Friday, June 16, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is our newest Poet Laureate of the United States. She's the author of three books of poetry and a memoir, and is the director of Princeton University's creative writing department. Here's an NPR article about her, with a link to hear her read one of her poems.

I Don't Miss It

by Tracy K. Smith

But sometimes I forget where I am,
Imagine myself inside that life again.

Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps,
Or more likely colorless light

Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.

And when I begin to believe I haven't left,
The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke

Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
Straining against the noise of traffic, music,

Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
And that scamper of feeling in my chest,

As if the day, the night, wherever it is
I am by then, has been only a whir

Of something other than waiting.

We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,

And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,

It's impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you

Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they know.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Alice Oswald

Last night, one of the most lucrative awards in poetry was announced in Toronto. The Griffin Poetry Prize is awarded to two poets--one Canadian and one international--and this year, the prize went to Jordan Abel and Alice Oswald, who lives in Devon, England. This poem is the first in her award-winning collection, Falling Awake. News story about her win here.

A Short Story of Falling

by Alice Oswald

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

Friday, June 2, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Robley Wilson

Robley Wilson writes poems, short stories and novels and has worked as a writing teacher and editor. He lives in Florida. Here is a link to a short podcast that discusses this poem.

I Wish in the City of Your Heart

I wish in the city of your heart 
you would let me be the street 
where you walk when you are most 
yourself. I imagine the houses: 
It has been raining, but the rain 
is done and the children kept home 
have begun opening their doors. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Denis Johnson

The literary world is mourning Denis Johnson today. He was a poet, a novelist and a playwright, and winner of the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel, Tree of Smoke. Of his poetic influences, Johnson claimed "My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by—in chronological order—Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot."

Johnson passed away yesterday, at the age of 67. Biographical information available here.

A Poem about Baseballs

by Denis Johnson (1949-2017)

for years the scenes bustled   
through him as he dreamed he was   
alive. then he felt real, and slammed

awake in the wet sheets screaming   
too fast, everything moves
too fast, and the edges of things   
are gone. four blocks away

a baseball was a dot against   
the sky, and he thought, my   
glove is too big, i will

drop the ball and it will be   
a home run. the snow falls   
too fast from the clouds,   
and night is dropped and

snatched back like a huge
joke. is that the ball, or is
it just a bird, and the ball is
somewhere else, and i will
miss it? and the edges are gone, my

hands melt into the walls, my   
hands do not end where the wall   
begins. should i move
forward, or back, or will the ball

come right to me? i know i will   
miss, because i always miss when it
takes so long. the wall has no   
surface, no edge, the wall

fades into the air and the air is   
my hand, and i am the wall. my   
arm is the syringe and thus I

become the nurse, i am you,   
nurse. if he gets
around the bases before the   
ball comes down, is it a home

run, even if i catch it? if we could   
slow down, and stop, we
would be one fused mass careening   
at too great a speed through
the emptiness. if i catch

the ball, our side will
be up, and i will have to bat,   
and i might strike out.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Georgia Douglas Johnson

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) was an African-American poet, one of the earliest African-American female playwrights, and part of the Harlem Renaissance. In 2009, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Her biography is here.
The Heart of a Woman
by Georgia Douglas Johnson
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Thoughts on Mothering

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and I found myself remembering, amongst countless memories I’ve been blessed with since becoming a mother, this single moment: July 31, 2002, the day Geneva came home from the hospital, thirteen days after she and her brothers were born. Since the 18th, we had been shuttling back and forth to the hospital, feeding and holding them as often as we could. Geneva was a pound lighter than the boys and took longer to breathe fully on her own and eat the amounts they wanted. Teagan, a champion eater from the start (still true), had come home after ten days and Satchel at eleven. So many families visiting the NICU weren’t as lucky as we were, but those two weeks were among the hardest we’d ever had. Then, finally, she was home. I placed her in the crib between her brothers and felt an amazing calm, like a smooth ripple expanding in turbulent water. Finally, everyone was together, and home, and our family was complete.
There is a saying: a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. I think that’s true. There is a constant monitoring when you have children; you’re the barometer of their whereabouts, their health, their happiness. Even when they have grown taller than you are, you take note of what and how much they’ve eaten, and how long they slept (much to their annoyance). So having everyone home on that summer day in 2002, their six tiny feet lined up in the crib, was a relief of the most basic sort.

You wonder, when you’re pregnant the second time and having three babies (and I guess, when you’re having just one), if you’ll love them all as much as your first, precious child. Another miracle of motherhood, I suppose, is that you will, and you do, from that first moment. At least that’s how it was with me. That unconditional, unceasing love is the reason we all love our own mothers so much, because we know they have it for us. And it’s something you don’t appreciate, sometimes, until you’re a little older and maybe just the tiniest bit wiser.
So thanks, universe, for my four miracles and for joining their life forces to mine. Thanks, kids, for loving me through my grumbling and impatience, despite my imperfections and mistakes. I can’t imagine who I’d be without you, without all of us here, together.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a an American poet, writer, and editor, and the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. "Limited" is from his first collection Chicago Poems. More about Sandburg here.


by Carl Sandburg

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
     of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
     go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
     and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
     pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
     answers: "Omaha."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Jane Kenyon

The poet Jane Kenyon battled depression for most of her adult life, and her poetry often explored the inner life and the "mysteries of home life." She was New Hampshire's poet laureate when she died, too young, in 1995. Find her biography here.


by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Billy Collins

Born in 1941 in New York City, the popular poet Billy Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate (2001-2003) and delivered a poem he wrote to Congress on the first anniversary of 9/11. You can read more about his writing and awards here.
by Billy Collins
   There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Vicente Huidobro

The Chilean poet Vicente García-Huidobro Fernandez lived from January 10, 1893 – January 2, 1948. He was a prominent figure of the literary movement called Creacionismo ("Creationism"), which proposed that poems should exist only for themselves, not for their authors or readers, or to deliver any message. More about him and this notion here


Arte Poética

by Vicente Huidobro
Let the verse be as a key
Opening a thousand doors.
A leaf falls; something is flying by;
Let whatever your eyes gaze upon be created,
And the soul of the hearer remain shivering.
        Invent new worlds and watch over your word;
        The adjective, when not a life-giver, kills.

We are in the cycle of nerves.
Like a memory
The muscle hangs in the museums;
Nevertheless, we have no less strength:
True vigor
Dwells in the head.
Why do you sing the rose, oh Poets!
Make it blossom in the poem;

Only for us
Live all things under the Sun.

The Poet is a little God.

Que el verso sea somo una llave
Que abra mil puertas.
Una hoja cae; algo pasa volando;
Cuanto miren los ojos creado sea,
Y el alma del oyente quede temblando.

Inventa mundos nuevos y cuida tu palabra;
El adjetivo, cuando no da vida, mata.
Estamos en el ciclo de los nervios.
El músculo cuelga,
Como recuerdo, en los museos;
Mas no por eso tenemos menos fuerza:
El vigor verdadero
Reside en la cabeza.
Por qué cantáis la rosa, ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema;
Sólo para nosotros
Viven todas las cosas bajo el Sol.
El Poeta es un pequeño Dios.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Kaylin Haught

Someone told me about this poem, a favorite of hers. It's referenced quite frequently online, and seems to be a favorite of many. Perhaps it will become one of yours.

God Says Yes To Me

by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Thursday, April 13, 2017

On Potato Eyes and Story Ideas

Do you know how to grow potatoes? Maybe you watched Matt Damon do it in The Martian. Actually, it’s not rocket science. A potato will start to grow on its own if you leave it in the cupboard too long. To grow new potatoes, you just cut an existing potato into sections, making sure each section has at least one “eye,” which is the little, sprouting nub, then you stick the sections into the ground.
I thought about this yesterday when I went out to bring the trash cans in. I’d been thinking about two stories recently finished. Well, finished for now. I was thinking about how I’m getting dangerously close to having enough stories for a collection, and how I should stick with this cycle (which seems to be about loss, and perception, and maybe even, colors), for at least a couple more. But I’ve never been one for brainstorming story ideas; I mostly wait until they announce themselves.
So I was thinking about those two stories and what I might possibly work on while I’m trying not to work on them, and I looked up to see a piece of paper stuck in a nearby bush. Also, a chips wrapper. Both were escapees from the now-mostly-empty trash cans. Immediately, I knew it was a scrap from a story draft, which I had marked up to the point of needing to print a new copy. In dramatic fashion, I thought: I’ll write a story about whatever it says.
And this is what was on that scrap of paper, that potato eye:
"She's never done anything for herself."
I knew immediately where these words came from: which story, about which character. It was quite a good scrap, I thought. First, I started thinking about potatoes and did that for a while. But then I refocused on the found fragment, which started to grow in some possible directions and suggest possible rooms, and people, and problems. And I thought that maybe it’s not such a bad approach, growing something from a piece of something else. Sometimes the universe gives you signs and they're hard to recognize and interpret. Sometimes, they’re pretty direct.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Kate Knapp Johnson

Kate Knapp Johnson, a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts award, lives in New York and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of three poetry collections.

The Meadow
by Kate Knapp Johnson

Half the day lost, staring
at this window. I wanted to know
just one true thing

about the soul, but I left thinking
for thought, and now -
two inches of snow have fallen

over the meadow. Where did I go,
how long was I out looking
for you?, who would never leave me,
my withness, my here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Derek Walcott

The poet Derek Walcott died last week at the age of eighty-seven. He was born on the island of St. Lucia and growing up on this isolated, former British colony had a strong influence on his life and work. When he was fourteen, a local newspaper published his first poem. Five years later, Walcott borrowed $200 to print his first poetry collection, which he handed out to people on the street. Walcott's extensive bibliography includes poetry and plays; he was also a painter. Recipient of many honors and accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992. His biography can be read here.

This poem is a favorite of many, a reminder that in order to be loved by someone, you must first love yourself.

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

And if you'd like to listen to this beautiful poem read by the beautiful actor, Tom Hiddleston, here you go:


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Praise of Stories and the Graying of Genre

This year, like many, many other viewers, I’ve been taken with NBC’s new series, This is Us. I binge-watched the first ten episodes, and now have to watch and wait, week by week, for the rest. The show’s taken some ribbing for stringing along tragedy and its tendency to induce ugly crying, but fans can’t get enough. And I’ve been thinking about the structure of the show and trying to decide what we would call it, in book form.

For those who don’t pull up every week with a box of tissue and glass of something white or red, This is Us follows the story, past and present, of the Pearson family: mom and dad, and a set of untraditional triplets. Untraditional because one is adopted, while the other two are surviving twins, I guess, from a traditional set of triplets. Anyway, a current-day, linear narrative follows everyone’s lives when the triplets are 36 years old and this narrative is interspersed with stories from the past. Most prominently at first, events from the year 1980, when the parents were expecting, and immediately after the birth; but also, a smattering of stories that can catch the siblings at any point of their childhood, from young kids to adolescents and beyond. These anecdotes are woven through and follow no particular linear path. We may have a story from the year the Pearson brood was seven and the following week, a vignette about one of them as a teen. There is, of course, the current-day narrative binding everything and chugging forward, but some episodes include little or no sight of this train.

So what would we call this form, I wondered, if it were a book? Novel? Short stories? Novel-in-stories? And I was thinking about how, if you ask even avid readers about short stories, most will say they don’t read them. Either because they don’t like them, or they just don’t think about it. This is a generalization based on personal inquiry. Many, many readers appreciate stories of the more brief variety. But I wouldn’t say it’s a popular practice, the regular reading of short stories. Some readers will tell you it’s because they want the more satisfying, deeper experience of reading a novel, the finality of a complete, longer story and the answers they get at its conclusion. And yet, countless television viewers are perfectly content to wait, week by week, for the same answers from a drama like This is Us or many others.

It would seem that short stories or novel-in-stories are forms that follow most closely the way humans interact. Imagine two women at a public park, watching their kids and striking up a conversation. Oh, hello, one might say. My name is ___, and how are you? Which child is yours? Where are you from? Oh, I’ve been there many times. Once, I visited ___ and my plane was delayed and I spent three hours at the very famous ___. Oh, you have? That’s amazing. Etc. etc.

This conversation, mostly likely would not be: Oh, hello, my name is ___ and I was born in ____. My family lived for many years in ____ and as a young child, I was shy and pale, but I enjoyed reading and riding horses. At the age of five, I ____. Etc. etc.

Think about people you’ve known for a long time and yet, are still learning new things about. You can know someone ten years before you hear the story of how they spent their eighth summer in a body cast, or had an affair with that exchange student at nineteen.

Of course, all novels aren’t start-to-finish narratives. Most include things like backstory and foreshadowing, and all sorts of clues hopefully meted out in a way that’s pleasing for the reader. But when you’re dealing with short stories, or a novel-in-stories, you expect each memory, each vignette or moment (each episode!), to have a shiny, finished quality. To be satisfying in its own right, all by itself. So that you can finish a chapter and feel—at least somewhat—full. So that you can turn off the television and feel—at least somewhat—ready to wait a whole week for more.

And so, to those of you who think you don’t like short stories, or maybe even have no patience for something called a novel-in-stories, may I suggest the following, mind-opening reading experiences that might blur your notions of genre (all taken from my own personal list because this is, of course, my blog)? I’m including the genre label for each one, as determined by publisher, for reference only and so later, you can realize how hazy some of these distinctions are.

First, there are some flagships:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (novel, 1919)

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (novel, 1959)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (novel/stories/memoir??, 1990)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (stories, 2008)

And some recent reads I’d recommend:

We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel, 2011)

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (stories, 2012)

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (novel, 2015)

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (novel, 2015)

Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman (novel-in-stories, 2016)

I find myself reading in this genre-gray area quite a bit these days, seeking out books that have something to say in a different sort of way, in a way that seems most true-to-life, at least for me. There are many ways to tell a story and to make sense of the stories that, in effect, comprise our lives. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books that gray genre in a good way, and stories that took hold of you and never let go.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reprise: Poem for the Weekend

A couple of years ago, I had a feature on this blog wherein I shared a poem every Friday. I enjoyed doing this very much. It had occurred to me that I didn't include enough poetry in my reading and this regular feature was a way to force the issue. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I continued Poem for the Weekend for a year or so, and then I stopped.

It's been a tough year and once again, it occurs to me that often, poetry can be a balm. Sometimes, simple words are the crack to break a dam; poetry can certainly lead the way to becoming a better writer, a better person. And so, I reintroduce Poem for the Weekend, beginning with one of our most prolific and persistent voices, Mary Oliver. You can read about the long career of this poet here, but mostly what you need to know is that her focus is often on the natural world and our place in it. Also, she reads to dogs, which says quite a lot about a person.

by Mary Oliver

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it's not really
hard. The whole business of
what's reality and what isn't has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don't care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That's a place
you just can't get into, not
entirely anyway, other people's

I'll just leave you with this.
I don't care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It's
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka