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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 Vanishexists 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.

Ellen Bass: INDIGO

Oh, my. I have been a fan of Ellen Bass for decades. And now this gorgeous, gob-smacking book. Ellen Bass’s Indigo (Copper Canyon, 2020), makes me want to take the mewling newborn sheaf of poems I’m calling a manuscript and dump them in the shredder. I’ll just start over.

She has a poem for that feeling—in the title poem, “Indigo”: “I can’t stop wishing” she writes, “I want,” “I want”:

I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here. 

In this book, there’s a poem for every feeling you can imagine: despair, lust, fear, envy, love. Maybe it’s that Indigo offers a bouquet of the seven deadly sins, starting with gluttony (I’m thinking of “Sous-Chef,” the first poem, but a few pages later we get “Ode to the Pork Chop”: “the hiss and spit is / a lullaby that’s soothed Homo sapiens / since the discovery of fire”). It’s a cornucopia of delights, one of which is sex.

Except when she dishes up sheer terror: the illness of a spouse, the deaths of parents, the Holocaust.

So I don’t know what else I can do but share a poem. Having spent an inordinate amount of time these past several years writing about my mother, I’m choosing this one. My mom never worked in a liquor store, didn’t have a chronically ill husband, didn’t drink alcohol. But she did have me, memorizing her every move (taking sips of her coffee), taking notes as though I’d need them to become a woman.

Black Coffee

I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken,
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire & Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,
onions and grease, lumber and bleach—she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. She cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a yellow paper napkin.
Years later, when I needed the nightly
highball too, she gave me this story.
She’d left my father in the hospital—
this time they didn’t know if he’d live,
but she had to get back to the store. Halfway,
she stopped at a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat at the booth with her coat still on,
crying, silently, just the tears rolling down,
and the waitress never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.

—Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass is a rockstar, “a living legend,” in the words of Jericho Brown. Though I didn’t include her whole lineup of books, if you’re not already tuned in, you can find more about Ellen at her website here, or here.

Raúl Sánchez: ALL OUR BROWN-SKINNED ANGELS

I first met Raúl Sánchez in 2017 at Book Tree in Kirkland, where I heard him read his poems. He is a gracious presence, the sort of person who makes you feel visible, as though he is graced by your presence, rather than the other way around. He is the poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, and his book, All Our Brown-Skinned Angels (MoonPath Press, 2012) was nominated for the 2013 Washington State Book Award in Poetry. To learn more about him, visit his website or go to Pictures of Poets.

This morning, as I reread his poems, I remembered that brief meeting. I tried to put into words, for myself, why he had made such an impression. Maybe it was only his welcoming manner, maybe only that I went away from that reading feeling encouraged about my own work. In this short poem, for instance, he might be speaking to all the brown-skinned angels, but he is also speaking to other poets:

Breath

At day’s end we try to remain bright
speak colorfully, for words
are like the clothes we wear—
we wear them on our tongues

He is a poet of witness and he invites us to see the world through his eyes, and through the eyes of the people he writes about: minimum wage workers, the brown-skinned boy arrested for looking “like the guy they were after,” the Mestizo, the migrant and Milagro – miracle, the free American.

This is the first poem in the book (following this quote from Blaise Pascal: “The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first”):

Gravity

A woman next to me asks
are you writing a poem?
Scribbles I say
from all the places
I left behind:
family mysteries
incidents come to mind
toilet paper ripping beyond the notches
social arts delivered on snack trays
my father’s business
Uncle Parcel’s tips challenged
revenge’s mastery
philosphers’ teachings
unfamiliar sand tricks
seventy-five degrees longitude
being submerged in holy rivers
anointed paramahamsas
above the self, my self
not for herself, itself
half empty whiskey glasses
translated stories five degrees below
the tropic of cancer
scorching sand illuminated
reflecting sunglasses
empty whiskey glasses
no faith in things unknown
findable frequencies of facts
the world a glass full of rain
the world a plane
landing on a tiny runway
the world at my feet
held down by gravity

—Raúl Sánchez

At the beginning of the second section – dos – of the book, Raúl quotes Gabriel García Márquez: “It’s much more important to write than to be written about.” This strikes me as a key not just to his poetics, but to his way of being. It was a privilege to spend time with him again today.