River Mouth Review, Issue 7

It was lovely to follow a Tweet this morning and find my poem, “Catastrophe–,” in Issue 7 — the one year anniversary edition — of River Mouth Review.

So much has happened this year that my head’s all aswim, and when I get an acceptance or rejection email I have to remind myself of the 100+ submissions I made January-April, 2021. (Yes, this year, Bethany.) Most of them, I admit, are rejections. So, when I saw this blogpost, “How to Deal with Rejection,” from English writer Louise Tondeur, I eagerly read it. And was reassured. I thought you might be, as well.

Meanwhile, I notice that it’s about time to submit to Windfall: a Journal of Poetry of Place. Editors Bill Siverly and Michael McDowell publish only twice a year, and in the old, pre-Pandemic world, I would now and then  run into a copy of this lovely PNW-focused small journal at Powell’s in Portland, or Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. When I blogged about my friend Christine Kendall’s new book (back in April) and saw that she has published poems there, I thought, I miss them! And I immediately sent a check for a two-year subscription.

So, that’s my bulletin for today. Check out River Mouth on-line, read Louise Tondeur’s advice (including: the most-published poets are also the most-rejected poets), and, even if you’re swinging for the majors, once in awhile take a minute to support something local.

 

 

 

What Poetry Books Are Made of

I have finally decided on what my new poetry manuscript is—or, I’ve almost decided.

Poems about my childhood on a farm, about the farm and about the trees on the farm, about the people and animals there, and (especially) about my parents up to and including their deaths. It’s been an exhausting though rewarding journey, choosing which 60 poems would stand in for all the other poems I’ve written on these subjects.

My tentative title is The Dryad, which appears to be incomprehensible (to date) to about 1/20th of people I’ve shared it with. (My friend Karen says, “Keep it. They can look it up.”)

Subjects not in the book: waitressing, most of the 1,000,000 poems about my daughters (if the poem was set on a visit to the farm, it was fair game), poems explicitly about my marriage, poems about teaching, poems about recent politics, COVID-19, and so forth. Just farm poems and mom/dad poems (since our parents sort of are our geography, it all makes sense. I hope).

One part of my process has been reading many many poetry books by other people, with a steely eye looking out for book structure. Even though my mss. Is almost there, I’m still reading other poets’ books, and this week I am reading two books by Barbara Crooker.

A poet who writes about cows (and she does) never has any trouble winning my heart. Here is one (not about cows, but still captivating):

Gray Foxes

It was the summer the gray foxes came out
of the deep woods to stand on our suburban lawn,
screaming at the dying cat, claiming the night for their own.
Two nights later, he faded away, became dust and stone.

After surgery, my mother hallucinated that she was alone
in the hospital, the last person on earth. She
picked up the phone, but there was no one to call.
Night after night, she had the same dream,
the only one alive in a deserted city.

And then the black day came when the old dog left us;
his breath, ragged, foam bubbling from his muzzle.
He laid his head down in the dew-drenched grass,
a sweet September morning, and never got up again.

Maybe the foxes were real; maybe they were only a dream.
The days rush by, swallows in the wind with their green backs
and white throats; they disappear in the shadows
when twilight overtakes them.

—Barbara Crooker (from More, C&R Press, 2010)

 

Of course this poem makes me teary, and it throws me straight back into my childhood—is there anything on a farm that is not destined for death? We didn’t have foxes, but we had coyotes and log trucks that took the corner near our house too fast, cats…oh, I’ll just stop there. But how did my own mother’s decline and death not conjure that up more for me?

Another aspect I admire in this poem is how each stanza skips to a new topic, circling back at the end—but not quite—to the foxes. There’s a dream-like quality here which is partly because of the mother’s hallucination or dream in stanza two, but is more a product of Crooker’s willingness to not be strictly logical and linear.

This link will take you to her poem of the week, “Covid” (which you must read), but from there you can navigate to her homepage: https://www.barbaracrooker.com/month.php.

The amazing ADA LIMÓN

For me, the fun part is just being at home and writing in my sweatpants. And then being like, “I wrote a poem and I like it.” There’s nothing that compares to that. Nothing. Not The New Yorker, not The New York Times. I feel like that’s something that sometimes gets lost in our culture, where everything’s about building a brand before you even have an established creative process. Please, don’t be a poet unless the number one thing you like to do is write poems. And read poems.

–Ada Limón

So much for my New Year’s resolution to avoid buying new books. Somehow, my April blog push led me hither and yon over the entire poetry landscape, and I ended up buying a truckload of books. Among them, Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things (Milkweed, 2015). Looks like The Carrying is next (winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry).

I have a major poetry-crush on this poet. Not only does she write about horses and honky-tonks (subjects dear to my heart), but dogs, owls, sex, and death. She’s got it all. And language! Oh, my!

Cower

I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard
knot in the mountain buried
deep in the boarded-up mine. So,
I let death in, learn to prospect
the between-dreams of the dying,
the one dream that tells you when
to throw up, the other, when
you’re in pain. I tell you
I will love someone that you
will never meet, earth’s warm
breath at the mouth
of the body’s holler.
You are crying in the shower.
I am crying near the shower.
Your body a welcomed-red
fire-starter in steam and I think,
How scared I would be
if I were death. How could I
come to this house, come
to this loved being, see
the mountain’s power
and dare blast you down.
I dry you off and think,
if I were death come to take you,
your real-earth explosives,
I would be terrified.

–Ada Limón, from Bright Dead Things

The sound-play of this, “cold in my heart, coal-hard,” is evident from the first line, but it’s not just play. The words set the stage for much more. This is not a woman you want to cross.

Praise from the back cover: “In Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, there’s a fierce jazz and sass (‘this life is a fist / of fast wishes caught by nothing, / but the fishhook of tomorrow’s tug.’) and there’s sadness — a grappling with death and loss that forces the imagination to a deep response. The radio in her new rural home warns ‘stay safe and seek shelter,’ and yet the heart seeks love, risk, and strangeness — and finds it everywhere.” –Gregory Orr

Can I Use Dialogue in Poems?

I’ve been reading a friend’s poems, trying to be helpful, and one question that has come up is how to represent dialogue in poems. So I’ve been scouring my books for examples, and I’m a little surprised to see it done so infrequently. My advice: you can set the speech in italics, or you can use quotation marks, or nothing at all. (Choose one method and be consistent, at least within a single book.) But, as an editor once told me regarding a chapter of one of my novels: “Cut dialogue to the bone.” That is, whatever you do, keep it as spare as possible.

That’s good advice, generally, for writing a poem. If you don’t need a word, let it go.

Here’s an example of dialogue—and spareness—from Jane Kenyon, whose book, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf, 1996), is a favorite of mine. It’s fun to see, too, the description of those ancient mimeographed sheets from pre-Xerox days. (Remember Xerox?) The poem is a time-capsule from Kenyon’s childhood:

Learning in the First Grade

“The cup is red. The drop of rain
is blue. The clam is brown.”

So said the sheet of exercises—
Purple mimeos, still heady
from the fluid in the rolling
silver drum. But the cup was

not red. It was white,
or had no color of its own.

Oh, but my mind was finical.
It put the teacher perpetually
in the wrong. Called on, however,
I said aloud: “The cup is red.”

“But it’s not,” I thought
Like Galileo Galilei
muttering under his beard….

—Jane Kenyon

Another poet who came to hand who uses dialogue (and in the same way, with quotation marks) is Christopher Howell, whose title poem in Love’s Last Number (Milkweed, 2017) breaks my heart every time I read it. It begins with another early-learning anecdote:

She was four years old when she told me
the children at her daycare had been arguing
over which was greater, infinity (pronounced
“finity”) or the last number.

In a later stanza, Howell drops in a single 12-word quotation—setting it as if in amber, given that the poem is “in memoriam.” The opening is so simple and direct; one could argue that it is prose, but it introduces us to a poem that, as it continues, becomes a stunning and poetic paean to what counts.

Maybe the real lesson here has to do with that. Not everything that counts can be counted (as Einstein probably didn’t say). But when making a poem—even in free verse—one of the tasks, it seems to me, is to make everything count.