Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

This Christmas, Buy Poetry

I usually don’t like to hawk my own books, but with the Christmas shopping season in full swing, it seems like a good time to promote books in general (for mine, see below). And what better kind of book to buy than a good book of poetry?

They say good things come in small packages: you get a lot of good things in a collection of poems. And because each poem is usually a page or two long, readers can digest a book of poems a few at a time. A poetry book is perfect for commuters or travelers or anyone with a busy schedule or who needs something to read after they put their phone, tablet, or computer away before they go to sleep (more and more studies say you should do this, so you need good books to make the transition). Poetry books generally aren’t as expensive as novels or short story collections, so you can give two or three — or you can add a book of poems to make an ordinary gift like a  scarf or sweater seem extraordinary.

Now, I know some people’s reaction will be that no one reads poetry or no one understands it, but that doesn’t have to be the case. First, if everyone bought a book of poetry for Christmas, then much more poetry would be read! (Okay, I know, that’s wishful thinking…) But not all poetry is opaque and impossible to understand. Some is, and some people love that, but many poets also write perfectly accessible poems that engage with current events or universal issues anyone can relate to. You just have to look around and find the book that will speak to the person on your gift list (or put some poetry on your own wish list, so someone might get it for you).

How to find good poetry?

Over at Poetry Southwe’ve started a book list of new and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. You can also read many of our issues online to find poets who might be of interest, or you could order a gift subscription for Issue 9, which will be out in time for Christmas. You can also click on the title to go to our LibraryThing bookshelf of poetry. Goodreads recently released their reader’s poll of top poetry in 2017. Small Press Distribution listed their best-selling poetry titles in November, and Entropy Magazine came out with their list. And browsing in a good bookstore can give you ideas.

If you’re still looking for suggestions, here is what I have available:

9781680030655 For the art lover, the environmentalist, or anyone interested in the Mississippi Gulf Coast or mental illness, Barrier Island Suitechronicles the life of painter and potter Walter Inglis Anderson of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As a young man, he studied art, then suffered mental breakdowns (possibly as a result of malaria or undulant fever) and was institutionalized. Later he would become a successful yet reclusive artist, working at the family pottery and sailing out to the barrier island for weeks at a time to draw and paint. The poems in this collection are inspired by his Horn Island Logs as well as the biographies Fortune’s Favorite Child and Approaching the Magic Hour.

dunkelberg front cover smThe poems in Time Capsules are more autobiographical, though some poems or details are invented. Poems set in the present deal with marriage, family, setting down roots, and growing accustomed to Mississippi. Poems of the past deal with growing up in small-town Iowa in the 60s and 70s. Themes of travel and nature run through all of my poetry and are prevalent in Time Capsules as well. Trees, birds, and wildflowers are recurring symbols. The book’s four sections are loosely organized around the cycle of the seasons, beginning in winter with “The Land of the Dead” and ending in late fall with “Requiem.”

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My first collection, Landscapes and Architectures is out of print, but I do have some copies available. Contact me if you’d like one or if you’d like a complete set of my three books! Landscapes and Architectures deals with the displacement of youth, modern culture (including some technology that now feels dated), love, nature, and finding one’s way in the world. The landscapes and cityscapes of the midwest, where I grew up, feature prominently in early poems set in Osage, Iowa, and Galesburg and Chicago, Illinois. Later poems take place in the wide open spaces and exotic landscape around Austin, Texas.

HRNcoverFor those who are interested in translation, surrealism, or mystical poetry, my translations of the Belgian poet, Paul Snoek, in Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus may make a good stocking stuffer. This collection of three of his books from the 1960s is a small format pocket book. One of Belgium’s most prominent post-war poets writing in Flemish, Paul Snoek was active from the 1950s until his tragic death in in a single-car accident in 1981. Recently, I’ve been reworking some of my translations of his last two books and am thinking again about finding a publisher for more of his poems.

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Last but not least, for the writer on your list, you might choose to buy a book about writing poetry (and fiction, nonfiction, and drama). My textbook, A Writer’s Craft, was published this year. Though it’s geared towards an introductory creative writing class, it was also written to be accessible for individual writers who want instruction and inspiration on the basics of the four main genres of creative writing. Each chapter ends with writing exercises to provide inspiration and more are available on the companion website and on its GoodReads community.

Book Review: Stripper in Wonderland

Stripper in Wonderland: PoemsStripper in Wonderland: Poems by Harriell, Derrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you think the cover has energy, then hold onto your hat. These poems leap off the page with vibrant language and daring subjects. Harriell is willing to take on race and sex, falling in love and becoming a parent, living the wild life and settling down. And the speakers of these poems do not always come across as the perfect heroes. Harriell gets us to question ourselves as much as we question society. No one is off the hook in these poems and no one is irredeemable. It is a bawdy, brawling, brash celebration of life.

View all my reviews

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Indeed, Why Poetry?

A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.

Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.

Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.

This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.

Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.

So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.

One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.

But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.