Thursday, May 26, 2011

Poets: Read Small Press Poetry

You could be reading
one of these!
I love small press poetry.

You will find me continuing to feature poems that I like from the small presses. I do this because I really enjoy the challenge of investigating a poem, and because I want you to know that poems are worth reading and should be read. I want to spread the love. Subscribe to a small press journal; if you can't, check them out in your local library. They're passionate about what they do and they're certainly not in it for the money.

Not me, but I like her style.
If you are are an aspiring poet, the number one thing you should do regularly from this point on is read poetry. There are a striking number of poets who want to be good at their craft who don't read poems. What is up with that? Can you imagine trying to write a novel and not reading novels? Believe me, there is something for everyone out there in the world of poetry. Just breeze through the archives of this blog and you'll figure that out pretty quickly.

If you want to write poetry, go to your bookstore and browse through the poetry section. Choose two or three poets who resonate with you and buy them. Take them home, skim the books, and put post-its on the poems that get your attention. It doesn't matter if you "get" the poem or not--it could be just a fantastic image that got your attention. Now choose three of those marked poems and study them. Read them; discover if there is a recognizable meter or rhyme scheme; notice where the poet places the line breaks; take note of how verbs and nouns are used, and how effective or necessary the adjectives are. Mark the spot where the poem turns and comes full circle, and think about why this is. Why do you connect with it? Why is it true? Why does it work?

This + poetry =
literary bliss
Something else to do, which works for anyone who wants to read poetry, is get a copy of Czeslaw Milosz's A Book of Luminous Things. At the end of the day, turn off your computer and TV, make yourself a nice cocktail or cup of tea, sitdown with this book, and read a few poems at random. This is my favorite collection and the choices are stunning. If you're looking for a starting point, this just might do it.

Discover what turns you on, then find a small press that does that for you. Then write something awesome and submit it. Become a part of this awesome and wondrous community of poetry.


Photos by Lucretious, arinas74, and turbidity

Monday, April 25, 2011

Interview with Bryce Ellicott, Part 2

Hello poetry lovers,

Today I'm featuring Part 2 of my interview with Bryce Ellicott. In Part 1 we talked about the relationship between art and science and and how each serves to help us frame and define our experience as human beings. In Part 2 we discuss poetry: how important is authorial intent, and how attached should a poet be to the reader's experience of a poem.


Amy: Recently I posted about the difference between reading a poem with the most common method used today--New Criticism--and by considering an author's biography or other factors that New Criticism tends to ignore. How do you feel about these differences? Do you like to know an author's history before you read his or her work? Do you think it should affect the reader's experience of a poem?

Bryce: I very much hope that any poem I write can stand utterly on its own, whether the reader knows something of me or not. The speakers in my poems are not usually 'me'. If I am writing something autobiographical, it is almost always seen through a fictional lens that changes some of the details.

Poetry is made art, performance art, in the moment of the reading. It isn't static, it is an experience. That experience is a combination of what the author has written, and what the reader brings to the piece. If the author has left room for the reader to come 'in', to find something in the piece that resonates for them, then the author's background isn't important at all. A reader might find something in a poem completely different from what the author was thinking. I like that idea. In fact, it is the hallmark of some of my favorite poetry, that it seems to read my mind. I am of course supplying that, but it is the feeling I love.

I think getting too caught up in a historical view of a poet might actually limit what a reader brings, because they would be subconsciously biasing themselves against anything they think wasn't originally intended. Yet even the poet, when asked, might not know the answer to that, since so much of what happens inside of poetry happens in the inner mind.

Amy: I'm very curious about the word "sari-woven" in your poem "Officemate." It brings to mind something exotic in relation to the speaker, but also something bound or tied up. What does it mean to you?

Bryce: Sari-woven was chosen because it seemed to express several ideas at once. First, that the person in question was of Indian decent - but I wanted to say that in a way that made it clear how much that attracted the speaker of the poem. He finds her exotic and beautiful. I also wanted a feeling of connection - that she was 'woven' to her ethnicity in a way. Or woven to expectations, perhaps. We might get the idea that the speaker is at odds with these expectations, but we do not know if the 'officemate' in question holds resentment, or respect for them.

Amy: Considering an author's intent--if you believe the word "sari-woven" to mean something in particular, do you hope that a reader will perceive that too? Does it matter to you that a reader gain from a poem what you are trying to convey, in addition to their own experience of the poem?

Bryce: As above, no, the reader can feel free to feel or experience what comes naturally. If sari-woven makes them feel like the officemate is bound in some way then that is a valid interpretation. It allows the reader's own imagination to work for them, to create meaning for them from black lines on a screen. And if we look at the meanings we create we learn about ourselves and the world, and our relationship to it. That seems like very effective poetry to me.


A big thank you to Bryce Ellicott for taking the time to talk to Living Poetry! Visit Bryce's excellent blog, One Writer's Mind.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interview with Bryce Ellicott, Part 1

Recently I featured a poem written by scientist and writer Bryce Ellicott, whose work was included in the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. Bryce kindly agreed to answer a few questions, and in Part 1 I've included Bryce's comments on the relationship between science and art.


Amy: You have a Ph.D. in Planetary Science and have spent many years studying lunar crater formation. How does your formal education and work affect your writing? How do you feel about the relationship between science and art?

Bryce: Art and science have some aspects that are the same and some that are very different. "Doing" science and "appreciating" art require some of the same skills--observation, consideration, analysis, etc. They have to be approached with an open mind, limiting any preconceptions, in order to let as much of what there is come in unfettered by any of our filters.

Science is a process. The goal of that process is to be able to explain the workings of the cosmos as clearly and completely as possible. Let's take gravity. In studying gravity you might conduct experiments where you watch items fall, and time how fast they speed up. You learn that the acceleration of gravity on the earth's surface is about 9.8 m/s2. This is powerful. Knowing this is part of how we have learned to launch rockets to other worlds.

But science can't tell you how gravity feels. It can't tell you what it means to experience gravity as a human being. It can tell you how much bone loss you experience without it, but not what that might feel like, the truth of the phenomenon as a part of the human condition. That's what art does.

Here's an unpublished poem with a lot of science, humor, and just a peak at the idea of what it would mean to change the rules ... always an unsettling idea for a scientist.

Laboratory Philosophy

We have to clean
under the mass spectrometer
with liquid nitrogen.
The instrument
has been bolted to the floor
for years,
and besides, the magnet is
much too heavy to move
and would need to be retuned
if you did.
So whenever we get bored,
which is often,
we fill up tall dewars
with LN2
and sheet the boiling liquid
out beneath the equipment.
Then we run to the other side
to watch each bubbling,
dancing bead roll out
dust bunnies in front of it.
I say
“It’ll never work in zero G.”
You reply
“No gravity, no dust bunnies.”

Bryce Ellicott

I really did this - this is totally autobiographical, and shows you what scientists do for fun, and what their humor is like. I was trying to express here that idea of what we take for granted. Gravity. My comment was flip, and so was his.  And funny. But it made me think. Something as mundane as a dust bunny  requires gravity. Dust filters down through the air and lands on floors, it is then moved by air currents across the surface and into areas where it can collect. There is no 'down' in space. Dust would remain suspended, and would be circulated easily by the ventilation system, through the air and to vents, there
caught in the filter. Items might remain untouched for years, and no dust would ever build up on their surfaces. A minor but strangely unsettling twist. Dust means age. What if that simple and predictable marker were gone?

I could provide a number of other examples, since science has really sparked my interest in the strange and beautiful of the universe (or perhaps it was the other way around). Science and art inform one another, and work together. The only tension comes from people who want to use the process of science
to prove the unprovable - which by definition cannot be done. That is the realm of art and spirituality. Science can tell you how to build a clock. It can't help you if you set it wrong and miss a hot date. That's where poetry comes in.


For more on poetry, science, and writing sci-fi, check out Bryce's excellent blog One Writer's Mind

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Matsuo Basho's "Spring Rain" Haiku

Today in Boston it almost looks as if spring might be on its way--sunshine, buds, and calm breezes. One must be careful about making such a claim, because in Boston it can be 65 and sunny today and 30 and snowing tomorrow. We call it April.

Regardless of the fickle New England weather, it is time to bring in some seasonal poetry. There is no better poetry for this than haiku, one of the hallmarks of which is to include a seasonal reference.

If you are familiar with haiku, then you probably know something of the work of Matsuo Basho, the most famous poet in this form. Let's look at his poem "Spring Rain:"

Spring rain
leaking through the roof
dripping from the wasps' nest

Matsuo Basho

I've searched for the original Japanese for this poem, but haven't found it (let me know in the comments it you do). So we'll look at it in English, which is easy enough with a good translation.

Like any good haiku, this one contains a kigo, or seasonal reference ("spring rain" and "wasp's nest"). It can be a word or phrase, and it doesn't have to be direct; it can be something like green leaves for summer or footprints in the snow for winter. It also alludes to a moment of satori, which is a transient and powerful experience of the unity or "oneness" of all things, especially a oneness with nature.

The rain "dripping from the wasps' nest" is what makes this a fantastic haiku. This form of poem shouldn't just communicate pretty moments in time, though that's difficult enough for a poet to capture well. It should be complicated and pull our minds deeply into exploring the world of the poem. It should beautifully haunt us.

The rain leaks through the roof, from which hangs a wasps' nest. The rain runs through or around the husk of the nest, then is pulled by gravity to the ground. Or on the speaker's head. Maybe a drop of spring-wasp-nest-rain splashes on the speaker's head, who then looks up to find the nest. Perhaps the speaker was just thinking how wonderful it is that spring is here, and the rain will bring blooms and color and life, but--oh yeah--also wasps. Beauty is not without it's ugliness, just as the proverbial rose is not without its thorns, or the most beautiful people have their one physical "flaw" that enhances their beauty.

Perhaps the speaker recognizes the wasps not only as a nusiance, but as a part of the life that is being revealed by the fresh season. Here may be our moment of satori--the speaker is thinking of spring; then, with a single drop on the ground or on the head (like Newton?) the speaker is oh-so-transiently brought into unity with all surrounding life, facilitated with the presence of the springtime wasps. What separates, in this moment, the speaker from the rain, from the wasps, from the season, from the world?

And there is more, much more to do with this poem. Please add your reading of this poem in the comments-I would love to hear how others experience this haiku!


Monday, April 11, 2011

Tell Me a Story by Robert Penn Warren

April is National Poetry Month, and it is also the month in which the first Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Penn Warren, was born. Warren was a novelist and poet and an early proponent of New Criticism--the method of close reading of text with emphasis on literary devices such as simile and metaphor. (If you don't know what New Criticism is, read about it. It's the way most of us read poetry now.)

Here is one of his most well-known poems, "Tell Me a Story." I chose it because it provides great discussion about the New Criticism, or objectivist, method of reading a poem (ignoring author biography, etc. and keeping strictly to the text) and other methods of analysis.

Tell Me a Story


Long ago, in Kentucky, I a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.


Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

Robert Penn Warren

In a close reading of this text--using New Criticism--it's difficult not to notice the emphasis the speaker places on "north" and "northward." The speaker hears, rather than sees, the geese noisily making their way across the sky, and knows they are flying north, but needs to confirm this fact by stating that it was "the season before the elderberry blooms." Then the speaker repeats the direction twice, not wanting to admit or not quite believing that they are leaving.

In this context I would read this as a poem about time and longing for the past. The flying geese symbolize time passing; the direction of their flight is away from the speaker, which to me is a poignant representation of loss of something past--childhood? Loved ones? Home? All of these? The second section is a longing for an escape from the present "moment" and "mania." The speaker desires a story, like a child would, something "of deep delight." Here, the speaker puts the subject right out there--"Time"--but asks the storyteller not to "pronounce its name." Perhaps what the speaker wishes to escape from is change.

But what about author biography? Although I am the first to suggest that poetry can be fully read and and enjoyed without knowledge of the author, it can nonetheless be fascinating to consider how a poet's history affects his work. In this case, Warren was from Kentucky and felt deeply rooted in his southern heritage. He grew up hearing stories about the Civil War from his grandfather, and he did not like the way the South changed in the early twentieth century. This adds a more literal layer of understanding to the speaker's sadness at the geese flying north and away from him. Now, the passing of time symbolized by the geese can be read as the passing away of the old southern culture, the past flying "northward" as the south is "northernized." The story for which the speaker longs may harken to the stories Warren heard as a child about the Civil War, when the South believed it was indomitable and would last forever.

How does Warren's biography change your perception of this poem? Do you prefer to know or not to know about an author's history when you read a poem? What about authorial intent? If an author says, "My poem means this," must the reader agree?

P.S. Just remembered--Warren was blind in one eye since his childhood. How does that affect the speaker's insistence on "hearing" the geese?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"Officemate" by Bryce Ellicott, from the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire

As promised, here is Bryce Ellicott's poem from the Maryland Writers' Association's latest publication.


She was brown and sari-woven. Her chair
and mine rubbed backs and spoke in whispers.
The day came she pranced, ring flashing
in the halls. They moved to Norway faster
than you can drain a filing cabinet, inhale
a roomful of cake and goodbyes, and forget
to leave a forwarding address. Forlorn
in the way of office furniture left behind,
my chair is wounded to the very wheels.
It refuses even a squeak against the silence
once filled with vinyl-stroked confessions.

Bryce Ellicott
Life in Me Like Grass on Fire, p. 21
Used with permission of the author

We have a simple image of a woman, "brown and sari-woven," but all of the very sensual action between the speaker and her is portrayed through their chairs. They "rubbed backs and spoke in whispers"--already past tense, setting us up for something to break up this closeness. After the "sari-woven" subject departs, leaving no "forwarding address" and no chance of more communication with the speaker, we have common office imagery standing in for the inner life of the speaker: inhaled cake and goodbyes, a drained filing cabinet, forlorn furniture, a chair "wounded to the very wheels."

It's sad! This sad, sad chair! The poor chair is so devastated that it will not even squeak, where once it happily whispered. The brilliance of this metaphor is it allows the reader a depth of empathy for the speaker that I'm not sure we'd have if we actually saw the speaker. We get the lonely chair, the silence, the emptiness, and the wound. A metaphor shouldn't be just interesting or arresting imagery; it should facilitate an emotional connection between the reader and the experience of the poem. This does it for me.

I have a few other thoughts but I thought I'd throw them out as questions and see what you think. Why Norway, for example? What is the significance of the woman being "sari-woven?" What does this poem tell us about the experience of loss?

BTW--Check out Bryce Ellicott's fascinating blog about writing, sci-fi, astronomy, and other kinds of coolness

Monday, April 04, 2011

Maryland Writers Conference and a Great New Anthology

Hello poetry lovers!

I just returned from the Maryland Writers' Conference in Baltimore. I don't live in Maryland, but my sister was attending and pitching a fiction manuscript to a publisher there, so I agreed to go and lend moral support. Three great things happened: 1) the publisher is interested in my sister's book and wants to read more. (Yay!) 2) I attended a few excellent lectures/panels, including a wonderful discussion of autobiographical poetry by the poet Sue Ellen Thompson 3) I was introduced to a fabulous new anthology of poetry published and just released by the Maryland Writers' Association: Life in Me Like Grass on Fire.

This is called a collection of "love poems," and that is true, but love is considered broadly and deeply by the poets, and sometimes in ways we might not expect--consider the section "Love as We Age." I love a good anthology, and I enjoy the results of a good editor's discerning choices.

In my next post, I'll include and discuss one of the poems in this book, and in a future post I'll interview the author Bryce Ellicott. Check out some great discussion on writing on Bryce's excellent blog, One Writer's Mind, and not just because it currently features an interview with me!