season nor the place for anything else. Who but a skillful poet would see in the antics of wintering loons such clarity?
Susan works tirelessly for poetry. She struggles for precision in her own work. She freely offers support and expertise to both fellow poets and aspiring ones. And without hesitation, she devotes hours and hours to promoting a vision of poetry throughout both Carolinas. She may now claim South Carolina as her home, but we'd be wise -- and poetry would be better off -- to never let her leave her Old North State. -- Barbara Presnell
Barbara Presnell's collection of poems, Piece Work, won the 2006 Cleveland State University First Book Prize and will be published by Cleveland State in spring, 2007. In addition, she has published three chapbooks, and her collection of textile mill voices, Sherry's Prayer, won the North Carolina Humanities Council's 2004 Linda Flowers Prize. She lives in Lexington and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her poems were featured on this web site in September, 2005.
On any given night it picks its way
Say it's a tin cup with bent handle.
Keep and Give Away
What do I know of man's destiny?
With a bushel basket in hand
more than the sum of his summer
even counting Early Contenders
cucumbers, Kentucky Wonders too.
the numbers: blackberries and figs
in pecks. And don't forget
divided into keep and give away.
tubers and pods -- heavy
Now he's shelling peas in his lap
to the ping, ping. He's more
and despite a constant reckoning
in this long, hot growing season.
Neither the Season, Nor the Place
Some mornings I mutter down the hallway
Another and then another loon rises in place,
Villanelle for Gertrude Stein
Buttons, tender, and delicate as rain,
We close a gap, expect an inch of gain.
Unanswered questions, the day's refrain,
A double-threaded shank can break, the same
Love when anchored, can still grow, retain
Someone Near Is Dying
To sit for hours by your bed
the chickadee at the feeder fidgeting
My desire is to leap into the midst
What does your every move show
If this moment, bare as twigs,
the limb, in its loose skin
not the branch stunted
The beauty of Spanish moss is the curl
grass, its inclination toward green;
at the end of her day, humming.
Hat of Many Goldfinches
Say you could wear twenty goldfinches on your head,
But how to seduce the finches to stay. A sprinkle
Never depend on a hat of goldfinches
I once knew a woman who wore her robin hat
Now she knows to wait
A past president of the North Carolina Poetry Society and the current president of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, Susan Meyers is frequently tempted to say that she is from "Carolina," leaving off the "North" or "South." A North Carolina native, she grew up in Albemarle and Greenville; she and her husband now live in South Carolina, near Summerville. Even her book publication history shows an allegiance to both states. Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina Press, 2006), her first full-length book, was chosen by Terrance Hayes for the inaugural South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, sponsored by the South Carolina Poetry Initiative. Her chapbook, Lessons in Leaving, won the 1998 Persephone Press Book Award (now the Mary Belle Campbell Poetry Book Publication Award, managed by the North Carolina Writers' Network), judged by Brendan Galvin. Her poetry has also appeared inCrazyhorse, The Southern Review, Tar River Poetry, North Carolina Literary Review, and other journals, as well as on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily web sites. Her book reviews have been published regularly in The South Carolina Reviewand Review Revue. A long-time writing instructor, she has served as the poet-in-residence at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., and as a mentor for creative writing students at the Charleston County School of the Arts. She holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Queens University, in Charlotte.
August 14-20, 2006: Janet Lembke
It's terribly unfashionable now, especially among "serious" poets, to premise that nature holds a mirror to humanity - humanity being far too civilized and dominant to be dumped into Mother Nature's roiling pot of existence. Many of our literary lights celebrate their egos ad nauseum. Nature in poetry might be a useful tool for symbolic argument, but seldom is it allowed to speak for itself - polishing our mirrors. When Janet Lembke and I first met we recognized our kinship instantly - that perennial society of ancients living and breathing science and religion, art and industry, myth and person all in one.
Janet, of course, is known for her many books on natural history that with literate candor and canny insight meld classical and mythic allusion with observed fact in crisply intimate and wide-eyed, lovely words. Thus I wasn't surprised when she, with Merlin-ease, transformed a series of photographic captions for a collection of miraculous olive trees images (Tuscan Treesby Mark Steinmetz and Janet Lembke, The Jargon Society, 2001) into a soaring book of minimalist poetry - conjuring from Italian soil and oil a harmonious tome of visual and poetic delights. No Italian chef could any more elegantly cook up a better Bolognese, a more perfect and integrated-integral -- one.
Janet's sisterhood with the earth has led inevitably to the garden and the table, thence to books on cooking and gardening - and even an impressive personal manual on how to help someone die. Early in her career, Janet translated old Latin poems, snatching them from the hands of pedantry back into their natural poetic state. Her translations of Hecuba, Electra, and other classical plays demonstrated her agility with archaic languages and her understanding of the antique mind. So it was inescapable that she would turn her gaze, and her bamboo stylus, to Virgil'sGeorgics. In her translator's note she raps her rapture in meeting with Virgil and reflects on those "men who knew much about poetry but little about farming" who before her rendered Virgil in "British English." She proclaims her "pleasure has been to use American English. In with grain, out with corn! Out with truncheons and buskins, in with sturdy twigs and boots!" It would take just such a woman farmer as Janet, who has farmed the wild and the tame as Virgil did, to do him contemporary justice.
Janet and I - imperfect and impudent children of Dame Kind that we are - proselytize ceaselessly our inseparable ties to the earth and the cosmos. The undeniable and inexorable threat of global climate change and the continued testosterone-driven antagonisms of nationalistic and religious fervor and market-driven greed (these even Virgil experienced first-hand) dispossesses us of our rightful bounty, peace, culture, self-awareness, and self-determination. Miguel de Unamuno instructs us, "From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself." Virgil teaches incessant labor, but also of its handsome gifts-fertility, abundance, and character. Virgil and Janet demand we re-inhabit our world in primal symbiosis. Being fruitful and multiplying is a much more complex command than we know. Virgil's Georgics is one lesson-book which can serve us well. Janet's Virgil proves the point. I'm happy to walk the furrows with Janet, my green friend -- Jeffery Beam
Jeffery Beam was raised in Kannapolis and now lives in Hillsborough. He is poetry editor of the print and online journal, Oyster Boy Review, a contributing editor toArabesques Review, and a botanical librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill. His award-winning works of poetry include Visions of Dame Kind (Jargon Society, 1995), An Elizabethan Bestiary Retold (Horse & Buggy, 1997), and The Fountain (NC Wesleyan College Press, 1992). His new and selected spoken word CD collection, What We Have Lost, was a 2003 Audio Publishers Association Award finalist. His art song collaboration "The Life of the Bee" with composer Lee Hoiby continues to be performed on the national and international stage. The songs and a recitation of the texts can be heard on Albany Record's "New Growth." Among his current projects is the libretto for an opera based on the Persephone myth. Gospel Earth has just been released as an online book by Longhouse. You can read and hear more of his poetry at his website.
An Introduction to Virgil's Georgics
Georgics -- the word means "farming." And Virgil's long, four-book poem of that name deals throughout with farming. The books treat, respectively, of agriculture and the astronomical signs for sowing and harvesting; trees and grape vines; livestock, especially cattle, horses, sheep, and goats; and, finally, bees, from whom comes the celestial gift of honey.
Virgil knew by heart whereof he wrote, for he was born to a well-to-do peasant family that made its living from the land. First published in 30 B.C., his Georgics is above all a love song to the earth of Italy and almost everything that grows or grazes there. With a few understandable exceptions, like snakes and grain-plundering mice, plants and animals alike receive Virgil's fond attention. But, like many lovers, Virgil was also filled with doubts and blamed passion itself for much that may go awry. Despite the best human efforts, the most unremitting hard work, the world in which we live has never been made perfect. And Virgil's coming of age was filled with dispiriting, chaotic events -- political power grabs, corruption, civil wars, assassinations -- which he was helpless to counter except in the singing of his poems.
The central thesis of the Georgics is that hard work -- sheer, ceaseless hard work -- is the only buffer between the farmer and ruin. All too often, it is flimsy. Storms strike, drought bakes the fields, disease fells flocks and herds, and nothing the farmer does -- not hoeing with extra diligence, not saying prayers over and again -- can keep the random blows of nature from wrecking his enterprises. Yet, joy and gentleness suffuse the poem as much as gloom and despair. The poet writes tenderly of such matters as wintertime work in a farmer's household and tending the flocks and herds in summer.
Does this poem matter today? The answer is a twofoldYes. Two thousand years after Virgil's day, gardeners and farmers use the same tools -- rakes, hoes, pruning hooks -- and the same methods for testing soil and grafting scion to stock. More important, the Georgics passionately advocates caring without cease for the land and the crops and animals that it sustains. A message inhabits its instructions: Only at our gravest peril do we fail to husband the resources on which our lives depend. That council is as valid for today and tomorrow as it was for long-gone yesterdays.
Book 3, lines 242-277
Omne adeo genus in terris hominumque ferarumque
Every last species on earth, man and beast alike,
Book 3, lines 322-338
At uero Zephyris cum laeta uocantibus aestas
But, when joyful summer at the West Wind's bidding sends
Book 4, lines 8-32
Principio sedes apibus statioque petenda,
First, you must seek a fixed abode for the bees, to which
Janet Lembke, now resident in Staunton, Virginia, lived on and wrote about the North Carolina coast for many years and retains her affiliations with the state's literary community, including membership in the North Carolina Writers Conference. She will be on the faculty of the North Carolina Writers' Network's fall conference November 10-12. Ms. Lembke is the author of ten books of essays about the natural world, six translations from Latin and Greek, and one cookbook. As a newly certified master gardener, she gardens when she is not plotting the next book. Some things do not change: Many of her tools and methods are those mentioned two thousand years ago by Virgil in hisGeorgics, a long poem about farming in Italy. Its four books deal respectively with agriculture, trees and vines, livestock, and bees. Her translation of the poem was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
August 28 -September 4, 2006: Cathy Smith Bowers
More than any other teacher or poet I've worked with, Cathy Smith Bowers has been able to show me the true craft of writing poetry. Her insights come from a lifetime of careful observation, raw experience and the pride she takes in seeing all the right words fit into all the right places. As a student in her critique classes, I've come admire her gift of nurturing a writer through the art of revision. She gives you the courage to trust your own intuition as you enter a poem and figure out how to rearrange lines, what shape the poem needs to take, how the rhythm flows, when to use enjambment, and how to end a poem without being overly sentimental or pedantic. Cathy is the kind of teacher who inspires you to do your best work by giving you a healthy dose of honesty, humor, encouragement and technical advice. Diligent and playful, studious and humble, she offers common-sense criticism rather than condescending platitudes that make poetry all the more accessible and enjoyable. She is a voice for p