Monday, January 16, 2017

Poem366: TWICE TOLD by Caryl Pagel

I’ve passed much of today deeply absorbed in the poems in Caryl Pagel’s Twice Told (H_ANGM_NBKS, 2014). It’s one of those volumes I’ve had on my shelf for a bit, and despite its attractive cover and the curiosity the title arouses, I’ve passed it over again and again.

Today, I finally picked it up, and I liked it so much that I wish I’d done so months ago. But it was an ideal day to lose myself in Pagel’s twisty syntax and her unusual way of telling—and often of twice-telling, as repetition is a strategy she employs again … and again. (See what I did there?)

I always enjoy a H_NGM_N BKS title. The editors have a good eye for unconventional work, but I haven’t encountered anything I’d call gimmicky. As in Pagel’s collection, the unusual is employed strategically, and in service to the work of the poems.

For an introduction to how repetition and echo appear in Twice Told, a good poem to examine is “Telephone,” which functions sort of like a child’s whispered secret game of telephone.

                                         You discussed it for
hours—all that nothing and what
nothing meant—what a shame it
would be to allow the nothing
to decay—to fade and fly
and die like all those nothings
that you both had had before
It felt like a new nothing
but you knew—instinctually—in your
frantic animal soul—that all nothing
sustains itself the same way—by
expanding—cracking—swallowing itself and all
around it—by colliding with old
nothings                You knew and discussed wht
a nothing all your nothing was—
and yet you could not find
an end to it […]

Nine nothings in that short passage, and yet they accrue and add up to something, albeit something intuitive and felt, rather than very clearly stated. It’s best to be OK with that way of reading—of letting the analytic mind release the reins so that the animal you’re astride can find its way.

The effect of the repetition is that each “nothing” hits the reader in the forehead like a pebble—not dangerous, but a little vexsome. It has your attention.

The poems seem to be rooted in the West, as well. One poem’s title announces that it is set in South Dakota—“Scenic, SD,” to be precise, population: nine. And there is a very fine poem called “Ghost Town” that seems to offer an origin story for a ghost town’s possible haunts:
                         […] A name is what you
need to become a little less
invisible                     A name is what you
need to die                    But what if
you have no stake in this
decrepit town                  No title or claim
to your one own only cause

Note that sometimes Pagel’s repetition is actually varied repetition, as in that mild tongue-twister at the end of that snippet—“one own only” is a lonely phrase, and a little hard to say. That is one of Pagel’s very effective strategies for slowing the pace and forcing the reader to pay close attention to what she is communicating.

I just generally enjoy Pagel’s language—how she smacks some words together like I once pounded together the faces of my old Barbie and G.I. Joe, theirs a love that was not meant to be. My favorite poem is “The Haunting,” which begins,

There is always another wife you
learn there is always a second
set of events that precedes this
one                  There is always another love—
a mistress—governess—or charming young
maiden passing through town in the
service of an affluent auntie or
patron             […]

Later in the poem she offers a bit more backstory:

                       […] Once when you were young
you committed errors                Once when you
were young you fell in love
with a moody bard

The cover price of this book is $14.95. For me, those two words, “moody bard,” are worth the whole sum. I’ve actually been mumbling it to myself today—“‘Once when you / were young you fell in love / with a moody bard’ … moody bard … moody bard …. Why, yes, ma’am, I am ready to order.”

I hope some readers will pick up this collection, if they missed it before. It rewards a quiet day of thought.

Another example of Martin Luther King

Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Michael Ochs Archives

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is an opportunity for some people to sleep in, and for others to get up and go serve others.

I’ve always liked that idea of this important holiday as a day of service, and I can think of no more beautiful way to recognize someone than to give and serve in his name.

Plenty of photos exist to show King’s personal service and sacrifice, including his ultimate sacrifice. But I think one of the most enduring gifts he gave was that of his words. Linking arms and marching represents just one side of this national hero. It is good to remember that some of his hardest effort happened while he was immersed in books, engaged in thought and meditation, and with a pen in his hand.

King was a visionary. He could make such a lasting contribution to the world’s understanding because he was equipped with such a profound intellect, and he put in the effort to supplement and improve it with study and contemplation.

We know he absorbed every word of Ghandi, and that he quoted him throughout his life. And Henry David Thoreau was another important figure in his study. It goes without saying that this Baptist minister was influenced by the philosophy of Jesus, and by his examples and his thinking, as recorded in the Gospels.

He was inspired by Plato, Rousseau, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and he also loved literature, including Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy, and so many others. The insights he gained through poetry and fiction informed his philosophy and even his rhetorical style.

As a nation, we face a number of challenges. It is good to remember that one of the most important ways we can serve is to rededicate ourselves to learning and understanding. It’s no longer acceptable—and in fact it never was—to brush off difficult concepts about science, economics, government, or the social contract because they’re too far beyond our comprehension.

To make positive change in the world, in the manner but doubtlessly not the measure that King did, we will need to be vigilant. We will need to ask the right questions, and we will have to dedicate ourselves to deep study, and to communicating what we learn.

I can’t think of any revolution that didn’t start with language. We can think of those Gospels, or of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, or of our Declaration of Independence—“declaration” signifying words. Every great change requires action, yes, but it is rooted in language and thought.

It is heartening to know that everywhere in this country, dedicated people are feeding the hungry and helping those who are desperately in need, all in the name of our great exemplar, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And I hope some are recommitting themselves to reading, and to contemplation of things read.

Sources consulted:

Montford, Christina. "8 Books That Inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Atlanta Black Star,

Raab, Nathan. "10 People Who Inspired Martin Luther King (And He Hoped Would Inspire Us)." Forbes, 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Poem366: VENTRILOQUY by Athena Kildegaard

I think I get the concept behind Ventriloquy by Athena Kildegaard (Tinderbox Editions, 2016).

The book’s five discrete sections offer five distinct paradigms for considering the world, as if the poet is trying on five different voices—just as a ventriloquist might have a trunk full of props to let her try out different ways of processing the world.

By far my favorite section was the first one, Garden of Tongues, Garden of Eyes, where all poems address the origins of flowers. Every poem is eight lines long, and they are titled “The” plus the name of a flower—“The Pansies,” The Fuchsias,” “The Clematis,” “The Gardenias.” And I am reminded of Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, not in the substance of the poems, but in the thoroughness of the study and the distinct and accurate-feeling description of each flower.

In, for example, “The Lilies,” Kildegaard treats the flowers as primeval, coming before people and before any flood:

before the moon fell into earth’s shadow
and gravity craved the stars,
the lily bloomed, her white tongue,
without even a syllable to sound,
licking up the space around her.

Kildegaard’s history feels true, and it’s easy to visual the flower from her description. The effect of twenty of these small poems in short succession is similar to a walk through a huge formal garden.

The collection’s second section, “Saints, Contrary and Futile (I),” and its fourth, “Saints, Contrary and Futile (II),” are ostensibly the same, but the two felt a little different in my reading. Part I seemed to deal more with emotions and the real word, while Part II covered saints associated with the world of commerce and information technology.

A favorite of mine is in this second Saint section (the fourth section of the collection), titled “The Wee Saint of Big Data.” This saint, Kildegaard reports,

never stopped humming,
insinuated herself
between who we are
and who we want to be.

She adds,

Someone tried to grab hold,
she slithered on.

By her persistence
we are rendered inconsequential.

A few poems later, Kildegaard offers “The Saint of Efficiency,” who, she writes,

has no friends, at least none
she can name,
unless initials count.

Call her the saint of acronyms.
That’s what we’re reduced to,
thanks to St E
steering us down the quickest path.

Kildegaard clearly intends some social commentary, but as a reader I’m pleased that this isn’t the point of her writing. The saints have their own problems, their own personalities and lives, and these are foregrounded in the poems—making the commentary all the more effective.

Kildegaard’s other sections are “Divination,” dealing with ways of forecasting the future, and the types of divination she explores is indicated in the titles: “By Sighs,” “By Beads,” “By Ice,” “By Mettle,” and the like.

Her final section contains fully justified prose poems titled “Still Life With …,” with subjects including “Satellite,” “Brain,” “Oil Rig,” “Universe”—nineteen in all. The form makes the poems somewhat concrete—they are all shaped like paintings, all lined up in the book like on a gallery wall.

She concludes with the spectacular “Still Life With God,” which begins, “There is no vanishing point, the perspective’s askew as if big hands have reached in from behind to shake the frame: gilt on carved fronds, lilies, and marigolds.” All of these still lives work in this way—depicting a painting of objects, like vases and fruits, rather than trying to depict an actual brain or universe or God.

I should also mention that this is a beautiful book by Tinderbox, with beautiful artwork by Lisa Solomon, and it is designed by the same person who designed this blog—the extremely talented Nikkita Cohoon. I’m eager to see what else Tinderbox has in store in the future.

An interview with Athena Kildegaard …

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up, and why? In fifth grade I wanted to be a cheese taster. Why? Because: see Donald Hall: cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness. I always add one phrase to his poem that isn't there, but should be: cheeses of euphony.
  2. What is the very best word in this collection? Explain. Jackalope. Because: it delivers ejaculation.
  3. Describe your worst poetic habit. That's easy: the too-easy ending. I have to fight that with the power of the mythical jackalope.
  4. It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning. Trees. Why? Because: carbon.
  5. It’s your poetic obituary! Offer an essential statement about your poetry. Athena Kildegaard was a poet who laughed and cried in equal measure.

Athena Kildegaard is the author of four books of poems: Rare Momentum, a collection of Fibonaccis, Bodies of Light, a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, Cloves & Honey, a book of love poems, and Ventriloquy, just out from the new Tinderbox Editions. She lives and teaches in Morris, MN.

Spirit Sunday: Inauguratio—when we look to the birds for signs

Black Vulture or Carrion Crow, by John James Audubon

This is our week of inauguration in Washington. At home, though, we’ve had an ice storm; the trees wear sequins, and there is a steady drumbeat of melt.

It seems right that I’m looking at my suet feeder as I consider what’s to come. The small songbirds make fearful, surreptitious visits—a flutter, some quick nibbles, but they seem to prefer the regular birdseed I don’t have to offer today. They get their sustenance in a fast flutter, and then they escape as quickly as they can.

It’s not this way with the starlings. They’re larger than the other birds that visit, and they bully the songbirds away. They even bully each other away. They want more—more fat, more seed, more room at the wire mesh suet holder. They act like it’s their due.

I don’t actually begrudge the starlings their sustenance. I just wish they could change their nature—share the resources. Take turns. Understand that here, there is plenty for all. In fact, I have another block of suet ready to go when this one is consumed.

But it is in the nature of the starling to show its dominance—to use its advantages to crowd out the other birds.The starlings make sure they get theirs.

The word “inauguration” relates to the birds, as it turns out. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the word comes from the Latin inaugurationem/inauguratio, meaning “consecration,” or originally “installment under good omens.” Specifically, the entry says that it is a “noun of action from the past participle stem of inaugurare ‘take omens from the flight of birds; consecrate or install when omens are favorable.’”

Because words and their origins are endlessly fascinating, the entry goes on to explain (citing William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities of 1842) inauguratio, a ceremony to obtain “the sanction of the gods to something which had been decreed by man.” Specifically, this is the ceremony by which things or people were consecrated to the gods in ancient times.

During the inauguratio, the priests would observe the actions of the birds, and if these actions appeared to be favorable, the decree would be thought to have godly sanction.

Further investigation (because I can lose whole days to this kind of thing) reveals that one important sign was the direction from which birds called or flew. According to “On Auguries” by M. Horatius Piscinus, at Societas Via Romana, if the action of the birds came from the right, that was a good augury in Greece—but bad in Rome. 

To read the signs, priests would divide the sky into sections that had specific relevance, according to Piscinus; they would observe the section where the birds were most numerous or from which actions or sounds emanated. A flute would be used throughout the augury ceremony, possibly to attract birds. Incidentally, only the actions of certain birds were thought to be relevant—eagles, vultures, storks, osprey, owls, ravens, crows, and chickens among them.

That’s all very different from the ceremony that will happen on Friday here in the United States. Birds have no place in the official proceedings. Instead, the point of the activities is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next—a regular event that is the hallmark of our democracy.

I generally watch this important event on TV, but I’m afraid I’m busy on Friday. I have a date with the birds. While the inauguration is going on, I’ll be conducting my own as I walk through a certain meadow that rests alongside a river.

In Missouri in January, I can expect to see any number of birds. The last time I was at this spot, I was lucky enough to see huge kettles of vultures circling, exactly like slow black cyclones. Some might see vultures as a bad augury, but I don’t. When my older son was born, huge group of vultures had settled in the trees—a committee, volt, or venue of them. Vultures are ungainly and unbeautiful on the ground or in branches, but when they take flight, they are majestic; there is no bird more graceful in flight.

Some songbirds I might spot in a Missouri winter field: the downy woodpecker, the Eastern bluebird, the American goldfinch. An upside-down white-breasted nuthatch, hunting for seeds. A black-capped fellow insistent on his name: chickadee-dee-dee. Relevant to the day for me? Pairs of mourning doves—lovers, cooing to one another in their sad syncopation.

I’m of a mind to focus closer to home for a bit. We don’t need birds to tell us that we are entering troubled times as a nation. So I’ll be reading signs here. Who will visit my feeder? What will balance at the very tip of a depleted seedhead in my favorite meadow? And will I be visited by vultures, the useful scavengers that take away sources of stench and decay and then rise up, sublime?

I hope so. Truth be told, I prefer them even to eagles.

Sources consulted:

“Backyard Birds.” Missouri Department of Conservation,

“inauguration (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary,

Piscinus, M. Horatius. “On Auguries.” Societas Via Romana,

Saturday, January 14, 2017


I’m from Missouri, and Pleiades Press is from Missouri, and in keeping with our state motto, I guess they had to “Show Me” how terrific a hybrid collection of poetry could be.

They did exactly that by releasing Poetry Comics From the Book of Hours by Bianca Stone in 2016.

Stone is both the poet and the visual artist for this arresting collection. Textually, the book is brief, but Stone’s images reify the words and create an exciting and vivid whole.

The sole blurb on the book comes from none other than John Ashbury, who writes of Stone, “In her work we are propelled along by abrupt changes in perspective and dimension,” and adds, “I have long awaited a manuscript by her that combines her visual talents with her poetry.”

I am not a regular reader of comic books, and even my childhood taste in comics is embarrassing to own up to. I was a fanatical regular consumer of the Harvey Comics universe—you know, the universe that is currently not taking Hollywood, or anywhere else besides my own sense of nostalgia, by storm.

Harvey Comics brought us Richie Rich, the richest boy in the world, and my two favorites, Little Dot, a slapstick character who was obsessed with dots, Little Lotta, a.k.a. Lotta Plump, who was hugely fat, super strong, in love with eating, and just generally kind of awesome.

What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to comics, I don’t have a leg to stand on. I have always liked them, but I’m kind of like someone who calls herself a music lover but has only ever listened to rusty windup music boxes, or to dogs singing along with the wail of the ice cream truck.

I do love art, though, and I found Stone’s art to be an incredibly effective vehicle for her words, not to mention striking and often quite moving on its own. A favorite image that I lingered over featured a character with a speech bubble containing text from the poem, reading, “… When they come they will fill me with Riesling—.” The figure’s face is lost in the fold, but that seems intentional (the face appears to be featureless, but for the visible mouth that speaks the words on the right page and the hair flung over the straight-backed chair on the left. All around the figure are flowers—zinnias, I believe, in a rich pink—and a bird breathing a pink cloud over the scene beside a stylized sun.

I can’t tell if the figure is arched back over her chair with desire or with lassitude—two attitudes that are related anyhow in sort of a before-and-after kind of way. In looking at the images—mostly black and white, but for the pink of flowers, bird-breath, and sun—I felt the stirrings of desire for something good to come my way, too, and I don’t even like Riesling.

It is tempting to say that Stone tests the boundaries of comic books. I suspect she does, since she accompanies intense and accomplished poetry with very expressive art that stands beautifully alongside it, but I don’t know enough about comic book publishing to say. I know that some tremendously innovative work is happening in the field; I have recently started to become more aware of contemporary comics, and I know there is life after Casper the Friendly Ghost.

What I know for sure is that Stone advances poetry in a compelling new direction with her use of image. And I can certainly attest to the freshness and the power of her words, and to how dramatic they are together. (I am trying to take care not to divorce word from image in this appreciation of Stone’s book; they are inextricably linked and they depend on one another, and a consideration of image without word or word without image very much misses the point.)

There is no denying that some of Stone’s words offer a gut-punch, though. In a frame from “Because You Love You Come Apart,” she presents an image of three women standing together at a social event, two in dark suits with collared shirts, and she writes,

Your brain lighting up
when you see a beautiful woman
eating French fries in a dark bar.
Your head split down the middle
by a brook; each hemisphere
divine, witchy—

Three identical women in suits appear later in the poem, side by side, arms crossed. In the speech bubbles, the first one says, “There is the clear image of someone beside you.” The next continues, “who looks just like you,” and the final woman, her mouth obliterated or erased, adds the gut-punch: “but can get bluebottle flies to land on her finger.” A tiny figure calls from a wood-frame house below the figures, saying, “This is the optic nerve / in endless reflections / of your friends.”

I admit that after seeing the airy beauty of the cover, a inked drawing of a woman cradling a fat cat, I did not expect to be floored by a meditation on the nature of life and death. That’s part of the appeal of the collection for me—how nothing is tired, and nothing here seems to have been done in quite the same way before.

So kudos to Pleiades Press director Kathryn Nuernberger and her staff for this bold selection, beautifully produced and so very stunning in its contents. They took a chance with something very different—and in the process, they really showed me.

The Trump inauguration is not an occasion for verse

On January 20, 1961, Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

Bill Clinton had two inaugurations and two poets: Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993, and Miller Williams, who read “Of History and Hope” in 1997.

Barack Obama had poets at both of his inaugurations: Elizabeth Alexander, reading “Praise Song for the Day” in 2009, and Richard Blanco, reading “One Today” in 2013.

Apparently, poetry on inauguration day is a Democratic thing. While poems have been read at only five swearings-in, all for Democratic presidents, they have come to feel like fixtures—necessary parts of a vital proceeding.

But I can’t imagine what on Earth a poet could say to solemnize the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

It has been widely reported that musicians aren’t exactly lining up to play the inauguration. Organizers have signed the 2010 second-place finisher from America’s Got Talent, a Bruce Springsteen cover band (called the B-Street Band), and a bunch of DJs, basically. Nutrisystem spokeswoman and 1970s television sensation Marie Osmond has kindly offered to perform (insert cricket chirp here). And it was reported yesterday—falsely, most likely—that Rapper Flo Rida had just agreed to play—for a cool million dollars. If true, I would recommend that Mr. Rida ask for his money up front. While Trump claims to be worth $4.5 billion, he is the guy who stiffed the USA Freedom Kids, that creepy little-girl song-and-dance troupe that performed at a few Trump campaign events. (They subsequently sued him for $15,000, but dropped their lawsuit very quickly when Trump was elected Most Powerful Man on Earth, as one does.)

Don’t bother picturing America’s poets sitting in their garrets, trying to find a rhyme for “bigly.” I know hundreds of poets, but I don’t know one who would dignify the occasion with verse, and I don’t expect any would be asked. (In case one is, may I suggest jiggly, or Piggly-Wiggly?)

That first inaugural piece, Frost’s small poem—only sixteen lines—offered a frank accounting of what it meant to be American: what that great privilege required of us, and what we as a nation might become.

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we were still unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
and forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

A poem like “The Gift Outright” requires faith—faith of the poet in the vision of the president; faith of the president in the heart of the poet; and finally, faith of both poet and president in the people, and in our willingness to sacrifice and strive together, and not to make a mockery of high-minded words.

It is hard to have faith in a man like Donald J. Trump—someone who would oppress people for their religion, who believes climate change is a hoax, who brags about forcing his attention on women’s bodies, who refuses to release real medical records or tax returns, who abhors the free press, who doesn’t pay his debts, and who has packed his cabinet at every position with people who thumb their noses at our national institutions and the needs of the American people.

Poets, have at it. Pro-tip: A pertinent rhyme for “pussygrabber” is “jibber-jabber”; see @realDonaldTrump for examples to include.

Maybe it’s good advice that if we can’t say anything nice about someone, we shouldn’t say anything at all. But when it comes to inaugural poetry, I might suggest that if we can’t offer any vision that is hopeful or aspirational, then the day is not an occasion for verse.

In his inaugural poem, Blanco offered the following:

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

I’m not alone in my complete unwillingness to map or name a constellation with those people who voted for the KKK’s endorsed candidate: a deadbeat, a misogynist, and a Russian pawn. Blanco’s poem is beautiful and hopeful and uniting—but there is no place for a poem like his in the upcoming proceedings, as I’m sure the poet himself would agree. At most points in our nation’s history, we have felt that we were members of a “we”; we could work together, even amid disagreement, and we could all join together and work for all the good that we share. Together we would happily make personal sacrifices for the common good.

But today there is assuredly an us, and there is also a them. And there is no common American ground where decent people can stand alongside racists and misogynists. It is the good who deserve to be crowned in brotherhood. We stand apart, boldly and proudly, and we refuse to celebrate a grievous wrong. 

And just to be clear, we’re keeping the poetry.

Top photo: The author. Bottom photo: Erin Kenny. Springfield, Missouri, USA.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Poem366: MOTHER MAIL by Pia Taavila-Borsheim

Hot off the press is Pia Taavila-Borsheim’s chapbook, Mother Mail, released today from Hermeneutic Chaos Press.

It’s a heartbreaking collection, and while I found the poems very moving, I find myself glad the book is small. There is a lot of raw emotion in it, and this is best consumed in small bites.

The book’s project is clear at the dedication: “This collection of poems is dedicated to my six children. To the three who love: thank you. To the others: thank you for teaching me how to live.” And the poet’s painful rift from her children is the subject of most of these poems.

A poem that embraces this difficult theme is “To My Estranged Offspring,” where Taavila-Borsheim writes,

I know nothing of your relationships, marriages,
and your children do not play at my feet. My lap
and arms long to hold their wriggling genetics.

For some reason, half of the speaker’s children have turned their backs on her, and she tries to reckon with the reason, asking “Was my crime so grim? Is the chain forever snapped?”

But this is not only a book about pain. As the dedication suggests, it is also about the poet getting past the pain. In the same poem, she writes,

                                  The years took their toll
and now I find that shuffling along, head bent,

no longer suits my future plans, which include red shoes
and dancing. I will love the orb of my earthly existence,
will hold near to heart all that delights, will clasp to my breast

my lover’s hands, whose tender touch rights what’s wrong.

Still, pain and recovery from pain teeter-totter through the book, and Taavila-Borsheim tries to assess how to get past the former and arrive at the latter. In “Past the Perimeter,” for example, she writes about being set up at a book fair and having a mother with several children stop by. One child lingers, and Taavila-Borsheim writes,

She gravitates to the lake view, to the sun
on lapping waves, to the far remove.
If I am not to know my grandchildren,

if this wounding is to be eased at all,
it will be through watching this child,
this stranger on the edge, her wandering there.

I appreciate how the poet envisions the life she wants, “devoid / of clatter, of clamor’s insistence.” Instead, she writes,

                                                           it is
a life of red rain boots poised at the doorstep,
of a handful of friends and good lines in the writing,

a life in which the postman, huffing up the stairs,
hands me a package of letters bound in cotton cording,
their messages tender, of good hope and cheer.

I really believe that this is where the redemption is found, in life and in this poet’s words: We have to be able to picture the life we want for ourselves—in Taavila-Borsheim’s case, “unseen, above the bookstore, / a small life,” surrounded by books and with hands full of gray wool and knitting needles clacking. And once we see it, we have to make it real. Mother Mail does exactly that.

An interview with Pia Taavila-Borsheim …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

I have known, since second grade, that I wanted to be one kind of teacher or another. That was the year Sister John Thomas asked me to explain a math problem that was giving all the kids fits. I thought I understood the “what to do.” When she gave me a chance at the blackboard, all those little light bulbs started going off. Satisfying. Fun. And gee, summer vacation to boot! Teaching and its possibilities for intellectual exchange is what led me to my current position as a tenured, full professor in the English department at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.

Hmmm. Probably it is “tenacious.” That is a word that sounds like its meaning. Or maybe it’s “ascendant,” a word from a poem in which the moon rises and the human spirit rises and love rises, all in the same moment. Or, maybe it’s ….  

Describe your worst poetic habit.

My worst habit used to be worrying if I’d had a dry spell in the writing. I had to learn that it was a “seeing” time, a time to observe, to absorb and to process before the effort to transform, via writing, emerged. I had to learn to trust it. Nowadays, my worst habit is that I tend to use too many adjectives, so I “slash and burn” in the final edits. Those words are tempting; they are our precious, sixty-dollar trinkets.

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.

There is a new effort among publishers to engage and publish the work of the community of those who are differently abled. I work in the Deaf community, and it’s nice to see Poetry and some other top journals giving space for poems that are sometimes written from an American Sign Language lexicon or grammatical structure (which is very different from English). I’d like to see more word play in this area.

It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …

Ha! I’d like to think my poems make some sort of beauty out of chaos, that they ennoble the bleak or that they, at the very least, allow something to rise out of this decidedly dicey experience of living, loving, working. “She tried to let the abstract reside in the visual, the tactile, the sensory. Her work, although shamelessly autobiographic and personal, is, ultimately, universal in its depiction of shared experience.” I came, I wrote, I passed along. My words remain.

Pia Taavila-Borsheim grew up in Walled Lake, Michigan, and lives now in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband, David Borsheim. She received her BA and MA in American Literature from Eastern Michigan University (1977, 1979) and an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. (1985) from Michigan State University with areas of qualification in English, Sociology, and Philosophy. She is a tenured, full professor and teaches literature and creative writing at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. In 2008, Gallaudet University Press published Moon on the Meadow: Collected Poems 1977-2007; Finishing Line Press released Two Winters in 2011, and her new chapbook, Mother Mail, was released just today by Hermeneutic Chaos Press.

Taavila-Borsheim’s poems have appeared in several journals, including The Bear River Review, The Broadkill Review, Southern Humanities Review, Narrative Northeast, Tar River Poetry, Barrow Street, Threepenny Review, and The Southern Review, among others. She is a frequent participant at the Bear River, Sewanee, and Key West writing conferences. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart Prizes. She has just finished a chapbook titled Love Poems and a full-length manuscript of poems titled Notes to David, both of which are just now beginning to seek publishing homes.