Tom Sexton: Poetry Reading in Lowell, MA

I attended Tom Sexton’s reading in Lowell MA the other day.  He was visiting town for his high school reunion.  I made sure to attend because we published Tom way back in 1987, in our third issue.  Tom agreed to let me republish the poem from that issue here:

ON THE NENANA RIVER

No path led from the cabin
to a clearing
or to an abandoned garden.

Inside a sour smell,
slivers of bone, a shrew’s skull,
bits of fur.

On the sill of the single window
placed to catch the light
a mason jar of water from the glacial river,

above the silt
a bud of light as epitaph:
I made this water pure and then departed.

Sexton has done well for himself since then.  His third book of poetry was published by Salmon Poetry, and the book I bought at the reading, titled A Clock With No Hands (Adastra Press, 2007), features his hometown Lowell.  Many in attendance at the reading recognized characters and places from the Lowell of his childhood.  I was happy that he inscribed the book as follows:  “For Richard:  Who was there for me at the beginning.”  I’m hoping that he sends two unpublished poems that he read at the reading for ALBATROSS #20: they were beautiful!

Guerilla Poetry

I just found out about the Guerilla Poetry Project (the GPP) from a poet who has previously published in Albatross #15, Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal, who is a founding member.  The idea is that they sneak postcards (or “broadsides”) into targeted books so that people will discover them (for as their bumper sticker says, “poetry is not meant to be hidden, it’s meant to be found”).  This reminds me of Book Crossing, where people leave books around in public places inviting others to “steal this book” and, when done, to drop it off somewhere else… I will add the GPP to my blogroll.

Chapbook Contest Winner Announced

I just posted the winner of the 2008 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest:  William Keener’s Gold Leaf on Granite.  The poem I chose as the example for the announcement page is one titled “Take This Page,” a poem that embodies the awareness of energy flow, of “emergy” (embodied energy), that my concept of energonomics (the main focus of another blog of mine, which this post echoes for the most part) tries to express.  I will post the poem in its entirety:

Take This Page

Look past
the distraction of words,
our endless procession
of letters.

In the presence of white,
touch the page itself,
this rectangle,
this empty room,

a place for meditation,
if we ignore
the black scuff marks
on its ivory floor.

Let natural light
reflect the textures
of felted fibers,
cotton and flax,

egg shell, bread dough,
wool and bone,
the pressed shirt,
the linen shroud,

smooth, uncreased,
a sheet of paper deep
as any world we enter
through a book.

With the whorls
of our fingertips
we can read beneath
the watermarks,

between the laid lines,
faint patterns
left by the mesh
where pale pulp dried,

the cellulose in its slurry,
the wood chips, sawdust,
splinters, bark,
the cambium, the core

of a tree giving ground,
a legion of trees, a forest,
the billion leaves
they gird on every year,

their green machinery,
the sugars in the sap,
oxygen, carbon, lignin,
every molecule made

with heat, the photons
charging through space
from the flares of our sun,
its fiery hydrogen

burned into this room,
written into this page,
this book,
this volume of light.

This is a powerful poem for many reasons.  I especially like the syntactic build-up at the end of the poem:  you can feel the energy building as you are swept along by the syntax, as the poet leads us from the page that we are reading to the pulp of the page and through it to the very photons flowing from the sun that made possible the life of the tree which we have translated into “this book/this volume of light.”  The poem is wonderful insofar as it introduces and embodies all of these complex scientific concepts without burdening the reader with jargon or complicated language.  It brings us to an awareness of our basis in energy–it reminds us that we are beings of energy, that all, ultimately, is energy.

Congratulations to William Keener for having the clarity of mind and simplicity of insight to recognize and capture these truths in a truly beautiful way.

Featured Poem: “Winter Woods”

WINTER WOODS by Michael S. Lewis-Beck

Breath cold, full moon behind a gray veil,
the tree tops map the moon.

Three pairs of socks, through my boots
my toes are still cold.

Three hours of hard wood in the Vermont casting
lifts the cabin from 13 to 38.

Vegetable soup and a bottle of Gigondas,
read Frost by bed candle.

Sleep to wind in high trees.

6

Editing: Example #2

I received the following poem from Michael Lewis-Beck:

WINTER WOODS

Breath cold, full moon behind a gray veil,
the tree tops map the moon.

Three pairs of socks through my boots
my toes are cold still.

Three hours of hard wood in the Vermont casting
lifts the cabin from 13 to 38.

Vegetable soup and a bottle of Gigondas,
read Frost by bed candle.

Sleep to wind in the high trees.

I liked this poem a lot but had a few suggested changes.  First, I was confused by the first line of the second stanza, so I suggested adding a comma between “socks” and “through.”  This breaks the flow of the sentence and allows the prepositional phrase “through my boots” to apply to “toes” in the second line rather than to “socks” in the first.

Second, I suggested reversing “cold” and “still” so that the rhythm of the line was enhanced:  “my toes are still cold”, which allows the stress to fall on each syllable/word, whereas the original seems to de-emphasize the stress on “still” in the last position.  Also, I like the “s” sound of “toes” and “still” when they are brought closer together, yet the change doesn’t cancel the effect of the assonance (the “o” sound in “toes” and “cold”)–in fact, I think the assonance is enhanced by adding a beat (with the word “still”) between the two sounds/words.

Finally, I suggested cutting the “the” in the last line–again for reasons of rhythm.  Without the “the,” we have “Sleep to wind in high trees”–every syllable stressed, with a powerful impactful ending.  Putting “the” in adds a downbeat and ruins this effect:  “Sleep to wind in the high trees.”

These changes make the poem stronger, in my opinion, and the author agreed to the changes.  This poem will appear in Albatross #20.  I will also post the edited version of the poem as a “featured poem” entry of this blog.

“The New Natural Selection”

I read an essay in a book titled Teilhard in the 21st Century:  The Emerging Spirit of Earth, and thought that a blog entry here would make sense.  I didn’t start this blog with the intention of writing about books or spiritual matters, but given the relevance of this essay to what Albatross is all about, I think it’s appropriate.

I’ve been attracted to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin since first hearing about him at a conference I attended as a young college student probably 25 years ago.  It was a Jean Houston conference, and she mentioned her friendship with Teilhard as a youth and his great knowledge of geology.  Later, in my exploration and development of energonomics, a glocal concept of “energy management,” I picked up his books titled Human Energy and Activation of Human Energy and read about his concept of the noosphere, the emergent consciousness of the earth into which humankind is evolving.  I also recognized direct and indirect allusions to his thought in the work of Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence (esp. his concept of the “noolithic” period which we are entering) as well as the poetry of radical Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, especially the amazing 500-page epic Cosmic Canticle as well as a parody/revision of St. John’s Apocalypse (in his Apocalypse and Other Poems).  The closing lines of “Apocalypse” capture Teilhard’s vision perfectly:

And in the Earth’s biology I saw a new Evolution
It was as though a New Planet had appeared in space
For death and hell were cast into the sea of nuclear fire
and neither were there peoples as before
but I saw rather a new species freshly evolved
a species not made up of individuals
but rather one sole organism
made up of men in place of cells
and all biologists were mightily amazed
But men were free and in their union were one Person–
not a Machine–
and the sociologists were equally astounded
Such men as had no part in this new species
were but as fossils
The Organism enclosed the whole roundness of the planet
round as a cell (but planetary in dimensions)
and the Cell was garlanded as a Bride awaiting the Bridegroom
and the Earth rejoiced
(as when, dividing, the first cell was wedded)
And there was a New Canticle
and all other inhabited planets heard the Earth singing
and it was a love-song

I was struck by the parallel to Brian Swimme’s essay, which speaks of a “new natural selection,” an evolution into “our role as human earthlings”, as the “evolutionary unfoldment brought into the conscious mode”:

“The full context of the human must include the cosmic and planetary dimension of life and being.  Humans are, as Teilhard celebrated, the conscious mode of co-evolution.”

In presenting three principles of natural selection for humankind to follow, Swimme writes a beautiful paragraph about the need to revere all of nature.  It’s worth quoting in full:

Scientific investigation has revealed that every individual organism, every mineral, every ecological community possesses within itself a significant story in relation to the whole emergence of life on Earth.  Each existent being or community of beings can be considered a voice that speaks from thirteen billion years of cosmic development.  We are only just now understanding  how to listen to the voice that speaks in these systems of life and being. Only in the last few decades have we been able to listen to the story of the universe’s origin that is contained in the radiant energy that bathes the Earth.  Each wave of these photons brings even more information from the earliest moments of the universe.  Then, too, it is only in the last few years that we have been able to listen to the story contained in the continents of their journey through the transformations of the Earth. And only now are we able to hear the story of the prokaryotes and their symbiotic fashioning to create the eukaryotic cells some one and a half billion years ago. Only in the last few years have we realized that all the nuclei even of our own skin must be considered fossils from the ancient origins of the symmetry breaks in the heart of the primordial fireball. In these and many other examples we are beginning to appreciate the way in which every existent being is the whole universe’s story told from a particular viewpoint and history. We must, therefore, hope that future humans recognize and respect this great truth, this great mystery of history’s presence within each being. A voice that is lost means knowledge and information lost for all time, a story that will never be recaptured. We must move into the future with a deep reverence for all beings and the story that each is able to tell.

I can’t mention Swimme without making a plug for his incredible book The Universe Is A Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story.  This book puts all of life–but especially our individual lives–into the perspective of a 15-billion year cosmic evolutionary process, “a larger perspective by which to evaluate our activities, a perspective that included stars, planets, and all other life forms” (72).  It is a shift “to a biocentric and cosmocentric orientation where the universe and the Earth are the fundamental referents” rather than the anthropocentric/egocentric orientation that we are beginning to shed.

This book, I believe, is one of the most important on the planet, as is the idea that we as a species are evolving into our new larger role “as a dimension of the emergent universe” (18).

Arranging the Poems in an Issue

I don’t know what other editors do, but I pay special attention to the order of the poems in an issue. For the past handful of issues I try to open with a poem that is spiritual in some way–invoking the holy in nature with reverence. I try to end with an apocalyptic poem, one that signals the potential downfall of the planet–or some special part of it that would make living on it less of a wonder. It’s not that I seek out poems with such content to fill these spaces; it’s just that, every issue, there turns out to be at least one reverent poem and one semi-apocalyptic poem. The poems also tend to break down into themes or topics (poems about animals, about trees, about human relationships, etc.) and so I group these together as well as try to find hinges between the topics. Sometimes these are merely a second poem by the same author; other times it is an image or a phrase that provides the hinge.

For example, in issue #19, the two poems about gardens (“The End of the Garden” by Kathleen Kirk and “The Shade Garden” by Gabriel Welsch) are followed by one titled “Persephone to Hades” (by Jules Green) and then by Ralph Culver’s “Prelude” (which is set in winter) and “False Spring” (by Don Thompson). This latter poem mentions birds, and the next poem by Linda King is “a bird will rest its feet only in flight.” This poem mentions “cloud promises,” which leads to the next poem by Caitlin Rice, titled “The Clouds All Fall to Earth.” And so on.

I was happy to see that Kathleen Kirk noticed this and commented upon it in a recent letter:

What a wonderful set of poems [in issue #19], and I admire your careful arrangement of them, and how they beckon to each other across the pages. I was of course delighted with Megan Roberts “Blackberries” poem, and I hope she enjoys the blackberries in mine. I love how Gabriel Welsch’s “Shade Garden” is opposite my garden poem. The issue is full of close observation of nature and evokes powerful emotions, deep thought, and all kinds of reverence. I love how the issue opens and closes with poems that kneel down. Wow.

I have to say that the coincidence of the first and last poem invoking kneeling was not one that I noticed nor intended. I won’t take credit for doing that intentionally, though it makes for a sweet wholeness. The poems in these two positions fulfill the functions I described above; in each, kneeling has a different purpose. In the opening poem, for example, the kneeling is out of reverence: “to stand/as if this were a throne/or the fragment of an Annunciation,/to bend, to kneel down, to pray” (“Loss,” E.G. Burrows). In the closing poem, the kneeling is forced by the Gods, to help us recognize our arrogance: “The gods have stood up and told you to kneel./And you kneel.” (“Hubris” by Misha Becker).

Poem in Your Pocket Day

I just stumbled upon “Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  It’s a bit early to plan for next year (April 2009 seems like a whole year away!), but mark it on some calendar in your life.  The idea is to get everyone to carry poems around in their pockets and then pull them out to have random poetry readings anywhere you are or go.

This made me think of the way that I memorize poems that are important to me:  I carry them in my pocket and pull them out every chance I get (and there are many such moments — like waiting at a long red light, or in the grocery line, or while you’re on hold with tech support from India….) to practice the process of memorization.

Once it’s memorized, then the next step is to remember to use those moments to practice the memorized poems (rather than curse your bad luck for picking the slowest check-out girl in the food store!).

Editing: Example #1

If I see a poem that I like for the most part, but there’s a part of it that I have a question about or think could be changed for the better, I will engage the writer in dialogue.  The goal is to settle on a version of the poem that I am happy to publish but that doesn’t compromise the writer’s original purpose and intention.  This will be the first post that offers examples of this give and take so that you might see how an editor (this editor, at any rate) thinks and reasons.

My first example comes from Eric Paul Shaffer’s “Of Owls and Sugarcane”–part of the submission that included “Whales at Sunset.”  First, here is the poem as originally submitted:

Of Owls and Sugar Cane

Outraged, the local newspaper reports a tragic death of pueo,
owl native to the islands, slammed from the sky
with fender, windshield, or grille.  Yet a quick study of the photo

reveals a Barn Owl, limp with wing unfurled on a roadside
where tall green stalks of cane rise behind the tidy pile

of feathers among the scattered trash.  Of course, the bird
was a Barn Owl.  They dive from the dark into headlights
to strike mice the sudden day illuminates,

and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings

and hollow bones from the stars to the culvert.  They don’t care
what they hit and never stop to see.  We are like them.

We won’t know what’s lost until we can name what we see.
And we’ll never know what will grow if we don’t know

when or how to plant what the moon demands.  Till the wheels
stop, we and our children will see no more in the earth but sugar
and graves and the nameless grasses that cover them.

*

I wrote the following:

I am interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” but have a question about one of the lines/stanzas.  The fourth stanza is a bit confusing as is:

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity

with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

If you can explain this, or perhaps there is an error you can point out, that would be helpful.

Shaffer replied:

I am . . . very pleased to hear that you are interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane.”  As for your question about the fourth of the lines/stanzas being confusing, I understand what you mean.  On my most recent editing sweep, I revisited those lines, and they have been revised.  Compare below.

ORIGINAL
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

REVISED
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with humming red roads, tear pale wings from stars

and cast hollow bones into the ditch.”

In explanation, I am saying that the drivers of the back roads on Maui are tired to the point of sleepiness when they head home.  Additionally, familiarity with daily driving the same two-lane road for decades has dulled their attention so much that they don’t have time to react to the Barn Owls that dive into the light of the car headlights to pounce on mice fleeing the sudden illumination; thus, the “wings” are torn from the sky and the bodies (“hollow bones” as in bird bones) are bounced into the roadside ditch. . .

I know “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” provides a straight-forward and stark view of the realities of other animals sharing the planet with us, and I am very happy that that approach appeals to you at Albatross because I find that this view is not always popular with the editors of other reviews professing interest in the actualities of the planet.  I hope you will welcome other submissions from me–no matter what the outcome of this submission is.

Take care.  Thank you again for your close attention to my poems.  It is a pleasure to discuss all of this with you.

As a result of this change, I accepted the poem, which will appear in Issue #20 (to be published probably late 2008/early 2009).

Further Comments on Harsh Poetry

Eric Paul Shaffer sent a follow-up email in which he explains his sense of “harsh poetry”:

I can see there are some points you address that I would like to amplify in order to clarify the context in which I made them, especially the one about “poetry that is too harsh.” I meant that many editors are afraid of poems that they consider make judgments concerning humanity that might be offensive to humans so they usually shy away from those poems.

I didn’t mean that the poems in Albatross are “too harsh”; in fact, it is a relief to read work that encounters the planet as it actually is rather than the world as humans believe it is, beliefs they maintain in order to benefit and excuse themselves in the continuing attack on everything that is non-human on the planet.

As you can see from reading “Whales at Sunset,” I am not reluctant to indict humanity, not even myself, for its crimes, and that the editors thought my poem was too harsh, but I still think my indictment was accurate.

I am actually happy to characterize the poetry in Albatross as “harsh” from this point of view and also honored to be among those who aren’t afraid to publish poems that make harsh judgments. Many become defensive when faced with such “offensive” poetry (and strike back with their own level of harshness, calling names like “tree-huggers” and “enviro-wackos”), but my hope is that we can move beyond our fragile, personal egos and begin to consider the larger whole (the “interdependent web of all existence” as the Unitarian Universalists put it in their 7th Principle) of which we are a part.

Let me say that I get many many poems that are merely judgmental or didactic, without any art. The primary consideration, in my mind, is that the poem is beautiful in some way: it moves me, its language is accurate and honest and striking, it captures a fresh and refreshing perspective on a topic.

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