Rena Priest

I couldn’t have been more thrilled to hear that Rena Priest will be our new Washington State Poet Laureate. I took a workshop with Rena at Chuckanut Sandstone in 2018, and have been happily singing her praises ever since. She is an exceptional poet and—you have only to meet her once to know this—a generous and kind teacher.

Plus, I had just ordered her book Patriarchy Blues, from Village Books so that I could include her in my blog line-up this April. Serendipity all over the place!

Patriarchy Blues was published by MoonPath Press in 2017, and received an American Book Award in 2018. Many (all?) of its 26 poems are about desire, specifically, the lopsided desire that comes of living in a patriarchy. Dedicated to “the subterranean homesick matriarchy,” the book holds up a mirror to the world and the world puts on its lipstick and dances. Scissors desire the thread and the moon longs to turn her face away. “Can you climb into a person’s / longing for you and float away?” asks one poem (“The Encyclopedia Britannica, Sunshine, a Mosquito”); another, “Is desire not acted upon a betrayal?” (“Creeping Out of Orbit”).  And, always, this lushness, the body nourished by drums and bells and honey.

This is the final poem in the book.

Quiet Children

I notice how bees keep flying
to the emptiness in the tree
where their home used to be.
They don’t disturb the children
playing in my driveway, oblivious
to the hovering above their ears.

I watch them from my steps
and listen to the green collision
of a million leaves, unsettled by a breeze.
A car staggers by, dragging along
a swarm of summer dust.
The children have all gone quiet.

They are in a circle, wiggling
and whispering about something
on the ground. I investigate, and see
a wrecked hive, the color of winter.
The older boys, in their cruelty
were at it last night with stones.

I shoo the children away, tell them,
“Go play.” The doomed larvae strive
and vibrate. I cringe, but can’t help
looking and looking, even days later,
at those starving conic bodies,
shimmering in their pale hexagon cells.

—Rena Priest

Follow this link to the Facebook page of Children of the Setting Sun to register for the Passing of the Laurels ceremony being held Wednesday, April 14, 2021:

Kathleen Kirk

Today’s post is even more like an interview than a review. I have three of Kathleen Kirk’s chapbooks—little poetry books that address a single subject—and when I learned that The Towns (Unicorn Press, 2018) is actually one of eight poetry chapbooks, “each one a bit different in its impetus, composition, and arrangement,” I knew that I wanted to hear more.

I did know a bit about Kathleen’s background, as I reviewed her ABCs of Women’s Work last April. But I’ll let people do their own spelunking into her background: check out Escape Into Life, an on-line magazine of literature and art, where she is the editor, or her (delightful) blog—Wait! I have a blog?!to learn much, much more.

This year I emailed Kathleen and asked her to tell me about her books and how she creates them. I had fun looking up the presses (of course Unicorn=unique books!), and am including the links so you can take a tour, too.

Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012) captured a bunch of poems set at night, and often musical in quality (like musical nocturnes) or responding to night time paintings. Living on the Earth (Finishing Line Press, New Women’s Voices Series No. 74, 2010) gathered poems of place I was exploring after returning to live where I’d grown up, and in the context of worrying about and valuing our dear planet. An earlier chapbook, Broken Sonnets (Finishing Line, 2009), contained and celebrated my awareness of being “broken” but perfectly okay in sonnets that respected but also broke traditional forms of the sonnet. I guess I knew I was done when I’d broken the form in all the ways I could at that time.

Interior Sculpture: poems in the voice of Camille Claudel (dancing girl press, 2014) was a commissioned work, providing poems to create a dance/theatre piece, and I pursued Camille Claudel’s biography and work to voice a series of poems set to dance, and a few more.

In Spiritual Midwifery (Red Bird, 2019), I found I was gathering from a series of ekphrastic poems I’d been writing, often on paintings with religious topics, as well as poems on how life itself had engendered in me a personal spirituality, enhanced by motherhood; the poems clung to each other on their own—again, probably instinct and logic, as that chapbook ends with a poem called “Last Step.” My very first chapbook, Selected Roles (Moon Journal Press, 2006) is the bridge between my life as a professional actor in Chicago and my organic life as a poet. In these poems, I speak in the voices of characters I have played or in the persona of an actor playing those roles.

I am still looking for a home for my chapbook manuscript The Cassandra Poems, in which I speak in the voice of Cassandra, the mythological character and the character in Agamemnon, the play by Aeschylus, as if she were still alive today, a prophetess whom no one will believe, which, as a poet, I feel like lots of the time. Most of these poems have been published individually in journals, and a couple new ones are due out soon in Levitate, but I would love to see them all together in a chapbook.

I have not lived abroad, as Kathleen has, but I have spent a lot of time in small, western towns—and of course I’ve read one of Kathleen’s influences, The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo. Another influence was The Outlaw Years, by Robert M. Coates, about outlaws along the Natchez Trace. Kathleen explains:

Outlaws might yearn for towns without being able to belong to them, because they are outside the boundaries of the law. I found I was writing poems based on [poems of] Richard Hugo and Theodore Roethke…involving repeated words and images. I applied the form restrictions to small towns and outlaws alike, to see what would happen!

To put her books together, Kathleen relies on “1) instinct 2) logic, a paradoxical juxtaposition.” In The Towns she used town names in the titles, particularly at the beginning of the book, “to root us in place.” The outlaws are introduced early, and sort of take over as the poems progress, putting us “outside the boundaries.” The logic of ending with “The Last Word” is hard to refute.

I got to do the release reading for The Towns at Ryburn Place, a shop and visitor center run by Terri Ryburn in the renovated Sprague Super Service gas station along old Route 66, in front of a map where I could point to several of the towns in my poems on or just off Route 66! Other towns in the book are elsewhere in the Midwest or in the American South, and “The Towns” (the title poem) is a mini-autobiography via all the towns and cities I’ve lived in, which also goes to Europe and comes home again. I always cry reading that one out loud, because it comes back to small-town cemeteries.

Photo by Malte Luk from Pexels

The Towns is comprised of 15 poems. Outlaws recur, town names, obviously, but there’s also a kind of intrusion of the natural world into every poem–and, I admit, it’s that element that grabs me every time. In “Beason,” we feast on a series of almost-disjointed images (I had a sense of flipping through a series of postcards), the poet/persona is the outlaw, breaking boundaries, or she’s the “outlaw” deer:


That upstairs window has a woman in it,
or a dress-form. That door is falling off
because a deer walked right up the porch
steps and knocked. I don’t know much
about the town of Beason, except what
I’m not saying, but I know enough to bite

the hand that feeds me this mango, its
hard pit knocking against my teeth
a modified Morse code for love.

It’s possible he’ll leave me here
in Beason at this little lake
where I turn to drop my empty cup
in the rusty can; he’ll run off
in his car, abandon me to the geese.
If he does, I can walk determined

up the road to the nearest mailbox
and right on up the porch steps
to knock, wild-eyed and alive.

—Kathleen Kirk


What Is Poetry?

My daughter just finished a unit on writing poetry with her middle- and high-schoolers. Last night she read one of their poems aloud to me. If you teach poetry, the prompt may be familiar to you (I think it must have been this one, or one like it: The student’s refrain is:

“I am someone dreadfully tired of my cat.”

It goes on, filled with weird specific outrages committed by the cat. My teacher-daughter, her sister, and I were all cracking up by the time it ended. (Perhaps you had to be there to “get it.”) Trust me, the poem was hysterical (and, if you are worried, it was obvious that this student was all wrapped up in her relationship with her kitty).

Our conversation led me to think about the poetry books I’ve read—or am reading—lately. So I’m interrupting my poetry-book-a-day binge to share those with you. Two of the books were recommended by Sharon Bryan in her Hugo House course last fall. And the third was an impulse buy, the last time I visited an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Poem, Revised, edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske and Laura Cherry (Marion St. Press, 2008), collects 50+ essays by poets about their revision process of a specific poem. Mark Vinz’s poem “The Penitent” began as prose, an attempt to get down on paper a memory that had come to him on a sleepless night. It went through many drafts before it appeared in Prairie Schooner. He cites another much-loved poetry book on my shelf:

As Richard Hugo says in Triggering Town, poems tend to have two subjects—what triggers or generates them and what the author discovers they’re really about, which is what emerges through the process of revision. (p. 46)

I found Kathleen Flenniken’s essay especially useful. I’ve been rushing—driving myself—to get a manuscript together, but she writes about setting aside a poem for eight months: “it didn’t have the power I hoped for,” and only then coming back to it, slowly, letting it find itself. The process included her readers, “mentors, more precisely” (p. 300).

The second book is Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, by Barbara Herrnstein Smith (University of Chicago Press, 1968). I’ve been reading a few pages a day of this book and, initially, I wasn’t sure it would be helpful (much emphasis on centuries-old poems). But it has won me over.

First of all, a poem cannot be regarded as totally independent of the poet’s and reader’s extrinsic experiences—not if we recognize that our experiences include language itself, and that it is upon our past linguistic experiences that poetry depends for its most characteristic effects. Moreover, a poem does not, like the proposition systems of mathematical logic, make its own rules; it adopts and adapts the rules (i.e., the conventions) of nonliterary discourse, so that the principles which generate and conclude the one are conspicuously reflected in those of the other. (p. 97)

Herrnstein Smith’s book is not a light read, but it’s now filled with highlighted passages like this line: “successful closure is never a matter of merely gratifying the reader’s conditioned expectations” (p. 138), or—I might add—our own expectations. As Mark Vinz observed, we discover what the poem is about as we revise.

It is not likely that my daughter will be reading either Poem, Revised or Poetic Closure. But a third book is very likely going to be passed along to her: What Is Poetry: The Essential Guide to Reading & Writing Poems, by Michael Rosen (Candlewick Press, 2016).

What Is Poetry is illustrated by Jill Calder, and illustrated in another way by nursery rhymes and ditties and short poems that do what Rosen feels poetry must always do: surprise. (No surprise that the other two books emphasize this as well.) It is pretty obviously aimed toward a younger audience, but I loved it.

Under the heading, “Poetry Can Give an Impression,” Rosen offers this poem, right out of my own childhood:

From a Railway Carriage

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle;
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)



Solstice: Light & Dark of the Salish Sea

Tomorrow evening — Sunday, 11 April 2021, 7 p.m. PST — I’ll be participating in the launch of Solstice: Light & Dark of the Salish Sea (Chuckanut Sandstone Press), a delightful collection of poems, selected (solicited!) and edited by Carla Shafer. The collection features the work of 29 poets in two sections, Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice.

The reading is on Zoom, hosted by Village Books. You can find a list of the poets and register for the reading,  here.

This is my winter solstice poem:

Solstice Song

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea
—Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”

At the winter solstice, darkness
falls early, thin band of copper

as the sun winks out.
No matter how faint the light,

I walk the shore,
hands in my pockets, my hood

pulled up against the wind.
I might be a witch,

muttering incantations.
I might be a raven,

dreaming of spring.
The year turns, indigo,

burnt umber. My words

rhyme with the green weeds,
thick tendrils that lay in windrows

along the dark shore.
What chains are these, light

and lengthening?
What song is this, the sea

bids me sing?

      —Bethany Reid