good news!

My manuscript, The Falls, was a finalist for the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize, Indiana Review/Indiana Univ Press. Huge congrats to the winner, Jennifer Givhan!

The Falls was also a semifinalist for the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, Southern Illinois Univ Press. Big congrats to the winners, Monica Berlin and Sara Henning!

I look forward to reading the books of the winners. And, I’m grateful for this encouragement. I have faith that The Falls will find its right home soon.

I also have poems recently out or forthcoming in Radar Poetry, New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Muzzle Magazine, and Gulf Stream. Thank you to the editors of these magazines for believing in these poems!

recent news

New poems are out in Tupelo Quarterly, Bridge Eight Magazine, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Southword Journal (Ireland), Rogue Agent, and DIALOGIST, and two new poems are forthcoming in the September issue of Connotation Press.

My manuscript, A Thousand Arms, was a semifinalist for The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works Press.

My poem, “Needlework,” was nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology by Tupelo Quarterly.

My poem, “Anatomy of Distance,” was nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net anthology by DIALOGIST.

My poem, “As Much As A Letter,” was highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Prize competition and published online in the April/May issue of Southword Journal (Ireland).

My poem, “Needlework,” was a semifinalist for the Tupelo Quarterly 2016 Poetry Prize (TQ9), and published online in Tupelo Quarterly (TQ9).

My poem, “Needlework,” was a finalist for Sycamore Review‘s 2016 Wabash Prize for Poetry.

My poem, “Letters to Pittsburgh I,” was nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology by HEArt Journal Online.

friday poem — Ed Ochester

One of the luckiest times of my life was the two years I spent in the Bennington Writing Seminars. It’s been over a year since I finished, and I’m still learning the ways in which it was more than just an MFA. It was an initiation into the writing and reading life that was rooted in devotion, community, and joy (also neurosis and dancing).

I will never forget the workshops of my first residency at Bennington. They were led by Ed Ochester and Amy Gerstler — two poets I consider poetry gods. Walking in and finding a seat at the long seminar table, I was keenly aware of how much I had to learn and how much I wanted my poems to be better than they were. I was achingly nervous. And then Ed started the first workshop by reading from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, followed by a poem by James Wright. And he choked up as he read, saying something like, “This is why we do this.” It made me feel that we were all in this together — that writing poems was, first and foremost, about loving poems we’d read, and trying to honor those poets who had changed our lives. I could do that. And, it reminded me that I was allowed to have my heart in my writing.

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Ed reading at Hemingway’s this week to a packed crowd

That’s what Ed’s poetry teaches and encourages me to do. To write in real, embodied voices, to “like complexity / not confusion.” To work toward beauty and heart. This heart often comes out in his poems in hilarity, or irony, or the perfect, resonant dialogue and detail (for instance, the haiku “Karaoke Night at the Serbian Club, South Side, Pittsburgh”). If you haven’t read Sugar Run Road, Ed’s newest book, or his many other books, you should. Here are two of my favorite poems from the book.

Poetry

I too dislike it
the mystified truisms
the dusty puzzle-prunes
the theatrical exaggerations:
“the brutal crescendo of woodworms”—

yet I think of O’Hara’s delight
in the endless pleasures
of quotidian life and Duhamel
throwing a dozen balls in the air
and juggling them all
Frank said only a few poems
are as good as the movies
but that was a long time ago
before a lot of bad movies
before background music before
there was almost no silence and
“the private life” is an insult to others.

Poetry is the most private art:
Li-Young remembering his father
combing his mother’s hair,
Stern and Gilbert with their mouths open
walking down a street in Paris, Judith
writing the mysteries of Level Green
and her father’s radioactive chambers.
Catullus registering his private ecstasies
and fears while the machine of the state
ground on. Kinnell saying “go so deep
into yourself you speak for everyone.”

For Britt

Dec. 16, Beethoven’s birthday

Beethoven is such a great composer but
his personality is questionable which
shows once again that one is
what one does — music, poems, or even
money have claims but also such
unremarked acts as feeding sparrows
in winter which God doesn’t do too well—
though we’re told He notes the fall
of every one—so that as I park the car
your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy

Sugar Run Road, Autumn House Press, 2015

friday poem — Claudia Rankine and Split this Rock

Split this Rock is a DC-based nonprofit that “cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change.” I’m a big fan and supporter of this organization, and have learned so much from their work in the world. They recently launched a Social Justice Poetry Database that gathers over 300 poems by socially engaged poets, and I’m sure it will continue to grow. It’s a fantastic resource.

This week, I read a powerful essay by Claudia Rankine in the NYT Magazine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.” I highly recommend it. After reading Rankine’s essay, I went back to her celebrated book, Citizen. And since I’ve never heard her read her poems, found a video of her reading an excerpt from Citizen (on the Split this Rock database, no less). It’s worth your time to watch this, and I hope it makes you want to read her book.

“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

friday poem

Jan Beatty has shaped me as a poet in ways that are hard to articulate fully. I know many other poets and writers feel the same way, especially those who have gotten to know her through the Madwomen in the Attic and in her teaching at Carlow. On some other day, I’ll tell you more about her work to champion women writers, many writers whose voices and stories would otherwise never be heard.

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But before I knew her in her roles in the writing community, I knew her poems. And her poems have sustained and inspired me as a writer and human for more than half my life. Lately I’ve been thinking about this love poem, “Dreaming Door,” from her book Red Sugar.

I don’t tend to write love poems or odes — my poems tend toward other more melancholy, dark places. But this poem goes to the tender place without sentimentality. It inspires me to try again. To try something new. As you’ll see in this poem, Jan’s gifts include an uncanny knack for dialogue, real language from the mouths of real people, that lingers and holds layers of emotion. Also, she can blend the tactile, real world with dreamy, wild images and move back and forth seamlessly. In her poems and in her teaching, I’ve also seen that she has this way of knowing what a poem needs — when it’s done, when it’s stopped too short, when it’s hitting false notes. This poem and so many more have become part of my world, in the way that only the best poems do. More on Jan and her work later, but for now, I hope you enjoy this one.

Dreaming Door

For Don

You brought donuts in the morning of our first days and
we watched the great rivers through my South Side windows/everything
swelling, we ate in the turquoise kitchen and opened the dreaming door:
our Pittsburgh rolling by on the coal barges, the P&LE carting steel
to the still-rising cities of the West, a couple speedboats
running the dirty summer Monongahela,
you on your way to work. I said no one’s ever
been this nice to me 
as I walked you the 52 steps down
from my third-floor apartment, you tilted your head,
looking at me in a way I’d never seen:
like I was the most sublime person,
your blue eyes seeming truly puzzled:
I haven’t even started to love you yet,
and at the door the world barreling through –
this time with gifts, fierce fires,
and planets of luck.

from Red Sugar, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

friday poem

Aracelis-Girmay-processed

After reading Kingdom Animalia and Teeth a few years ago, and then meeting Aracelis Girmay at a reading hosted by the Madwomen in the Attic here in Pittsburgh, I have been solidly in the Aracelis Girmay fan club. I love her work. But hearing her read her poems in person and talk about her craft made me realize I also admire the kind of poet and person she is. There was something luminous about her — that word has been co-opted by fashion magazines — but it’s true. I realize I only know her through her poems and her reading and from a five minute conversation we had, but still. Maybe by luminous — what I mean is real. I think she’s after something real and true — and there are many ways to do that. But I love her particular way of pursuing what is true with language and image.

I picked the poem “Elegy” to share because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mortality and how “our living is not guaranteed.” It was hard for me to pick one Girmay poem. There are so many others that deserve to be read — my favorites include, “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card,” “To Waste My Hands,” “For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Dress & Said,” and “Self-Portrait as the Snail.” You should pick up her books and see for yourself.

Elegy

                          What to do with this knowledge
                          that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.

All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.

Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.

–Aracelis Girmay, from Kingdom Animalia, 2011, BOA Editions.

friday poem

o-SHARON-OLDS-570

Today, I’ve got a Sharon Olds poem for you. No doubt you’ve heard of Sharon Olds, but perhaps you haven’t read Stag’s Leap, a book which won both the Pulitzer and the T.S. Eliot Prizes. Here’s my favorite poem from the book:

Last Look

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain — the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. And his eyes seemed to me,
still, like the first ocean, wherein
the blue-green algae came into their early
language, his sea-wide iris still
essential, for me, with the depths in which
our firstborn, and then our second, had turned,
on the sides of their tongues the taste buds for the moon-bland
nectar of our milk — our milk. In his gaze,
rooms of the dead; halls of loss, fog-
emerald; driven, dirty-rice snow:
he was in there somewhere, I looked for him,
and he gave me the gift, he let me in,
knowing he would never once, in this world or in
any other, have to do it again,
and I saw him, not as he really was, I was
still without the strength of anger, but I
saw him see me, even now
that dropping down into trust’s affection
in his gaze, and I held it, some seconds, quiet,
and I said, Good-bye, and he said, Good-bye,
and I closed my eyes, and rose up out of the
passenger seat in a spiral like someone
coming up out of a car gone off a
bridge into deep water. And two and
three Septembers later, and even
the September after that, that September in New York,
I was glad I had looked at him. And when I
told a friend how glad I’d been,
she said, Maybe it’s like with the families
of the dead, even the families of those
who died in the Towers — that need to see
the body, no longer inhabited
by what made them the one we loved — somehow
it helps to say good-bye to the actual,
And I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,
first, to have been able to love,
then, to have the parting now behind me,
and not to have lost him when the kids were young,
and the kids now not at all to have lost him,
and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have
lost someone who could have loved me for life.

–Sharon Olds, from Stag’s Leap, Knopf, 2012.

Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap scrutinizes the end of her thirty-year marriage, and this poem a particular moment within that ending. The key to Olds’s poetics is her ability to observe without shame or judgment. Her work is characterized by precise imagery, urgent musicality, and a rhetorical structure that lets the reader into the speaker’s thinking process. There is a particular density, a thick quality, to an Olds poem — you feel as though you are pulled into another world.

The poem “Last Look” grounds us in the occasion of the poem swiftly: “In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into / his eyes.” And then with the line, “But now it was time to go beyond / comfort, to part,” the poem shifts to Olds’s microscopic scrutiny of the body. She likens the husband’s eyes to “the first ocean, wherein / the blue-green algae came into their early / language, his sea-wide iris still / essential, for me.” The image of the husband’s eyes as the ocean, which conjures the “essential” quality of language, rolls into invoking their two children, and their need for “the moon-bland / nectar of our milk — our milk.” The use of “our” to modify the milk is a surprising move, as milk is derived solely from the mother. Here, the speaker recalls the physical bond with her husband that created and nurtured their children, and with the repetition of “our milk” suggests a continuation of that connection. With this image, the poem dives into the unconscious realm of image.

The speaker brings us back narratively with the lines, “And two and / three Septembers later, and even / the September after that, that September in New York, / I was glad I had looked at him.” The sounds here knock the close reader out —“his sea-wide iris still / essential” — the waves of assonance and sibilance heighten the already powerful rhetorical and visual energy. Olds’s sounds are often subtle, echoing sounds within words or lines, as in the tactile “t” and “d” sounds of these lines: “the sides of their tongues the taste buds for the moon-bland / nectar of our milk — our milk.”

Following a typical Olds structure, about half the poem’s space happens within the rolling images the speaker observes during this key moment:

In his gaze,
rooms of the dead; halls of loss, fog-
emerald; driven, dirty-rice snow:
he was in there somewhere, I looked for him,
and he gave me the gift, he let me in,
knowing he would never once, in this world or in
any other, have to do it again,
and I saw him, not as he really was, I was
still without the strength of anger, but I
saw him see me

These images disorient the reader, creating an uncanny mixture of spaces and objects, which take us deeper into the murky emotional depths of the speaker’s experience. It is here that she tells us she truly sees him, as opposed to merely looking. However, even this is qualified by the speaker’s astute assertion: “I saw him see me, even now / that dropping down into trust’s affection / in his gaze, and I held it, some seconds, quiet, / and I said, Good-bye, and he said, Good-bye, / and I closed my eyes, and rose up out of the / passenger seat in a spiral like someone / coming up out of a car gone off a / bridge into deep water.” Notice that in order for the speaker to be released from the bond with the husband, she has to close her eyes. She has to stop observing his eyes, and their shared past, in order to pull herself up and out of the downward pull of their connection.

The final image in this poem, of the speaker rising up “in a spiral,” captures the movement of a body in water, escaping what would be a wreck. The reader experiences the feeling of a near-death escape. This book is full of moments in which the speaker names an uncomfortable but deeply felt emotional truth. For Olds, in her best work, the personal is always universal. In this poem, she somehow lands the poem on a triumphant note that does not feel unearned. With each loss that is chronicled, the speaker argues on the side of the gain, the near-miss, and leaves the reader on a recurring echo of hope.

friday poem

My friend, the talented poet Jennifer Stewart Miller, recently sent me a poem that appeared in The New Yorker — “Goat Hour Gospel (Such Salvage)” by Mark Wagenaar. I don’t subscribe, so I often miss poems I might love. But one of the best things about having friends who are writers is that we help each other cast a wider net, catching the poems, novels and stories that might affect and change us before they go back into the ether.

I’m struck most by these lines: “No relic is safe, it seems, from an invisible tide that presses them upward. / Sometimes it’s not the loss that hurts but the indignities of the discovery.” The idea of relics pushing upward out of the earth is disturbing and surprising. The movement works against gravity, a law that we think keeps what’s hidden underneath the surface. But this makes sense physically and emotionally. Nothing can remain hidden forever.

The second person “you” does not always work for me. But here, it feels intimate, careful, and tender.These quietly musical, long-lined couplets are grounded by a voice that has authority but does not claim to be all-knowing and all-perfect. This speaker hedges and gives us a lot of “might” and “maybe” as he lets us see his mind at work. We are in the poet’s mind as he works out the relationship between these goats “bumbling through briar, chewing through poison ivy, sniffing at trees” and the mercy that enters the poem a little later.

The image of the goats themselves is central: “Their dirty white fur shines a little in this late, lost hour.” It turns out this is a poem of praise, a subtly glass-is-half-full kind of poem. And in this 21st century nature poem (as my friend Jen calls it), Wagenaar mixes the old and the new in his assured narrative voice. The biggest surprise of the poem, though, is the assertion that mercy is what will come to all of us, “even for the undeserving, / for those of us who didn’t live right, or live best. Whatever that means. / Mercy will find us, even when we fail to recognize it, when we least expect it.” I appreciate how the poet is able to bring in the idea of mercy, something so charged and weighty, and make it feel like it could actually come to all of us.