Poetry, process, progress.

Category: NaBloPomo

Rejecting the Tally

Rejecting the Tally

More than one student in my Intro to Poetry class asked me if I wanted to see the finished version of their revision exercise. I had them do a literal cut and tape exercise for a “Last Hope” poem, one that they had given up on. There was not enough time to finish in class, but for me, it was about the process rather than the product. Doing it means they now know how to do it and can draw on that experience in the future when needed. They were very surprised that I didn’t want the product and claimed that they were doing it for themselves, not me. A new idea, but I hope, one that turns their focus  away from points counting.

As for myself, I’m holding my nose above water today and able to blog, mainly because Blackboard is down and my planned grading session is not going as planned. Post AWP and post CCCC, other things didn’t go as planned either–some good, some not-so-good. On the good side< I’m now vice-chair for the Intellectual Property Standing Group. I care deeply about IP issues, so this is an honor, one which means I’ll be chair the next year. On the other side, even though six of my students are still going strong (Yea!), I ended up dropping out of the PAD challenge after poem 8. I can always return to it though, and I am ahead of the game since it and the 30/30 in February gave me the impetus for a new cluster of poems. I need to remember that on days when I start counting up points for myself and feel lacking. The long view is what counts here, which is what the photo is about. It was taken the day I passed the one hundred pounds lost mark. That took over a year, but it happened, a pound at a time, one or two a week until there it was–one hundred pounds gone.

Day 13: Amorak Huey

Day 13: Amorak Huey

I can’t have the best title for a poetry book ever because Amorak Huey already has it with his book Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications 2015). He is on my shortlist of poets i envy for poems or phrases I wish I’d written, but didn’t. Here is one of them: From Glass: A Journal of Poetry (November 2016), The Kudzu: Everywhere.


Days 11 and 12: Denise Duhamel

Days 11 and 12: Denise Duhamel

I strongly suspect that my daughter has most if not all of my Denise Duhamel books. She snagged them sometime before she left for college and somehow never returned them. I missed posting yesterday due to bronchitis (still have it–boo), so I’m not on campus to check my poetry shelves. Let’s just say we’re both fans of her pop culture integration and her consideration of gender issues. Humor doesn’t hurt either, and she uses it well. If you are interested in her books, Kinky (1997) is a good book to start with and the video is for her latest book (2017), Scald.


They decide to exchange heads.
Barbie squeezes the small opening under her chin
over Ken’s bulging neck socket. His wide jaw line jostles
atop his girlfriend’s body, loosely,
like one of those novelty dogs
destined to gaze from the back windows of cars.
The two dolls chase each other around the orange Country Camper
unsure what they’ll do when they’re within touching distance.
Ken wants to feel Barbie’s toes between his lips,
take off one of her legs and force his whole arm inside her.
With only the vaguest suggestion of genitals,
all the alluring qualities they possess as fashion dolls,
up until now, have done neither of them much good.
But suddenly Barbie is excited looking at her own body
under the weight of Ken’s face. He is part circus freak,
part thwarted hermaphrodite. And she is imagining
she is somebody else– maybe somebody middle class and ordinary,
maybe another teenage model being caught in a scandal.

The night had begun with Barbie getting angry
at finding Ken’s blow up doll, folded and stuffed
under the couch. He was defensive and ashamed, especially about
not having the breath to inflate her. But after a round
of pretend-tears, Barbie and Ken vowed to try
to make their relationship work. With their good memories
as sustaining as good food, they listened to late-night radio
talk shows, one featuring Doctor Ruth. When all else fails,
just hold each other, the small sex therapist crooned.
Barbie and Ken, on cue, groped in the dark,
their interchangeable skin glowing, the color of Band-Aids.
Then, they let themselves go– Soon Barbie was begging Ken
to try on her spandex miniskirt. She showed him how
to pivot as though he was on a runway. Ken begged
to tie Barbie onto his yellow surfboard and spin her
on the kitcen table until she grew dizzy. Anything,
anything, they both said to the other’s requests,
their mirrored desires bubbling from the most unlikely places.

S c a l d by Denise Duhamel from Amira Hadla Chomiak on Vimeo.

Day 10: Maxine Kumin

Day 10: Maxine Kumin

I love a good narrative and I love how images work to add more, but I really love a poet who uses it all, as Maxine Kumin does. I have her Collected Works, but she was an active poet to the end of her life in 2015. Here is a poem from Where I Live, New and Selected Poems (2011), where she is being political in one of the “torture poems.”

Waterboarding, Restored

           Carol Houck Smith 1923-2008

Let’s take this one out, my editor said,
my wise old editor, who rarely invoked
her privilege, two years from now
(it takes that long to go from manuscript
to print) no one will even remember
the word. And so I did.

It began:
You’re thinking summer, theme parks,
a giant plastic slide turquoise and pink,
water streaming down its sinuous course
and clots of screaming children pouring past
in a state of ecstasy, while you sip gin
and tonic with friends.

Now under the shellac
of euphemism they’re calling it
enhanced interrogation.
It follows on the heels of
extraordinary rendition.
Only the mockingbird is cleverer
Warbling blithe lies from his tree.


Poems 7, 8, and 9: Web Weekend

Poems 7, 8, and 9: Web Weekend

If you are  reading this and you’re a poet, you know that getting that first book is very hard. More established poets have told me that getting the first book is no guarantee that a second will be easier or the third. Reduced funding to higher education has been chipping away at what was always a lean operation in the university and non-profit press world. This makes the work that independent journals do so very important, web journals in particular. Producing a web journal is not free, but it  has different costs than print journals and books, costs that can be made invisible by the donated labor of its editors and designers. On weekends for Poetry Month, I will feature web journals that are doing what they can to highlight the best in contemporary poetry. This weekend’s selections are from my personal list of “places that haven’t published any of my poems yet.” They encourage with the “send again,” but that meeting of the minds has yet to happen. I’ll keep trying.

THRUSH is an online journal in search of beauty. It finds it. Here is a poem from January 2017 from Catherine Pierce, Chadwick Lake, 8:15 a.m.

Sixth Finch is the second of this weekend’s trifecta of superb online literary journals. The Wreck by Sarah J. Sloat is a good example of the breadth of what they showcase. Sometimes journals pinpoint their aesthetic too narrowly. SIxth Finch take a healthy range.

DIAGRAM is a journal like no other–it is the place for poems that  may not fit elsewhere but that definitely need to be read/seen. From issue 17.1, here is Wallpaper Eulogy by Michele Finn Johnson.

Poem 6: W. Todd Kaneko

Poem 6: W. Todd Kaneko

I wish I could buy all the poetry I want, but I never catch up it seems. Then, the beauty of the internet and all the web journals is that I can read  work from a poet for some time before actually buying a book. W. Todd Kaneko has a book and it’s worth buying– The Dead Wrestler Elegies — but that is not all he is and today’s poem, You Cannot Stand against Giant Baba shows it. It is from Waxwing, a good journal to aspire to be in.

Day 5: Alicia Ostriker

Day 5: Alicia Ostriker

I gained a number of new-to me poetry books buying from Jane Hoogestraat’s poetry shelves to help fund a scholarship in her name. So many books, so little cash. The following poem  is from The Book of Seventy by Alicia Ostriker (2009). the title poem is one to read again and again, but I also like “Everything alive’–so, small, so ambitious.
[Robin photo by Ken and Nyata, found on Flickr]

Everything alive

everything alive wants to surge and wilt

by its own rules, the tide in its veins, and in April
the green force is irresistible

But one great rule is life’s tenacious webbiness
another great rule is change
nothing stands alone, everything succeeds

and disappears
so the birch trees close their eyes in the rain
and robins drink their bliss

Day 4: Michelle Disler

Day 4: Michelle Disler

{Bond, James] alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography by Michelle Disler (2012) is an unexpected gem, poetry that pushes boundaries and by doing so, gives poetry more room to breathe. This is not a kitschy pop culture tome played for laughs or for the moment. It is a serious, multi-tangental look at a complex embodiment of gender. Formatting really matters with many of the poems, so I’ve taken a photo of the poem “Heart [Bond, James].” Click to enlarge and read.

Day 3: Larry Levis

Day 3: Larry Levis

Larry Levis’ last book, Elegy (1997), continues to be a huge influence on me as a poet. I love the intricate narratives laced with strong images and the long streams of iambs don’t hurt either. It is still free verse, but it veers close to blank verse at times, and that musicality hold the narrative together. Also tying the collection together are repeated leitmotifs, a technique as old as the rosy-fingered dawn but still effective. Here is the poem that stays with me most. I wonder if there is a journal out there yet that is gutsy enough to print a poem this long. Some say they want to,but will they? Does it take the stature of a Levis to earn the right to length and complexity? I hope it has not come to that.

[image from sBurke2478 on Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/14863785@N03/3084938952]

Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It


Now that the Summer of Love has become the moss of tunnels
And the shadowy mouths of tunnels & all the tunnels lead into the city,

I’m going to put the one largely forgotten, swaying figure of Ediesto Huerta
Right in front of you so you can watch him swamp fruit

Out of an orchard in the heat of an August afternoon, I’m going to let you

Keep your eyes on him as he lifts & swings fifty-pound boxes of late
Elberta peaches up to me where I’m standing on a flatbed trailer & breathing in
Tractor exhaust so thick it bends the air, bends things seen through it

So that they seem to swim through the air.

It is a lousy job, & no one has to do it, & we do it.

We do it so that I can show you even what isn’t there,
What’s hidden. And signed by Time itself. And set spinning,

And is only a spider, after all, with its net waiting for what falls,
For what flies into it, & ages, & turns gray in a matter of minutes. The web
Is nothing’s blueprint, bleached by the sun & whitened by it, it’s what’s left

After we’ve vanished, after we become what falls apart when anyone

Touches it, eyelash & collarbone dissolving into air, & time touching
The boxes we are wrapped in like gifts & splintering them

Into wood again, at the edge of a wood.


Black Widow is a name no one ever tinkered with or tried to change.
If you turn her on her back you can see the blood red hourglass figure

She carries on her belly,

Small as the design of a pirate I saw once on a tab of blotter acid

Before I took half of it, & a friend took the other, & then the two of us
Walked down to the empty post office beside the lake to look,

For some reason, at the wanted posters. We liked a little drama
In the ordinary then. Now a spider’s enough.

And this one, in the legend she inhabits, is famous, & the male dies.
She eats its head after the eggs are fertilized.

It’s the hourglass on her belly I remember, & the way the figure of it,
Figure eight of Time & Infinity, looked like something designed,

Etched or embossed upon the slick undershell, & the way there was,
The first time I saw it, a stillness in the pattern that was not
The stillness of the leaves or the stillness of the sky over the leaves.

After the male dies she goes off & the eggs

Live in the fraying sail

Of an abandoned web strung up in the corner of a picking box or beneath
Some slowly yellowing grape leaf among hundreds of other
Leaves, in autumn, the eggs smaller than the o in this typescript

Or a handwritten apostrophe in ink.

What do they represent but emptiness, some gold camp settlement
In the Sierras swept clean by smallpox, & wind?

Canal school with its three rooms, its bell & the rope you rang it with
And no one there in the empty sunlight, ring & after ring & echo.

It magnifies & I can’t explain it.

Piedra, Conejo, Parlier. Stars & towns, blown fire & wind.
Deneb & Altair, invisible kindling, nothing above nothing.

It magnifies & I can’t explain it.


Expressionless spinster, carrying Time’s signature preserved & signed
In blood & hidden beneath you, you move two steps
To the right & hold still, then one step to the left,

And hold still again, motionless as the web you wait in.

Motionless as the story you wait in & inhabit but did not spin
And did not repeat. You wait in the beehive hairdo of the girl
Sitting across from me in class, wait in your eggs,


Wait in the hair the girl teases & sprays once more at recess.

Lipstick, heels, tight sweater, leather anklet.

The story has no point but stillness itself, absence in a school desk,
The hacked and scratched names visible in the varnished wood,

No one there, the bell with its ring & after ring & echo.

In class, I remember, she would look back at me with a gaze deeper
Than calm, blanker than a pond’s scummed & motionless surface,
Beneath which there was nothing, nothing taking the shape of someone

Who had already drowned but could not die, & so sat in class
Because she had to, because that was the law.

Mrs. Avery went on & on at the blackboard so we could know
Who Magellan & Vizcaino had been, or sometimes she would make

The boy who spoke only Spanish read from a book,
Watch him as he used his forefinger to point at each syllable

He would read, read & mispronounce, & stumble over, & go on.


And this isn’t much of a story either, but it’s one I know:

One afternoon in August, two black widow spiders bit Ediesto Huerta.
He killed them both & went on working,

Went on swinging the boxes up to me. In a few minutes the sweat
Bathed his face until it glistened, & still he went on working;
And when I asked him to stop he would not & instead

Seemed to begin to dance slowly in the rhythms of the work,
Swing & heft & turning back for another box, then

Swing, heft, & turning back again. And within a half hour or so,

Without him resting once but merely swinging box after box

Of peaches up to me in the heat, the fever broke.


In the middle of turning away again, he stopped dancing,
He stopped working. He seemed to be listening to something, & then

He passed out & fell flat on his back. It looked as if he had gone to sleep
For a moment. I let the idling tractor sputter & die, & by the time

I reached him, he had awakened, &, in the next moment, his face

Began twitching, his arms & legs danced to something without music
And then stiffened, his jaws clenched & his eyes fluttered open
And turned a pure white. I made a stick from a peach limb & tore

The leaves & shoots off it & stuck it between his teeth

As I heard one was supposed to, &, in this way, almost
Killed him by suffocation, & so took the stick out & threw it away.

And later lifted him by the one arm he extended to me & pulled him up onto
The bed of the trailer. He dangled his legs off the rear of it.

We sat there, saying nothing.

It was so quiet we could hear the birds around us in the trees.

And then he turned to me, &, addressing me in a name as old as childhood,
Said, ‘Hey Cowboy, you wanna cigarette?’


In the story, no one can remember whether it was car theft or burglary,
But in fact, Ediesto Huerta was tried & convicted of something, & so, afterward,
Became motionless & silent in the web spun around him by misfortune.

In the penitentiary the lights stay on forever,

Cell after cell after cell, they call their names out, caught in time.

Ring, & after ring, & echo.

In the story, the girl always dies of spider bites,
When in fact she disappeared by breaking into the jagged pieces of glass
Littering the roadsides & glinting in the empty light that shines there.


All we are is representation, what we appear to be & are, & are not,
And representation is all we remember,

Something hesitating & looking back & caught for a moment.

God in the design on a spider’s belly, standing for time & infinity,
Looks back, looks back just once, then never again.

We go without a trace, I am thinking. We go & there’s no one there,
No one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees,
Cypresses, the bleaching fronds of palm trees,

And though the town is still there when I return to it, when I’m gone
The track is empty beside the station, & the station is boarded up,
Boarded over, the town is overgrown with leaves, with weeds

Tall as windowsills, window glass out & dark inside the shops.

The classrooms & school are gone & the bell, & the rope
To ring it with, & the boy reading form the book, forefinger
On a syllable he can’t pronounce & stumbles over again & again.


All we are is representation, what we are & are not,

Clear & then going dark again, all we are
Is the design or insignia that misrepresents what we are, & stays

Behind, & looks back at us without expression, empty road in sunlight.
I once drove in a ’48 Jimmy truck with three tons of fruit
On it & the flooring beneath the clutch so worn away I could see

The road go past beneath me, the oil flecked light & shadow

Picking up speed. Angel & Johnny Dominguez, Ediesto Huerta,
Jaime Vaca & Coronado Solares, Querido Flacco


And the one called Dead Rat & the one called Camelias;

We go without a trace, I am thinking.


Today you were lying in bed, drinking tea, reading the newspaper,
A look of concentration on your face, of absorption in some

Story or other.

It looked so peaceful, you reading, the bed, the sunlight over everything.

There is a blueprint of something never finished, something I’ll never
Find my way out of, some web where the light rocks, back & forth,
Holding me in a time that’s gone, bee at the windowsill & the cold

Coming back as it has to, tapping at the glass.

The figure in the hourglass & the body swinging in the rhythm of its work.
The body reclining in bed, forgetting what it is, & who.

While the night goes on with its work, the stars & the shapes they make,
Cold vein in the leaf & in the wind,

What are we but what we offer up?

Gifts we give, things for oblivion to look at, & puzzle over, & set aside.

Oblivion resting his cheek against a child’s striped rubber ball
In the photograph I have of him, head on the table & resting his cheek
Against the cool surface of the ball, the one that is finished spinning, the one

He won’t give back.

Oblivion who has my face in the photograph, my cheek resting
Against a child’s striped ball.

Oblivion with his blown fires, & empty towns…

Oblivion who would be nothing without us, I am thinking,


As if we’re put on the earth to forget the ending, & wander.
And walk alone. And walk in the midst of great crowds,

And never come back.

Day Two: Karen Craigo

Day Two: Karen Craigo

This poem is from Karen Craigo’s 2016 chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, available from Hermeneutic Chaos Press. A bit of a disclaimer–some poets I know in real life, others I don’t. Po-biz is a small world compared to some others and it doesn’t take too many degrees of separation to reach anyone. Karen and I were a year apart in the same MFA program and might have similar aesthetics, but in the end, I think we are actually very different poets. One thing I think we do share is deceptive clarity, a positive thing that can be mistaken by the too-quick reader as poetry that is too prose-like or not very deep. Oh dear. However, I think Craigo’s poetry fills a much needed place in contemporary poetry in that it gives voice to the otherwise unvoiced and shows that narrative poetry is still a living, breathing poetic choice. Interested in more? Her 2015 book No More Milk is available from Sundress Publications.

Escaped Housewife Gives Three Good Reasons for Taking Up the Bagpipes

On occasion she has cried
herself our—out of breath,
out of salt, head hot and humming,
she has heard her voice wane
before she has said all
she has to say.

The instrument holds screams
like a camel.
With the bag tucked
in the V of arm to body,
she can howl through her sleep
and rise ready
to start again.

One voice isn’t nearly
enough. She likes how each
stiff tentacle makes its own
reedy hiss to release her heart’s
ugly harmonies, to deflate
the leather sack
she lives in.