Spider Lilies

Spider Lilies
Spider Lilies
My favorite late summer flower has started to bloom. Soon they’ll be everywhere in Columbus — at least everywhere that people don’t mow them. They are also known as Hurricane Lilies or Surprise Lilies. They are the Suprise Lilies in the poem of that title in Time Capsules, though I opted for the more general term for the poem. There are other kinds of Surprise Lilies in the South, including a more lily-like pink one that usually shows up in our yard in early August.

I like Spider Lilies best, though, in part because they always start blooming around my birthday, and in part because they are so alien looking. I had never seen them before moving to Mississippi, and I’m always fascinated with plants that are endemic to a region. This interest probably started when I lived in Austin, Texas, and learned about Bluebonnets. Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Center was a big influence at the time, as well.

This Spider Lily (I see there are other flowers with that name as well) sprouts a single stalk that then puts out the very fringed petals from several sepals that radiate from the central stem. Only later, after the blossom has died back does the bulb sprout green leaves. I try to mow around these to encourage new growth, so we usually have quite a few in our yard. It is always fun to see where they will come up and how many we’ll have each year.

Spider Lily from above
Spider Lily from above

The Spider Lily is a sign of cooler weather to come, and they usually sprout after a rain, like the thunderstorms we’ve had this week. I took these pictures this morning out by the pond beside our back patio. There are a few more coming up in the side yard, and I hope in week or two there will be many more in the front yard as well. One house on our street usually has a whole row of them all along their property between the sidewalk and the street. Can you tell I’m a little jealous? But theirs haven’t started to bloom yet, so at least we have some of ours first!

Literary Influence

More fun with computers and grading have kept me quiet this week. (Back up your data! I was glad I had when trouble hit.) I am figuring out the new book ordering procedures and getting caught up on my grading, too. I also experienced some of the fun of directing a literary event when one of last year’s authors, Hillary Jordan (her novel is Mudbound), wrote with some questions about Columbus for the new novel she’s working on. A character passes through our town, and she wanted to know the color of our grass, what flowers bloom in winter, and a few other fact-checking details. I wonder how many other Welty Symposium authors have been influenced by their visit to Columbus to include it in their work?

I remember when I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, there were many Dutch and German visiting writers who lived in town. It was fun to learn what a big influence this had on Dutch literature, especially. Many more stories or poems were set in Texas than ever would have been the case without the program. Besides New York and Berkeley, Austin may be the best-known American city in the Dutch -speaking world.

You never know what will bring a place literary fame or how far the influence of one good program will spread. At the very least this literary exchange brightened up my week, and for that I was grateful.

A Look Behind the Curtain

Or why I haven’t written much this week!

One of my many hats is Director of the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women, an annual event at which a dozen or so authors appear and read from their work. For the audience, everything seems to go seamlessly–I hope! MUW faculty give introductions, authors read and answer questions, students and faculty sell books: it’s a successful event in its 21st season. What the audience doesn’t see is what goes on before and after a cultural event like this, with which as director, I’ve become intimately familiar, making me feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz at times.

This week, I was busily teaching classes, updating the Welty Symposium website, working on the schedule and press release, and ordering the first books. Then a little crisis hit. Someone decided we could no longer sell books the way we had in the past, due to sales tax regulations. Several phone calls later, and I was in the process of rearranging our book account so that so that the right side of the university would be in charge of sales. It will still be me, but the money goes through a more appropriate fund. This means different rules for purchasing, one of which is that I can’t pay in advance for books to sell, which is what I needed to do that caused me to be alerted to the new rules! Several more emails and calls later, and I am close to resolving the issue for this order, buying myself time to figure out the next.

That’s just one fairly big fire that needs to be be put out before October 22 — there will be others. One person asked if we make much money on books, suggesting we could just stop selling them. I assured her that we make enough, but that even if we didn’t, selling books at an author’s event is part of the atmosphere, brings in a bigger crowd, and promotes reading. As long as we don’t lose money, we’ll keep selling books somehow!

The more usual crises involve finding authors’ photos, reviews, and bios; getting everyone to turn in their forms; helping authors with travel arrangements; making time for writing the press release, creating a flyer (I’m going to try doing it in color this year), working up the program, making sure we have all the rooms, and chairs, and food, and whatever else I’m blanking out on right now! Those things and finding time to be a professor, father, and writer of poetry and this blog.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m whining or complaining. Really, I’m not! I did think, though, since it’s what has been on my mind most of the week, it would be the best thing to write about. There are many aspects of the business side of literature worth exploring. It’s not always glamorous or even fun every minute, but I do get to meet a dozen authors every year and talk with a lot of publishers, and it’s worth all the headaches and crises to make that one weekend a magical event.

Images and Ideas in Poems

Last week my poetry class was talking about images and ideas in poems, which has me thinking about how poets work with ideas. Images can be anything seen, felt, smelled, heard, tasted, or even imagined. So a subatomic particle, if visualized concretely in a poem, might be seen as an image. The airflow around the wing of a plane might become a tactile image in the right hands. Ideas and images, aren’t separate things, but are joined at the hip, to rephrase William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum: “No ideas but in things.” This makes me wonder: which comes first, the idea or the thing? The chicken or its egg? Which is the chicken, after all? And where’s the darned wheelbarrow.

I’ve also been reading my good friend Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter, and one of the things that strikes me about her poetry is how often she breaks that old rule — show don’t tell.

Well, maybe she doesn’t break it, but she warps it a little. There are all kinds of abstract concepts, scientific theories, philosophy, terms like photon, particle, and wave, that to the average human are abstract concepts that can’t be visualized, yet in Anna’s poems come across as concrete, sometimes when paired with a striking image, such as Marie Curie holding a glowing test tube and doctoring her husband’s hands. We know the story well enough to need only a few brush strokes to get the picture. I’ve always bristled a little when told (or when I have to tell students) to avoid abstract language — surely any language can be used in a poem, and Anna shows this to be true, though arguably her use of terms normally considered abstract is in fact concrete.

No wonder Air and Space Magazine featured three of her poems for their website this past April. For most poets, I would guess, a poem can happen either way. You might start with an idea you want to get across and look for images that might convey it to the reader. Or you might be moved by images and attempt to discover the idea behind them. Either way, I doubt most poets know exactly where they’re headed when they begin drafting a poem. If there’s an idea at the outset, it only takes shape as the images coalesce around it. If the image starts the poem, the idea begins to form as images and language accumulate. Sometimes it is just a fascination with a word or phrase that starts the poem out, after all. Some poets may know what they want to say before they sit down to write, but I suspect many are searching for answers as they write. In this sense, the poem is like an essay: a trial, a hypothesis. As the poet refines and polishes the poem, the truth of the idea crystalizes until it is clear, at least to the poet. When finished, the poem represents a truth that can be said, at least until the next poem, which may attack the issue from another angle and try out a different aspect of that truth. Some poets search for deep truths in their poems, others are more filled with a ludic, playful quality, daring to see what they can get away with, how far they can stretch language or the truth. Sometimes it is precisely through the ludic, joking play with language that the most striking image combinations arise and the most challenging truths are revealed. What most of my favorite poems, including those in Constituents of Matter, share is this quality of discovering a truth in the process of writing and reading.

Fruits of Summer

Indian PeachesTime to leave the poetry biz aside for awhile and write a little about food. Our local farmer’s market has kept us awash in fresh local produce all summer (when we’ve been in town), but the thing we love most are the peaches — well, those and the tomatoes and thai eggplant and corn and blueberries and eggs and… you understand (I hope!). There is one farmer who keeps us supplied with our favorite summer fruit from June to August, maybe even into September, thanks to the many varieties in his orchard. We’ve had white peaches and yellow ones, cling and freestone, but the latest are blood-red Indian peaches.

Though they are typically used for pickling, canning, or baking, we love to eat them raw. They are very fuzzy outside and a little firm and tart like a nectarine, but as long as you don’t think they ought to look and taste like a regular old grocery-store peach (often firm and flavorless if they’re shipped in from California), then they are absolutely delicious. And after months of sweeter, juicier fare, we revel in the dark red meat and the tangy flavor. We don’t even mind that they are a cling variety, having gotten a little bored with peaches that come right off the pit.

Growing up in Iowa, I never ate peaches like this. We had a peach tree in our back yard for awhile, though I don’t remember it ever producing very much. Our apricot tree did better for awhile, then died a noble death. Iowa winters were much better suited to apples, pears, and tart pie cherries. My parents also grew grapes, raspberries, and rhubarb–a fruit that’s hard to find in the South–so I’m used to a sweet summer bounty in the yard. Something was in season from June to October, and we always had enough to eat, freeze, and give to the neighbors.

We used to have a peach tree in our yard in Mississippi that did pretty well, until Katrina uprooted it. It produced one more harvest the next year, then died. It took us another year to give up hope entirely, and awhile longer to decide what and where to plant next. Now we have two peach trees that should bear in another year or two. We also have blueberries, quince, and figs, along with our garden full of tomatoes and peppers that don’t get enough sun to really do too well, but supply us with a little home grown produce now and then. And of course we have a forest of basil for the pesto we couldn’t live without.

And we’re very happy to have access to so many local varieties of heirloom peaches and other fruit. We’ve found a good farm for blueberries and picked a freezer full. We’ve bought blackberries and pears. Last year we even bought persimmons at the market and may try to pick some this year. And compared to grocery-store prices, the peaches and other produce we’ve bought at our local market have been dirt cheap — $3 – $5 depending on the size of the basket we choose, and a basket will easily last us a week, unless we decide to freeze some. And the flavor of locally grown, tree ripened fruit can’t be beat. So, if you’re near a local market and you see a strange-looking summer fruit, give it a try! It might be the best thing you’ve eaten in ages.

Poetry Contests

Since I wrote about slams and haiku contests in my last posts, I thought I should add a little about poetry contests. I think competition is great in poetry, but poets need to beware when they enter one!

The Iowa Poetry Association (for whom I have judged) is a member of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which has members in 35 states. Literary magazines and other organizations also conduct legitimate contests, but there are also more dubious contests to watch out for. Wind Publications maintains a list of some of the worst offenders, contests that will award publication to anything remotely resembling a poem and sell leather bound copies of books with thousands of ‘poems’ to unsuspecting ‘winners.’ Offers to attend conferences or for other merchandise usually follow. Their goal is clearly to make as much money off amateur poets as possible before they learn their lesson.

Even some of the legitimate contests have been plagued with ethical issues. Though most magazines aren’t trying to scam your money, judging has been criticized as unfair. So the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses developed a code of ethics for literary contests. Look for member magazines or for contests that follow this code, or where the judges are announced in advance and are known writers. Also consider the cost of the contest (free contests often are after your money once you are ‘awarded a prize,’ but relatively small reading fees are normal for contests). When weighing the cost, consider what your contest fee buys: a copy of the winning book or a past winner? a subscription to the magazine? Consider the prestige of the contest and the final product that is produced. If you wouldn’t want to be in the anthology or magazine, or if you wouldn’t want your book to look like the others the contest has produced, then it’s not worth entering. Consider the distribution of the product. Are their books or magazines readily available?

Search the web to see if others have had a good or bad experience with a contest, but remember the shady ones are good at changing their name frequently! Search on their website or submission information as well as their name. Often that isn’t changed. If the same website is used for 10 different contests, there’s a good chance it isn’t legit.

I have a love/hate relationship with all contests. They are part of what makes poetry publishing possible in the United States, and they can legitimately bring new poets broader recognition. I wish, though, that more people bought poetry and we didn’t have to rely on contests to subsidize the poetry industry. That’s wishful thinking, though, and as I said in my last post, the idea of poetry competitions has been around for a long time. Just be careful when you tread in those waters!

Slam Poetry

Slam poetry has to be the complete antithesis of haiku. It is loud, long, and boisterous and only occassionally sweet or pensive. This summer I had the good fortune to return to Chicago and visit my old stomping grounds at the Green Mill Lounge on a Sunday night.

Here, 23 years ago, according to Marc Smith, organizer extraordinaire, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born on a Sunday night in July. It wasn’t too much later that I first wandered into the club to see what was going on, and not long after that I began reading in the open mics and slams. I can’t say that I won very often, though it seems as if I took home the $10 grand prize for the weekly slam once or twice (taking home, being figurative, since it was probably spent on drafts of Guinness), and I don’t recall ever winning one of the finals that were held occassionally with the top performers, though I’m sure I competed as long as I could last. But I did meet some great friends there, especially fellow poets Cin Salach and Sheilah Donohue with whom I started the Bob Shakespeare Band under the direction of Marc Smith who often stepped in to add his voice to our choral arrangements of poems — not much singing, but three or four poets speaking simultaneously from different places around the room. Later, we were joined by Doug Rand, who took my place when I left Chicago, as is recounted in “An Incomplete History of the Slam.” We performed at the Green Mill and on Tuesday nights at Adolphs, a tiny bar in another part of town. In the late 80’s poetry was spreading like wildfire after the success of the Uptown Poetry Slam, and there were open mics sprouting up all over the city.

A friend recently wrote from Germany, saying a Poetry Slam was coming to their town and wondering what it was. I mention this to show the influence the slam has had on poetry. It soon became a national phenomenon (though I wasn’t involved by then), and there have even been international slams. For those who may still not be aware what a poetry slam is: imagine a cross between a boxing match and an open mic. A slam is organized in ’rounds’ where each poet gets up to the mic and reads a poem, which is then rated on a score of 1-10 by three judges (at least at The Mill, that’s how it goes). The judges are picked from the audience and usually claim to know nothing about poetry, though sometimes they are academics, poets, or writers in other fields. Marc likes to have the occasional academic judge for the audience to ridicule, and there is sometimes at least one professor in the crowd who doesn’t mind the abuse (or he wouldn’t come back). Audience participation is part of the act, and cheers, boos, and finger clicking (if the poem goes too long or gets boring) are meant to influence the judges, heckle the participants, and generally keep the energy going.

Slam poetry is still alive and well in Chicago today, as witnessed by the standing-room-only crowd at the Green Mill that Sunday night. And when I say standing-room-only, I don’t mean only a few people standing around a bar. The place was packed out and people weren’t leaving. I stood up the whole night, just like in the old days when I didn’t get there early enough to claim a stool at the bar. The open mic session that started the evening off was impressive: some really good poems–as good as any read in the slam–and some tentative first attempts by poets who had finally gotten up the nerve to read aloud in public (impressive more for the guts it takes to do that for the first time than for the poem, perhaps, but we’ve all been there!). Then David Hernandez and Street Sounds took the stage and performed his fabulous poetry to Latin music. Some were poems I remembered from long ago, others were new to me, but they really took me back.

And then, right before the slam, I got up and read a couple of poems. Marc was kind enough to introduce me and tell the audience a little about my history at the Green Mill and with the Bob Shakespeare Band, though he couldn’t resist giving me a bit of a hard time for becoming an English professor. I didn’t mind, and in fact, I appreciate the anti-establishment sentiment of the slam (anti-poetry-establishment, I should say), and the idea of taking poetry to the streets and not pretending you need several degrees to understand it. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s one of the things that has kept poetry alive in this country in the face of reality TV and video games (etc. — don’t get me started!). I read the poems “Ishtar” and “Flags,” dedicating the latter to Cin, since her boy loves them, too. That embarrassed Cin enough, so she came up and recited a lullaby-poem for her son, Leo, which was completely impromptu. Even before the slam, it was a perfect evening. Thanks to Marc and Cin, I even met a few of the poets who now frequent the Mill.

I was struck, though, by how similar the poems in the slam were to the ones I remembered from twenty-some years ago. There was a Barbie-Poem, and a Bag-Lady-Poem; there were poems that sounded like rap and those that sounded more like stand-up comedy. That may sound like criticism of Slam Poetry–that it is predictable or derivative–but I don’t mean it that way. Each poet had his or her individual style and voice, some more unique than others, of course. I think of academic poetry or what is sometimes called MFA ‘workshop’ poetry. There are common themes and styles in these poetry worlds, too. One reason the poems I heard at the slam sounded so much like the poems I heard there twenty years ago is that the poets were all young. They are experiencing the things we experienced then, and they are trying out their poetic wings and learning what we learned (or hope we learned). I know I learned more from the audiences at the Green Mill about what works in a poem and what falls flat on its face than I ever could have in a class on poetry (though I learned a lot in classes that I probably wouldn’t learn at the Mill). What this similarity tells me is that there is a genre of poetry called Slam Poetry, and that’s all right. There are sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, Slam Poetry, and a bunch of other types.

So after all of this, what is Slam Poetry? At least as far as I can tell after having been involved with it and going back to witness a great night of it, Slam Poetry is long (but not too long — no more than 3 minutes or when the audience starts snapping its fingers louder than the poet is willing to bear). It is entertaining: sometimes angry, sometimes funny, occasionally sweet just for contrast. It sometimes goes for the cheap laugh or the easy sentiment, though the best slam poems avoid this. It is deadly serious and frivolous at the same time — why else would a poet stand in front of a rowdy crowd in a bar for a chance at $10 (yes the prize is still the same) or a chance of humiliation? — oh yes, there are spotlights, there have to be spotlights and fame, if fleeting.

Though I began by saying it is the antithesis of haiku, Slam Poetry shares something with haiku in the competition. As I understand it, there were intense haiku competitions and anthologies the poets vied to be included in. There were schools of haiku, and the haiku master, Matsuo Basho, often traveled around Japan writing haiku, visiting Buddhist shrines, and promoting his school. There were linked verse forms where poets would get together and improvise stanzas of poems that would run 100 stanzas or more. We may think we invented something new with Slam Poetry or choral poetry or performance poetry, but it is really just one side to a poetic tradition that goes way back, and it is a side that is as vital to the existence of poetry as the calmer, more private, perhaps more pretentious at times (though in ways less pretentious at times) academic poetry that exists in books and polite readings. Maybe they aren’t separate things at all, but two moods of the same thing or two sides of the same coin.

Slam Poetry reminds me not to take poetry too seriously and that it’s okay for poetry to be fun, entertaining, angry, pretentious, unpretentious, silly, etc. It reminds me that poetry sounds best when memorized and lifted off the page, though there are pitfalls to performance (as there are with anything), and it is worth resisting the urge to play to the cheap laugh or the lowest common denominator. In the Slam, those tactics don’t always work, either. And Slam Poetry reminds me that the judges aren’t always right, and neither is the audience. Sometimes a really great poem will get low scores or even boos from someone who just doesn’t get it. That’s all right, if the poet keeps getting up and giving it to them! Remember that the next time you send your stuff to a literary magazine or contest. More than anything, the Poetry Slam gets people who don’t normally read poetry to come out on a Sunday night in July (and any other month of the year) when the weather is wonderful and there are a hundred other things they could be doing in the city. They come out week after week and they have a great time and they go home believing they understand poetry at least a little. Now, what could be wrong with that?

Judging Haiku

This summer, I had the pleasure to judge a haiku contest for the Iowa Poetry Association. I’ve judged their general adult category before, so I knew this would be interesting, and I reminded myself that 100 or so haiku only meant reading 1700 syllables! So I dove right in. Of course, it was a little harder than it sounds, and I found I learned a lot about haiku in the process.

I have taught haiku in poetry classes, of course, and I have taught traditional Japanese haiku (in translation) in World Lit classes. I’ve even written haiku, so I had a pretty good idea of what to look for. But the rules for American haiku can be a lot looser than for the traditional form: some argue that keeping the 5, 7, 5 syllable count doesn’t make sense in American prosody. And I agree to a point, though I respect the balance the traditional syllable count creates, even if I wouldn’t stick to it religiously. Having to judge, though, made me consider what I value in American haiku more carefully.

I enjoyed reading all the poems. Many were quite good and most of them, even those that didn’t make the final cut, had strong imagery — one aspect I look for in a haiku. What made the top poems stand out was their economy of language. I think a haiku should reveal a lot with few words, yet it is not a riddle that answers itself. The last line does not resolve the conflicts of the poem or answer a question that has been posed; the lines of the haiku should resonate like a bell struck once, and leave the reader to ponder the images.

Rhythm, and the sounds of the words, though not part of most descriptions of haiku, were part of what made the top poems stand out. There was no one rhythm or meter that I looked for; rather, a richness of sound and rhythm added to the overall significance of the poems. Tight grammar was also important. With one exception, I chose poems that did not include the first person pronoun, and I prefer haiku that don’t use personal pronouns at all. Traditional haiku is sometimes described as poetry without an ego, though that may not be exactly right. The poet doesn’t foreground him or herself in haiku, but is the observer who informs the reader’s vision. In that sense, there is an (unstated) ego.

I also looked for poems that included slight action as well as description to heighten the tension between images. Too much action would detract from the meditation, but if there was too little action, then the poem remained static and lacked energy.

Of course, I broke my own rules — one of the top poems did include an “I” pronoun, but it broke my rules very well! And surprisingly, it wasn’t hard in the end to rank the poems after reading them several times. I won’t say here who the winners were, but if you’re dying to find out, pick up a copy of Lyrical Iowa for 2009 when it comes out.

I was glad of the opportunity to read all the poems — even most of those who didn’t make my final cut had much of merit in them — and the process of judging a form like this gave me more opportunity for reflection than just reading the same number of poems would, or even than teaching or grading would.

New Puppy

Brody, the new pupWe are hosting our third foster dog from the humane society. He’s on a program called Homeward Bound that takes pets from the South, where not enough people spay and neuter, to the Northeast, where there is a shortage of pets to adopt. It’s a great program that saves a lot of lives, but their pets need to be in a home, not a shelter, for at least two weeks prior to departure. So we’re losing sleep again, caring for a 5-month or so German Shepherd mix puppy. He’s great, but has been in the shelter for the past month, so he’s not exactly house-broken. Thinking about this, while reading for and working on my Poetry Writing syllabus this morning with the dog at my feet on the porch, led to a draft of a poem on house training. If the pup doesn’t eat the page I wrote it on, while I’m inside working on this post, then it might become something….


This is just a quick follow-up post to yesterday’s and a note on the joys and dangers of writing exercises. This morning I wrote a poem titled Continental Divide based loosely on the exercise I described. When checking out the fact that Minnesota’s divide goes in three directions, I found the roadside marker that I linked to. It mentions a drop of water falling, which became part of the poem I wrote this morning. Or is it a poem? Is it finished? Probably not. Will it be finished? Hard to tell. It looks like a poem, and this morning I think it is a poem in some stage, so I’m happy. But that’s the danger of exercises. They may give me something that looks like a poem and feels like a poem, but only time will tell whether it is a poem I want to claim as my own. Of course, isn’t that always the case with early drafts!