Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My Mother's Tango by Ilya Kaminsky

"A white pony on the seventh floor"

I am in love with this poem tonight. "My Mother's Tango," by my friend Ilya Kaminsky brings me back the occasional magic and strangeness of childhood. You can hear Ilya read the poem here. 

My Mother’s Tango

I see her windows open in the rain, laundry in the windows—
she rides a wild pony for my birthday,
a white pony on the seventh floor.

“And where will we keep it?” “On the balcony!”
the pony neighing on the balcony for nine weeks.
At the center of my life: my mother dances,

yes here, as in childhood, my mother
asks to describe the stages of my happiness—
she speaks of soups, she is of their telling:

between the regiments of saucers and towels,
she moves so fast—she is motionless,
opening and closing doors.

But what was happiness? A pony on the balcony!
My mother’s past, a cloak she wore on her shoulder.
I draw an axis through the afternoon

to see her, sixty, courting a foreign language—
young, not young—my mother
gallops a pony on the seventh floor.

She becomes a stranger and acts herself,
opens what is shut, shuts what is open.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

WordsWest Literary Series 2 - Rick Barot and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

It's true. I spend a goodly amount of time attending poetry readings. Maybe I've heard a few hundred poets read over my lifetime: Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Naomi Shihab Nye, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forche --- and the list goes on. Yet none have touched me the way last Friday night did.

What a joy to hear these two poets read together for WordsWest Literary Series - 2. As Lena Khalaf Tuffaha said as she stood gazing out at the 50+ person crowd, "what a beautiful audience!" Now you can be part of that audience, too.

Not only did Lena and Rick Barot read amazing poems, following the reading they spoke on politics and poetry, influences and anti-influences. We sold books and broadsides, served popcorn and chocolate which made for a happy atmosphere.

If you live in the Seattle area (and some audience members came in from Duval!) think about spending November 19th with us --- that's the third Wednesday of the month when we will host Kate Lebo and Molly Wizenburg. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Life As A Foreign Country -- A New Kind of War Story

You Need To Read This Book, Really

I finished this memoir, My Life As A Foreign Country, by Brian Turner,  a few weeks ago and yet it is not finished with me. Not at all. I can't shake the feeling that Turner isn't sure how much to reveal --- or perhaps more to the point --- that to "reveal" is not his point. The lyric structure, the breaking and un-breaking of time, the ghosts that walk through this book; these are the elements that make me reach for this work --- this hard work --- and read it again.

What I want from prose is similar to what I want from poetry: to leap into the unknown. Elizabeth Bishop stated that what she liked in poetry was "to see the mind in motion." Of course the literal mind is a messy thing filled with desires for honey crisp apples and a nap --- but what Turner gives us is a new way into the mind of one soldier -- an Iraq war veteran.

However, it is in the last third of the book, after Turner returns home where things really get interesting.

"Countries are touching countries and I cross over from one to another, trying to shake the past and find a world I can live in" (162).

The return to "home" or in Turner's case, the return that actually becomes a completely different world from the life he had known before the war is, for this reader, the most interesting aspect of the book. In the final chapters Turner employs the surreal mixing the true strangeness of war's aftermath with the book's documentary style.

"Journalists shuffle into our bedroom and wait patiently for us to finish making love. They want me to talk about suicide. They want me to talk about hand-to-hand combat--- something I really know nothing about. They want a modern definition for the word obscenity and the word slaughter "(171).

In my time teaching college English and Film Studies I've had many Iraq veterans come through my classes. Perhaps this book will help me understand a little more of their struggles. Perhaps not.

There is no blueprint for dealing with trauma. Turner tells us this without telling us. Instead, weeks after I finished reading this book I am still thinking of all the ghosts he walks beside. The ghosts that as readers we also begin to see in the supermarkets as we fill our carts, in line at the bank, and at the edge of our fingertips as we work to make sense of war.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Elegy in the Passive Voice by Allen Braden --- Hearsay

Allen Braden's newest is a book not to be missed

Sometimes it takes me awhile to fall in love with a book of poems. In fact, the poems that come to mean something to me, always take their time insinuating themselves into my life. Allen Braden's Elegy in the Passive Voice, University of Alaska Press, is filled with these "slow-burn" poems that are so artfully crafted, so plainspoken and honest, that they seem to emerge from rural life with an unstudied ease. Of course that's one mark of the master poet: to make the task look effortless. And yes, Braden is a master poet as evidenced here in "Hearsay."


So few are left that know your story
we’ve no choice but to dish out the details.
Some swear you spent your days alone or sweating
alongside hired hands at Regan’s sheep camp.

For proof they point out a pair of shears,
a hooded lantern from the Depression,
but around here everything’s slurred
by malt liquor and years of indifference.

I heard there was no funeral,
your ashes spread out over the snow
on the graves of those rumored as kin.
Hearsay is history in this town.

One neighbor claims you handed him a tobacco tin,
chock-full of crumpled twenties and fifties
for the daughters, only two days beforehand.
I heard your sheep auctioned off for cheap.

A winter so cold the eggs froze under your hens....
Who found you anyway, stiff as a brace post
and propped up by the pot-bellied stove?
More than a dozen take the credit.

                                                   ~Allen Braden

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Journey to the Literary Outskirts: WordsWest

Poetry and Prose at C and P Coffee House This Wednesday
The organizers of WordsWest met this morning at C and P Coffee Company to plan for Wednesday night's reading with Rick Barot and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha --- we are thrilled to be hosting this reading and discussion group. We are also thrilled to have received this article from writer Lilly Wasserman about her experience at our inaugural event. It's nice being newsworthy.

A Journey to the Literary Outskirts: WordsWest

As a Wallingford resident with a penchant for domesticity and daylong naps, I rarely find myself too far from home. Venturing beyond a 3-mile radius of my apartment requires a strong cup of coffee and the promise of greatness. It wasn’t until last Wednesday that incentive to shed my bathrobe and hitch a ride cross-town, came in the form of a far-flung poetry reading. I wrangled some fellow lit-lovers and we flocked to C and P Coffee Company in West Seattle for the debut of WordsWest, a monthly literary series that features an impressive lineup of local and international talent. It was well worth the extra mileage. The small venue was filled nearly to capacity as we arrived, with a sizeable crowd mingling in the warmly lit foyer. The buzz of expectant chatter dwindled to a hush as Susan Rich, a local poet and co-curator of WordsWest took to the stage for an overview of the evening’s festivities.

The reading that followed was structurally unexpected. Rich introduced the program as a “living anthology”-- a dynamic interplay between two featured writers, poet and young adult author, Karen Finneyfrock and memoirist, Elissa Washuta. Instead of one following the other in a pattern typical of most readings, they went back and forth, returning to the podium multiple times to share excerpts and poems from their respective bodies of work. The way the readings were intertwined formed a call and response that bolstered the individual narratives without feeling fragmented or forced. The result was an intimate melding of strong female voices. One audience member was particularly impressed by the night’s progression, explaining that it created a casual atmosphere for work that was otherwise “poignant, personal, and exposing.” Karen Finneyfrock is a published poet and the author of two young adult novels, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside. She graced us with a combination of poetry and fiction while her fellow presenter, Elissa Washuta, opted for personal narrative, reading exclusively from her recently released memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules.

Throughout the presentation, Finneyfrock and Washuta took turns populating the space with their stories. Collectively, they touched on themes of religion and history, womanhood and young love. I was particularly moved by Finneyfrock’s whimsical articulation of real and imagined settings. We travelled from a 1960’s rural commune to a summer camp art-barn on Whidbey Island. Finneyfrock also read a passage from her most recent novel, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside, capturing the woozy thrill of a first-kiss, and sending pinpricks of rapture through the caffeinated crowd. Washuta’s words contained a feminist bent. She spent her stage-time critically examining the gaps in her Catholic education. On behalf of biblical women, she reclaimed the twisted histories of patron saints and railed against the doctrine of sexual restraint spoon-fed by her childhood church. Like others in the audience, I was blown away by the wide range of written material and the unconventional way it was a pieced together. In reflecting on the presentation, Washuta herself said, “It truly felt not only flawless, but all its own, quite special, and necessary.”

WordsWest is the brainchild of three established writers: Katy Ellis, Susan Rich, and Harold Taw. All three are published authors with a desire to usher West Seattle into the downtown literary fold. Rich and Ellis met at a poetry reading at Elliot Bay Books this past July. After a ten-minute mind-meld during intermission they produced the idea for a new “writer-centric” series, one that supports its readers and the surrounding community in equal measure. As a fellow West Seattle writer and technology master, Taw was the perfect person to round out their curatorial trio. C and P Coffee Company, besides being a neighborhood mainstay, is by no means an accidental venue. Taw has been a loyal customer at C&P for many years. It is the conceptual breeding grounds for his first book and the place where he and Susan first met eight years ago. A self-proclaimed point of convergence for artists, musicians and performers alike, the cafĂ© seemed a symbolic choice.

So why all the hype about WordsWest? Not only is this the first series of its kind based out of West Seattle but its emphasis on bridging cultural gaps through literary engagement is also highly unique. The project attempts to bring world-class writers to a relatively underserved faction of greater Seattle. The series’ primary goal, as Katy Ellis explains it, is to get “poetry, fiction and nonfiction into the hands, hearts and minds of the community.” To further satisfy this mission, WordsWest came up with the Favorite Poem Project. Each event includes a reading by a local business owner, offering a chance for them to engage with potential customers using poetry as a point of connection. This month’s guest presenter was Emma Epps from Pegasus Book Exchange; a family-owned bookstore located down the street from C and P Coffee Company. In addition to community outreach, WordsWest seeks to support its readers in financially tangible ways, offering tools for self-promotion and professional success. On top of a live presentation, audience members can look forward to on-site book sales and signings, as well as an archive of accompanying podcasts available through the WordsWest website: http://wordswestliterary.weebly.com/past-events. This provides presenters like Finneyfrock and Washuta the opportunity to reach more people with multiple platforms for public exposure.

The line up of events in the coming months is no less enticing. Next Wednesday brings Rick Barot, poetry editor for the New England Review and author of three books of poetry including The Darker Fall, Want, and Chord (still in the works for 2015). Accompanying him is Palestinian American writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, whose poem “Running Orders” went viral this year and received widespread attention for its highly personal glimpse of the conflict in Gaza. Later this fall on November 15th in time for the holidays Kate Lebo, poet and pie connoisseur shares the stage with food writer Molly Wizenburg. The pair is sure to offer some mouth-watering prose. Winter and spring promise an ever-changing roster of writers of all genres, including an appearance by Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen, Francis McCue, and Erica Bauermeister, among others. As I left the coffee house that night, favorite passages still sifting through my mind, I couldn’t help but feel exceptionally lucky. Being a fledgling writer, it helps to know that projects like WordsWest exist and can thrive with enough positive attention. Seattle writers would do well check out this new literary series that ultimately, supports us all.

Lilly Wasserman is a poet, writer, and freelance journalist. To find more of Lilly's work check out The Far Field sponsored by Humanities Washington. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Not Show Some Love? In Your Pajamas ...

A present for you? For a friend?
Want to know more about the fires in Spain? More on feminist photography? Okay. I admit it. I'd love for this Next Best Book Blog to thrive. 10 free copies are ready for anyone who leaves a one sentence note and is willing to chat about the book with me for a week (the site had incorrectly said 3 months -- not true)! Let's show this site that people care about poetry. They only do 1-2 books of poetry a year because of less interest. Click here and get a free book and show that poetry matters. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free Book; Free Movie - Warning: Shameless Self-Promotion

I just found out that I am on The Next Best Book Blog until midnight tomorrow night -- that's not a long time to find a group of people interested in a free copy of Cloud Pharmacy. Of course, it doesn't take long to click over on The Next Best Book Blog and give one sentence on whether you would prefer a hard copy (US only) or an e-book (international). Then you get a month to read the book and then ask a few questions of me. I hope you'll consider it!

Point two in the shameless self-promotion blog post -- I promise no more until at least 2015 -- is the short movie of a reading I did on Friday. The event was for the Southwest Historical Society which runs the Log House Museum in my neighborhood. The reading series is run by dedicated volunteers and raises money for the Historical Society. Here's 10+ minutes that includes a Q & A on why I write poetry. Funny what one says when put on the spot. Here is the Vimeo Video.