Upcoming Readings

I admit, Everett Poetry Night keeps slipping away from me — but there it is, at Sister’s Cafe, every Thursday at 5 p.m. This week I’m the featured reader, and I would love to see you there.

And, on July 14, I’m trekking to Chimacum to help celebrate the third edition of The Madrona Project. It’s an awesome line-up of poets, and I’m excited to be one of them.

When:
Thursday, Jul 14 2022, 6:30pm – 8:00pm PDT. copy to my calendar, iCal export
Where:
Finnriver Cider Garden, Cidery Taproom & Orchard 124 Center Road, Chimacum, WA 98325, United States (map)

Human Communities in Wild Places
from Empty Bowl Press
with a Reading by Contributing Writers

Thursday, July 14
6:30 – 8 pm in the Hay Barn

https://www.finnriver.com/farm-music-event-calendar

As Music Isn’t Just Notes on a Page

I love this quote, which I found over at The Poetry Department, so I’m sharing it with you. I’ve been working on a new book of poems, many of which touch on music in some way — a result, I’m certain, of taking piano lessons for the last several years and practicing daily. (No, I will not play for you.) I would love to write a blog post comparing playing music to writing poems, but I’ve never been able to hang onto the fleeting insights that sometimes come to me. Something about notes and rests and counting (also repetition!).

I know that being a complete newbie learner at something is very useful in understanding people’s process in learning anything. But, as I said, it’s a bit elusive; maybe that’s because I’m not trying to write music, only to play it. Garret Hongo says it better:

“As music isn’t just notes on a page or within an improvisatory passage, poems are not simply individual words on a page. They are collections and sequences of language that strike both familiarity — whether that be in meaning or a recognition of its form, its rhetorical scheme — and work a notable change or transformation of meaning and its scheme that defamiliarizes that which had been previously known, that makes it new, as Ezra Pound said poetry had to.”

Garrett Hongo
(b. May 30, 1951)

Meanwhile, I have two fresh publications to share with you, and both are available on the Web. I have a poem, “Pear,” that just posted today at Rust and Moth, and I have an essay, “My Mother’s Birthday in Ireland,” at Chautauqua Journal.

May Swenson (1913-1989)

“The poem is an eyehole to a kind of truth or beauty that is finally unnameable.” –May Swenson

Last week I visited Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and, among other pleasurable tasks, I spent two mornings in the Special Collections section of the Olin Library, pawing through the May Swenson archives.

These are an example of her postcard journal—a stunning practice that I’d like to write more about, and adopt on my own peregrinations.

 

Many years ago—as a freshman in college—I encountered her poem, “The Centaur,” and though her work is varied and electric and vast, it’s as good a place to begin as any.

The Centaur

The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then—
each day I’d go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I’d go on my two bare feet.

But when, with my brother’s jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother’s belt

around his head for a rein,
I’d straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony’s head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.

My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled

and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing in the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What’s that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.

Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field,
I told her.

—May Swenson

For this blogpost, I pulled the quote and the poem from my copy of Swenson’s Collected Poems (The Library of America , ed. Langdon Hammer, 2013). A quick Internet search for “May Swenson books” brought up numerous used copies of her many books. If you don’t know this poet at all, she’s especially well known for writing about the body—or “the animal body”—of which the human is one, and she is also known for her  poems that play with shape and form, such as this:

I hope to circle back and share more—or offer a class. We’ll see!

And — this is a p.s. — you can take a peek at the Charles Johnson or David Wagoner archives by visiting https://humanities.wustl.edu/features/joel-minor-charles-johnson-magic-his-hands.

 

 

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water

WADE IN THE WATER, Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2019, 96 pages, $16 paper, www.graywolfpress.org.

For my last poet in #nationalpoetrymonth, this book is too perfect. Here’s Graywolf Press’s description:

In Wade in the Water, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection includes erasures of the Declaration of Independence and correspondence between slave owners, a found poem composed of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.
https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/wade-water

I lack words enough to describe this book. “Choral arrangement” helps (beginning with the gospel title). “Luminous” seems overused, but I knew when I found the audio version of Wade in the Water, that I would have to try to write about it. It captures both transcendence and terror, life itself. “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I will Tell You All About It,” one title promises us, and Smith delivers. I would love to know more about the process of writing these poems, or “creating” them, as some are erasures and others, collages of voices of slaves, and of Black Civil War soldiers and veterans. Smith brings it all to the page, and hearing her read this book aloud made my day.

Smith’s first book Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize; she served as U. S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. She is a must-read.

This is the first poem in the book, far more conventional than poems later in the collection, but easier for me to reproduce for you. (Find more poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tracy-k-smith#tab-poems.)

Garden of Eden

What a profound longing

I feel, just this very instant,

For the Garden of Eden

On Montague Street

Where I seldom shopped,

Usually only after therapy

Elbow sore at the crook

From a handbasket filled

To capacity. The glossy pastries!

Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!

Once, a bag of black beluga

Lentils spilt a trail behind me

While I labored to find

A tea they refused to carry.

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.

Everyone I knew was living

The same desolate luxury,

Each ashamed of the same things:

Innocence and privacy. I’d lug

Home the paper bags, doing

Bank-balance math and counting days.

I’d squint into it, or close my eyes

And let it slam me in the face—

The known sun setting

On the dawning century.

—Tracy K. Smith

I found numerous recordings on the web, and felt this one–her thoughts on the history and witness of Black poetry, and a tribute to Amanda Gorman–was the perfect one to share.