Paul E. Nelson, American Sentences

AMERICAN SENTENCES: ONE POEM, EVERY DAY, TWENTY YEARS, Paul E. Nelson. Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21210, 120 pages, $11.99 paper,

Honest-to-goodness, there’s nothing I can add that will make this better. (That is my 17 syllables today.) To learn more about the American Sentence, visit Paul’s homepage and navigate to: All will be explained.

Paul E. Nelson is the founder of multiple poetry movements in the Pacific Northwest—or Cascadia, as he prefers. I very much recommend the August Poetry Postcard Fest. (Find lots of information here.)

Paul’s 17-syllable sentences in this book span twenty years (an earlier edition covers 14 years). They are sometimes silly, sometimes grounded in nature, sometimes sexy (sometimes raunchy), often elegiac, always curious. They offer a history of Paul’s personal life (loss of a father, loved mentors such as northwest legend Sam Hamill, birth of a child, travels). And they offer a history of our world in the decades they cover. Some of the sentences offer writing advice; some (many) would be good poem-starters.

Here’s a smattering:

1.06.09 – Michael says he gets writer’s block about 6 or 7 times a day.

N.20.10 – Want to call her and tell her I forgot my cell phone but I forgot my cell phone.

1.25.07 – David fantasizing: I wonder what she looks like without her cellphone.

10.2.13 – In the self-help section of Last Word Books, there are only typewriters.

10.29.14 – The biosphere’s being destroyed & you’re writing poems about pie.

12.18.14 – A two year old’s Jingle Bells: “No no no, no no no, no no no no…”

4.3.2015 – Sam tells me: “Reading Zukovsky is like doing a crossword puzzle.”

5.27.2015 – The buttercups in the neighbor’s lawn do not consider themselves weeds.

6.5.16 – If someone offers you a pancake shaped like the Buddha, eat it.

8.3.17 – Hacking at the moment’s shadow 17 syllables at a time.

1.14.19 – I know, drugs, surgery & radiation and edit your poems.

7.12.2019 – Amy Miller calls the postcard fest a “low-pressure laboratory.”

8.5.19 – If you have no inner life by age 60, your life caves in on you.

12.15.20 – Your yoga pants collection is not indicative of an inner life.

Paul has a new book, or an old book in a new edition: And when I attended his #nationalpoetrymonth book launch a couple weeks ago, I bought American Sentences and told him I would read it. So, this morning, I did.

Open the PDF at his American Sentences page, scroll to the bottom, and at the end you’ll find this:

Exercise: Go out and take 10 minutes to slow down, look around and get two American Sentences. It is not as easy as writing seventeen syllables, but having a notebook on you at all times, making a commitment to writing one a day, or two a week, or whatever, will keep your hand in it at times when you are not writing much else. You can also go back and have a short, imagistic journal that may serve as source material for other poems. Remember: Imagistic, Juxtaposition, Found Poems, Mindfulness, rhythm, busted syntax, condensed, demotic speech. Refrain from commentary. It’s a bad habit. American Sentences, on the other hand… Look! He says he has American Sentences on the other hand!

Slow down, look around, carry a notebook. How can this be anything but good?

Writing a Postcard

I’ve been in a funk this summer, and feeling, frankly, as though all this writing is pointless. Aren’t there already enough books in the world? Despite good friends, despite a class in which I was assigned to write one metaphor per day. (Which can also be similes, “This weird funk, purple like Puget Sound at dusk,” or brilliant word substitutions: “A blue funk washed over me.”) Despite walks. Despite baking many loaves of sourdough bread.

But it is August, and that means POPO, or POetry POstcard Fest. I don’t always sign up for August, as I participate in my friend Carla’s February postcards event each year. But this year, August postcards feels like a good idea. Somewhere I have a quote written down, about letting go of expectations and big-picture goals and doing just the one next right thing. The metaphors can be that next right thing; the postcards can be that next right thing.

Carla’s postcard month is about peace — the idea being that if you want more of something in your world, then you can begin by putting more of it into your world. I like the idea of writing all month on a theme, and in February I wrote about peace, but also about my marriage and gratitude. (The original had the word peace embedded in it somewhere.)

Violinist at the Window

Henri Matisse, 1918

Shades of ochre and orange
make me think of the grapefruit
my husband bought yesterday
at the market, and of the grapefruit spoon,
a Valentine’s Day gift,
used this morning at breakfast.
The song Matisse’s violinist plays
is Chopin, a prelude, or maybe a nocturne,
and those make me think, too,
of my husband. Notes lifting
from the violin, both sweet and tart.

–Bethany Reid

This morning, in my attempts to distract myself, I drifted over to a couple favorite blogs: one being Rita’s Notebook,  the other, photographer Loren Webster’s In a Dark Time… After reading other people’s words, I can tell myself, “See, someone is reading. It does matter.” You don’t have to be Stephen King or James Patterson to have readers.

Then I visited my old blog, One Bad Poem, and reread posts from around the time of my father’s death. I had a houseful of teenagers! And I was teaching! And I kept writing! Gratitude was splashing all over me. So many farm pictures, so many stories and scraps of poems…

When you write a poem on a postcard and mail it, you know that you have at least one reader.

So this August, in addition to wanting a little more kindness and generosity toward my own writing life (from me, I mean), I’m asking myself, what else do you want more of in the world, Bethany? That’s what I’ll be writing about. And so here I am, writing it down again, and feeling grateful for you, reading these words (grateful for comments and emails, too).

Next, another loaf of sourdough bread.

Carla Shafer

AUGUST POETRY POSTCARD FESTIVAL 2011, Carla Shafer. 2011. self-published, 32 pages,

My dear friend Carla Shafer is a force to be reckoned with. In addition to being a fine poet (and coordinating multiple poetry events in her hometown of Bellingham, Washington),  she’s a political activist for peace and justice, and a fierce advocate for indigenous peoples, as well as our beleaguered planet.  No matter how bleak the headlines, she never despairs, but always sees a way through. She inspires me every day.

I have several of Carla’s self-published chapbooks of poems and I’ve been after her to pull together a collection to submit to presses. Here is one poem, written nine summers ago. (To learn more about the August Poetry Postcard Festival, visit Paul Nelson’s

Beauty and My Story Return

To see for the first time (with your own eyes),
the steady up and down flux of wings
by a stilled butterfly and realize what it means–
that it is sucking nectar through its proboscis
in rhythm, feeding from the pool below the petals.
When you compare that to something you have watched
all your life–noisy bees hovering over borage
and lavender–you continue to wonder, follow the
threads of your own unanswered questions
step again to the drum, apply pressure
from your fingers wing-like, tap in steady motions
repeat the throbbing of the earth, buried in your heart
somewhere between the buzz and the silence.

–Carla Shafer