Upcoming Poetry Class

I am teaching a poetry class — a project a LONG time in the works, by the way — and deserving of some fanfare.

The class begins Friday, May 26 — two classes, sort of — one on-ground, 3:30-5:00 (at my house; there are a couple seats left), and one on-line, 11:30-1:00 (plenty of room).

The title is “Your Memorable Poem.” My theme is inspired by a friend who, looking at a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, said, “I could never write a poem like that.” Of course it’s not easy (if it were, then we wouldn’t need NSN), but I think you could. The way to begin is to look very closely at how the poem is made, not to “slice and dice it,” or “master it,” but to sit with the poem, as if interviewing it, or sharing a meal. What did this poet do, in order to create this poem’s effect on us? We’ll have a little time to write, and time to offer feedback to each other.

The class runs five Fridays (May 26, June 9, 16, 23, and 30). Given the nature of Junes in my past (with children graduating and vacations to launch, etc.), and because this is an introductory class, I am happy to substitute an hour one-on-one for you if you must miss a session.

Here’s the one-paragraph description.

Many of us come to poetry because of gorgeous, memorable poems that inspired us years back, the sort of poems we carry with us and share with friends. As children perhaps it was a poem by William Wordsworth or Robert Frost, but even as adults, as accomplished poets ourselves, we may find ourselves saying, “I wish I’d written that,” after reading a poem—for me, “Happiness” by Jane Kenyon, or “Beannacht” by John O’Donohue. I remember a recent trauma when Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Love the Mutilated World” kept me from sinking into despair. Some grittier examples come to mind, too. (Inspiring poems aren’t always gorgeous. Sometimes they convey a hard truth that hits us in the gut.) In this class we’ll look at a range of such poems—you can bring your favorites, too—to see how they’re made, especially noticing the gestures we can borrow as we make our own poems.

If you’re curious, contact me for more information, including the cost: bethany.alchemy@gmail.com

poetry word cloud – handwriting on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee

Colleen McElroy, Blood Memory

BLOOD MEMORY, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260, 2016, 112 pages, $15.95 paper, www.upress.pitt.edu.

I met Professor Colleen J. McElroy when I was a newly minted MFA student at the University of Washington in 1985. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “storyteller.” Yes, she taught us (a lot) about poetry and the making of poems, but part of the glamor of her classes, for me, was when she would lean back in her chair, half-close her eyes, and begin telling a story. She put all of us in a trance.

The stories were about her travels—which were many; about poets she’d met and read with all over the world; about her St. Louis childhood; about her family, particularly the women who taught her how to tell stories. Reading Blood Memory transports me back to her classrooms, and to her office where, as my faculty advisor, she met with me (and regaled me) weekly. I read these poems, and I hear her voice, its cadence, its rich timbre, her laughter. And, sometimes, I can see her, fixing me with a look that she must have learned at the feet of the indomitable women who peopled her childhood.

from “Paint Me Visible”:

in a family of beautiful intelligent and profoundly
crazy women     one danced in the dark
to soothe her nerves      another wove shawls
from her husband’s hair and discarded both
when the work was done      another read palms
tea leaves   cards   anything that left an imprint
on her inner eye    neighbors said she saw
things nobody else could describe

From hopscotch rhymes to blues, through birth, abortion, estrangement, exile, and return no one can describe this world the way McElroy can. Here is the book’s opening poem:

The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the questions
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now lived again through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of the metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

—Colleen J. McElroy

From the back cover, these words of description and praise:

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Cloudy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn’t know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.” —Nikki Finney

Exactly so.

To read more about Colleen J. McElroy, find her at The Poetry Foundation, Historylink.org, and I recommend this interview with Bill Kenower of author magazine.org. Here she talks about where she learned to tell stories. And (love this) she talks about poetry as not just any relationship, “but an affair.” Maybe that helps explain the clotted love that breaks to the surface in poem after poem in this book.

I first read Blood Memory when it was released in 2016. It was a delight to read it this morning and enter the trance again.


John Freeman’s Wind, Trees

WIND, TREES, John Freeman. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368, 2022, 79 pages, $17 paper, www.coppercanyongpress.org.

I find I am rather late to the party, in terms of appreciating John Freeman. His bio notes include… well, so much (follow the links to see), and Dave Eggers called him, in a Los Angeles Times review, “one of the preeminent book people of our time.” Freeman’s previous books of poetry are Maps (2017) and The Park (2020). I found traces of him all over the web, and you’ll find a couple more links at the bottom of this post.

But my goal here is to write about Freeman’s exquisite third book of poems, Wind, Trees, and perhaps tempt you to take a look for yourself.

This short poem I include simply because it blew my mind (and I have a thing for pianos). It is in the wind section of the poems, by the way, and it beautifully chimes with the book’s epigraph from Jack Gilbert: “We are a shape the wind makes in these leaves / as it passes through. We are not the wood / any more than the fire, but the heat which is a marriage / between the two.” This one short poem shows how Freeman has married the book’s two themes together, subtly and not so subtly, everything interconnected:


Who thought to thread
wire through the belly
of a tree, dress its grin with
ivory? Recline it on
its side like a body. Toes to
touch, see. Brilliant blanc,
gold as honey, black as
night lake, it’s always wet.
We’re all water poured into
form. The mystery
of our making, made in every
thing we make, even
if we have to learn how to play.

—John Freeman

Freeman is stingy with punctuation (not in “Piano,” but elsewhere); despite the paucity of periods and commas, the poems have a clarity to them that sings. Even more so, the images in the poems carry us over any difficulty, as in this opening to “Perigee”: “On nights when the moon / is like a hand on my cheek…” Another strong thread here is the science, or what we might call climate science (which Freeman writes about in his prose books). In “Wind”: “Now we know wind is a gap / in atmospheric pressure / gases flowing from high to low / so leaves turn up their tips / umbrellas bend back and roofs / rip off maybe a small cross breeze / blows sweat off our burning bodies….” I highly recommend his poem “The Trees of City Hall” where science and history entwine.

Maybe I should elaborate about the prose books, which include Tales of Two Americas, an anthology about income inequality in America, and Tales of Two Planets, an anthology of new writing about inequality and the climate crisis globally. They tip us off to Freeman’s obsessions.

Here is one more poem, this one diving into etymology of the oud, which (I have now learned) is a lute-like instrument played primarily in Arab countries. Again, music. As he does in many of his poems, Freeman braids his Oud with other themes, and the poem emerges as a love poem.


In Arabic it means wood, and in its cousin
Syriac, burning wood. Cognate to od, as in
the old Hebrew, stick used to stir wood
in a fire. Some days it burns, on others
it simply is, and on occasion it stirs what’s
there. Today from the bedroom the oud’s sound
wakes me and the body inside my body turns over,
the one that remembers not being yours, merely
a visitor, I’d never heard Wadih el-Safi sing
his mawals, a longing unashamed. I’d find you
in the kitchen cooking your father’s food,
air smoky and fragrant, sharpened by
lament. I’d never imagine how cinder-lined
were your days, how little of what was
remained, I’d grown up in a country of
thin wood, pale sky, dateless palms, but you
welcomed me anyway, and as Wadih el-Safi
belted out his psalms, you did me
the kindness of promising me this wasn’t
practice for what time would bring.

—John Freeman

One delight is how he has worked in “palms” and “psalms” only a few lines apart from one another.

I found a poem at Lit Hub (one of my favorite literary sites): https://lithub.com/without-a-poem-by-john-freeman/, and here is John Freeman reading a poem “Among the Trees” at  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/26/among-the-trees.

Sati Mookherjee

WAYS OF BEING, Sati Mookherjee. MoonPath Press, PO Box 445, Tillamook, OR 97141, 73 pages, $16 paper, http://MoonPathPress.com.

I am writing a “real” review of this book—Mookerjee’s second, and the winner of the 2023 Sally Albiso Award—to be posted at Escape Into Life (EIL) on May 5, 2023, its release date. So consider this a preview, my quick appreciation and shout-out to a stirring collection.

Washington State Book Award winner Sharon Hashimoto says in her cover blurb:

Rhythms, images and juxtapositions in these poems flow like waves filling and emptying, from past to present to what might be—all while glorying in occlusions. Sati Mookherjee’s lively word play questions our definitions, boundaries around spaces, and leads to fresh and original epiphanies…

“Occlusion,” a fine old word meaning “the blockage or closing of an opening, blood vessel, or hollow organ,” often used in a medical context. In these poems, where Salish Sea, tideflats, “the great lung of bay,” are loved, and desecrated like human bodies, the word is completely appropriate.

I’ll get carried away if I go on (and I want to save that for the review), so I’ll offer this short poem (some are quite long), as a teaser:


Lay your warm body on the warm earth
and sense how deep the roots go, the roots

we can’t see, think of the acres
of hot black lightless matter under your body.

I think the past is a perfectly fine place to live.
Why not be native to it, visit the present

as necessary, a tourist, in transit, on a brief journey.
I can see you’re dying. This terrarium,

even with its carefully laid nests of leaves and grass
and twigs, can’t keep you, I don’t want to keep you,

go home, back to where you need to be.

—Sati Mookherjee

I’m not sure “Ground” is the right choice—so many of the poems are grounded (deeply) in the present. These are poems of witness. A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Mookherjee enjoins us to treasure our time here, on earth, adjacent to water.

Ways of Being is available now for presale. Visit MoonPathPress.com for more information. I’ll update the links when the full-length review is posted.

[Update 4.28.23] Mookherjee’s book launch is this coming Sunday in Bellingham, and you can reserve your seat now: https://www.villagebooks.com/event/litlive-sati-mookherkee-043023 

My review of Ways of Being can be found here: https://www.escapeintolife.com/book-reviews/book-review-ways-of-being-by-sati-mookherjee/