Poet of the Week Archive: November, 2006
November 6 – 12, 2006: Heather Ross Miller, in conversation with Isabel Zuber
"I am so happy," Heather Ross Miller said with a smile. "A door opened. There was a marvelous springboarding and I found myself writing sometimes three poems a day." It was that creative rush that she had come to Winston-Salem to talk about. We had coffee and pound cake with our friend, Emily Wilson, on Emily's screened porch and were in a mood to celebrate.
Heather and I have known each other for years, have shared our work, and met now and then as our families and careers permitted. Then came the Internet and email and, as is the case for many of us now, we found ourselves in touch as never before. We wrote back and forth about her wonderful memoir, Crusoe's Island, her short stories, and poems. We talked about my novel, and the trauma of moving after a very long time in one place.
Then, about a year and a half ago, in the middle of a flurry of emails about Kay Byer's appointment as North Carolina's poet laureate, Heather sent me a brand new poem. More than a hundred have appeared since then on my computer screen.
Poets will always love and understand Wordsworth's thought from his preface to Lyrical Ballads more than 200 years ago. Heather quoted him as she explained what was happening in her writing:
The day we met on Emily's porch, she brought with her every one of her poems from this overflowing, including many I had not seen, all enclosed in a translucent pearly folder. She thinks she has the makings of three new full-length collections, plus another recent project -- a small book of grandmother poems for her first grandchild, who is expected this winter.
Heather explained that she tries to avoid the glib, the arch, and the cavalier, but that she does enjoy being funny and I love it when she is. "It can be difficult though," she said. "It's easier to write about blood and dropping down dead than it is to be funny!"
She talked more about writing and writers. "I look for 'the best tone' in a poem and I try for tension in the line. I want echoes, associations, and power in the words. A poet doesn't need many words. What a poet needs are good readers. I like those poems that are tense, weird -- and clear! When I reread some of my own early work now it seems too hard, too concealed."
In addition to these considerations Heather said that she also has in mind how the poem looks on the page. "I like them to look like the stanzas in a hymn book. It gives me a certain feeling to see that."
Heather mentioned her admiration for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop and especially for Billy Collins, the recent poet laureate of the United States, as an example of the sort of clarity she had in mind. (She also mentioned some poets that she cares less for but their names shall not be revealed here.)
Heather has revised some of the "gift" poems she has sent to me. Of course, revision is necessary and I enjoy the new versions, too, but nothing can quite compare with sitting down at the computer, opening the in-box, and finding a new poem from a friend. Of course, they are not written just for me but in the first few moments of reading it seems that they are.
I am blessed to get poems from several poetry friends online, in hard copy, and in published form and I appreciate my good luck. It is Heather's generous outpouring, however, that enriches my days most often. I am envious of anyone with that ability.
Heather is grateful for it, too, and hopes it continues. "I need all the muses I can get!" she says.
Here are some of the poems Heather has sent. I'll begin with the one that started it all. Heather introduced her poem with this message: "Got a volunteer punkin vine growing in my woodpile. What d'you think the old nursery rhyme means?"
A Pumpkin Eater's Wife
Helpless to resist the strong, chilly ending of "The Pumpkin Eater's Wife," I asked for more, and received this in reply:
When Heather sent "Dancing Girls" she asked if I knew the fairy tale it referred to. "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," I wrote back, but I had to ask what "bouree steps" are.
The following poem, "Ancient of Days," arrived with this envoi from Heather: "I always hoped God might turn out to be an old black lady with a shepherd dog and a calico kitty, just sitting on her porch watching the world, waiting for us all to come on home for supper."
Ancient of Days
Did you ever crawl up to get something you had been forbidden but couldn't resist? To me the last six lines of "In the Cabinet" are heartbreaking. Here:
In The Cabinet
My aunt was in the WAVES and I wanted to be her. I connected with this one.
My World War Two Make-Believe
A while later Heather sent this message and the poem that follows: "Here's one for my little late mammy, wrote a few days before she left."
Dreaming My Mother's Death
Heather introduced "Cat Love" this way: "Here, darlin', is a love poem about old cats, old women, and old men. Enjoy."
These last poems Heather sent are for the new baby, expected in February.
Heather Ross Miller, with more than a dozen books of poetry and fiction, is Distinguished Professor Emerita at Washington and Lee University. She lives in Albemarle. Her most recent collection of poems is Gypsy with Baby (Hammond, LA: Louisiana Literature Press, 2005).
Isabel Zuber lives in Winston-Salem, was a librarian at Wake Forest University for many years, and is now writing full time. Her poetry collections are Oriflamb and Winter's Exile and her novel, Salt, was published by Picador USA.
November 13 – 19, 2006: Christopher Davis
The Duende works on the body of the dancer like the wind works on sand.
I think of Lorca reading Christopher Davis, and Hart Crane -- those who push me harder, reading them, than I might initially feel comfortable with, and ultimately farther than I ever intended to go. The honesty of the "torment" described so movingly in a poem like "At Saint Martin-in-the-Fields" is typical of Davis's work, especially his haunted, new collection, A History of the Only War. He doesn't flinch, seems drawn to explore deeper and deeper recesses of emotion, the utter wilderness of the self. If it is poetry's duty not to flinch, and I believe that it is, then Davis's work makes clear why our beloved art tends to attract fewer (but fitter, perhaps) readers than other genres . . . it isn't easy. Facing that moment of breaking down on the steps where others, one feels, have also knelt: that is not easy. But the poem also honestly, truthfully, acknowledges the joy, that duende or Rilkean music which is everywhere at once -- and the "ghosts inside of it" which are "moving/forever forward." Davis's work is a poetry of such concentrated beauty, such release, that referencing Lorca or Rilke seems to me the only appropriate gesture here. Seldom have I read a poet so stuck on the body, the "Pick-and-Save" of our real selves; seldom have I read a poetry which brings me so habitually to the threshold of rapture, whether furtive and sexual, or ecstatic and spiritual. It is as if for Davis there's little else to say, and perhaps no other way to say it except by transcribing gusts of feeling pulsing through the soul as form, as physical and sonic shape, and as directly as possible. And frankly, who can argue? For there is little else to say, and probably no other way to say it. -- Michael White
Michael White's third collection of poetry, Re-entry, won the 2005 Vassar Miller Prize. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
At Saint Martin-in-the-Fields
A heaven-blue oval of stained glass glows
The torment in mother's eyes washed away
history, empty, body ready
I cry on worn-down marble steps. Dignity
held days have burned into the fingers traces
tight strings. The ghosts inside music mosey
forever forward into the breath
A History of the Only War
At battlefields, I need to feel
Ah, driving south, windows down, shirtless
as light as light, bright, excited in-
crouched before a glory hole, confessing something,
lower love, touching today, busting soul open on a bridge being
See that ice pond, perfectly round? Frozen,
It's stagnant, covered with a lime green skin
but exactly the same shade as the film over our
Let us chuck wadded drafts of a mash note
across: "Picture winking monks tiptoeing to You,
Christopher Davis is the author of A History of the Only War (Four Way Books, 2005), from which the first two poems that appear here are drawn. He is also the author of The Tyrant of the Past and the Slave of the Future, which received the 1988 Associated Writing Programs Poetry Award, and The Patriot, which appeared in 1998 in the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series. His poems have appeared in many journals, including American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review (where "Still Point" first appeared and "Express" is awaiting publication), Denver Quarterly, Fence, Harvard Review, and The Journal and in several anthologies. Born in Los Angeles, he received an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1985 and is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
November 20 – 26: Kathryn Stripling Byer
You'll find current and previously published essays in an archive on the Council's web site. Just click "Press Room" on the home page, scroll down the column of items on the left of the Press Room page to "Language Matters," and click again. Or click here.
I'd welcome your response to anything you read in "Language Matters" -- now or in the future. Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com and put "Language Matters" in the subject line. Let us know if you'd like us to post your message with the appropriate essay in our archive. -- K.S.B.
A Thanksgiving Bon Appetit for Language Lovers
Thanksgiving always sends me back to my cookbooks, looking for the old grease-stained recipe cards passed down by my kinfolks. I can't imagine a Thanksgiving feast without my mother-in-law's pumpkin pie or my grandmother's cornbread dressing. This year, however, I've been thinking about another kind of feast, one that American poet Mark Strand celebrates in the beginning of his poem "Eating Poetry": "Ink runs from the corners of my mouth./There is no happiness like mine./I have been eating poetry."
I'm not suggesting that we replace our Thanksgiving turkey and dressing with a sheaf of poems, giblet gravy ladled over every stanza, but I'd like to suggest that we give thanks for those who work hard to encourage literacy and keep the joy of reading alive, so that we can continue to satisfy our imaginations' appetite for the word-feast that Strand describes.
What better place to begin than with the staffs of our local newspapers? Lynn Hotaling edits The Sylva Herald, which serves my community. She tells me that her oldest daughter learned her letters at age two from a daycare teacher who used the paper as a visual aid. I can go Lynn one better! I have a photograph of our seven-month-old daughter stuffing a page of The Sylva Herald into her mouth, and yes, she grew up to be a voracious reader.
For that, I credit not only her early ingestion of newsprint but also some public school teachers who nurtured her appetite for words. Despite more and more time taken up with paperwork and testing, teachers can still make good things happen in classrooms where their own love of language encourages their students to enjoy it with gusto.
Literary festivals are another fine way to set the table for readers. You can find them year-round, all over the state. Where I live a literary feast par excellence was recently served up: the third annual Great Smoky Mountains Book Fair, sponsored by City Lights Book Store, The Friends of the Jackson County Library, and Western Carolina University's Honors College. Imagine opening a new book, leaning over it as if to smell its contents, savoring it like the first slice of roasted turkey! Well, that's what happened one Saturday earlier this month when sponsors, authors, and readers gathered together to give thanks for the literary nourishment that this region has to offer.
Organized as a benefit for the public library's new building fund, with a percentage of all sales going to The Friends of the Library, this event is a labor of love. All three sponsors work hard for months to plan the fair. Then comes the "kitchen-work": the ordering, moving, and setting up of the books themselves. As anyone who has moved just one box of books knows, it's heavier than a 20-pound turkey lifted from a hot oven. But if you have ever watched librarians or booksellers handling their books, you'd swear they were serving up the juiciest of birds, accompanied by a steaming crockery of sweet potato casserole.
Such a feast (or should I call it feat?) is as filling as a seven-course Thanksgiving meal. Even better, it shows what a community can accomplish when its members come together to share, and prepare, their five-star recipes for encouraging reading and creating an audience for the authors whose books help us savor the world around us.
This essay appears, in somewhat different form, courtesy of this week's Sylva Herald. Ms. Byer wrote this special edition of "Language Matters" at the Sylva newspaper's invitation.
November 27 – December 3, 2006: John Amen
In his collection titled More of Me Disappears John Amen's poems move from topic to topic, landscape to landscape with the same stunning intensity of his first book, Christening the Dancer: juxtaposition of surreal and real images; cataloging of inner and outer chaos; often final lines erupting into a declaration of truth, clarity, or survival. This second poetry volume explodes with wondrous puzzlement and convoluted metaphors -- truly poetry for re-thinking: memorable lines to ponder; voices crying from the heart; and discovered in the couplet poems, a quiet emotional impact.
John's poetry sometimes speaks, sometimes screams and shouts. When I read his poems, I become a guest who stays for dinner and wine, feasting and eventually inebriated by his bold imagery and poignant observations. Consequently, I wonder if Ginsberg and Whitman are dancing on the head of a pin, nodding their heads at John?
Sara Claytor, a former teacher of writing, literature, and public speaking, co-edits The Moonwort Review. Rock Way Press will publish her first full-length poetry book, Keeping Company with Ghosts, in 2006.
Things Are Happening Too Fast
The wings of the world
Sometimes I terrify myself,
There is a rainbow above the refinery;
I pass like a current
The day emerges like a mole.
Our Father, deaf and mute in the gilded air.
We are in Paris, my grandparents and I,
What I Said to Myself
Choose the butterfly over the chrysalis.
You have for lifetimes strummed minor chords
The sex between you and grief is becoming mechanical.
Despite your vestigial sentiments to the contrary,
Your cock is not an umbilical cord, it is your
It is time to do something that might cause
Put away the map, where we're going won't be on it.
There is nothing particularly inspiring about a death wish.
You have learned all there is to learn from the woman in black.
It is time to stop insulting ecstasy. Masochism
Attend a circus. Go for the comic. There is nothing
Indulge in color. Believe me, there is not a problem.
Recommendation: study evergreens.