Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Processional" by Joan Larkin

In Tamilnadu

where it’s still morning,

where the mixed scent of

burning rubber, incense

and excrement hasn’t yet

heated to a thing you sweat

through your feet and tongue,

where day is beginning to burn

through the neem leaves,

a long string of men

snakes along a dirt route, chanting

and in their center like a gold bead

lofted on their shoulders

a man sits in a painted box

its canopy dyed bright yellow

and he, too, is clothed yellow

and his face upturned to the sun

is smeared with turmeric:

a man the color of saffron grain.

He’s leaning back in his high seat

and you see from your safe distance

his stiff posture and open mouth.

You stare as if you’ve never seen the dead:

Francis in his smeared bedding,

your father a waxwork

freakish in mortuary rouge,

all the young men in varnished coffins.

Each death its own strangeness,

a gold face tilted to the light.

Yet common to all. You’re

in this moving line. And he is,

the one you carry, the one you praise

and want to spare.

The line jolts forward

Jaya, jaya, Shiva Shambho

toward the wood and fire,

and you breathe the scent

of everything alive.

Joan Larkin is the author of My Body: New and Selected Poems, which received the Publishing Triangle’s 2008 Audre Lorde Award. Her website, has more information about her previous books including Cold River, A Long Sound, Housework, and Sor Juana’s Love Poems (translated with Jaime Manrique). She has edited four anthologies of poetry and prose and co-edits the University of Wisconsin Press memoir series Living Out. Now in her fourth decade of teaching, Joan teaches in Drew University’s Low-Residency MFA Program in Poetry Writing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Background on "Processional" by Joan Larkin

1. How did your poem come into being?

I traveled through South India in late 2000 and 2001. The unexpected sight of a decorated corpse being carried upright in a chair startled me and stayed with me long afterward. It came back to me years later, when I was sitting at a desk in New Hampshire. I didn't know where the image would take me, but it naturally connected to thoughts of loved friends, and the poem began to spill down the page like the long narrow movement of the funeral procession through trees.

2. Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

The phrase "of everything alive" -- the last line of the poem -- captures for me the way death and life are inextricably joined; I wanted to end the poem with the sense of aliveness in every moment, to express joy about every detail of experience.

3. Do you have a line that gave you particular difficulties?

This may seem a small thing, but poems are made of details –– every word and syllable is a choice: I struggled before choosing to say "clothed yellow," instead of what would have been the more familiar phrasing: "clothed in yellow." I wanted the stronger beat and closer connection between the two words without the unstressed extra syllable "in," but for a while I worried that the phrasing might seem strange and stop the reader. Now, the economical choice seems to me the right one.

4. How long have you been working on poetry?

I wrote silly comic verse at about age 8 or 9, got serious in high school with a ponderous sonnet about Julius Caesar, and in college listened to a teacher who advised me to choose poetry over fiction and focus on becoming a stronger poet. I liked telling stories, and the desire to write fiction kept resurfacing, but I've finally realized that my deepest impulse is more lyrical than narrative.

5. To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

I'd probably say very little! I might say that "Tamil Nadu" is in South India, or mention the details in my answer to question #1, above, or say something about how fascinated I was in India to see faces painted with bright vegetable dyes to show loyalty to particular gods. Or I might mention the connection I found myself making to the many deaths of friends in the AIDS epidemic. These two threads fused, in the poem, with what I hope is a sense of life's vividness and mystery.

6. What poet's work has taught you the most?

It's hard to name just one, but Emily Dickinson keeps surprising me; reading her always feels like a fresh encounter, not a second-hand experience. I'm still learning from her immediacy and thrift, and the combination of wildness and aptness of her metaphors for interior life.

7. Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it.

I grew up in Massachusetts, and Frost's distinctive voice was one of the first that spoke to me. Vividness of sensory details, economy, strong rhythms, and the way darkness and light live together in his poems still move me with their power. Among many memorable Frost poems, I think I'd choose "Desert Places" as one favorite––but on a different day it might be "After Apple-Picking"!

Background on "Journey withMan and Crows" by Raphael Kosek

1. How did your poem come into being?

In a very ecstatic moment—contrary to many others which are generated in a dark moment; my interest here was with sound and emotion. This was one of those poems that telescopes outward first, then inward—kind of an “aerial view” so to speak. And those crows seem to be at the periphery of everything . . .

2. Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

“their noteless unwritten music/piercing old timber, deepening distance”

3 Do you have a line that gave you particular difficulties?

Yes: getting from “cutting color like stained glass” to “riotous rising of the pheasant”; I cast about shamelessly until I came up with “until”! The problem was how to smoothly connect the two images. The poem is all one sentence, so you have to be careful that everything fits, rolls along smoothly.

4. How long have you been working on poetry?

Since age 12 and continuing up through college, then a long hiatus in between until my forties when I realized I’d die a very bitter old woman if I didn’t write. I still remember my first line of poetry: “With great relief and lightness comes the rain.” And I suppose I have always looked to poetry for “relief” and as a way to deal with this life.

5. To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

This is one of those VERY FEW poems that nearly wrote itself; I didn’t know where it was going, but I liked the feel of this “ride” and just gave the horses the reins as they say . . . and of course, it is the journey. And crows, they are always around, at the periphery of everything. Also, I have recently taken up canoeing and am quite in love with it—so that certainly explains that part of the ride.

6. What poets' work has taught you the most.

I would have to say that the late Jane Kenyon’s work taught me the most: that the best poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary; that you can successfully combine dangerous abstracts (like “heart” and “joy” and “grief” ) if you use very concrete imagery to get you there. Her sometimes seemingly simple poems are anything but. Also, Jane Hirshfield has taught me to be spare when it’s important; the right word or image takes the place of many sentences. Again, she is another poet who mixes the concrete with the abstract judiciously and effectively. Billy Collins has shown me that poetry is really serious play, and that you can disarm the reader with humor, and that you must orient the reader in the beginning of a poem before you carry her “off.” The Eastern European poets, Czeslaw Milosc, Wislawa Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski have also taught me to “telescope” outward in order to arrive inward. And vice versa.

7. Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it.

“Desert Places” because it rings so true for me; also “Out, Out” because it’s a tour de force.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Route 1 North, Woolich, Maine" by Tess Taylor

"Route 1 North, Woolich, Maine" has already appeared in the journal Memorious, and in 2008 as Best of the Web.

TESS TAYLOR, 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America. Her work appears widely.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Background on "Route 1 North, Woolich, Maine" by Tess Taylor

RFrostED: How did your poem come into being?

TT:I was listening to a lot of bluegrass that summer I wrote my poem, driving around in a car I'd bought from a Swedish helicopter pilot and thriller novelist I'd met at a writing residency. I didn't know where my next lilly-pad was. I was between things. My car didn't work too well. The Swedish helicopter pilot was back in Sweden. I was listening to the Hackensaw Boys' Keep it Simple on the CD player.

My roaming had brought me to Maine, which is kind of a home base for me. Woolwich is the town before the town where my grandmother has a house. The junk stand I wrote about really does exist, or did exist before it got torn down. It's on an ugly part of rural freeway, along a poorer underbelly in a pretty part of the world. New England is a thrifty place, and Mainers are the thriftiest. Even so, I was fascinated that anyone wanted to sell such things. Cracked stuff lay strewn all over the lawn. I parked next to the cockamamie junk stand to wait while my dad was buying wiper fluid.

The poem started on the back of an envelope or loose scrap of paper. Most of my poems do-- I can't seem to stop jotting little bits of stuff down. This jotting was just an act of observing, of cataloging odds and ends, and feeling, I think as I wrote them down, my sense of the objects' wild impracticality, improbable beauty, and balance of apparent valuelessness and seeming value.

I think sometimes we feel a paradox or pleasurable conundrum in a vista or vibration, even if we can't explain how or why we want to use it. I feel an urge to write before I know what I want or what that wanting should mean, and then some details and scraps tumble out of me in so many apparently useless parts. Then somehow, something else-- some gesture to assemble-- becomes the act of making sense of the vibratory desire. I write down the jumble of details, and then perhaps salvage something within them. Anyway, in that first moment, it was just a note about a junkshop I scrawled on the back of an envelope in a broken down car while bluegrass was playing.

A side note: I like that CD, Keep it Simple, and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's a kind of modern reinvented bluegrass from Charlottesville- a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. It's remade out of a history of a place and time and voice and way of looking. It's an inheritance of sorts, but one that's been re-chosen, grappled with, remade-- one worn or played or carried at a jaunty angle. There's someone in the band who plays the washboard, someone else who plays the spoons. I listened to a song called Ruby Pearl: "she might fuss and she might fight, but it ain't like that all the time...."

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

TT: I suppose I like the phrase May anyone who likes to mend, come mend. In a time when we think about poetry or aesthetics as embodying rupture or divorce, and in a world where we are conscious of quite a lot of fissures, I am interested also in the way that acts of attention-- especially ones embodied in poetry-- can serve to mend what is essentially broken.

RFrostED: Do you have a line that gave you particular difficulties?

TT:Actually, this poem-- when I finally did get it off the back of an envelope-- came quickly.

But I'd like to say that at the time I wrote it, I was also translating a lot of Latin poetry; and that phrase "May anyone who likes to mend" is a special verb tense that came out of being in close dialog with some classic poems. The gesture of ending a poem with a subjunctive wish came out of being in dialog with old poems. I was reading a lot of Ovid, but it happens all over the place, of course. Ending a poem with a wish (may you live for all time in my song)-- is actually an old and familiar kind of poetic trope. I was able to stitch it in here, making a prayer that a mythical someone-out-there could use all these relics and half broken things.

So the grammar was actually a kind of reuse or borrowing, too.

RFrostED: How long have you been working on poetry?

TT: I've been writing on the backs of envelopes for as long as I can remember, but I began my arts training as a classical singer. I thought I'd go to conservatory. Nevertheless, at a crucial moment, I felt somehow called to be a writer, instead. Perhaps it was a sense that I wanted to make as well as just memorize and perform, and I didn't have much chops as a composer. I had a desire to collect and synthesize as well. And I felt very keenly that I wanted to add my voice to some kind of literary conversation- to be part of a conversation that mattered and matters. There was a feeling of wanting to speak, as well as to sing. So I ended up going to a school where I could focus on that. As a writer, I realized that I don't really like imagining big plots. Small ones, small turns of action or phrase, can be enough.

I felt that if language was a site where the conversation mattered, poetry was the place where language was most dense, and where the conversation about language and using language was richest. Soon enough, I came to lyric poetry- which, I think, fit my sense of music. I had always loved and wanted to be part of poetry but around the age of 19 I became more obsessive and galvanized, and began to feel as if I had to try to live with the art. Some of the poems I've kept come from that part of my life.

RFrostED: To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

TT;I'd tell them where Woolich Maine was, and that my family has a house near there. I might tell them that I love thrift shops and flea markets. Probably not much else. Though just above I wrote about the bluegrass, so you know I might mention that too. And what the heck? maybe even my broken down car, which got so banged up it had to be donated to the blind.

RFrostED: What poets' work has taught you the most.

TT: Ovid. Elizabeth Bishop. Frost, of course. Dickinson. Whitman. Robert Pinsky. Rosanna Warren. AE Housman. Gary Snyder. Herrick. John Donne. Shakespeare. Paul Muldoon. James Wright. Robert Hass. Chaucer. AR Ammons. Gwendolyn Brooks. Walcott. Thomas Wyatt.

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it?

TT: I'm a Californian who moved east, and so was Frost. He made up that New England vernacular, but he was from Mill Valley, land of redwoods.
So I love this poem by him, geographically speaking. That's a shortcut, because there are so many to love by Frost, and I suppose this is the one I'm thinking of this moment:

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.

"Journey with Man and Crows" by Raphael Kosek

The saw and swing of it

       that beauty ride, that gorgeous gallop

           that whistling in the hills,

swanning on the water

      as our boats glide unwavering

           through the deep valleys

cutting color like stained glass until

      riotous rising of the pheasant

           from the soft sedge of bottomlands,

rising like the very heart itself

      in the man who looks long

           who breathes the air – incredulous

at what knocks in his chest, what

      floats over the river lifting

           to the tops of wintered trees

where the crows gather and gather

      adding their cries to his life,

their noteless unwritten music

piercing old timber, deepening distance.

Background on "Spring Awakening" by Lollie Butler

1. My poem came into being after I returned to my home state of Maine for a brief visit.

2. My favorite line from my poem is: "This path between two sleeps confounds the mind..."

3. No particular line gave me problems. They were all hard to come by.

4. I have been writing poetry since I first met Robert Frost in Portland, Maine when I was a third-grade school child. I was very impressed by him and his dedication to poetry. I met him again when he opened the Poetry Center at The University Of Arizona in 1960.

5. To read the poem aloud to an audience, I would introduce it thusly:
"In my home state of Maine, as the seasons turn, I always consider my history, the natural world and death. This is a reflection on all together with the detail that "Buddy" was my dog who died and whom we burried on our rural property."

6. I believe Frost--being as he, like me put roots deep into New England-- has influenced me the most. His New England, salty metaphors have always stuck with me. I've also enjoyed Elizabeth Bishop and others too numerous to mention.

7. My favorite Frost poem would be: THE ROAD NOT TAKEN.

"Spring Awakening" by Lollie Butler

Along the road to town the thin ice breaks
To pack my heel and sole in rich mud cakes.
Here apples lie that fell two storms ago,
Hid from the crows beneath a lid of snow,

I shield my eyes to view the fields at dawn,
The steam that coats the sky lifts from the pond.
Now matted creatures start to stretch and creep
Whose winter purpose merely was to sleep,

The snow that melted only yesterday
Reveals the shovel never put away.
Its biting edge honed down to lacey crust;
A seasoned victim of the hand of rust,

From birch wood, birds of lighter feather call
Assuring us their here though prodigal
And there beside the grape roots tangling;
The place we buried Buddy that cold spring.

A flock of ravens turns agains the sun
To say it's time to get a day's work done
As I return along the river's glare
To fence posts needing seasonal repair.

This path between two sleeps confounds the mind
Of those more schooled and wiser than my kind.
Each day I take up ax with hands worn rough
As sleep will overtake me soon enough.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Background on "Carved in Stone"

RFrostED: How did your poem come into being?

GRC: I started the poem on a sleepless night in a motel, after visiting my father's gravesite in KY for the first time.

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

GRC: Yes, first off I liked the way repetitions started cropping up, then became part of the music, which I began using consciously; the music and repetition landed pleasingly, for me, on the closing line.

RFrostED: How long have you been working on poetry?

GRC: I've been writing poetry for about 19 years, navigating a long struggle with evolving craft.

RFrostED: To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

GRC: I would probably mention the stimulus that led to the poem, i.e. that moment seeing my dad's name carved in stone.

RFrostED: What poets' work has taught you the most.

GRC: I've learned so much by studying with and reading about and reading the works of poets I love, but I don't think I can narrow it down to a single strongest influence. Some of my favorites are Stephen Dunn, Stanley Kunitz, Mark Doty, and Jane Kenyon, but there are many more.

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it.

GRC: I have always loved "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" but I might stop short of choosing one poem that's a favorite.

"Carved in Stone" by Gayle Reed Carroll

Carved in Stone

Something about the coldness in the letters of a name
carved in granite: cold gray sheen
something in the way it weighs down soil
a few hours loosened, tamped back down
something in the letters of a name
cold, plain-spoken, straight, something
in the letters, his name her name
printed in stone, like a tablet / like a lid
holding down the loosened soil
the tamped-down soil
rained-on snowed-on blown-on soil
lidded down, back cover of a book you loved
finished now, returned to its place
beside the ones whose words whose claims
had stirred the blood awhile
their own covers sloughing away
decade by year by day by hour
How many names have you read like this
the spelled-out numbered names the frame of dates
something about this, the name you knew
name you know, carved in stone,
the way it weighs their days,
tamps their silence down.

Gayle Reed Carroll has taught Art, primarily in the Clairton, Pennsylvania public schools, and calligraphy at Carnegie Mellon University and in the Mt. Lebanon School District’s Adult Education program. She earned an AB in Art at Hood College and an MFA in Graphic Design at CMU. She began writing poetry in the early nineties and has studied with poets including Stephen Dunn, Kenneth Rosen, Jan Beatty, Patricia Dobler, Lynn Emanuel, and Heather McHugh. Wendell Berry selected her poem, "Dementia," as first prize winner in the Thomas Merton Institute's Poetry of the Sacred Award in 2009. Other poems have appeared in several small magazines and anthologies, including Poet Lore, The Comstock Review, City Paper, Black River Review, and Voices from the Attic. Carroll is a resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Here's the background on "Crossing to Fox Island" supplied by the author, Gregory Loselle.

1. How did your poem come into being?

"Crossing to Fox Island" is part of a book-length manuscript I worked on in the year or so after my maternal grandfather died. The book as a whole (which I'm seeking to have published) is a work of grief and remembrance, feelings which I think echo nostalgically throughout the poems. Part of the strategy I followed was to compile important childhood memories of growing up in and around my grandparents' house, linking them with the surroundings--Elba Island, off Grosse Ile, south of Detroit--and redacting them, as it were, by working them into a larger framework of remembered experience.

2. Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

The first and last lines, which are the key to understanding the construction I've make of the experience, are my favorites.

3 Do you have a line that gave you particular difficulties?

Not particularly, though I did fret a bit about "from land to island," which sounded too easy.

4. How long have you been working on poetry?

I've been writing seriously since high school, so for about 30 years.

5. To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

I've just done that for my high school students, as I told them about the award. Since I teach in the community where the poem is set, it was easy to draw the parallels between my experience and theirs.

6. What poets' work has taught you the most.

Frost is important, of course, as is T.S. Eliot--the first and last lines of "Crossing" echo the "In my beginning is my end/In my end is my beginning" lines from "Four Quartets"--but I'm a big fan of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes as well, and I love Wallace Stevens.

7. Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it.

I have favorite moments from Frost: his line "what to make of a diminished thing" from "The Oven Bird" was a thematic model for "Crossing."

"Crossing to Fox Island" by Gregory Loselle

Crossing to Fox Island

Every act is first an act of faith:
One foot, slowly, lowered to the ice,
And then the other, and we stand
Above the vault the river winters under,

And look across the flat unreal expanse,
Imagination telling us we cannot stand
Where water ought to be-- where water is
Beneath us. Then we start across the ice.

Some patches, dark and flat, are panes of glass,
Like windows into night beneath our feet,
Where trapped air scatters from our steps
Reminding us that we are more like stones

Than shadows, howsoever lightly
We might cross above the shuttered flow
And tread the temporary span from land
To island. Snow abrades the most of it:

Bright crusty scabs that crumble underfoot,
And leave us gasping, stumbling in the space
Above the space we occupied, reminded
Of the weight above the depths below.

One inch will hold one walker, if he's light,
And two a group, and three or four a car:
We counted out the thickness as we dressed
And count it as we walk across it now,

And onto land again, the island's crested beach,
The trees that rise among the drifts. And looking back
We measure out the distance, trace our tracks,
Where every act of faith was first an act.

--Gregory Loselle

Since Loselle was not present in Lawrence when the award was announced, Jarita Davis, the 2009 judge, read the poem, recorded by Lawrence Community Cable Access in the video beolw:

Since publishing his first work, a play, at the age of eighteen, Gregory Loselle has won four Hopwood Awards at The University of Michigan, where he earned an MFA. He has also won The Academy of American Poets Prize, the William van Wert Fiction Award from Hidden River Arts, and The Ruby Lloyd Apsey Award for Playwriting. Most recently, he is the winner of the 2009 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.

A chapbook, Phantom Limb, was published in 2008--and another, Our Parents Dancing, is forthcoming--from Pudding House Press. His short fiction has been featured in the Wordstock and Robert Olen Butler Competition anthologies, as well as in The Saturday Evening Post, and his poetry has appeared in The Ledge, Oberon, The Comstock Review, Rattle, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Pinch, Alehouse, Sow’s Ear, and online in The Ambassador Poetry Project.

He teaches secondary Language Arts and Art History in southeastern Michigan, drilling his students in the distinctions between can and may, good and well.