Saturday, April 30, 2016

National Poetry Life

            We’ve arrived at the last day of National Poetry Month (happy NaPoMo, belatedly!), and another 30/30 project has come and gone.
The 2016 edition was no different than any other year for me. I took on too many projects, both writing poems and reviewing poetry releases. All across the Internet, poetry publishers offered fascinating daily features and prompts, but there were so many that I had a hard time keeping up with them. Add in an urgent family medical crisis, some unexpected travel, and a bout of depression, and the picture comes clear. I didn’t quite manage to do all that I set out to accomplish.
            Each year, I make grand plans to honor and promote poetry during the month of April. Among those plans is the writing of a daily poem, and that is a personal commitment I really enjoy. When I’m living life the way I want to, rather than working too hard in order to make ends meet, I do have a daily writing habit, and if I’m not working on a larger project, it’s not unusual for a small poem to result from each day’s efforts.
            A 30/30 project—that is, dedicating oneself to writing a poem per day for thirty straight days—can be invigorating for an artist, and it’s definitely fun to look back on a successful effort and mark the accomplishment. In recent years, I completed two 30/30 projects for Tupelo Press as part of their ongoing fundraising series, and work from those two very productive months is included in both of my soon-to-be-published poetry collections. Creatively, this small, pleasurable source of pressure is good for me.
            But as a way of celebrating National Poetry Month, I wonder if we would be better served to turn our attention outward, instead of inward, and to celebrate other poets’ work, rather than generating more of our own.
            This is the twentieth year for National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. On its website, the Academy offers a list of goals for the month-long celebration, and I notice that all of them seem to focus on reading, instead of writing, poetry.
Lord knows poetry needs a little help. Even I find myself reaching more often for the comparative ease of fiction, and most readers avoid poetry altogether, and perhaps never even encounter verse at all, whether online or on a shelf.
            In recent days, I’ve heard a few 30/30 participants seek clarification about whether their poems from the project should be regarded as published if they’ve been posted on a website or in social media. It’s a tricky question, and the answer has a lot to do with scope.
            If you post your poem on your Facebook page for your five hundred friends to see, you could probably regard the work as unpublished. If you have five thousand friends (the maximum number allowed), and you’re trying to be published in a print journal with a print run of eight hundred or a thousand, it is awfully hard to make the case that you have not already had your work made public for an audience—a larger audience than most print journals could hope to provide.
            When a literary organization posts your work on a website, as some do, that work is published. Sometimes the organization removes the posts after a period of time—maybe after the month is through—and the evidence disappears. But if you are asked later by a journal to sign a contract declaring the work to be unpublished, you face a bit of a conundrum. The work was indeed published—from the Latin publicare, “made public”—even if it later disappeared.
            My philosophy? We should write more poems and not fret about the status of a month’s work. We have more months.
            A lot of people throw their heart and soul into daily poetry projects during National Poetry Month. I love reading each day’s poem, and I enjoy sharing mine. Sometimes I look back at poems I’ve produced and I wonder what I was thinking, writing or sharing such a mess. This, though, is what makes every April crackle and buzz with energy. It can be fun to put ego aside and just share in the creative process for a bit.
            To reach this goal of building a readership for poetry, though, I’ll bet we can do better. We can share those poems we love and that move us so that perhaps other readers will catch the bug and begin to look for meaning in poems, too. There is nothing more stunning than that poem that speaks directly to us and reminds us we’re all connected.
It’s so strange to offer up a single month to something that is the driving force in my life every single day. I love the communal nature of National Poetry Month, and I will always jump in with both feet. But I am living a National Poetry Life, and I cherish the work and company of fellow poets every day of the year.
Are you with me? If so, here is our challenge for NaPoLife: Let’s continue to be dedicated to, or even obsessed by, poetry. Perhaps we might write something longer—apply days or even weeks of concentration to a single poem and see where it takes us. And we can read poetry, and share poems, and promote the work of poets we admire.

We can build audiences for poetry every day of the year, and in doing so, we can transform the lives and spirits of people we love. It’s a profoundly worthy lifelong mission.

Friday, April 1, 2016

An Appreciation of GREENHOUSE by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

I like what Bob Hicok says in his blurb on the back cover of Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s Greenhouse (Durham, NC: Bull City Press, 2014): “These poems make a basic fact palpable—when a child is born, a mother is born.”

In this collection, winner of the 2014 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, Stonestreet provides an honest look into the life of a mother—our daily frustrations, our special powers, the random grossness of it all.

The very first lines in the book, in the poem “Like That,” offer a view of motherhood that is instantly familiar to this mom, but one like I’ve never seen in a book of poetry:

The first time
                        I leaned over and swept the tip of my smallest fingernail down into

the whorl of your ear (bigger than your elbow­), and you yelped
in violation:
                                                                                    forgive me

it is no longer my ear
                                    (little boat, little shell I carved)

flushing pink, even now, at the embarrassment, the satisfaction

sliver-moon of yellow wax:
                                                                        tiny victory.

Let’s face it—the parent in the room is easy to spot. When that little person starts to barf, nearly everyone turns away in revulsion. It’s the parent who sweeps in with cupped hands, just as it's the parent who retrieves the wax, who wipes the nose.

Stonestreet gets this, and remarkably, she gets the beauty in this, as her “sliver-moon of yellow wax” suggests. And there is beauty in the humanness children present us with. A friend of mine would frequently bemoan the fact that her husband refused to change diapers. My response? “If you don’t change diapers, you don’t get to change diapers”—meaning that you miss out on the bonding and the intimacy and the humanity of those moments.

I mention this because Stonestreet’s poems resonate so perfectly with my feelings on parenthood. It’s true that she had me at earwax, but she kept me on every page, with every perfect observation. She writes about the too-muchness of parenting so beautifully, as in her poem “Baby/Honey,” about the proscription against feeding honey to infants, and other frightening things we learn online. Stonestreet writes, “when it feels like too much, my friend says, I try to remember to look at their hands”—and I recognize this, a strategy I used, too, gazing in wonder at those two little starfish.

Stonestreet also depicts the crisis of confidence that parents can feel when the main concern of their lives is regarded as trivial by most. It’s a problem writing parents may take more deeply to heart than others. She does this very effectively in “More, Again (Poppies)”:

There is popcorn all over the rug. Do you want

me to tell that story? Because almost guaranteed you will find
it boring
            (domestic) (female) (too much) (too little, too small)

Check one. Move on. Too bad: You will find

pieces for weeks, in the couch, constellation
of explosion, brittle gold against the blue, glint and scatter

visible only in the light of the screen, another night with the same bowl, another way
to make it from 6 to 8, 7 to 9,

the schedules, the negotiation, teeth brushed or un-,
clean sheets, a quick pass over everything
                                                                        good enough: or maybe it’s enough

to make you want a night of your own, everyone
piled cozily in among the crumbs—

When you’re a parent, there is always plenty to read, most of it laden with advice or keening for commiseration. Parent poetry is frequently rewarding to encounter, but it’s hit or miss with me—sometimes too beautiful, sometimes too visceral.

Never have I found a collection so spot-on with my own experiences and feelings. And when a poet captures any part of the human condition with such stunning originality and truth, she deserves to be widely read.

The lesson to the poet-reviewer: Maybe because most of us have a mother, we fail to recognize the weird wisdom of motherhood—the specialized outlook on love. But all of this, even a baby’s earwax on our finger, is the divine stuff of poetry.

Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s The Greenhouse, winner of the Frost Place Prize, was published by Bull City Press in 2014; Tulips, Water, Ash, was awarded the 2009 Morse Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Plume, Zyzzyva, The Collagist, Blackbird, and Kenyon Review Online. She writes, edits, and teaches in Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband and son. (

An Interview with Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet:

1.     What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
The usual, and obvious, response: writer, from about age seven. Second choice: whoever it is at publishing houses who writes the descriptions on the back covers, because that meant they're paid to read books. (Many years later, I was asked to write the description on the back of my first book. God laughs.)

2.     What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
Good question. I’m not one of those poets who focus on strange or novel words—I like to find the strangeness in how ordinary words bump up against each other. Words that in some way represent the heart of this book: triage, crucible, rabbithole, thrum. Words most likely to appear in few books of poetry other than this one: milk-dream, doggies, botulism.

3.     Describe your worst poetic habit.
I like to think of bad poetic habits as tics. They show up whenever you get tired or lazy, and they’re hard-wired directly to what makes your poems distinct and yours. I have one where I default to a particular rhythm at the end of a poem: da-dum, da-dum, DUM. I also have a highly functional addiction to punctuation, and occasionally go on a (metaphorical, parenthetical) bender. Also, unhyphenated compounds; see “rabbithole” above. Now you know all my secrets.

4.     It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
Punctuation. Not about punctuation per se—but poems that use punctuation to interesting effect. Though poems about punctuation could be good, too. I’d call it Parse Poetica.

5.     It’s your poetic obituary! Sum up your writing life with an essential (past-tense) statement about your poetry. Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet was a poet who …
Was a poet. Who wrote poems. That attempted to convey what it is to think and feel, to inhabit a particular consciousness. OK, which of us does that not describe? I think that’s enough; that's the essential thing for a poem to do.

Would you like to have your book considered for an Appreciation feature? It is eligible if it is no more than two years old or, better yet, forthcoming. You may send finished books or advanced reader copies to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. You may query at