friday roundup: bidden, notes on line, and a little song

"Abend an der Ostsee" (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler

“Abend an der Ostsee” (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler, wikimedia

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday.

I’m a little low on words today, but have found a few gems — some new to me, some not — to share.

Let us commence:

bidden In a letter to his mother 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote:

“Art is a curious command. We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.”

In my experience, sometimes the light lets us see all around a room, or a good way along the path in front of us. Other times, it barely lets us see our own shoes. This week, I needed this reminder —  that we must do what we are bidden to do. I think it’s good advice for art and life.

(BTW, have you ever wondered how many possible gems future generations of writers will lose out on because most of us no longer write letters? I mean, my own correspondence exists in the world primarily of texts that say things like: “At dr appt will call after” and “I.cannot.possibly.cook.another.dinner.” But maybe the gems will still be stashed somewhere by poets who are thinking worthier thoughts than I.)

notes on line  Line is probably my favorite craft element of poetry because it can do so many different things. This week I went back to Best Words, Best Order to re-read a few things Stephen Dobyns says about line (in section three of his essay “Notes on Free Verse”).

Many times I’ve been in discussions with poets about whether or not line breaks should be “read” — that is, when reading a poem out loud (or in one’s head, for that matter) should one pause where the line breaks, or not? And if yes, for how long? (Full disclosure: I fervently believe that line breaks should be “read.”).

Denise Levertov famously said that a line break is worth “half a comma” — a pause not long enough to think, but “long enough to register something.” No pressure.

Dobyns lightens our load — I mean, how long is half a comma??? — by saying,

“(t)he exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line.”

I feel like I can commit to that.

Here are a few more things Dobyns says line / line breaks can do:

  • create tension
  • resolve tension
  • allow slips of  meaning
  • influence cadence
  • duplicate the process of thought

He says,

“Where the line breaks can never be a matter of accident since the line break is so much a part of both form and content. Indeed, it is often here that the poet’s most personal rhythms are clearest.”

a little song  Last week I started reading Cecilia Woloch‘s new chapbook, EARTH, recently released by Two Sylvias Press. I started reading it, and finished, and started again, and finished again. I keep going back. It’s that good.

This is a lovely book, both object-wise — beautiful cover art, pleasing look and feel — and content-wise. In fierce but lovely language and image, these poems remember loved ones and lost worlds, explore mortality and inheritance, and allow their speaker to claim his/her Self (yes, that’s Self with a capital S). One of my favorite poems from the collection recognizes the reality that one’s Self actually contains a multitude of Selves. Here is:


Oh beloved, oh afraid
of the bloodstain, dark spot, ticking clock
of what has shone in your life like luck —
too bright to last — oh fortunate
who slipped the licked stones, glittering
inside your pockets, spread your arms
and dreamt your ghost wings would unfurl
from your bony shoulders — angel bones
and that the sky would hold you up
and love — a tree from which you swung —
oh branch you called your father’s name
oh bird who sang your mother’s song
oh little sweeper of the world
whose life inside my life has burned.


(!!!”oh little sweeper of the world”!!!)

One of my Selves now must go off and schlepp some groceries for the Feeders of the Wee, Small House. (I think of them as Feeders. As in, “a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner.” Forgive me.)

I wish you a happy weekend, ample light to see by, a clear bidding from whatever your art might be, and a little song for your one afraid. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: new ventures, poetic adultery, and “love leaking out unguarded”

Hestery Prynne, that famous literary adulteress. When it comes to poetry, I am guilty as charged.

Hestery Prynne, that famous literary adulteress. When it comes to poetry, I am guilty as charged.

Happy Friday, Reader. It’s a cool, grey day in the P-town. We need rain, so everyone is hoping for that. Meanwhile, I fear my children are becoming Californians: Mom, will you drive me to school today in case it rains? Um, no. But Papa is a softie and did agree to give a lift to Eldest on his way out of town.  My parting words: “Take your rain jacket with you because you’re walking home.” His reply, “I know, Mom, I know (insert heavy sigh here).”

Now for the roundup:

new ventures  I was excited to find out about two new poetic ventures this week. The first is a new journal that Kelly Davio and Joe Ponepinto are launching, the Tahoma Literary Review, a journal of short fiction and poetry. As Kelly writes on her blog:

Tahoma Literary Review isn’t just another literary magazine project. We’re not following the existing publishing, editing, or business models, but are trying a new approach altogether. We took time to truly listen to writers’ and readers’ wants and concerns as we planned  TLR, and took time to consider how we might reframe the discussion about what functions a journal should serve.

To read more about this new venture, and the specific ways in which TLR is not just another lit mag, go here.

In other news, Two Sylvias Press is opening soon for its first chapbook contest. After having read Two Sylvias’ e-anthology Fire on Her Tongue, I’m looking forward to seeing what else they’ll put out in the world through this contest. Details are here.

poetic adultery  This is just a quote from Vera Pavlova that seems very apropos to my life right now, and maybe to some of your lives as well:

Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened.

~ Vera Pavlova

love leaking out unguarded  Well, you’ve probably heard by now that Maxine Kumin passed away yesterday. It feels like a lot of poetic giants are passing from the earth these days, no? (Denise Levertov, or as I like to think of her, D-Lev, has a poem about this from back in her day: here it is). One of my favorite pieces of writing about writing is Kumin’s foreword to The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. If you’ve never read it, go get you some.

I read once that before a journal agreed to publish one of Kumin’s early poems, they required her husband to vouch, in writing, that she had indeed written it herself. Can we just say we’ve come a long way (#virginiaslimsmoment), but maybe not far enough yet because that was only about 50 years ago.

At any rate, when I first began to study poetry seriously, Kumin’s poem “Family Reunion” made an impression on me for the subtlety of emotion it communicates — that poignant love of a parent for her adult children — and for its beautiful language.

Here it is.

Happy Friday, and thanks for reading! And don’t forget to send me your favorite bad poem — or if “bad” seems too drastic, let’s say “less-successful.” Details here.

book review: The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano


So far, this autumn has been a time of planning, sifting, and sorting for me: spending time with projects to understand their clockwork insides, piling up mini-manuscripts for submissions, making applications for writerly gigs (also, crossing fingers; yes, definitely that). There hasn’t been much generative work happening at the desk of this poet, until I picked up my recently-purchased copy of The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice.

Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano wrote this book out of their own practice of bringing prompts to one another for joint writing sessions. The Daily Poet, published by Two Sylvias Press, is a sturdy but compact book of 366 poetry prompts – even one for leap year! That’s right: you basically have no excuse for not knowing what to write about. Ever again.

With the vague notion of writing a poem-most-days in November, I picked up The Daily Poet on November first, and dug right in. The book begins with a message from the authors that sets what I consider to be the perfect tone for a book of prompts. Right away, the message is:

  • realistic “Each day offers a unique exercise to get you closer to a new poem.” Because we all know that responses to prompts are not necessarily going to be poems by the end of the day. Sigh.
  • supportive  “There is no wrong way to complete a writing exercise.” Because we all know the most important thing for a prompt to do is to get us to the page, regardless of whether or not we follow the prompt in the end.
  • inspiring  “So enjoy, go forth, and write the poems you need to write. Our hope is that these exercises lead you to compose inventive, original, and downright daring poems, leaving you with a healthy stack of work that will enrich not only your life, but perhaps the lives of fellow readers.” Because sometimes we all need a reminder of why we’re doing this crazy poetry thing anyway.

I don’t know about you, but already I like this book.

Now on to the prompts and how I’ve used the book. Coming off a period steeped in particular projects, it was refreshing to have a wide variety of subject areas in the prompts I used. For one week in November (and I paraphrase):

  • Write a poem to a saint, actual or imagined
  • Write a poem that uses the names of as many types of candy as you can think of
  • Write a poem where the weather plays a particular role in changing something
  • Write a wedding poem
  • Write a poem in the form of a three-ring circus
  • Write a poem whose title is chosen thus: Pick up a book, turn to page fifteen, go down seven lines. That line is your title.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle words and images from a poem of yours that you’ve never really liked and use them to write a new poem.

For me, the main strength of this book is that the variety of prompts helped me get into a very generative space, where what I wrote one day had nothing to do with what I wrote the next (generally speaking). The variety of prompts also encouraged creative exploration of topics I might not have considered fertile ground for poetry (candy cigarettes, anyone?). For me, this is the book’s greatest gift to its user: its power to dig deep inside the rabbit holes of your poet’s brain and/or subconscious and pull out work that might never have been pulled out without it.

Other strengths of the book are:

format  I love that each page of the book has just one prompt on it, and has room for notes – ideas that the prompt sparks right away, the title of the draft the prompt brought forth in a particular year, etc. To wit:


The one prompt per page format also helps me to clear my head and focus on just that one thing (I promise you, if there were more than one prompt per page, I’d be saying, Nah, I don’t feel like doing this one, let me see what else is here…).  Bonus: there are also a few blank pages for notes at the end of the book.

portability  When you see that a book has 384 pages, you worry about being able to throw it in your bag, which you then throw in your bike basket and ride with to the library. You worry about whether that bag will hurt your shoulder as you go upstairs to the quiet second floor. At least I do. But although this is a hefty book in terms of page count, it’s a compact size (.9 x 4.9 x 7.9 inches) and a reasonable weight (14.9 oz.) – it’s utterly portable, and will even fit in most purses in case your kids have a dentist appointment and you’re going to try to write a poem in the waiting room. Bonus: it’s also available in e-book format.

steeped in seasons and history  As I paged through the book beyond the prompts I’ve used for November, I was happy to see that the prompts often highlight particular dates (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, May Day, Veterans Day), seasons (e.g., Carnival, Chanukah, Christmas), and historical events (e.g., the first documented snowfall in L.A., the birthday of Langston Hughes, the day someone first applied for a patent for a shoe-making machine). Although not all the prompts are calendar-tied, enough are so that the book feels cyclical and honors our very human need to mark time.

As for drawbacks, from my perspective there are only two. Neither of them are deal-breakers for me, but I point them out for people who might have a strong preference on one or both of these points:

One is that there is no table of contents or index. This means you need to mark up those notes pages at the end so you can find a particular prompt again. This is a relatively easy workaround, no? What I miss is being able to read the TOC and/or index as a poem – one of my favorite things to do. But I can deal.

The other is that, for the most part, the prompts are content-based rather than language-based (there are some exceptions). If you are one of the lucky ones who only needs an idea of what to write about to come up with a poem, this won’t be an issue for you. I am one of the less-lucky ones who needs more, which is why I typically use lots of tricks and traps – or language based prompts and/or constraints – to get into a poem. The easy workaround for this, of course, is to have all your old tricks and traps up your sleeve. Which I do.

I see this book on my shelf for many years, note-scrawled and page-marked, scuffed and showing its age. These are the books we love most, right? – those that endure for us over time, that keep giving, giving, and giving. I truly believe The Daily Poet will be one of those books for me. If you’re a poet, I highly recommend that you fold it into your writing practice. This book is also a great find for those of you who teach writing, and for those who lead or participate in writing groups that write together. You can buy it here.


Martha Silano & Kelli Russell Agodon have eight books of poetry between them, along with twelve years of friendship. They visit each other by ferry for long writing dates that always include coffee, laughter, and chocolate. The Daily Poet is the first book they’ve written together.  (bio from book cover)

Kristina Marie Darling’s next big thing

ImageToday, it’s my pleasure to host Kristina Marie Darling’s next big thing. I wrote about Kristina’s book The Moon and Other Inventions here. This time she’s busy supporting other writers; read on to find out more:

What is the working title of your project? The title of my project is Noctuary Press. Noctuary Press is a small publishing company that promotes cross-genre work by innovative women writers. I chose this title because a “noctuary” is a record of what passes in the night. Noctuary Press strives to create a record of, and give visibility to, innovative writing by women that takes place at the peripheries of existing genre categories.

Where did the idea for your project come from?  I’ve always felt like there is something missing from cross-genre work that is currently being published. Much of this work merely questions the notion of genre, but does not engage with it in a meaningful way. Noctuary Press strives to fill this gap in contemporary small press publishing, and to create a dialogue about the politics of genre categories within the literary community and in the academy.

What genre does your project fall under? If I have to choose a genre for this project, I’d say small press publishing.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I’d definitely want to be played by Betty White. I’ll be tagging some of my authors, so they can answer this question in relation to their own manuscripts.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your project? This project is an attempt to explore, document, and interrogate of the politics of genre categories within literary community.

Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency? The chosen manuscripts will be published by my press, Noctuary Press. I work with a local small press printer and designer, Sunnyoutside Press, to provide books of a professional quality.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your project? Although the press was just launched in October, over a year of planning had taken place beforehand.

What other books would you compare this project to within your genre? This year we’ll be publishing titles by Carol Guess, Kristy Bowen, and Eva Heisler. I’d have to say that these manuscripts resonate in really fascinating ways with contemporary archival projects like Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, as well as work that questions readerly expectations of narrative (such as Jenny Boully’s The Body, Thalia Field’s Point and Line, and Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum).

Who or what inspired you to publish these works? Genre categories frequently serve as a means to exclude writing that does not fit within these parameters. Innovative writing is almost always “othered,” and more often than not, the writing that is “othered” is women’s writing. I wanted to offer a public space for women to question, interrogate, and revise the notion of genre, since this type of forum did not seem to exist anywhere else.

What else about your project might pique the reader’s interest? Be sure to check out our forthcoming titles. You’ll find erasures, algebra word problems, bed barges, and much more.

Visit Noctuary Press’ website here.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of nine books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and (with Carol Guess) X Marks the Dress: A Registry (Gold Wake Press, forthcoming in 2014). Her work has been recognized with nominations for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Book Award. Within the past few years, her writing has been honored with fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Ragdale Foundation, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Visit her online at her website.