Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Poetry as Creative Nonfiction

This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to read poems as the keynote speaker at the Mississippi Philological Association annual conference held at Mississippi Valley State University. For those who are unfamiliar with this fine organization, it is a group of English and Languages faculty and students (graduates and undergraduates) from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, as well as a few who come from further afield (Illinois and Missouri were represented this year) to read creative work and scholarship on language and literature.

My talk was a reading from Barrier Island Suite and new poems from my fourth collection. It was fun to read what I’ve been working on recently with the poems on Walter Inglis Anderson from BIS and explore some of the cross-fertilization that went on. After all, while researching and writing the poems for BIS, I was also writing poems that would end up in Time Capsules and in my fourth book (title still to be determined, though I have a couple of working titles). The poems I read are newer, but I can still see the connections in theme that grew out of the work on Anderson.

That’s what got me thinking about poetry as creative nonfiction. Well, that did, along working on my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s CraftIn the textbook, the chapter on creative nonfiction was one of the harder ones to write until I realized that I write nonfiction all the time: I just format it as poetry. I discuss the fact that nonfiction is a misnomer; it could as easily been called non-poetry (thanks to Jocelyn Bartkevicius for making this argument in The Fourth Genre).

Barrier Island Suite is my book that is most obviously like creative nonfiction. I researched Walter Anderson’s life, read his Horn Island Logs, read his wife Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour, viewed his art and read art criticism on his work. All of this informed the poems, which were definitely not poems about me, but  poems on a subject. They move away from biography by functioning as poems. Though the annotiations bring some of that biography back in, the poems focus on a moment, on an emotion, on one kernel of his life without attempting to put the whole picture together in a narrative. They function as lyric, though the collection as a whole provides glimpses into the narrative, and I hope it provides a deeper understanding than biography could.

Barrier Island Suite is also filled with references to me and my own concerns. As much as it is about Walter Anderson, I also weave in references from my experience, such as allusions to Sumerian and Chinese literature that I have no way of knowing whether Anderson was aware of, and others that he refers to in his logs that are also favorites of mine. In this way, and by incorporating some of Anderson’s language from the logs into the poems, I felt that the collection became a conversation with Anderson across distance and across time.

That conversation continues in the next collection, though there are no poems on Walter Anderson. Instead they are largely poems drawn from my own experience, meditative poems like the sequence “Tombigbee River Haiku” or observations like the poems about our family’s maple tree that had to be cut down after it lost some big branches in a storm. Hardly confessional, these are poems that are both personal and about something beyond the writer. I’m interested in the same relationships between the human and the natural world as I was in Barrier Island Suite, and I’m interested in the life cycle and the cycles of the seasons as metaphor. These themes could just as easily be worked out in an essay (or blog post), but my chosen form is poetry. If creative nonfiction can have the lyric essay, it is time to recognize that poetry can have the essay-poem. There are many ways that poetry and creative nonfiction overlap and cross-polinate, as there are many hypbrids between all the genres of creative writing.

I might have said more of this on Friday night, but dinner was ready and smelled delicious, so I mostly read poems and let them do the talking.

2018 Milestones

c7ed24d8-1b1b-4364-9f31-7d483de36f04-1211-000001348bf41cf6_fileThe year is winding down, so I thought it would be fun to post a few highlights of 2018. Some I’ve written about, and some I’ve let pass without posting on the blog until now.

Personal Milestones

Kim and I have reached that big milestone of graduating our son, Aidan from high school at the Mississippi School for Math and Sciences, where he got one of the top educations in the country, and sending him off to Williams College for more of the same. He’s had a great first semester, becoming involved in campus life, making great friends, performing with the Berkshire Symphony, and even keeping up his grades. We’re very proud of him in so many ways.

img_2284Between his high school and college, we had a chance to take a family trip (with W honors students) to Peru. The picture is by the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We also spent time in Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Thanks to our friends at Perú Vivo for being our guides and taking us to two villages on Lake Titicaca and to the people we met there who were so welcoming!

Back stateside, our travels have taken us to see family in Alabama and Iowa, including a chance to meet my mother’s newest great-grandchild, Ira Hillman. We’ve also been to Williams twice: once to move Aidan in, and once for Family Days.

Writing Milestones

The biggest milestone this year for me has been finishing my fourth collection of poems. “Finishing” may need to be in quotes, as I keep tinkering with it, but I’ve been sending it out to publishers and had a copy printed for my mother. By finished, I mean that I have enough poems for a collection, and they work together well as a book, even though I’ve done dome rearranging and even added a poem or two since I printed the manuscript. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to announce a publisher, but don’t hold your breath—it can be a long process!

I’ve also published poems in Haiku Page, Asahi Haikuist Network, Tar Rive Poetry, and Ekphrastic Review. Naturally, many other publications have sent poems back to me, and I’m nearly as proud of the places I’ve submitted that didn’t accept my work as those that did. As I tell my students, you have to keep at it until the right poem reaches the right reader at the right time. There are so many variables and so much competition for space in journals that “rejection” (a word I prefer not to use) can’t be taken personally. I’ve had some good comments come back on my poems recently, even when they haven’t been selected, and that keeps you going.

Professional Milestones

The biggest change in my teaching career this year had been moving into a more administrative role. For the past 3 years, I’ve been directing our low-residency MFA program in creative writing. This year, I added department chair to my titles. I’ve taken on the role of chair for the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy, scheduling classes and managing the budget for our English, Spanish, Women’s Studies majors and Philosophy and Religious Studies minors. It also involves more committee meetings and mentoring more faculty. In the transition to this new role, we were also given permission to hire two new tenure-track faculty who will teach in both our MFA and undergraduate English programs. We’ve also started a search for a new Spanish professor, and I hired adjuncts in Latin and English and worked with dual-enrollment instructors in English and Spanish at three high schools. As a result of these changes in duties, I’ve passed the main responsibilities for Ponder Review on to my new colleague Brandy Wilson and for The Dilettanti on to Kris Lee, and I’m trying to cut back some on my advising and other duties wherever I can.

I was also happy to teach a couple of new graduate courses this year. In the spring, I developed the Translation Workshop, which was a lot of fun. We read some translations together and read essays on translation theory and practice. Students translated from German, Polish, Latin, and Spanish. This fall, I taught a new course on Feminist Poetry, starting with H.D. and Muriel Rukeyser (among other Modernist feminists) and covering second-wave and third-wave feminist poets. Response from students on both of these classes was good, and I hope to be able to teach them again soon.

I also led another successful Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and Short Residency classs for our MFA program. This was the symposium’s 30th year and my 25th (as participant; 11th as director). It was great to bring Steve Yarbrough to campus again after several years and to work with many new and returning writers. Discussing their works with our students in the days leading up to the symposium adds a lot to the experience. Making connections with Southern writers and introducing our students to them is one way I combine the two sides of my professional life — teaching and writing.

All in All

2018 has been a great year in every way, and I’m looking forward to how all the things that have gotten started this year will play out in 2019.

Why I Love Editing a Lit Mag

Poetry_South_2018_frontcoverThere are a lot of good reasons to love editing a literary magazine: for one, you feel like you’re doing something for writers and readers by providing an outlet for talent and curating content for the public. That is certainly true about Poetry South, the magazine I am fortunate enough to edit with a small staff of students and alumni of our low-residency MFA program. And it is true of Ponder Review, the multi-genre magazine our program started to reflect the kinds of writing that we practice in our classes. But my reason for loving my role as editor of Poetry South is more selfish.

As editor, I have the enviable (and unenviable) job as final arbiter of whose poems are in and whose are out of the magazine. I read every submission, but I also have a staff who reads and votes, and often we disagree — not vehemently, but our votes aren’t all identical. Naturally, there are practical considerations of length and our page format that sometimes dictate whether a poem will fit our pages or whether we have room for another poem. There’s a balancing act to try to put together the best issue that we can from the submissions we receive, and I know there have been times when we’ve sent back very good poems.

Sometimes a reader has read too many poems when she or he gets to a poem that may be quite good, but because of everything that came before, her or his vision is clouded. That’s where the process helps. We try to have at least 2 and often 3 pairs of eyes on every poem. It’s not a democracy, though. Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and that’s what I love — not the power of making the decision, but the responsibility.

An assistant editor may have loved a poem that I passed over on an initial read. Maybe two other readers liked it, and I didn’t. This challenges me to reread and rethink the decision. Or the opposite may occur, where I loved a poem (or liked it — maybe in a generous moment) and it got voted down by one or two other readers. In either case, I end up reading the poem two or three times, and I have to justify my final decision.

Yes, I change my mind, swayed both for and against poems that I voted for or against in my initial read. Often you notice things the second time around that you didn’t notice initially — reading for a magazine is an imperfect art. I learn as much when my mind isn’t changed as when it is.

To make these decisions is to constantly reevaluate and challenge myself about what I think about poetry. Yes, sometimes a theme or a voice develops for an issue and that’s why you make the decisions you do, but often what you learn is more about what you value in a poem. I’ve learned, for instance, that I like a poem with a good narrative, but that I want a poem with more than a narrative: it has to have rich sounds and be said in such a way that I can’t imagine another way to say it. I like a poem that challenges my sense of form and structure, but I want that poem to also have something to say. And I’ve learned that I can’t second guess what I like because just when I do, a poem will come along that challenges all of those preconceptions and still manages to amaze.

I love editing a literary magazine because I get to read so much poetry — not just the poetry that we decide to publish, but also those poems we decide to send back. And I learn from it all. Perhaps more than anything, I learn just how many different poets are out there, and how many different kinds of poetry they write, and how much passion each brings to their art. And I can’t help hoping they’ll all get published. If our little magazine isn’t the right fit for them this time, I suspect they’ll find the right place at the right time soon enough.

But for those we do publish, when I start compiling contributors notes and find out who the poets are — we tend to read fairly blind — I love seeing that we publish some poets with multiple books and many magazine publications to their name, and that we also publish poets for their first or second time. It’s nice to know we have a good mix of experience, age, background, etc., and that it all comes together between two covers to form a cohesive whole. Within those pages, we introduce these disparate voices to one another, and we hope we create something new and valuable in the process.

2 New Favorite Poetry Journals

This year, I’ve been happy to discover two new poetry journals. One is a journal that has accepted some of my poems, and the other is one I doubt I’ll submit to, but adds diversity to my reading.

Postcard Poems and Prose

This is a magazine that recently published three of my poems. Each week they publish one poem with an image. Usually, the image is created specifically for the poem from a photograph or art that the editors then modify. Sometimes the writer provides the image. The poem is printed on the image or if it’s too long, as is the case with short prose pieces, then the title may be on the image and the poem or prose printed on the website, alongside the image or images. Especially when printed together, the text and image form a new work of art.

I’ve enjoyed seeing what images the editors chose for the three short poems I sent them, and I’ve been pleased with the way they manipulated the image to combine it with my text. Adding color to the text sometimes helps to tie the two together. Author bios and pictures — headshot and personal photographs — complete the experience.

Poetry Journal In Print. Bao Giay

This is a journal in Vietnamese and English. The Vietnamese poems are all translated, and though the translations are sometimes a little stiff, they provide a glimpse into another poetry tradition: Vietnamese New Formalism. Each issue also includes an essay on Vietnamese poetry, followed by some English-language poetry translated into Vietnamese. Naturally, I can’t speak to the quality of the Vietnamese original poetry or translations.

Poetry Journal in Print is available as a PDF file by email. This journal magically appeared in my inbox, and I almost deleted it as spam. But I was glad when I opened the attached file to find a legitimate journal with quality poems by poets I never would have heard of otherwise. The journal is published every 3 months, and now it is also available in Issuu.

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.”

L&Acover

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?