Tag Archives: poetry

On Poetry of Place, the In-Between, and Tenderness

Today we welcome a post by award-winning poet Michelle Brittan Rosado, author of Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, part of our Wisconsin Poetry Series. In this essay, she explains how the spaces in her life have influenced her poetry.

“The poet of place,” according to James Galvin, “situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation.” Overlooking the masculine pronouns, I do think this can be true of poetry of place, that it can be a way to dissolve the self into an anonymous landscape. But I also think such poetry can be a map to find ourselves, a space in which to reassemble the annihilated and recover the displaced.

Many of the poems in my collection, Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, were written with particular landscapes in mind. One of these is the Vacaville-Dixon Greenbelt, a thousand acres of agricultural land protected from development, just outside of the Northern California town where I was raised. As an only child in the backseat of my parents’ car, I’d watch through the window the even lines of crops flanking the interstate: towering sunflowers, mature almond trees, dense strawberries close to the ground. The distance between my hometown of Vacaville and neighboring Dixon seemed never-ending, but out of that childhood boredom and restlessness came an eventual appreciation for spaces in between, both literal and figurative, and what could grow there.

Vacaville is, socially and politically, a unique mix where the liberal San Francisco Bay Area blends into the more conservative Central Valley, the agrarian way of life is adjacent to the gates of the Air Force base, and first- and second-generation immigrants have put down roots alongside established families. This is the heterogeneous context in which I began writing, and was the inspiration for the poem “Pastoral with Restless Searchlight.” This backdrop would also lead me to write more consciously about the in-betweenness of adolescence as well as the two halves of my family history. On my fathers’ side, I’m descended from California settlers, and on my mother’s side, my extended family lives mainly in Sarawak, a state in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Both the landscape surrounding Vacaville and the more distant Pacific Ocean instilled in me a fascination for what simultaneously separates and joins people: the greenbelt of land between one town and another, the world’s largest swath of water between two sides of a family.

The word threshold can be used to describe the space we pass through to arrive at one space from another, though a threshold seems like a much quicker passage than the landscapes of my youth. It is usually associated with a doorstep, a slim panel of wood at the foot of a door’s frame that we step over to enter a room. It suggests an instant change of scenery, an immediate transportation. But as John O’Donohue points out, the etymology of the word can be traced to the act of threshing, of separating the grain from a husk. It is work, a process of engaging with the land, of being an active participant in change, of producing something useful that can nourish us. Having witnessed the seasons pass along with the blooming and harvests and dying vines from the roadside, that sense of work has entered my approach to writing poems and utilizing the materials at hand.

Poetry for me has been a celebration of the in-between—which is where tenderness can be found, too. “Tender” has its roots in the Latin word tendre: to stretch, hold forth. When I began writing poems, I think I encountered the space of the page like it was a physical place, an endless belt of green, something beyond the window I could almost touch. Poetry has since carried me through uncertainty and knitted together what is broken apart. How merciful that language, land, and water have the ability to carry us when we have left what we know but have not yet arrived to where we are going.

 

Michelle Brittan Rosado is the author of Theory on Falling into a Reef, which won the inaugural Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Born in San Francisco, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno, and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Southern California. Her poems have appeared in the New YorkerAlaska Quarterly ReviewIndiana ReviewPoet Lore, and elsewhere. Find out more at http://www.michellebrittanrosado.com/

My Writing Teachers, This is for You!

Today’s guest-blogger is D.M. Aderibigbe, author of How the End First Showed, part of our Wisconsin Poetry Series. In this post he discusses how his teachers helped him get to where he is today in his career as a poet.

Of all human endeavor, mentorship is the most underrated. Here is the thing: I finished the first draft of what became How the End First Showed, while completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Lagos. I sent it in for a contest and came out as one of three finalists. Add that to the fact that the poems in the manuscript already appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, and RHINO, among others. As such I thought I knew everything I needed to know about poetry—at least my poetry. So much so that when I was hugging my grandmother at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, about to board a Marrakesh-bound plane en route to Boston to begin my MFA, all that occupied my mind were new poems. “I won’t touch anything from this manuscript.” I said to myself.

Then came the famous Room 222. Then came workshop after workshop. Then came the lessons. From Robert Pinsky, Karl Kirchwey and Maggie Dietz (my MFA teachers), I learned that when it comes to oneself, honesty is always farther than we think. From them, I learned that the destination is as important as the route. From them, I learned that nothing is impossible to let go.

These words gradually took over my mind like true love. I decided to step into the past. So when I sat to edit the manuscript again, I parted with several parts of me. It was hard. I hesitated. I cut. I re-added. Then cut. I tell you one thing: if it wasn’t for what my teachers taught me, I never would have been able to do this. Never.

Back to my first ever literature class in high school. As a matter of fact, my first ever class in senior high. The topic for the day was literary appreciation. My teacher, Uncle Titus wanted to tell us the major difference between poetry and prose. He picked up a chalk, drew something that looked like a bungalow on the blackboard. Then he drew something that looked like a road.  “If you are prose, you go straight,” he said. “But if it’s poetry, you’ll go round and round and round, until you arrive.” He made  what look like a circle with the chalk. To prove his point, he asked us to read two poems: David Rubadiri’s “An African Thunderstorm” and “ A.E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing.” He asked us what we thought each poem was trying to say. As you might guess, no two people got the same reading. Not even close. “That’s what poetry is,” he said. “It has the ability to provide numerous roads for many people to arrive at a particular home.” And that home means different thing to different people,” he added.

 

D. M. Aderibigbe is a PhD student at Florida State University. He is the author of a chapbook, In Praise of Our Absent Father, selected for the New Generation African Poets Series of the African Poetry Book Fund. Born and raised in Nigeria, he earned his MFA in poetry from Boston University. His poems have appeared in the African American ReviewThe NationNinth LetterPoetry ReviewPrairie SchoonerRattle, and elsewhere.

#SeptWomenPoets Book Giveaway!

Poet Shara Lessley launched the #SeptWomenPoets hashtag (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) as a way to create an online book club where readers share selections and covers from books by women poets. The challenge has encouraged readers to showcase and discuss some of their favorite poems and poets across social media. Here are some University of Wisconsin Press collections we encourage you to consider for your #SeptWomenPoets TBR pile:

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We are giving away a bundle of recent collections by some of the talented female poets published in the Wisconsin Poetry Series edited by Ronald Wallace, including an advance copy of a book publishing later this fall (entry form and guidelines below).

One winner will receive a copy of:

Enter your email address in the form below before September 30th for a chance to win!

Poet Alan Feldman: On Volunteer Teaching

Our guest blogger is Alan Feldman, whose newest poetry collection, The Golden Coin, is published today.

My mother died at 61, my father at 93. Since I didn’t know whose genes I got, I retired early. After thirty-seven years of teaching creative writing, I thought maybe I would give out eye drops in third-world countries. I expected to write poems about this, of course.

What happened, instead, was that I began teaching a free weekly drop-in workshop at the Framingham public library where I live in Massachusetts and, in the summer, at the Wellfleet library on Cape Cod. I started teaching with fellow poet Tony Hoagland, who wanted to give something back to the Cape community where he lived. But then I couldn’t seem to stop.

Volunteering weekly generally increases happiness at a rate that economists have calculated at between 176 to 256 dollars an hour. Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound. No grades. No curriculum. I teach whatever I’ve been working on. I tell students whatever they need to hear, without worrying, as I used to, about their morale. And, most important, every week I think up an in-class writing exercise. I write it first to be sure it can work, and then we all try it out in class.

Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound.

I’ve always had good luck in writing poems on the spot. Perhaps I get this way of working from a long study I did of Frank O’Hara. He wrote his poems quickly and (unlike me) rarely revised. We can document that he wrote “Sleeping on the Wing” in twenty minutes. I tell my students not to be afraid to make fools of themselves (though, of course, I never force anyone to read aloud).

As Allen Ginsberg put it, “the parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest and most eccentric and, at the same time, most representative, most universal.” But, on the other hand, the presence of other people in the room works on people’s minds as well. As Pablo Neruda tells us, “a poet’s gifts spring from brotherhood, and the poet offers his art in recognition of that debt.”

My in-class assignments are generally suggestions (with examples from all cultures and periods) about how to construct a poem: Write a poem in which you mention very small objects and very large ones; write a poem where you describe a process in great detail; write a poem that’s one long sentence; write a poem that lists all the things you loved about a really painful experience, and so on.

Since I started offering my workshop I’ve completed two books: The Golden Coin (2018) and Immortality, which received the 2016 Massachusetts Book Award. In both books about a third of the poems come from assignments I gave to my workshop, and some of these were written in class, including “In November,” which appeared in Best American Poetry 2011, and “Love Poem” which was selected by Ted Kooser for his nationally syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” As well, I received a certificate (in Gothic calligraphy!) from my state legislature. My students have been rewarded too. Rosalind Pace, for example, won a coveted Massachusetts Artist Fellowships at age 77. And Judith Askew’s book, On the Loose, won the first poetry competition of the Cultural Council of Cape Cod.

I feel richly rewarded. But, as Stanley Kunitz wrote in old age, “I am not done with my changes.” I might still give out eye drops.

Alan Feldman is a poet whose many books and chapbooks include A Sail to Great Island and Immortality, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New YorkerPoetry, and Best American Poetry. He is professor emeritus of English at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

 

 

New Books and New Paperbacks, November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 7, 2017 NEW IN PAPERBACK

Winner, Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture, American Conference for Irish Studies
PACKY JIM: Folklore and Worldview on the Irish Border
Ray Cashman

“Accessible to a broad audience. . . . A delight to read on many different levels and constitutes a valuable addition to the scholarship on the individual and tradition.”—Journal of Folklore Research

Growing up on a secluded smuggling route along the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Packy Jim McGrath regularly heard the news, songs, and stories of men and women who stopped to pass the time until cover of darkness. In his early years, he says, he was all ears—but now it is his turn to talk.

“Octogenarian bachelor Packy Jim McGrath of Lettercran, County Donegal, emerges here as both typical and singular, a barometer of continuity and change. Ray Cashman’s sharp and sympathetic observation delivers a classic ethnography that stakes a major claim for folkloristic studies as cutting-edge humanities research.”—Lillis Ó Laoire, author of On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island

November 14, 2017
SIX TURKISH FILMMAKERS
Laurence Raw

“Surprising and innovative. Raw integrates historical research with literary references and personal reflections, using the work of contemporary Turkish filmmakers to discuss pressing issues of identity and transcultural understanding.”—Iain Robert Smith, King’s College London

In analysis of and personal interviews with Derviş Zaim, Zeki Demirkubuz, Semih Kaplanoğlu, Çağan Irmak, Tolga Örnek, and Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Raw draws connections with Turkish theater, art, sculpture, literature, poetry, philosophy, and international cinema. A native of England and a twenty-five-year resident of Turkey, Raw interleaves his film discussion with thoughtful commentary on nationalism, gender, personal identity, and cultural pluralism.

Wisconsin Film Studies Series
Patrick McGilligan, Series Editor

 

November 21, 2017
SEASON OF THE SECOND THOUGHT
Lynn Powell

“Not just written, but wrought. Powell’s new poems deftly combine keen observation with perfect pitch, and their rich chiaroscuro renders them vibrant and painterly as the Dutch masters they often reference. The current running through her lines leaves me shivering with excitement and gratitude.”
—R. T. Smith, author of In the Night Orchard

Season of the Second Thought begins in a deep blue mood, longing to find words for what feels beyond saying. Lynn Powell’s poems journey through the seasons, quarreling with the muse, reckoning with loss, questioning the heart and its “pedigree of Pentecost,” and seeking out paintings in order to see inside the self. With their crisp observations and iridescent language, these poems accumulate the bounty of an examined life. These lines emerge from darkness into a shimmering equilibrium—witty, lush, and hard-won.

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

 

November 28, 2017
THE WARS INSIDE CHILE’S BARRACKS: Remembering Military Service under Pinochet
Leith Passmore

“With crisp prose and superb scholarship, Leith Passmore provides a groundbreaking exploration of the lives and memories of military conscripts under, and after, the seventeen-year rule of General Pinochet, South America’s most famous violator of human rights in living memory.”
—Paul W. Drake, author of Between Tyranny and Anarchy

“Few books are able to capture, as this one does, the full complexity of the Pinochet dictatorship’s horror. Passmore leads us, in magisterial fashion, into one of its darkest corners: the tortured memories of thousands of former conscripts transformed simultaneously into perpetrators and victims of the dictatorial nightmare.”
—Verónica Valdivia, author of El golpe después del golpe: Leigh vs Pinochet (1960–1980)

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

The Driftless Reader: a literature of place

Today, we publish THE DRIFTLESS READER, a remarkable anthology of writings about the ancient and unique unglaciated region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. More than eighty excerpts from Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, novelists, and poets, augmented by paintings, photographs, maps, and pictographs, comprise the anthology. In this post Keefe Keeley, coeditor of the volume, writes about the challenges and rewards of creating the Reader.

It never ceases to amaze me that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea. When I see the exposed bluff faces and roadside cuts stratified in layers like haphazard stacks of books, I almost can’t believe that sandstone and limestone is formed of ancient beaches and shells of sea creatures. Lower layers, older oceans, hundreds of millions of years old . . .

Assembling The Driftless Reader didn’t take hundreds of millions of years, but it took a few.  And geology was just the first chapter. Co-editor Curt Meine and I had our stacks of books and papers about Driftless plants and animals, waterways, early humans who hunted mastodons here, the mounds built by their descendants some ten thousand years later, and the sweep of history from fur trading to organic farming, all the way to a fly fisherman musing about the future of the Driftless area.

The publisher told us we had to fit it all in a hundred thousand words.  So we axed Steinbeck.  We abridged Leopold.  We groaned over Twain.  We scoured our bluffs of books, and we gave thanks for poets as we struck gold in the rich thrift of Driftless verse.

Giving fair representation across the roughly 10,000 square miles of the region was another important, if quixotic, goal. In seeking material for the volume, Curt and I crisscrossed the region to meet with friends and colleagues from Winona to Dubuque, Decorah to Baraboo, and a host of points therein. This was one of the most enjoyable phases of the book: broadening our familiarity with the region and making connections with authors, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in vital expression of our shared landscape and interwoven communities.  I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these places, and new ones, on our tour of events, as we bookend the project by sharing it with others interested in giving voice to our emerging bioregional identity.

Black Hawk. Painting by George Catlin.

Although we searched far and wide, perhaps it is no surprise that Crawford County, Wisconsin, where I grew up, gave rise to some of the most personally meaningful voices of the volume. Chief Black Hawk recounts old men and little children perishing of hunger as his band was pursued through this “rugged country,” the rest of them marching on to what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre. Pearl Swiggum shared her love for living a whole life on Stump Ridge. Ben Logan grew up on a farm, went on to travel the world, returned via remembrances, and eventually came home. Laura Sherry wrote of her memories in Old Prairie du Chien, a book of poetry published in Paris in 1931. Clifford Simak left for a life elsewhere, but his award-winning stories depict alien travelers from other worlds navigating the place he first called home.  And John Muir (although technically the letter we include in the Reader is one he wrote to a friend in Crawford County) described exploring bluffs just across the Mississippi River in Clayton County, Iowa, where my mother grew up.

I wasn’t always so enamored with this place. In my teenage years I thought of the Driftless largely in terms of escape. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I would say . . . I liked it. But I felt the hillsides hemmed in my ambitions, and sometimes I perceived a shadow of stigma for being a child of long-haired back-to-the-land transplants in Crawford County. As soon as I came of age, I took every opportunity to study and travel afar. In the Reader, others echo my meditations on escape from the confining coulees and isolated ridgetops of the Driftless: Hamlin Garland, Rick Harsch, Bob Wolf.

Eventually, I traveled just about as far away as possible. In rural India, a farmer lent me his copy of Kentuckian Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America. The situation in his country, this farmer told me, was the same as in the United States: many young people leaving rural areas, family farms becoming scarce, and small-town economies crumbling. Soon after, I moved back near my family, resolved to buck the trend, put down roots, and become a hometown hero.  I lasted about four months, then I was back to traveling.

Before the Heat of the Day. Painting by Kathie Wheeler of Hmong farmers in the Driftless region.

Over the next few years, I bounced between working on farms near home and shoestring trips abroad.  I’d like to say my fresh eyes returning each time helped me realize how remarkable the Driftless is, but who knows?  Maybe I would more truly appreciate the place if I had continued to put down roots throughout the seasons.

I’ve lived in Madison for a spell now, just outside the Driftless. It can be disorienting, to be in an urban environment, pursuing advanced degrees and other accolades of our era, while society seems to teeter, ever more polarized, along the lines of Berry’s Unsettling warning-cum-prophecy. Sometimes I feel like a moth entranced by the charm of the city lights. I am more at home without streetlamps, navigating my way among the fireflies and stars, open roads, and impromptu conversations with gas station acquaintances. Part of me fears that those open roads and rural conviviality will disappear as too many people from “the city” find the Driftless charming and proceed to blanket the land, as the glaciers never could, with floodlit backyard patios.

Farmed Frame. Machinery parts sculpture by David Wells, photography by Katrin Talbot.

My hope is that The Driftless Reader will serve as a sort of antidote to the poisonous polarity fed by fears like these, prompting us instead to fall in love with whatever place we’re in, and to make those shared affections a basis for conviviality and community with others there. In the closing selection of the book, Kevin Koch likens such an antidote to a vow of stability taken by the monks of New Melleray Abbey outside Dubuque. Rather than, as the monks vow, staying forever in the same locale, Kevin suggests for the rest of us, “a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long. Our dirty hands, wet faces and backs, and sore feet are testimony to our contact and connectedness to the earth that birthed us and will receive us back again.”

Creating this book has allowed me to cultivate connectedness with and within the Driftless, to establish some stability amid the whiplash of modern mobility. Seeing the place through others’ eyes, things quotidian and odd have become more remarkable, personal, and even beloved. Thoreau celebrated redwing blackbirds prevailing on the Mississippi. Robin Kimmerer puzzled out the patterns of mosses on Kickapoo River cliffs. Amish neighbors, normally aloof from politics, rallied via public letter the outcry against proposed low-level military training flights. Truman Lowe, sculpting aluminum lattice into a thunderbird form, linked his Ho-Chunk clan with the mounds that grace the region.  Kathe Davis, who I’m sad to say passed away recently, wrote in the closing line of her poem Things I Love about Where I Am, “All the long-haired men.”  When I was a teenager, my dad’s long hair was a source of untold embarrassment; now, I see things differently.

I hope the rich array of voices in this book can likewise give others a chance to see the Driftless, and any all-too-familiar or otherwise disregarded place, in a new light. For starters, consider that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea.

Keefe Keeley

Keefe Keeley, a native of the Kickapoo Valley, is co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, working with farmers to diversify and perennialize agriculture in the Upper Midwest. He is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Contemporary Literature journal marks 57 years of publishing

This guest post is written by Eileen Ewing, Managing Editor of Contemporary Literature

This year marks Contemporary Literature’s fifty-seventh year of publication. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature was begun by graduate students in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1960.

The journal publishes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. Over the decades, many literary luminaries have been featured in the journal, often early in their careers.  CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo. It also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J.M. Coetzee to American readers. At the links, read some fascinating recent interviews found exclusively in Contemporary Literature with poet Brian Kim Stefans, novelist Rachel Kushner, and novelist Anthony Cartwright.

L. S. Dembo, a scholar of modernist poetry, became editor of the journal in 1966 and shortened its title two years later. During his twenty-four years as editor, Dembo’s dedication to all that is exciting in modern and contemporary literature helped the journal to attain the international readership and large subscription base that he and the associate editors (Cyrena N. Pondrom, Betsy Draine, Phillip Herring, Jay Clayton, and Thomas Schaub) sought for it.

At Dembo’s retirement in 1990, Thomas Schaub took over as editor and shifted the parameters for submissions to work on post-World War II literature in English. The journal continued to publish interviews with established and emerging authors, articles featuring a diversity of critical practices, and reviews of scholarly books. Throughout the next two decades, Schaub and the associate editors (Richard Begam, Lynn Keller, Rafael Pérez‑Torres, Robert S. Baker, Jacques Lezra, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz) kept Contemporary Literature at the forefront of its field as a forum for discussing the issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies.

In 2009, the editorship of the journal was restructured as a collective led by Lynn Keller (poetry), Thomas Schaub (American fiction and drama), and Rebecca Walkowitz (British and Anglophone fiction and drama). The three co-editors worked closely with six new associate editors: Alan Golding, Adalaide Morris, Amy Hungerford, Sean McCann, Matthew Hart, and John Marx.

The current editorial collective is composed of Yogita Goyal (British and Anglophone fiction and drama), Michael LeMahieu and Steven Belletto (American fiction and drama), and Timothy Yu (poetry), with Thomas Schaub acting as executive editor. The associate editors are Elizabeth S. Anker, David James, Heather Houser, Jessica Pressman, Alan Golding, and Adalaide Morris.

 

Revised 7/10/17 to add byline.

A Fable for Our Time

You, Beast by poet Nick Lantz is a new collection published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press. Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and published in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, You Beast includes poems ranging from found text to villanelles and from short plays to fables. In this guest blog post, Lantz offers us a fable for our time.

Let me begin with a fable:

The old rabbit was a learned animal who prided himself on being very fair, and the other animals looked to him for guidance. One day, a mouse came to see him.
“I was almost eaten by a wolf,” said the mouse. “I am very small and no one will listen to me, but if you tell the other animals that the wolf is dangerous, they will band together and drive that monster from the forest.”
“Oh, but I can’t take sides,” said the rabbit. “The wolf is also a citizen of the forest, and to be fair I must treat all citizens with respect, and it is disrespectful to call the wolf a monster. Do you see?” The disappointed mouse nodded and went on his way, and that night, the wolf ate him. The next morning, a badger came to see the rabbit.

“The Frogs Who Desired a King” Illustrated by Milo Winter

“I saw that vile wolf eat the mouse,” said the badger. “You must tell the other animals that he is a villain.”
“It won’t do,” said the rabbit, “to go around calling people names. I can’t take sides. It is only fair that I remain impartial.” The badger was angry but went away, and that night, the wolf ate him.
The next day, the rabbit was walking through the forest when the wolf jumped from the brambles and fell upon him. As the wolf caught him by the neck, the rabbit cried out: “What are you doing? I was fair. I never took sides against you!”
“What do I care?” said the wolf. “I am hungry.” Then the wolf swallowed the rabbit, whose fairness earned him nothing.

When I was writing You, Beast, I kept returning to fables, particularly those involving animals. A good fable has tremendous compactness and rhetorical force. In that sense, it’s like a well-crafted syllogism, or a poem. Many fables are political in nature, but by stripping away the sociocultural particulars of a situation, their lessons become harder to refute.

This is actually the second draft of my post for the UW Press blog. In my original draft, I drew a connection between one of the poems in You, Beast and some aspects of the current political landscape. If that sounds a bit vague, here’s why: the Press told me that because of their affiliation with a public, state university, they could not publish something on the Press’ blog that overtly endorsed or (in my case) condemned a particular political party or politician. So, obviously, the Press is the rabbit in my fable, but I don’t mean to let myself off the hook by claiming I’m the truth-telling mouse, just trying to be heard. The fact is, I’m the rabbit too. I’m a professor at another public, state university, and in that capacity, I strive to be a teacher for all of my students, regardless of their political affiliations. But as a poet, I often wonder about the costs of that vision of fairness, about truths I don’t give voice to in its name. The Press’s decision not to publish my original post bothered me because I make similar decisions in my own speech and conduct on a daily basis. And I’m worried that my restraint won’t mean a thing to the wolves who want to gobble us up.

Nick Lantz is the author of The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, and How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. He is the editor of the Texas Review, co-curator of thecloudyhouse.com, and an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He has been a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an Emerging Writer Fellow at Gettysburg College.

Mother City, muse of poets

Judith Vollmer, author of The Apollonia Poems, reflects on writing poems while concentrating on place—city in particular—as a lens to perceive and listen to spaces and the people inside them. Vollmer’s new book is published this week in the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series and is the winner of the 2016 Four Lakes Prize.

To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong?

                                                                —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

The plate glass window facing the street shimmered opalescent blue earlier this morning. Now the glass shifts and resumes the scratched-pearl gray our Pittsburgh sky customarily displays, steady, our mid-Atlantic temperate-zone nerve system holding its own in all seasons. I come here to read, mostly, and write in my notebooks at a quiet table with a hot Americano en route to its second refill. The café is standard issue: black and white tile, no-frills countertop and tables, bright bulbs in every wall lamp: sit, here, uninterrupted with a good book.

Glass with laser pattern

Tiny cousin to Rome, whose centro storico is nearly identical in size and population to ours, my city accumulates and shows off layers equally breathtaking and ruined; writing over and etching onto stories and designs with every emerging generation. Apollonia, literal and apocryphal ancestor and muse, is both woman and city, saint and destroyer, arrived from the ancient worlds of the Mediterranean and of Eastern Europe; she is a singer of women’s songs and lost stories, and lives on in my Pittsburgh. She is my harsh teacher and eternal mother—if my city is, in fact, female, and I sense she is. Through this lens and container of culture, I can see outward and listen in on voices familial, neighbored, or new and accented with a language I don’t know. When I walk to and back home from this table, I too am incised with the complexities of our small radius: both Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs praised Pittsburgh’s ideal scale as that of a “human city.” I see, daily, our harshly cut and carved class/race zones, smack up against freshly made green pockets; hipster-chef entrepreneur-immigrants happy with our rents and plentiful local farms; the homesteads of Rachel Carson and of August Wilson; and the in-plain-sight beauty of three rivers and the crooked street-mazes rimming them.

Ancient Apollonia

Daily I’m aware of this place whose indigenous peoples hunted, fished, and settled here more than 5,000 years ago; time’s arc stretched far to the blood-labor workers who built the steel empire in the nineteenth century and whose children were bankrupted when steel left. I sit and listen for another way into the next poem and wander Apollonia’s visions of Palmyra, Sozopol, Chaco, and Rzeszow, of countless other containers not so different from this one.

 

Judith Vollmer is the author of the award-winning poetry collections Level Green, The Door Open to the Fire, Black Butterfly, Reactor, and The Water Books. She teaches in the MFA Program in Poetry & Poetry in Translation at Drew University and has been an artist in residence at Yaddo and a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.

The Mostly Nearly Entirely Excited States of American English

Charles Hood, author of Partially Excited States, explains the double meaning behind his title and explores a variety of curious phrases in the English language. His book is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, and is the winner of the 2016 Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. 

Somebody at Yale once asked John Ashbery about his relationship to the English language. One wishes to be polite, but come on now—really? All of your work to all of language? It would be impossible for any of us to answer that, but most especially somebody whose artistic register spans every octave from Abstract Expressionism to parking tickets.

Ashbery said oh no, there must be some confusion. He didn’t work in the English language but in American English, and that included the English language within it. (And saying that, he slipped off to freshen his drink.)

It seems to me American English is like an enormous tiger shark, a monster fish whose gullet contains toasters, clocks, two-by-fours, other sharks, pieces of surfboard, half of a suit of armor. One thing about American English: nobody can accuse us of being all hat and no ranch. Macabre pictures gave Huck Finn the fantods; Mr. Twain also preserved for us galoot, palaver, and forty-rod (rotgut whisky). New words arrive daily: clickbait provides a pleasing spondee in the mouth, but I like older, folksier terms, like whisky jack for gray jay.

Sec. Jardine and Mr. & Mrs. Tom Mix, May 21, 1925. National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

“Hey guys, wait up,” can be a girl pleading with girls as easily as it is gents razzing gents. Dude is equally inclusive: it used to mean a poor surfer, a term extrapolated from dude ranch, whose label came from the Scots for posh clothing, duds. Whatever happened to pen pals? Gumshoes used to get a hinky feeling about a john’s alibi. I’ll sit through hours of late-night noir just to watch people smoke and to listen to them call each other pal, buddy, and doll. Just once I want to start a poem by warning, “Watch it, buster.”

Do you call it a crayfish or a crawdad? Same creek-bottom bug-lobster, but names change by region. The poet Jonathan Williams loved documenting the language of Appalachia. Right before I retire (once it’s too late to get fired), I’ll quote him often, saying of one colleague in particular, “There’s more mouth on that woman than ass on a goose.”

Know Your USA

In my new book, I play with this heritage. The cover photo was taken on a cross-country road trip and the title Partially Excited States I borrowed from material science. Articles in that discipline worry about the “applicability of Kohn–Sham density functional theory.” A sham theory? I’m loving it. But states can mean states of being (when you’re nearly interested, yet not quite) and of course I also mean the fifty U.S. states, all of which I’ve visited at least once. Somebody in a hurry is a highballer; in logging, a high climber is the person who tops a spar tree and hangs the butt rigging. American logging also gives us skidders and peaveys (tools), calks (boots), and slash as a noun—not the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, but piles of leftover branches.

Two people divided by a common language: my California English differs from that of my wife’s family in rural Pennsylvania—“davenport royalty” as I call them in the book—the people who warned me that “to prepare peaches for canning, / first you must scold them.” In hunting, a Texas heart shot means to shoot an animal from behind, through the anus, thus keeping the pelt intact for taxidermy. (Irish karate? To kick a lad after he’s already down.) Some day I want to publish my still-in-progress poem that celebrates aviation slang: to bingo—to abort, be diverted. At the bar, “Let’s bingo.” Judy: target in sight, locked on, got it.

My students mistakenly believe that present times are especially slangy, as if our great-grandparents didn’t get rat-assed, blotto, plowed, or cabbaged. They also expect me to be snobby about “bad” English. No way, brave dudes and dudettes. Best reason to want to live to be 100? Just to find out what our hep cat language plans to do next.

Charles Hood is a writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, a photographer, and an artist. His many books include Mouth; South x South; Río de Dios: 13 Histories of the Los Angeles River; The Half-Life of Salt: Voices of the Enola Gay; and Red Sky, Red Water: Powell on the Colorado. A longtime animal spotter, he has seen more than six hundred mammal species and more than five thousand species of wild birds. In his global travels, he has trekked to the South Pole, been lost in a Tibetan whiteout, and recovered from bubonic plague.