Priscilla Long: HOLY MAGIC

For our last book of my National Poetry Month jamboree, I reread Priscilla Long’s Holy Magic (MoonPath Press, 2020) and was once again astonished by its interplay of light and language, science and art, artists and song. If you don’t already have this book on your shelf, you should find a copy immediately. It’s a tutorial in how to live …and write. And though suffused with color and light, it isn’t afraid of the dark: death marches through these poems with its equal-opportunity scythe (Trayvon Martin, Matisse, Otis Redding, the poet’s sister, old friends, old loves, even a young T. Rex). Comprising seven sections and 56 poems, Holy Magic is … well, magic. I loved spending time in this book again, and delighted especially in soundplay that bumps and grinds and burns its way through every page:

Fire is cookery, crockery,
Celtic cauldrons worked
in iron or gold—smoke
of sacrificial fat.

(from “Ode to Fire”)

Holy Magic is arranged by the color wheel, and so artists are invited in, not just their art—as it strikes me this morning, but their bodies—as in lines from this short poem dedicated to Meret Oppenheimer:

Kisses rot under logs.
Lost purple thrills
perfume purloined shadows

(from “What Can Happen”)

Priscilla is one of my oldest friends, and of course I contacted her and asked a few questions. She responded with a treatise on how to gather poems and turn them into books. I am happy to share all her largesse here. (For more along this vein, see her brilliant, short book Minding the Muse.) I started the email exchange by asking how books are made; she went straight to the poems themselves:

First comes one poem and then another and then another and then one book and then another and then another. I’ve composed 667 poems so far, the first in the 1970s. I keep the poems in three-ring binders, latest version only, in chronological order, with the date of composition (not dates of revision) at the bottom, along with any publication data. This is a resource base essential to my process of shaping a book.

I had written many dozens of poems and seen many published in journals before my first book, Crossing Over: Poems was published by The University of New Mexico Press. The shape of that book was strongly influenced by the press’s mission to publish poetry having to do with the West. I’ve lived in the West for almost forty years but grew up on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, so have many poems having nothing to do with the West. I put all the poems “of the West” in a file folder and went from there.

My second book, Holy Magic won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book award from MoonPath Press. This book is organized by the color wheel. I’m entranced with colors, their histories and lexicons and power to influence our moods and being. Often I work a theme in both poetry and prose, and this is the case with the color poems in Holy Magic. Thus I have poems titled “Blues Factory” and “The Blue Distance” and “Otis Redding” and also a prose piece titled “Blue Note.” As usual I already had some of the poems and also composed many new poems to fit into the wheel.

The third book, which I’ve just completed and started circulating, is titled Somewhere / Nowhere / Here: Cartographies of Home. For the first time, I had the title first, a capacious title, I think. Again I went into my old poems to seek ones that fit (and were not published in a previous book) and also wrote new poems. It has been a tremendously enjoyable project.

Completed before the pandemic, many of the poems in Holy Magic resonate with the last year’s solitude, from which we are only now emerging (I haven’t been inside a room with Priscilla for 14 months!). This poem, for one instance:

Tasks of Solitude

I am working out the vocabulary of my silence. —Muriel Rukeyser 

To learn the dawn-purpled dark,
winter’s ruby light rinsing
rugs and books. To hone obedience
to cats: cat-blinks, cat-lappings.
To keen the silvery moon
hung on a dark throat.

To unlock the door:
to enter the room of blue jugs.
To pour darkness from the coffeepot,
to learn the edges of darkness:
doorjamb, floorboard, candleflame,
the wavering edge where desire
thickens and vanishes like smoke.

—Priscilla Long

But, lest you think she works in isolation, this:

Poetry happens as part of a community, beginning with the community of all poets, living and long gone. My friend Bethany Reid (of this blog) and I have worked together on poetry ever since we met in the poet Colleen McElroy’s workshop in 1989 in the MFA program at the University of Washington. In the past year we have undertaken the project of alternately finding a model poem to scrutinize and learn from. We then each compose a poem and we workshop them at a weekly meeting (on Zoom).

I have my monthly workshop, brilliant perceptive writers and visual artists that I cannot do without. We have been meeting for thirty years.

I am a teacher of writing, including poetry, but I take a class from time to time, mostly at Hugo House. I like classes that involve generating new poems: I’m about to take another from the fine poet and teacher Deborah Woodard. During the Holy Magic process I took a class from Sierra Nelson on writing color poems—a great class!

Reading a poem at one or another of the open mics around town (now around Zoom) is an essential piece of bringing a poem up.

My final question was to ask how she knows when a book is finished. How do you stop fidgeting with it, and send it into the world?

How do I tell a when book of poems is thoroughly cooked? After it is what I call “quote done” I read over the whole thing every morning. This can go on for months. Most mornings I find something to tweak. When several days go by with nothing to tweak, it might be done. Then there’s the process of having one or two poets read the whole thing. Their ideas are important and invariably prompt further tweaks.

Now I am in the floundering-about stage of shaping another book. What are my themes and concerns? Animals? The environment? Our beloved, broken country?

One more short poem to whet the appetite:

Consider the Red Pear

So what good are your scribblings? —H.D.

Beauty. The red pear
Cézanne painted among jade
and wood. Or Miró’s orange
sun rising in Red Sun. Or H.D.’s
charred apple tree blooming
in the bombed ruin of London.
The poet’s pale petals drift
down our long years. Art endures.
The stylus, the palette,
the pen, the quill endure. 
In my backyard, a stone
Buddha laughs.

—Priscilla Long

To learn more about Priscilla, visit her “about” page at her website, which includes this interview with Seattle book-goddess Nancy Pearl.

To purchase Priscilla’s books, or any books you have encountered on your journey with me this past month:

Local Poets Read

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

If you’re a poet looking for more poets to read (or listen to) — here are three offerings by local poets today.  All events are free, or for a token donation.


John L. Wright, Thursday, April 29th, 2021    6:30 – 7:30PM EST / 3:30 – 4:30 PST

The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association is delighted to present a live poetry reading with Physician and Poet John L. Wright. His poetry explores humanity’s relationship and place among the fauna and flora of the natural world. Singer-Songwriter Linda Sussman will perform her original songs live. Join us in celebrating Poetry Month on Zoom! Register for this event here.


Kim Stafford, Sy Hoahwah, and Kathleen Flenniken, April 29, 2021 6:30 – 7:45 pm.

Books in Common NW Series–a reading and conversation with Kim Stafford (Singer Come from Afar, Red Hen Press), Sy Hoahwah (Ancestral Demon,University of New Mexico Press) and Kathleen Flenniken, jointly sponsored by three great Northwest book sellers — Paulina Springs Books (Oregon) , Madison Books (Washington) and Country Bookshelf (Montana). 6:30 – 7:45 pm PDT.  Free. Follow the link to find the registration. And notice that this is a series, airing every Thursday.


And finally, this from Tacoma Public Library:

Thursday, April 29, 2021
6:30 pm – 7:30 pm PDT
Online event

Join local poet Kevin Miller as he reads from his new book, VanishVanish is the winner of the Wandering Aengus Book Award and Kevin Miller’s fourth book of poetry. WAP Poetry Editor Tina Schumann says of the poems, “Kevin Miller’s collection Vanish exists in the quiet certitude of lives lived moment to moment, hour by hour and generation to generation. These poems illustrate that it is the varied stuff of this life that makes us whole—farmhouses, sparrows and mackerel, smoke from a cigarette, candles in a window, a question asked over dinner—illuminating each small gesture and ache as they vanish into time, but permeate the living and the land they occupy.” Kevin has received grants from Artist Trust, Tacoma Arts Commission, and was a member of the Jack Straw Writers Program. He was a Fulbright Teacher in Denmark and taught in the public schools of Washington State for thirty-nine years. He lives in Tacoma.

Kim Stafford

Today’s blogpost comes to you courtesy of Bellingham poet, peace worker, and my tireless friend Carla Shafer.

On Tuesday, 27 April 2021—6:00pm to 7:00pm—Village Books hosts Kim Stafford for the Bellingham launch of his latest collection, Singer Come From Afar. (Click on the link to go to Village Books.) This event is part of the Nature of Writing Series run in partnership with the North Cascades Institute.

I love this book. Kim Stafford writes from a deep well of gratitude and human goodness. Some of his poems are furious, some are sly and funny, some are simply beautiful, and all create a space for readers to catch their breath and reflect on the glories of this lovely, reeling planet and the sins against it. What greater gift could a poet give a worried, weary world?

—Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music

Kim Stafford is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including Having Everything Right (a collection of essays); Early Morning (a biography of William Stafford); We Got Here Together (a children’s book), and The Muses Among Us (a book about the practice of writing). In 2018-2020 he served as Oregon’s poet laureate, and he has taught writing in Mexico, Scotland, Italy, and Bhutan.

Here’s a poem from Kim’s website.

Home School Thoughts for All of Us

In the pandemic, what should we all be learning?

Self reliance
How to cook a meal. How to clean a house, a porch, a yard.
How to plant a garden. How to use tools. How to fix
broken things: sew a button, mend a hole, do laundry,
wash dishes like a pro.

Buoyancy
How to be sad and get over it. How to find the music
that restores you. How to walk so your troubles fall from
your shoulders. How to write your troubles to make them
visible, then manageable, then smaller, and finally funny.

Friendship
How to know a true friend. How to let go old friends
who make you feel bad about yourself. How to give
generously to a friend by listening, asking, wondering.
How to feed a friendship so it roots, deepens, grows.

Thought
How to think something through. How to question
your fears, interrogate them, talk back to them. How to remember
something so precious you are less afraid. How to make clear
what most calls to you, what you love, what you will do to sustain it.

Dreams
How to have a dream toward a life worth planning for, saving for,
working for. How to design ways to make steady progress toward
a worthy goal. How to identify a dream that is so important, you will
let go lesser things to achieve it.

Thrift
How to know what you need. How to pare away what you do need—
objects, habits, false wishes, propaganda coming at you that is foreign to
who you are—so you can give your energy to what you really want.

Love
How does it feel in your body when love is real—love for a person,
for a place, for a feeling about who you really are, a longing for
what you most want to do with this life? This is your compass,
your inner landmark, your truth principle. Only you can know.

Maintenance
Health. Rest. Calm. Breath. Patience. Affection. Humor. Active hope.

—Kim Stafford

 

Joanna Thomas

Joanna Thomas writes uncommon books, and this one, bluebird (bloo-burd), is no exception. What great fun to find it this week in my mail.

As explained at the website for Milk & Cake Press, blue-bird (bloo•burd) employs the lipogram, a poetic constraint which requires that a poet not use a certain letter of the alphabet. Using words starting with “B” as the title of each poem, the poems themselves, written as lyrical, lovely dictionary entries, exclude it.

Joanna invited me to write a blurb for her book, and, not understanding that b’s were banned, this is what I wrote — or a fragment of it (I seem to recall going into rhapsodic excess):

bes·ti·ar·y (bes-chi-er-ee) adj. 1. a blast of burgeoning delights. 2. an imaginarium containing bluebirds, hawks, magpies, unicorns, and wing nuts with actual wings. 3. pages that light up like whirligigs.

But you really have to see it for yourself to believe it. So, a sample poem, the first in this delightful collection:

 

baf·fle (bafēl)

n. 1. something that aids the eye in aiming. 2. a plethora of afterthoughts; or, a finger pointing at the moon. 3. a final lap, when used as a hassock or a pillow:  Confusion rested its weary tangle upon the tongue’s baffle. 4. the knowing of warp from weft; this from that; come from go; soup from nuts. 5. a fat girl in fishnets. 6. the sound of lips smacking sweet. 7. anaphora, spewed from full lungs; also, thunder, when it’s stolen

Need I add, this begs to be a writing prompt? For more ideas see my blogpost about her book, Rabbit, an erasure poem, or visit her uncommon blog: https://www.joannathomas.xyz.