Saturday, March 28, 2009


Old favorite James Lileks is part of the new newspaper generation over at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune. Check out this bit, remember this is off a daily newspaper's website and done by newspaper staffers, then forget that and laugh at Mr. Lileks. He comes on about 2/3 of the way through. News of the rough time the Red River is giving North Dakotans precedes the lightness.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mark Your Calendar....

Just got the official information...

West Windsor Arts Council (WWAC) presents Spring Poetry Awakening featuring performances by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and David Vincenti, as well as open reading, Sunday, April 26, 3:00-5:00 p.m., at West Windsor Branch of the Mercer County Library System, 333 North Post Road, West Windsor. Information: (609) 919-1982. On the Web: Free to the public, contributions welcome.

Prior to the reading, cultivate your poetic license. Gillan will lead a poetry workshop from 12:30 pm to 2:00 at Grover’s Mill CafĂ©, 295 Princeton – Hightstown Rd. West Windsor, NJ 08540 (near McCaffreys Mall at Southfield Rd.). Because spaces will be limited, those planning to attend are encouraged to pre-register at $15 and $10 for WWAC members.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Brief Aside

Today is World TB Day. Learn more about XDR-TB at Help spread the word...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Getting a little deeper

It being Billy Collins' birthday, The Writer's Almanac featured a poem by His Laureateness today. Introduction to Poetry is a poem I use in my workshops with kids, but not, I think, Collins' finest.

Here's one I prefer, from the same book:

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for then holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.

I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feed appearing, disappearing.

Collins has said before that he feels he's at his best when he "has nothing to say", and I think comparing this poem to Intro demonstrates that. Atlantic is to me much more imaginative; I think Intro is funny, for sure, but the point is made early, and it could end either sooner or later to greater effect.

And a minor complaint to the Almanac: Old poems have been featured quite a bit, lately, and repeat poems at that. Aren't there any recent poets and poems worth presenting? Or even just newer work from the old favorites would be nice: this effort from Collins is circa 1988; I think he's published 6 books since then.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Composition Class

And then there's one more route by which a never-to-be-seen-again work can find its way into my archive pile: Exercises.

I will give myself an assignment once in a while, or take it from one of my friends and resources to the right, and I sometimes get a finished poem from it. Most times, though, I get something of interest, something that has a useful extractable nugget, something that I want to pull out and show someone as an exhibit (the same way I show them the parts of the basement that my cousins and I constructed ourselves: to say, "See? I can sorta do this!").

Actually, the basement is the right analogy here. I wanted to do the work myself because I wanted to know how to do it, to know I could do it, and to have a deeper appreciation for the folks who should do it (because they possess a proficiency I do not). For example, while I still dismiss much of the performance art most people mean when they say "spoken word" (rhymed whining is still whining, after all), having attempted to write in that sing-song, erratic-beat format gave me a much better sense for how hard it is for the ones who do it well to do it well.

So part of my pile is devoted to these failed experiments and horizon-stretchers. And no, it's not likely you'll ever see one unless you engage me in a discussion of how to incorporate metallurgical terms into a villanelle.

It's not pretty, but I can sorta do it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Needed in a Hatestack

It seemed like a pretty straightforward question: "Daddy? Have you ever written something you kinda hated, that wasn't really any good, but you couldn't bring yourself to through it away?"

Well, of course. That was easy.

That was Monday. Since then, I've been asking myself why I would be hanging onto something I hate. It seemed so obvious to me that I wouldn't throw away something I'd written, but I couldn't articulate why. I mean, don't we all hang onto every word we apply to the page? But why?

I think there are a few reasons I keep the words. Not only the raw efforts in my notebook or on my microcassettes, where deleting is actually more work than keeping, but also the hardcopies of the distilled drafts that failed in the middle of the seventh line. First, there's plain stubbornness: I started this, I can finish it. This is thought is usually wrong, but even knowing that, it's hard to overcome it once it has occurred to me.

Sometimes I've grown attached to a line or phrase and really want to make it work. Or salvage it from the dullness to which I've anchored it and build a new poem around it.

But most frequently, I think, I'm enamored with the character I've created. I'm primarily a purveyor of narrative, and when I create a narrator I feel an emotional need to let that narrator find his or her own way out of the poem. This fails when I've stuck them in the wrong poem.

I explained this to my daughter with the example from my poem "Legacies" (Outerbridge, 1994). It started as a solemn story about a man at his father's wake - first telling stories, then recollecting in silence, then interacting with sisters. Each time the piece died (no pun intended) early on, long before I'd started to see where I wanted to go. In a later rewriting, though, (5th or 6th as I recall) I twisted it into something a little more lighthearted, and then the idea had legs enough to ride to completion. I don't recall if the twist was a conscious rework or a spontaneous reimagining, but the piece worked well enough, whichever it was.

Do you hang onto your failures? How do you break them open to find the spec of gemstone within?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patbits Day

Shamrock: "A plant with trifoliate leaves, used (according to a late tradition) by St. Patrick to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, and hence adopted as the national emblem of Ireland; a spray or leaf of this plant." (courtesy the OED Word of the Day).


"Well, then. Now. I'll begin at the beginnin'. A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn't have the look of an American tourist at all about him. Not a camera on him; what was worse, not even a fishin' rod." (courtesy of John Ford's most excellent The Quiet Man. Did you know it's based on a story by Maurice Walsh?


"In the Middle Ages, beer (which is made from cereal grain) was one of the safest, most nutritious everyday drinks for northern Europeans - since grapes don't grow in the colder climate, and water was often polluted.

Occasionally, a batch would go bad, and people would blame the devil for the problem. To keep the demons away, brewers would place religious statues in their brew house, and ask the local priest to bless a new batch" (courtesy The Little Black Book, Six-minute reflections on the weekly Gospels of Lent 2009)


"May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand." (an old Irish blessing)


Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Poetry TV from Massachusetts

I was very happy to come across the website for HCAM, Hopkinton's Television Station. It seems to be a community access station a smallish (pop. 15,000) town in eastern Massachusetts. Amazingly, it carries two programs devoted to poetry and related perfoermance art:

Poetry in Motion is an interview format hosted by Elizabeth Lund. The website states that Poetry in Motion is a half-hour show designed for people who think "I love poetry," or "I hate poetry," or "I just don't get it." Elizabeth is a talented poet, critic, and essayist, and one of the early talent-donors in the life of the Spoken Word Series. I owe a big step in my own development as a writer to her working with me from her former position as Poetry Editor at the Christian science Monitor. There are two old episodes available on the site.

Wake Up and Smell the Poetry captures local open mic event that includes poetry of many sorts and original music hosted by Cheryl Perrault. There are several events available on the website.

Both programs are aired frequently on local TV; I didn't see a way to stream the channel on the website, but it seems both programs' pages are updated about monthly.

Check 'em out!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Respectful Misapplication?

What exactly do people who don't write poetry or read poetry think they mean when they say "poetry"?

In yesterday's Star-Ledger, there's a review by Bradley Bambarger in which the word "poet" appears 3 times: in the headline, in a prominent caption, and in the first paragraph; twice it appears in the phrase "avant-Americana poet". To get something out of the way, it's a fine review, well-written and multidimensional. But in assuming that the use of the word poet is a nod to an excellent use of language, then combining with the phrase "avant-Americana" (which means what, pushing the bounds of folk music?), I lose touch with my definition of the word "poet". I think of a poet as someone who works language the way a carpenter works wood: to produce objects of great beauty in which there is clear evidence of an awareness and style on the part of the practitioner.

I read an excerpt lyric, and tried to apply my definition of "poet". Here are the lines quoted in the review: "I can't stay here to hold your hand / I've been away for so long, I've lost my taste for home / That's a dirty final feeling, to be dangling from the ceiling / From when the roof came crashing down ... The next time you say forever, I'm going to punch you in the face."

Unexpected? Clearly. Powerful application of language? You bet. Make me want hear the song to hear how these challenging lyrics are applied to melody? Absolutely. Poetic? Not by my definition. I'm not even sure how "avant" this is, especially as poetry. Dark, confessional, narrative poetry of this sort is hardly at the forefront of art. I'll trust Bambarger on the Americana reference; I'm not a scholar there.

Pursuing my confusion, I turned as I usually do to the dictionaries at hand for specificity and clarity. In the Random House definition set available at, aside from the obvious "a person who composes poetry", we find the following definition of "poet": "a person who has the gift of poetic thought, imagination, and creation, together with eloquence of expression".

OK. Interesting. Now "poet" applies to a way of thinking and away of expressing that thinking together. But the definition is still recursive: it requires the word "poetic". I'll spare you all the lists and links, but RH @ lets us down there again: in 10 definitions, the only one that excises the word "poet" uses instead the phrase "literature in verse form".

What do we mean by poet? More importantly, what do persons who neither practice nor read poetry mean by poet? People tend, I think, to apply the word as compliment ("poetry in motion", "that was pure poetry"), but I bet the same people couldn't define the term in a way that didn't require the wrinkling of their noses or the use of a grade-school rhyme to complete their definition.

Here's what I think I mean when I say poet: An artist who, using language as their primary medium, applies verbal, visual, or aural effects to evoke impact beyond simple comprehension of the receiver. There are a number of ways this can evidence itself, of course, from Poetry Out Loud to VizPo, from Andrew Motion to Ron Silliman. It's a wide enough net to include Charles Bukowski (barely, I think), Amiri Baraka, and (depending on who you listen to) Billy Collins, but it lets out great songwriters for whom music is the medium, and it lets out those who practice rhyme and meter in the style of their 11th grade English teachers without trying to find something more in it than ABBA BCCB.

What do you think? Am I myopic? Off-base? Compulsive? Trying to apply engineering precision to language again? Wouldn't be the first time on that last one.

I just think the title should mean something. And after one morning's research, I can't satisfy myself that it does.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Busy Week for Holiday Collectors

Did you eat your cubic radishes today? Tuesday's date, 3/3/09, defines it as Square Root Day - one of 9 such dates every century (or 12 such dates this millenium, depending on how you define it. If you still know where your slide rule is (which I do) I'm sure you celebrated it quite heartily.

And if you also scored well on the verbal, you'll be equally interested in National Grammar Day, which I will observe by carrying a red pen visibly in my shirt pocket all day. Actually, I do that every work day.

Monday, March 02, 2009


This weekend I took my daughter to her first poetry reading. I have always felt quite blessed to have so many generous and talented poets so near to my New Jersey home, and sure enough, Diane Lockward gave a rather interestingly purposed reading in one of our local libraries this past Saturday.

The "interesting purpose" had to do with the origin of the reading: four students at Caldwell College, as an alternative to writing a research paper, worked with Diane to design, publicize, and host a reading of her works that they had a hand in selecting and ordering for her. It's a terrific idea, and with Diane's teacher's demeanor, it came off quite well. It was for the students - by their own admission at the reading - their first contact with contemporary poetry, at least that they could recall. If one has to come to the art late, one could do much worse than to start with "Linguini".

Of course, the more important first contact was happening next to me in the audience. I'll spare you the fatherly nonsense; all you need to know is that she loved the event. I don't need to know if it was the friendliness of the crowd (which included NJ Po-Sceners Charlotte Mandel, Jessica De Koninck and Anthony Buccino, among others I'm sure I'm forgetting as I type this), the access to the art, the grown-up feeling about the event, or something that her middle-aged Dad wouldn't understand anyway (that infinitely-large and growing category). I'm just grateful for the chance to offer poetry to her this way.

As I learn more about myself and the legacy I covet, I suspect this past Saturday afternoon will become more important to me. I can only hope she begins to feel the same someday.