Sunday, April 25, 2010

Returning after a few days, the author's head is filled with miscellany and thoughts of Fudge Stripe Cookies...

You go away for a couple days, things happen in your absence. You actually take a day or two to clear your head, and you start to hear the muse again. You pay attention to the muse, and observations come your way again. A few such...

Observation from poetry world: Adele Kenny has joined to the universe of online commentators at, providing material from and suitable for her workshops. One of her first entries is on poetry presentation, including this note on reading speed: "Sometimes the proper pace seems ridiculously slow, but it’s really not." I usually put it this way: If you feel like your reading a little too slowly, you're reading almost slowly enough.


Observation from the getaway: If you don't like to get wet, don't go to a water park.


Observation from the poetry world: Having given Copper Canyon's anthology "The Poet's Child" another chance during vacation (I'd put it aside after the second poem that seemed to reject the whole idea of having children), I of course found some great stuff in it. I need in particular to learn more about the work of Gregory Orr; every time I come across his work I feel a keen connection.

But I still think poets about not liking children are out of place in such a book.


Observation from the getaway: The only itinerary acceptable to the under-12 set is the one in which every possible dessert gets sampled. This is not possible. Plan your life lessons in advance of the trip, not in line at the buffet.


Observation from the getaway: The books are right; your attitude changes immensely with just a short battery recharge. Monday morning looms, and you still have too much to do, and it's not possible to do it all (see: buffet, above), but somehow the same activity list seems less impossible.

Of course, summer camp season is a whole different story.


Observation from baseball: The Mets' solution to dealing with a struggling player back from a year away with injury is to put him in a higher-pressure position he knows less about? I don't have to wait for summer camp to know how I feel about that one.


Meter reads full. Off to the routine...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Comedic Kinship

"So part of me wants to let them see my weird side. And part of me wants them to see the serious craft it takes to dig this stuff out and turn it into art. And there's some need for me to connect with them. This whole thing is probably about connecting. Standing up in front of people is saying 'Hey, folks, look at me, ain't I great? Please induct me into your imaginary club of people you like. I want to be in that.' And there's the need to find things out about them. To make kinships. 'I feel this way about ... Volvos and farts.' 'Yeah! Me too!' 'You too? OKAY?'"

As usual, George Carlin says it best. And if this little rant, ostensibly about stand-up comedy, doesn't also apply to poetry, then I don't know what poetry is.

About Last Words, I'll say that that it's a bit disturbing to find out as much about Carlin as he admits in the book (though not really all that surprising). But over the course of Carlin's telling of his own life story, there was demonstrated time and again the same evolution in his comedy that is typical of the evolution of a writer - we start out as mimics, grow a little into learning an audience and giving them what they want, get lost for a while in a recursive loop of imitiating our early successes, then emerge into a discovery of voice that dominates the rest of our careers.

Or is that just me?

PS: Read the book!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MidPoMo Muttermutter

The heck with lilacs and dead land, tax season for Met fans is the very definition of cruelness. But more to the point, a little unexpected business and the pace of posting grinds to a halt. Not exactly cruel, but definitely disheartening when you feel like you've found a rhythm (7 posts in 11 days - unheard of in this little corner of the internets). Anyway....


Attended Diane Lockward's reading last weekend, the second annual event where she works with students in a local college's Poetry class. The students learn her work, design a reading for her to deliver, then host her in it. It's interesting to see what people who (1) have little emotional attachment to the work and (2) aren't in PoBiz look for in a reading. The students selected more of Diane's darker work (not that her books don't contain darkness, but her readings don't usually feature it); I suppose that shouldn't surprise me, should it?


Maureen Berzok continues her tour of NJ Poets, landing on Peter Murphy, Amiri Baraka and BJ Ward, Charles Johnson, and Frank Finale in the past week. Wow.

NJ always amazes me with its diverse and active community of poetry voices, so I was a little surprised this evening to find that a celebration / open-mic at my local library had been cancelled due to lack of interest. We seem to think that a National Whatever Month will bring the Whatever to people not already members of the Whatever community, but I don't think that's how it works. It seems to be a reminder to those who already hold the interest to make some time to celebrate. Not that that is a bad idea, but I don't know that it's the intent.

There are exceptions, of course. Diane Lockward leads a poetry reading in honor of Women's History month - a nice juxtaposition of interests - that attracts a large (and not exclusively female) crowd. I'm thinking the point for us as poets and lovers of poetry should be to use the art to connect outside the indoctrinated, or to bring something new to an event where poetry isn't an obvious direction.

Like Father's Day, maybe?


The cancelled poetry event at my library wasn't a total loss. I signed up for a "Blind Date With A Book", an event where you get a book for free with the request to read it. That's all. If you write a short review, you can be eligible for an iPod Nano. Sounds like a good deal to me. Tell you more about the book when I get into it.

I also borrowed George Carlin's last book and Steve Allen's How To Be Funny. I've always felt a kindred spirit between comics and poets - particularly comic strip writers and poets. File these under the heading of "continuous personal development". And "Good bedtime beading".


Rather long an interesting debate going on in the New Poetry discussion group about "taking a break from" "difficulty poetry", which has evolved into definitions of a scale of accessibility and what it says about the writer and the reader. I don't think it'd be in the spirit of the group to reproduce it all here (and it would be a colossal chore to cut an paste it all), but you can imagine some of the vectors the discussion has followed. As usual, there are those who consider "accessible" a synonym for "simplistic". Surely that's not always the case.

I think the whole argument misses the point. For me, there are only two questions that matter: "Is this a poem?" and "What can I get out of it?" The former specifically asks for awareness and evidence of craft. The second is can be answered in infinite ways, from providing a good story, to being a great example of form, to teaching me mythology, to anything else.

When we look at a piece of visual art, do we consider "accessibility"? No, we classify it and determine if we like it. That's it. Same should apply here.


Tomorrow is Tax Day, MidPoint of NatPoMo, and a day off for all the 3B on my fantasy baseball team. There's a certain combination of peace and pain in each of those, don't you think?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tom Plante in Hoboken This Sunday

Tom Plante
April’s Spoken Word Artist

Performance Date: April 11, 2010, at 3 p.m., with open microphone following
Location: Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ (Accessible by PATH & Light Rail),
Admission: FREE, with $3 suggested donation
Information: or 201-216-8933

Hoboken, NJ: For the final installment of the 2009–2010 Spoken Word Series, DeBaun Center for Performing Arts and curator David Vincenti have chosen a well-published artist to be featured on Sunday, April 11, 2010, at 3 p.m.—Tom Plante. The Spoken Word Series, co-hosted by Siobhan Barry-Bratcher and David Vincenti, is presented monthly at Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ.

Tom Plante grew up on Long Island in East Rockaway, NY. After a couple false starts at college, Tom traveled to the West Coast, where he earned a B.A. in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley. Tom published a literary magazine, Berkeley Works, and labored in the wholesale book business before moving to New Jersey in 1986. He continued his journalistic work with the Irish Echo in New York City, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times, and the Courier News in Bridgewater, NJ. In 1996, he was awarded a first prize for editorial writing by the New Jersey Press Association. Since 1988, Tom has edited EXIT 13 Magazine, an annual journal of poetry that he publishes in Fanwood, New Jersey. As an editor, he has participated in a variety of festivals and workshops, including the Union County Teen Arts Festival, the Long Branch Poetry Festival, the Walt Whitman Poetry Festival in Ocean Grove, and the annual Celebration of New Jersey’s Literary Journals held in West Caldwell. Tom is a co-director of the Fanwood Arts Council. The most recent collection of his poetry is My Back Yardstick (CC Marimbo Communications, Berkeley, 1998).

Tom will read from his works and then the microphone will be open to the public to share their work. Although it is not necessary to pre-register to attend the event, those interested in sharing their work during the open mic are asked to sign up at 2:45 p.m. Open mic participants are asked to limit their work to five minutes per person.

The Spoken Word Series takes place at Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ. Symposia is the only used bookstore in Hoboken and has great prices for used books, wireless Internet access and many events every week. This is the sixth year DeBaun Center for the Performing Arts and Symposia Bookstore have teamed up to co-produce the Series. With each reading, more and more people are introduced to this wonderful bookshop and the work of many superb artists.

For more information, please visit, email or call 201-216-8933

The 2010–2011 Spoken Word Series will begin on September 12, 2010.

Put Another Nickel In...

Been thinking about music today. Facebookies who follow me there got a link to Ed Romond's "It Must Have Been The Snow", which I thought of after Maureen Berzok's posting of some lyrics by Jersey natives as part of her JerPoMo observations. Some song lyrics can stand on their own as poems (Yes, Mr. Conley, I remember the mimeographs of Billy Joel lyrics), and I'm wondering if poets have a natural inclination, or an "in" if we want one, to songwriting. In the end, I think it's not as natural as one would think.

Some differences in the approach a songwriter might take to writing are:
  • Priority of structure and rhyme - if your objective is a song, you're more likely to contain your lines and force rhymes into these lines. True, many poets do this in poems as well, but your choice of rhythms is somewhat limited by what is "singable".
  • Necessity of a refrain - Folks songs excepted, most songs have a repeated section, introduced thematically early in the piece and permitted to return - this limits the length of content that can be presented. Mandates a stanza length, if you will.
  • Constraint on length - a song, to function as a song, has a meaningful lower length limit and (great writers and bands excepted) a practical upper limit.
  • More subtly, melody influences word choice, because some phrases become impossible (or unattractive) with some choices in musical phrasing. Of course, this works in reverse as well.

I've written three songs in my life that I'd be comfortable dusting off for performance, and none of their lyrics work as poems for me. Actually, one derives from a poem written by a friend in college, and in turning it into a song, I gave up quite a bit of his structure, to the point where he didn't like what I'd done with it because the structure loss dragged some meaning with it. Not good or bad, but not the same.

This is an interesting observation for me. I've been a musical performer (singer and instrumentalist) for over 30 years, a practicing poet for much less than that), which I think is why I naturally impose rhythm and sound (though not rhyme) at the expense of word choice sometimes. I guess I never really thought that through before. My friend, though also a talented performer, is by profession a teaching scientist -a purveyor of natural truth through precise language - and therefore less likely, I believe, to trust the music over the words.

This trade-off I see between music and meaning makes Ed Romond's accomplishment so much more impressive for me - the lyric functions as a poem and doesn't (appear to) sacrifice much in word choice for the sake of the song, but the song has a great rhythm and a memorable, hummable melody. And Ed can play guitar.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Where, oh Where, has my Underdog Gone?

Many people followed the Butler Bulldogs up to the near-miracle near-basket that would have beaten Duke in the NCAA Men's Basketball tourney, but there was an even better (if colder) story brewing in the Men's Hockey over the past week where the RIT Tigers knocked off two schools with long-established Division I programs (RIT's is only 5 years old) to reach the Frozen Four. Their push came to an end on Thursday as Wisconsin knocked them off, 8-1. A great run for an unlikely team. What a great winter season for college sports.

So, uh, where are the underdogs to root for in the coming seasons?


While we're considering underdogs, unlikely candidates for our energy and affection, may I make a pitch for all of us, during NatPoMo, to find a poet from a non-Borders bookshelf and give them a chance to win us over? I've discovered a number of poets that way - some of whom I've later discovered were quite well-known, just not to me. I think that's a great feeling, to grow to love the art before you know you're "supposed" to.

I've gotten to know a number of poets that way, and had the good fortune to meet some of the them afterwards, and without exception they've been pleased (and surprised) when they discover you knew their work before you happened upon them in person. So it's a gift for the poet, as well as to yourself.

As Gregory Orr said, "Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I'm not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I've experienced , or felt something like what I have felt."


Another underpoet sentiment might be a request to folks organizing festivals and events this year to consider some new voices in their programming. I promise to do the same in Hoboken!


If you really need a sports underdog to root for this year and you don't live in Kansas City, let me know and I'll send you a link so you can follow my fantasy baseball team. Season's 5 days old and already I'm two weeks behind. It's 'cause I'm reading poems, not baseball stat books.

Yeah. That's why.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

NatPoMore Observations....

One thing I occasionally grow weary of is the mistaken idea that poems whose origins are personal experience must be factual and cathartic. While this can be true, it is also true that poems that cling to this rule are frequently interesting as experiences, but weak as art. Or to be a bit less gentle about it, they're stories, not poems. In a newly-posted episode of Poetic Lines, Elizabeth Lund leads Ellen Steinbaum through explaining (among other things) the difference between writing as therapy and poetry as craft - concepts which can overlap at some point in the process, but which are not nearly the same thing. Recommended.


I'm seeing less National Poetry Month in the non-poetry media this year. I'm wondering if that's economy on the literary side (fewer $$ in promotion to gain the notice), or economy on the mainstream side (less space = less non-mainstream material). I don't think for a minute it's lack of energy in the poetry community. My inboxes are bursting.


Confidential to the NCAA: a longer tournament increases the premium on athleticism, thereby reducing the probability of the interesting upset. As long as that's what you want, go ahead and go to 96.

But thanks for a great tourney this year. The performance if my personal bracket notwithstanding.


Chapbook 2.2 is off for the final proof; my goal of availability by Father's Day (it is a book of poems in the voice of a father, after all) remains a strong chance. April, with its NatPoMomentum is a great energy source for striving to complete this project - finally. Also, it was in April that my own father died, and it's impossible not to reinhabit my relationship with him when that anniversary rolls around. Another, different, energy source.


Let's Go Mets! (and Yankees until the subway series starts!)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

A Basket of Miscellany for Easter

A strange combination of busy and lazy is Easter in my house. Usually have house guests. Always have a few time-dependent things to do at church. Generally fighting off the first allergies of spring. And by early afternoon, having had a busy morning and a big brunch, we're scattered around the house napping. So yes, we're having a typical Easter. And a lovely thing that is.


I've met my minimums so far this NatPoMo. Yesterday the book I happened upon in my slow-motion cleanup was The Poet's Child, a Copper Canyon anthology that "explores the intricacies between parent and child". It covers that relationship at all stages from the birth of the child to the death of the parent, and many milestones in between. I've always found the inclusion of two poems whose titles reject the idea of writing about children a little off-putting (one is irony, two is making a point), but it's a good read, and a useful one if you're planning to explore that space yourself.

Having touched that theme, I dug through the pile for my favorite book in the semi-exclusive club of poet parents, Beth Ann Fennelly's Tender Hooks, which is a great and truthful account of what bubbles through the mind of a first-time parent.


A little exchange today in the New Poetry discussion group pitted a poem by Robert Frost against a similarly-themed one by Ted Kooser, and concluded (without my vote, I should disclaim) that the Kooser effort was superior. This is to me concrete proof that in human contest, on any given day, anyone can win. Once.


Which brings me to my Mets. (you like that transition, Mom?). Baseball season begins this evening with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Whatever. 180 wins minimum between them and they'll both be in the playoffs. A real fan places their rooting energy with a team that needs it, with a group of players that could be the best if they get some breaks and play a little over their heads.....

Or not. Some of us are just continuing to invest in our team in honor of having traded away a Reggie Jackson for a Nino Espinosa in 1978. But root we must.


NatPoMo continues. Here are a few events in the area I think you may want to have on your radar:

Diane Lockward will execute a reading of her work designed for her by Caldwell College students at the West Caldwell Public library on April 10.

Unfortunately opposite this, is the Book Launch reading for "The American Voice in Poetry" at Passaic County Community College in Paterson.

Of course, I know you're already planning to visit Hoboken on April 11 for Tom Plante in the Spoken Word Series at Symposia Bookstore.

And I'm planning to visit the County College of Morris on April 28 for the Journal of NJ Poets 2010 reading. One of my (and many others) favorite journals.

There are dozens of other events within reach this month. If you've not been in a while set a minimum to put one on the calender. Just write it down. See what it does for you.


Actually, I think I may have thrown an Ed Figueroa in with that Reggie Jackson card.


Happy Easter to my six loyal readers. And everyone else.


(links to follow)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Now I'm Looking For a Bowler...

Tonight I'm returning Valzhyna Mort's Factory of Tears to the shelf. I feel a certain obligation to disclose that I purchased Ms. Mort's book entirely because I saw her on the cover of P&W with her accordion. Turns out it was a good buy, but it may be the first time that the presence of a free reed instrument secured a poet a sale.

From Factory of Tears, here is "On a Steamer":

at night from far away
the city looks like
a huge overturned christmas tree
decorated for a holiday
then thrown away
it's lying
with its branches scattered
and its lamps
still glittering
in the dark

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Natural Pottery Mints

NatPoMo snuck up on me this year, and it's just as well. I had no time to cajole myself into promising that I'll make time to write a poem a day and two sestinas on Sundays. No time to cultivate the urge to reorganize the manic mess that is my bookcase and lie about how I'll reread a book therefrom every 30 minutes until May. No time to shop for discount hardback notebooks in a new color scheme to celebrate the start of new projects that will run out of gas 4 pages hence in the middle of June.

I've been working some of the tips from Marty and Joshua Seldman's sneakily impactful Executive Stamina into my routine; one of the really useful tips in that book is the practice of "minimums", setting simple and small goals for yourself in an effort to get you to change habits and gain momentum in areas in which you're eager to improve. It's been working for me in other areas, so for NatPoMo this year, I'm going to apply some minimums to my writing habit. Here is my minimum for this April:

I will put away one book a day. This will require me to put my hands on one book of poems. Just one. And if I flip through it for a minute, maybe something will catch my attention. Maybe I'll go write it down and play with a response, or email it to someone, or mention it here, call a writer friend to chat about it. But if I don't, that's OK. I will put one book a day away. I commit that to myself.

Now, if you are more into the immerse and overwhelm strategy, you can go for NaPoWriMo, or Robert Lee Brewer's Poem-a-Day challenge, you can sign up for the year-round The Writer's Almanac and Your Daily Poem (which you should already be signed up for anyway) and the seasonal daily list, or the weekly Poetry Daily list (to get its poets-selecting-poems emails; always a treat!).

But me? I'm just going to put one book away. One book like Coleman Barks' Tentmaking. The book with the poem "Seagull at the Newark Airport" in it:

Going low less than a foot off the asphalt, then up over
a tanker and around
the freestanding staircase, a poem with its

two black beads watches how government manages to fly.

What book will I pick up tomorrow?