Sunday, January 1, 2017


It seems there’s a light layer of dust on my blog. Well, I’m blowing it off, or at least running a lazy finger through it, with a brand new exercise in literary citizenship.

Yesterday, the last day of 2016, my partner, Michael Czyzniejewski, ended a yearlong project that had him examine and review a collection of short fiction every day. It was called Story366, and Mike never missed a day of it—never even missed his midnight deadline—no matter what triumph or tragedy a day brought.

Like pretty much everyone, we found 2016 to be a challenging year. We had crushing personal disappointments in addition to the national tragedy of Nov. 8; we traveled and parented and worked hard and kept a decent home; we supported each other in every possible way. Imagine committing to the task of examining and writing critically about a fiction collection every single day, regardless of whether your beloved bunny had just died, or you'd just turned in your tenure file, or someone in your house was spending the day crying or shouting or dancing or vomiting or trying to teach herself the harmonica. Imagine fitting it all in and never missing your midnight deadline.

Story366 was a bold statement about the importance of community, but it was also a brilliant example of making space for reading in our lives. Because good writers read. Maybe good people do, too, if they’re able.

I’m just a little scared of the commitment I’m embarking on today, which is to read and review a book of poetry each day in 2017—plus one extra on some day when I’m feeling industrious. This post marks the beginning of Poem366.

Mike had his own rules for Story366, and likewise, I have mine. Every day I’m going to grab a recent collection from my shelf and immerse myself in it until I’m done. Mike set up limitations for himself—for instance, it had to be a book he’d never read before—but I’m going to let whimsy be my guide.

A note about Poem366: I do not consider these daily features to be reviews. My simple goal is to showcase recent collections of poems, and, because it is a daily project, to locate what’s good and share it. I don’t want a daily project of tearing work apart, and in fact, if I don’t like at least something about a collection, I’ll just skip it. I had a professor who told me once that there are two kinds of poems: good poems and great poems. It turns out that the act of writing a poem is ennobling and, yes, good—examining the world and our place in it and responding thoughtfully to it is a good thing to do.

Last April (ahem, tugs at collar), I set out to review a book a day. I asked for review copies on a Facebook page populated by poets, and I received lots of them, mostly in electronic form. I reviewed so many books then, but there were so many I didn’t get to, and I thought I might start with those. (Reviews of those early books will all be accompanied by an interview with the same five questions that I asked of every writer; the project of a daily feature is sufficient to keep me busy, though, so I won’t interview all 366 writers. I’m a little daunted by the task in its most limited form—reading and writing about a book a day.)

Something I discovered in my last attempt to review is that I’m a pretty old-fashioned gal. I strongly dislike reading entire poetry collections from a glowing screen. I’d prefer to have a paper copy of a book in my hand. If you would like for me to feature you book, or a book from your press, on a future installment of Poem366, please feel free to send one my way via the U.S. Postal Service. A printout is fine, if review copies are scarce, but, heaven help me, I want to hold the thing in my hands. My address is Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. For now I’ll be reviewing only full-length books and only books published by presses—no self-publications.

So let’s begin the way I plan to proceed every day: delightfully randomly. Because New Year’s Day encourages us to think about where we are—in time, in our lives, on the map—it seems appropriate for this Springfield gal to begin with Tom C. Hunley’s collection, The State That Springfield Is In.

There are a lot of characters in Springfield. I use the word the way my mother does—and “He’s a character” is not an entirely complimentary assessment. I’ve observed plenty of characters in my own Springfield—Springfield, Missouri, where I live—and one can’t help but see some overlap in the character sketches that make up The State That Springfield Is In by Tom C. Hunley (Split Lip Press, 2016).

The book deals with the Springfield everyone knows best, and that is the one where the Simpsons reside (for which a state is never specified). Each poem is in the voice of a character from the animated TV series The Simpsons, and Tom doesn’t just deal with the regulars. Some seldom-seen or even one-off characters populate the book, with poems in the voices of Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Marge, and Homer, but also of Belle, the madam from La Maison Derriere; Professor Lombardo, Marge’s adjunct professor of art from Springfield Heights Institute of Technology; and poor Frank “Grimey” Grimes, oblivious Homer’s nemesis.

In an artist’s note at the end of the collection, Hunley confesses that these character sketches are ultimately his own self-portraits. “Like Frank Grimes and Apu Nahasepeemapetilon, I have frequently felt like an outsider trying to fit in,” he writes. “Professor Frink’s loneliness is my own loneliness, as is Comic Book Guy’s.” Concludes Hunley, “This book of poems is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.”

It’s somewhat refreshing, isn’t it, to see a poet own up to the elements of autobiography in a collection? Usually we try to divorce ourselves from the content of our work, and even when we write in the first person voice, we make it clear that the self is off limits for examination. But I know that when I write a poem in an “I” voice, it’s generally about me—and the same is true for every “you” in my poems (because second person is how I get away with the really revealing stuff), and, hell, it’s also true for the third-person work most of the time.

But forget I said that. Unlike Hunley, I don’t invite this line of questioning or criticism. The poems are the poems, and they are separate from me. That’s my line and I’m sticking with it.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Bart Simpson, All Grown Up,” which is in the voice of the series protagonist in his later years as he realizes he didn’t turn into his old man—he turned into his best friend Milhouse’s! That’s a tragicomic surprise in the poem, but before that realization, there is genuine pathos and a subtle meditation on the nature of art, right in line with Hunley’s confession about the project:

I did marry Jessica Lovejoy.
I remember something drawing me
towards her even as I feared there was nothing
drawing her towards me.

It’s an odd hall of mirrors, this unexpected exploration of aesthetics, and I love how it sneaks up on the reader.

While I like the poems in the voices of the major characters, there are nice surprises to be found in the poems spoken by the minor characters, and in the ones where characters from the Simpsons’ world are thrust into the world most familiar to me—a good example being “Krusty the Klown at AWP”:

I may not know poetry, but people walk into comedy clubs
weighed down by anxious days and noxious nights
and they walk out happy. Kids cling to Krusty dolls
when they can’t sleep and whole families
enter my restaurants hungry and exit satisfied.

It’s insightful work, and brave in its thinly disguised self-study. What’s more, it matches my frame of mind today—contemplative, nostalgic, up for a bit of self-examination.

I think we’re off to a very promising start.

An interview with Tom C. Hunley …

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

I don’t remember, but I had thick glasses and read a lot, so in sixth grade the other kids nicknamed me the Professor. I don’t think they meant it as a compliment.

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

Embiggened. That’s Springfield terminology for “I contain multitudes,” which applies, I think, because I am writing in the voices of a variety of characters. As my former classmate, Mark Yakich, writes in Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, “If the self involves multiple selves, or at least multiple roles, then the way to get at self-expression is to play out as many as you can …. [T]he more characters or points of view you can write from, the more complete, the more objective your own story.” Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” and reportedly got violently ill after his character died. Believe it or not, Moe Szyslak, c’est moi; Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, c’est moi; Lisa Simpson, c’est moi, and so on.

Describe your worst poetic habit.

My worst poetic habit is the one I wear around the nunnery and the punnery.

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

Zoo animals. Because David Antin said, “Anthologies are to poets as zoos are to animals.”

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 …

Here lies Tom C. Hunley, Ph.D.,
who, as a professor of literature,
refused to acknowledge popular books
about vampires, dragons, and especially zombies
which he used to rail against

In between bitter sips of the coffee
that gave him his zip and pep
he said poetry sings the song
of the human heart
and literary fiction tells its story

What does Dr. Hunley know
about the human heart,
we wondered, as he boarded up
his doors and windows
to shut us out

He had sown inside us
a hunger and thirst
for the amazing human heart,
and we have to say

his tasted delicious …


  1. Yeah! What a great project. It should work out well for me, too. I've let poetry slide out of my life in the past decade or so, and I'm inviting it back by reading and writing about one poem a day. I'll be looking to you for some ideas about what to read!

    I like the humor and pop culture love of today's review. I'll check it out!

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act