Performance Poetry

Poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is known and loved for her ballad-like poems and the ironic yet confessional lyrics she often paired with expressive drawings. But she was also one of the first performance poets–she created a performing persona for her poetry festival readings during the 1960s.  At the age of sixty  she wore lace stockings and pinafores to her readings, and she even sang the poems during her performances.

Many others have set Stevie’s poems to music. Here’s a jazz version of her poem “Mother Among the Dust Bins.”

Vic Chesnutt recorded “Not Waving But Drowning.”

In an essay I’m writing about Smith, I argue that listening to Stevie’s recordings provides another layer of meaning to the experience of her work. During my research, I’ve rekindled an interest in Spoken Word poets in general, and I’m thinking about how my own writing will change as a result of what I’m discovering.

More Performers:

Here is a quote from an interview on Stephen Mill’s Joe’s Jacket with poet Megan Volpert, who has performed her poetry and competed in Slam competitions. Megan has transitioned from her performance work (although she still gives entertaining, creative, and interactive readings) to writing poetry collections, but she has this to say about what she has learned from her both stage and writing experiences:

This is one thing I am pretty sure about though: a poem built for only the page or only the stage is most likely a failure. All poets ought to make the most of both.

Megan’s next project, Sonics in Warholia, will be released in December, 2011 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

Another inspirational performance poet is Sarah Kay. Listen to her tell her story on TED–you won’t even notice the time as she skips from one story to the next.

Statue in Honor of Francis Scott Key, “amateur poet” who wrote the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Review of Clamor by Elyse Fenton

All winter and into spring I’ve been reading and writing about poetry in the courses I’m taking. One of my assignments was to write a review of a prize-winning first book, and I chose to review Clamor.

As the University of Wales web site states,  the Dylan Thomas Prize “is awarded to the best eligible published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author under 30.” Fenton is the first American to win this prestigious, international award, which comes with a prize close to $50,000.00 dollars.

Clamor also won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize in 2009, selected by poet D.A. Powell.

Subject Matter

Part of what intrigues me about Fenton’s work is the subject matter–she has written about her experience of living far away from her young husband while he was deployed in Iraq following the 911 terrorist attack.  The theme of young love and the Iraq War gives her project a heightened sense of relevance that one does not always expect from an emerging artist. The collection, which revolves around a central, narrative theme, places the project squarely within current trends of poetry books that also tell a longer story, such as Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard or Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door.

Continue reading

Reading and Writing Round-up

It’s been a while since I’ve shared the state of my writing life online. Teaching freshman composition takes up a good chunk of my energy–  I spend a lot of time writing responses to their writing on our class blog. Alright, I admit I also waste time on facebook.


In my two classes (a workshop and a seminar) we’ve been reading William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Frank O’Hara, Gwendolyn Brooks, and now Frank Stanford. We still have to get to James Wright, Sylvia Plath, Everett Maddox, and Andrew Hudgins.



This fall  Ouroboros Review, the magazine Jo Hemmant and I started, published three of my poems in issue five: “Last Lollipop,” “Between Loads of Laundry,” and “Pain Drives by the Delivery Room at Wayside Hospital,” found on pages 12-13. I wrote these poems in 2009, two of them during a workshop I was in at GSU.

Many thanks to Jo, Carolee Sherwood, and Jill Crammond-Wickham for putting together another great magazine. Sara Hughes, fellow GSU poet has work in this issue.  Her lovely poem, “The Secret of Life,” appears on page two.

There’s an interview with poets January Gill O’Neil and Kelli Russell Agodon, in which they discuss the writing life and how to balance creativity with adult responsibilities. Not easy!  Their poems after the interview will knock your socks off.

The word on the street is that Ouroboros Review will be changing editorial directorship before the next issue comes out. It’s a gorgeous magazine, one of the few truly international reviews that publishes both online and in print. Ouroboros is available for purchase at Magcloud.

Jo Hemmant has done a wonderful job maintaining the unique tone and style of the art and poetry that appears in each issue. I love discovering poets and artists living in South Africa, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, England, Canada, as well as the U.S. Whoever takes over the job will be inheriting a fine showcase of world writers.

In 2010 Jo Hemmant’s  independent press, Pindrop, is launching A Suitable Girl by poet Michelle McGrane.




Frozen Socks and Eliot

The frozen socks have been a big hit with Red and Duffy. They chew on the knotted socks until the socks thaw, and then they play tug-of-war with them.

This morning they ran in circles through the kitchen, living room, and dining room, and now they’ve gone to their separate corners to chew on fresh, frozen socks.

With the house now quiet and the world calm, I’ll return to reading Eliot’s 1920 Poems. Randy Malamud’s critical introduction to The Wasteland and Other Poems has been big help in my understanding of the collection. There are so many seemingly random allusions that I was scratching my head in bewilderment.

I’m thinking of writing my research paper about this question: does the anti-semitism in Eliot’s poems contradict his application of Buddhist philosophy?

What would Red and Duffy say? They’d probably tell me to stop running in circles, chew on a frozen sock, and then take a nap.

An Office with a View

My office looks out onto rat’s alley. Yes, I’m alluding to The Waste Land, but there really are rats down there. They must like the vat of discarded fast-food grease next to the parking deck.

But there’s a view, with natural light. And the air conditioning works. A huge improvement on last year’s basement office.

Musings About "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I’ll be honest, I’m not much interested in literary theory. When I read a poem I look up words I don’t understand or references that I’ve never heard of, but in general I prefer to figure out the gist on my own. That’s what’s fun about reading, isn’t it?

I offer that statement as an apology for my musings about poems, because probably all of it has been said much better by someone else. So you could say I’m writing these musings for myself, or for some future reader who comes along, surfing the web the way some people still troll through microfiche.

The Epigraph

I took a course on modern British poetry many years ago, and I’ve read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” several times over the decades, but I never bothered to look up the Italian epigraph until now, and I guess I should have, because it does inform the poem. Or it could be that I forgot the meaning after so many years.


William Blake: "Dante's Inferno, Whirlwind of Lovers."

The epigraph comes from a section of Dante’s Inferno, and is the speech of a man who apparently committed some heinous misdeeds, because he’s consigned to one of the lower circles of hell.  Roughly, the stanza says the man would not tell the story of his sins if he thought the listener could return to the world to relate the man’s crimes, but since he has never heard of anyone escaping from the fiery pit, he will go ahead and spill the beans, or wag his flaming tongue. He has been so terrible that he has lost his human form, and has become only a tongue of fire.

The Poem

When J. Alfred invites the reader to go on a walk with him through the city streets, he believes we are with him in hell, never to return.  If he tells us what’s really on his mind, it’s because he thinks we’re stuck in this place with him.

Prufrock admits he has tried to create a persona to win favors from the world. He admits he’s getting old, and reveals his paltry efforts to conceal his aging. He shows us his hurt when a woman he has either seduced, or tried to seduce, tells him, “That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.”

Yet he thinks he really does have something to say. He wants to come back from the dead like Lazarus to tell everyone about the “mermaids singing, each to each.” But he doubts himself. He doesn’t think he’s a prophet. He doubts the mermaids will sing to him.

But what he has to say is that at night we dream we are mermaids riding the waves out to sea, and it’s only when we wake up that we drown.

Prufrock is  like the rest of us ridiculous humans, caught up in our gains and losses, always thinking we have time to make our “visions and revisions/Before the taking of toast and tea.”

Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism and the need to follow the Dharma right now. We might die at any moment. It could be in an hour, when we drive to the market, or later on, while walking the dog. And so the need to die with a peaceful mind is of the greatest importance. Catholics might say something about needing to be in a state of grace during the moment of death.

Prufrock obsesses about our having time for all the things we haven’t done yet. But really there is no time left for that. He knows his time is up, yet he clings to the idea of himself: parting his hair down the back, rolling his pants legs up, walking the beach in white flannel, all the images of himself as a lady’s man or an urbane gentleman amid the sordid yellow smoke of the city.

The collection Prufrock (1917) is dedicated to Eliot’s friend Jean Verdenal who, according to the inscription, died at the age of 26 during WWI at Dardanelles. Maybe this character of Prufrock is a satire of Eliot himself and others. Through revealing the character’s weaknesses he exposes our frivolities and our vanities, which at our death amount to nothing.

My favorite lines from the poem are these:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:


I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

Those lines make me believe Prufrock might not be a bad sort at all. Because he has told us about the mermaids, after all. If he’s in hell, maybe he’ll have a chance to climb out of the pit.

A Spectrum of Aesthetics, Part II: Arda Collins

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Off I 75 in North Georgia

The following passage continues where I left off in the first post about contemporary poetry.

Contemporary poetry, and contemporary art in general, reveals the Zeitgeist of the 21st century–we seem to live in a moment in which we are reevaluating the myths that motivate us; as a culture we question the roles language, poetry (or art), science, and religion play in our lives. This reconsideration of reality has produced eclectic collections from both younger and older poets.

Each of the books we discussed this semester in our contemporary poetry course, in varying degrees, serves as a barometer of our country’s mood as perceived through the feelings and thoughts of the individual poet, although the psychological and emotional landscapes differ in their representation.

I will identify some essential questions that underlie or motivate three of the individual projects, examining poems from It Is Daylight by Arda Collins, Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem, and Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. My hope is that these sample poems will serve as emblems for the poets’ overarching motivations to write, as well as illustrate the wide spectrum of aesthetics in contemporary American poetry.

Among the books we studied, Arda Colin’s It Is Daylight represents the collection least inclined toward the Romantic ideal of union with nature. Luis Glück, who chose Collins’s collection for the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, characterizes Collin’s poetry as “savage, desolate, brutally ironic” (vii).

Glück later states that “[a]t the heart of the poems is shame, which results not from something the poet has done, but rather from being” (vii). Even though there is an overt depiction of shame in Collins‘ collection, I would say the heart of her poems also contains a desire to understand what being alive means to a neurotic speaker (whom we shouldn’t confuse with the author). Continue reading

Reading List

Cloudland Canyon, my one destination for spring break

Cloudland Canyon, my one destination for spring break

Now  that we’re on spring break, ten beautiful days, I have some spare time to update this blog. Don’t imagine me living it up in Cancún, however. I’ll be at home, catching up on laundry and writing a paper. I never was one of those Daytona Beach types, anyway. When I was studying Spanish in Madrid, I spent a whole week reading La Regenta while my compadres went to Egypt. Ugh.

Since a few people have wondered what books we’re reading in the MFA program I attend, I’m providing a list from one of my current courses. This semester I’m taking Contemporary American Poetry; all the books we’re looking at have been published within the last ten years. In fact, most of them are from within the last three years. Each student in the class had the opportunity to choose a collection to present –mine was Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.

I want to add a book that we aren’t studying, but one I’ve read this semester and that I highly recommend.  One of the poets in the class, Emily Elizabeth  Schulten, has a first book that has just launched: Rest in Black Haw.  I’ve heard her read twice in Atlanta-the poems are authentic, intimate, and well-crafted. They’ll floor you with their attention to the natural world and their implications of human connections. Stay tuned for a review in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you can enjoy this amazing poem, “Labor Day Weekend,” featured on Verse Daily.

Bonanno, Kathleen Sheeder. Slamming Open the Door

Collins, Arda. It’s Daylight

Dickman, Matthew.  All American Poem

Digges, Deborah. Trapeze

Emerson, Claudia.  Late Wife

Hass, Robert. Time and Materials

Kaminsky, Ilya. Dancing in Odessa

Kane, Paul. Work Life

Mitcham, Judson. A Little Salvation

Range, Melissa. Horse and Rider

What Does it Mean When… ?

My dreams have been highly charged with symbolic images lately, more than likely due to my reading of Man and His Symbols, by Jung et al. I’ve scribbled a few haphazard images down in my journal, but there’s been little free time to think about what the dreams might mean. Instead, I’ve been reading poetry, attending readings, grading papers, planning for classes, cooking a few dinners here and there, and trying to revise a few poems.

I qualify any interpretations of dreams with a big question mark, because it takes a long time to see the patterns in dream symbols. What does it mean if I see a horse lying on its side in a ditch? The only way to know is to take a wait and see attitude.

I let the image simmer for a while, and if it stays with me, I’ll free-write about it. I’ve come up with some rollicking prose poems that way. They’re self-indulgent, but very fun to write. My current project is about miniature foxes.

One of my favorite fiction writers is Kelly Link. She writes about zombies, mysterious rabbits, and homunculi, among other topics. Her stories lend themselves to anyone who enjoys dream imagery, postmodern fantasy, or magic. You can download portions of Magic for Beginners from her website.

A Review of Slamming Open the Door by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

The professor of my contemporary poetry course has given us each a chance to present a book published within the last ten years. My presentation was over Slamming Open the Door, (Alice James Books, 2009) by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. We discussed the book mostly in terms of its overall effect as a project. The topic is every parent’s worst nightmare–the death of a child. Ms. Bonanno’s daughter Leidy was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, and the book chronicles some of the moments of the family’s trauma, from the night she and her husband find out what happened to their daughter, to the trial, and the memorial service.

It’s a gut-wrenching book that is successful as a collection because it stays very honest–the speaker allows the reader a glimpse into her experiences, without decoration or maudlin metaphors. The poems read as though they were written in the moment, yet they are grounded in concrete images. The pacing and sequencing of the poems are also effective. There are flashbacks to when Leidy was adopted, as well as to her graduation party, where the killer  first appears.

Slamming Open the Door does not come out of an academic tradition of poetry, even though the author is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review. Although American literature includes countless examples of poems about grief, most of the poems in our literary canon are either formal, or pay great detail to the flow of the language.

To me, writing  highly stylized poems would not accurately portray the raw grief of a mother whose daughter has been strangled to death. On the other hand, staying true to the bestial nature of raw grief requires a certain measure of control that Ms. Bonanno maintains throughout the work. These are poems that had to be written, as the speaker explains in the first poem of the book, “When Death Barged In.” If the book were mine, I imagine I’d have to force each line to appear on the page, while at the same time feeling the utter necessity to write them down.

The intended audience seems to be anyone who has suffered an immense loss, whether it be the death of a child, or a spiritual loss of some kind. Anyone who has lived through tragedy would  sense that for a brief moment in time, the speaker was able to relieve herself of her enormous grief by sharing it with others. I hope the writing was therapeutic for Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her family, and Leidy, are in my thoughts and prayers.

I first heard about Ms. Bonanno’s collection while listening to Terry Gross’s interview with her on NPR. I highly recommend listening to the interview–Ms. Bonanno reads several of the poems with feeling and inflection. Her sorrow and rage come across in the reading, as does her self-effacing sense of humor.

In his New York Times review of Slamming Open the Door,  poet David Kirby brings up the concept of subjects for art that some have considered taboo, such as the Holocaust, but  he then defends Ms. Bonanno’s writing by saying that the raw nature of the poems redeem them from any criticism that she might be exploiting her tragedy to make art.  One of my classmates mentioned that art is often born from an apocalypse, as Elie Wiesel proved with his memoir, Night. Our professor also cited the poetry of Paul Celan as an example of poetry that has come out of the Holocaust.

One of the reasons I chose Slamming Open the Door is because I’m searching for a way to write about my own life in the form of poetry. I ask myself, how does one write about an event without turning it into a plea for pity or a tract against others? How do we make sense of past events without, in my case anyway, unduly exonerating ourselves? Ms. Bonanno didn’t allow herself to escape uncriticized in her poetry memoir. She put herself under the spiritual microscope as much as she did her daughter’s killer.

Poet Andrew Hudgins,* in his essay, “The Autobiographer’s Lies,”  writes about using one’s own life as material for poetry. He discusses the idea of how looking at the events in our lives distances us from the story and gives us the ability to look at ourselves as characters in a play or a novel.

In her interview with Terry Gross, when discussing her poem “How to Find Out,” Ms. Bonanno states that she felt she was acting out a role she had been given by fate: “Mother of the murdered daughter. So in effect, I use – I speak directly to the reader in second person in the poem “How to Find Out” as if now that I’ve gone through this, I’m capable of teaching the next actor in the play.”

Of course, in actuality there’s nothing really that could prepare us for this type of monstrous grief. The directions Ms. Bonanno gives us are almost ironic, because the subtext is that there is no rehearsal for how we will react to the murder of a child. No cop dramas on TV, no courtroom scenes, not even honest poetry can ever completely prepare us for a scene we never want to be in.

The most we can do is read the poems and try to put ourselves in the speaker’s place. Because on a spiritual level, what happens to one of us happens to us all. As Annie Dillard has said, we are all swimming together in the same tide of time. For this reason, I’m very glad Ms. Bonanno has had the courage to write about her experiences. We who read the book will put on our sack cloth and cover our faces with ash along with the speaker, on a spiritual level.

Slamming Open the Door is a mother’s wail to the universe. That huge loss we know is coming, the day our child  leaves home to strike out on her own, descended upon this mother like a monster, and part of her life’s journey now is to slay the beast that this loss has created. The book has become the speaker’s rite of passage,  a boat to transport her to the side of time where she can get up in the morning and go to work with at least a glimmer of hope that the grief will someday subside.

Because of the brutal honesty of this book, the sequencing, the simplicity of the language, and the many concrete images, Slamming Open the Door is a highly convincing, successful collection.

* Thanks to Dana Guthrie Martin for sharing this essay with me on her thought-provoking blog, My Gorgeous Somewhere.