August Poetry Postcard Fest

FullSizeRender copy.jpgWatercolor postcard painted by me!

I just finished taking part in the 11th August Poetry Postcard Fest. It was the second time I signed up to send original poems on postcards for every day of the month of August. That’s 31 days, 31 poems! For a poetry project, the postcard fest is a bit rule-bound. There was a Facebook page for making connections during the fest, some people loved it, others felt it hindered the pure snail-mail experience. I checked in every once in a while and posted some pics of cards going out. The major ‘rule’/suggestion which I was unable to adhere to both times I’ve taken part in the fest involved composing directly onto the postcard. It’s not that I worry about my handwriting, though the few cards I wrote out by hand were near illegible. I did compose directly onto the first few cards this time around, but abandoned it in favor of getting some real poetry-writing done. A personal and artistic decision. I just couldn’t waste an opportunity to produce a handful of poems that might live to see the light of day. This may be antithetical to the Fest’s aims, but it’s what worked for me. Here’s an example of how subsequent cards went out, my post solar eclipse card and poem:

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Every morning I composed an original poem directly into a Word document, no revising. I printed each poem in 9 or 10 point font and taped it to the back of the card. I took a photo of each day’s card front and back, but the poems are saved in a future chapbook file. Here’s the thing, about a year ago I began a project I called ‘Missives’; a collection of prose poems written as letters. I had about eight poems in that file going into the Fest. I woke up on the third or fourth morning realizing that the Poetry Postcard Fest would be the perfect opportunity to write more poems toward ‘Missives’. I chose this rather than producing a few throwaway (for me) handwritten lines. I approached my first postcard fest a few years ago in the same way. A handful of poems from that year’s cards made it into my second collection. I find the matching of poem to postcard image or vice versa to be profoundly generative. Some days I wrote the poem first and searched my copious postcard collection for the perfect image. Other days I wrote a poem specifically for the card.

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After all was said and done (or printed, taped and posted) I had 10 to 12 poems I felt were strong enough to add to my ‘Missives’ project, which has changed focus slightly and been renamed. A theme emerged through my month-long writing exercise, so even the poems I don’t feel are strong enough to hold their own seem to be in dialogue with the others. Of course, this is the beauty of poetry. The themes dominating my psyche and spirit would have remained shadowy or subterranean. The writing made them real and I believe it was the meditative writing practice that achieved this. For me, dwelling on the themes that began to emerge was the only way to participate in the Poetry Postcard Fest. The Fest, as it did the first time around, gave me the reason and motivation to write poems. Being a sender and recipient of poems kept me on task. I understand the immediacy of handwriting directly onto a card, the logic, connection and aesthetic behind it. But, overall I think poets taking part in any lengthy writing project (MFAs included!)  should make the project work for them. Rules are malleable and writing poetry isn’t like learning a language or writing code. What works one day may not work the next. And what works for 1 or 100 poets may not work for you! Finally, a big thank you to my Group 5 compatriots. Thank you for your poems and cards, so many of them handmade. ‘Til next year!

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Postcards I received from Group 5 participants

 

 

 

 

Summer Poetry and Photography August 7th

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Join me and fellow poets Carol Edelstein, Amy Dryansky and Michelle Valois for a summer reading at the APE Gallery (126 Main Street) in Northampton, MA. We are reading in conjunction with an exhibit by photographer Kate Way. The event is August 7th at 7:30 p.m. Each poet will read for 15 minutes and I’m kicking things off so come on time if you want to hear me read some new work! Wine, snacks and your opportunity to peruse books and photos will follow. I want to thank Susan Kan of Perugia Press for organizing this event and inviting me to read. Perugia Press has been dedicated to publishing poetry by women since 1997. And the work is truly important, especially with the loss of presses like University of Akron Press, edited and led by women.

Perugia poets have won the PEN center USA award, PEN New England Award, and the James Laughlin Award, to name a few. I love Perugia books! This, from the website: “And when confronted with the statistics about gender inequality in publishing, it’s clear we have work to do. Some people believe the reason for discrepancies between men and women is that men are simply writing better books. At Perugia Press, we are convinced otherwise and are doing our part to tip the scales into balance.

Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: 73% male winners, 27% female winners
Nobel Prize in Literature: 89% male winners, 11% female winners
National Book Critics Circle Award: 65% male winners, 35% female winners
Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award: 70% male winners, 30% female winners
Poets Laureate of the United States: 75% men, 25% women”

Poetry Prompt: The Self-Portrait

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In the age of the selfie you’d think we’d have this one covered, right? But if you think about it, the Selfie and the self-portrait, in poetry or visual art, are completely different animals. The Selfie seems intended to flatter the self, to market the self, while the self-portrait seeks to uncover some truth about the self, strip off the mask, or at least knock it askew. The best self-portrait poems reveal truths about the self that are unflattering at best, perhaps downright ugly. Even the kindest most well-adjusted individuals have flaws, weird idiosyncrasies, personality tics that make them who they are but also ripe for the stuff of Greek tragedy. I see the pre requisite of the self-portrait poem to be honest self-reflection. Self what? As a culture we don’t engage in much beneath the prettied-up surface, encouraged to delve only as deep as we can go in a five minute post-yoga guided meditation. Last month I taught a two day Found Poetry workshop at the Squam Arts Retreat (more to come about next year’s retreat) where I led participants in loads of writing prompts to get the creative faculty limbered up and weaken their defenses. People get nervous around poetry, especially if they’re the ones writing it. But these lovely ladies had chosen my workshop so they were all game, nervous but still game. Anyway, one particular prompt had them answering about fifty questions, an index card for each. I asked each question out loud and gave them time to answer. I included some of these in a previous post titled 20 Questions. Some of the questions were easy to answer “surface” questions like: How close do you live to the place you were born? Others could be answered literally or metaphorically: How will you carry all the things you have to carry? Others were more loaded: If you could change one thing in your life what would it be? or Begin a sentence: “I’d be lying if I said…”, which could be rephrased “how do I lie to myself? what do I lie to myself about? Even questions like, do you have a scar? how did you get it? or if you have a tattoo what is its significance, if you don’t have a tattoo, why not? encourage a level of self-reflection we don’t often employ in day-to-day life where our own histories, our own personalities, have become so familiar they’ve achieved invisibility. I answered many of these questions on my own before leading the workshop. The very innocuous first question: Who named you? sparked my own self-portrait poem that got at a truth about my personality that my mother saw in me from the start. I used the anaphoric refrain: My mother named me… My mother herself was named after a dress shop by her father. My grandmother had named the other children and said: “you name this one”. He was driving home from the hospital when he saw the dress shop named Ellena Fay. Even more interestingly, my grandfather was never named by his own parents. His brothers called him Peter Rabbit and so his name became Peter, proving there’s more to a name than meets the eye. In my own poetry, I’ve been obsessed with identity, self-definition and name for years.  Check out Sylvia Plath’s The Disquieting Muses which isn’t called a self-portrait poem but truly is. These portrait poems also have some prompt-type questions to get you started and show how a poem can be constructed in different ways using the same questions. Chase Twitchell’s poem in Poetry Magazine is a mysterious, weird little self-portrait poem. And another by Cynthia Cruz. Read their poems closely and work backwards to questions you could ask yourself that could get at some deep answers and the spark of a poem. As I said earlier, my mother named me, but my name in itself doesn’t have a story behind it or any deep meaning other than the biblical “princess”. It’s an old-fashioned name that just happened to be one of the most popular girl’s names a few years after I was born.

I think titling or calling a poem a Self-Portrait is also a way to say “me, me, me; I, I, I” without attracting the criticism of post-confessionalists. There’s kind of a backlash in poetry these days against the self and against the slightest whiff of sentimentality. Many contemporary poems are completely unpeopled by the first person, or operate so efficiently at the level of irony that you don’t truly know what the ‘I’ thinks, believes, feels. There is a fine line between feeling and sentimentality. Feelings are like that; sometimes they’re gritty, messy like a broken nose, sometimes they’re surreal, but often sappy, self-indulgent. It’s hard to write about feelings with utmost control, but that’s what poetry asks us to do, especially the self-portrait poem. I’m going to include mine below, but wanted to mention the post photo above. That’s my grandmother around 1940, she was probably still in her teens. The photo is obviously not a self-portrait, but I love the incongruity between her prettied-up appearance and the not-so-pretty, a little rough around the edges backdrop. That would have been the section of Lowell, Mass known as Little Canada where the French Canadians settled. The photo below, however, was a self-portrait; a very early Selfie. I do think this one contains a little more self-reflection than the other. It was taken in a mirror.

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1898 World’s Fair and a Poem

tmi00857  “Indian Parade” Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898

In 1898, America’s World’s Fair took place in Omaha, Nebraska. Called the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the 1898 fair sought to depict the ‘settling’ of the west, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast.  The  Indian Congress was a major feature of the fair and a big draw for crowds. Twenty-one tribes participated in the congress, which included sham battles between ‘cowboys and Indians’, parades, displays of Native American tribal culture and most importantly, a living diorama, where tribes camped and ‘lived’ for the duration of the fair as they would have before reservation life stripped them of tradition. Visitors were encouraged to mill-around the living diorama, view and interact with tribal members. The irony of the Indian Congress was that it sought to to document a Native American lifestyle that had been eliminated by the government’s heavy hand in manipulating tribal culture. The following poem appears in my second collection Split the CrowThe poem is not double-spaced but WordPress can’t understand that, apologies.

Indian Exhibit; The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898

The Indian band strikes up Stars and Stripes Forever—

familiar distress signal of circus performers everywhere.

Down the midway waving scalps cut from cow-hide.

The Improved Order of Red Men play friendly

Indians to the white man’s clever cowboy. The sham

battle; a march to the reservation. Wander through the living

diorama, open day and night: this is how they cook

on open fire, this is how they cry.

Three Indians die and one attempts suicide

behind the scenes. This grass house and tipi and windbreak;

the only authentic artifacts says the ethnologist

James Mooney on arrival from Oklahoma

with 106 authentic Kiowa and their ponies.

He carries his grass house like a social studies project.

This lead buffalo, these miniature Indians

holding twigs for arrows. Real sized Indians

brandishing blanks. See

 

these once formidable enemies

of white man

camped together in a frame—

 

Church of Needles Officially Released Today

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My full-length poetry collection and winner of the Red Mountain Press Prize for 2013 is officially released today from Red Mountain Press. The Diary of Esther Small 1886 is also available and is a companion, of sorts, to the poems. My book launch will take place Friday, June 6 at 8 p.m. at the Rockywold Deephaven Retreat Center in Holderness, NH. I’ll be reading from Church of Needles as well as reading poems from my forthcoming collection Split the Crow. 

And Then It Was 7

but with no wind and a little bedding of snow to make walk-taking less threatening.

Tree doorway

Tree doorway

The grace of snow limned branches

The grace of snow limned branches

Mount Monadnock in the distance

Mount Monadnock in the distance

Bittersweet is invasive and thorny but so pretty against snow (hence the name)

Bittersweet is invasive and thorny but so pretty against snow (hence the name)

Last summer's sunflowers; even the birds have given up on them

Last summer’s sunflowers; even the birds have given up on them

Another naturally occurring  doorway. The tree rotted, hollowed out and split in the middle, but I can pretend fairies did it.

Another naturally occurring doorway. The tree rotted, hollowed out and split in the middle, but I can pretend fairies did it.

A little green amongst the white and brown

A little green amongst the white and brown

A basket of sky

A basket of sky

Some deer rooted this fern out of the snow and left it for me

Some deer rooted this fern out of the snow and left it for me

A nice perspective for a ground ward dwelling animal

A nice perspective for a ground ward dwelling animal

The weak winter sun can still make the snow sparkle and cast those bars on everything

The weak winter sun can still make the snow sparkle and cast those bars on everything


Tree trunk with birch paper scroll

Tree trunk with birch paper scroll

Yet another doorway. When they're large enough I walk through and make a wish.

Yet another doorway. When they’re large enough I walk through and make a wish.

The flaying bark on this birch reminds me of some mythological creature

The flaying bark on this birch reminds me of some mythological creature

Inspiration for a poem

My poem Man Shields Man, the story of one man saving the life of another when he fell from a subway platform onto the tracks was inspired by a story which I first heard on the public radio show Radio Lab a couple years back and also appeared in the New York Times  The poem was included in The Best of Kore Press 2012: Poetry now available on their website (and through Paypal, so easy). The amazing Native American poet Nathalie Diaz was an editor; the anthology includes poems by Anna Ross, Dawn Losinger, Laynie Browne, Meg Day and many others. As an extra benefit, the cover is great. I love it.