Monday, February 28, 2011

Try This: The Poetry Box and Mary Kollar

Last night I was contacted by Seattle citizen,  retired teacher, and poetry lover Mary Kollar. For the last seven years, Mary Kollar, has been posting poems through the poem box (pictured here) outside her Seattle home.  By way of a simple wooden box posted in front of her house, Mary distributes Frost, Neruda, Rilke and local poets to anyone who is interested. Each month, over 200 poems find their way into the hands of joggers, parents, students and neighbors. Kollar began this project after the 2004 presidential election. At the time Kollar (and many others) felt that our language was being twisted and tangled at the hands of politicians. In her small but powerful way, Kollar took a stand to defend language and allow for it to re-enter the pubic domain. At the end of the article (published in a University of Washington newsletter) Kollar mentions that another neighbor has created his own poetry box. What would our world be like if there were poetry boxes on every block instead of billboards or newspaper kiosks? Why not? If you decide to set-up a poetry box or have visited Mary Kollar's box, I'd love to hear from you!

Where the Sidewalk Ends, And PoetryBegins

Mary Kollar (B.A., ‘65; M.A., ‘81) watched the last presidential election unfold, she became increasingly distressed by the way politicians were “twisting, mangling, and injuring” the English language. She decided to stage a protest—with poetry.
Kollar made copies of the poem “October,” by Robert Frost, and put them in a plastic envelope taped to the front gate of her home. The idea, she says, was to share the beauty of carefully crafted language.
Mike Etnier kneels at the edge of a pit being excavated.
Mary Kollar offers a poem each month through the poem box outside her home on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Photo by Mary Levin.
The poem was intended as a one-time offering, but the next month Kollar couldn’t resist sharing “November,” an anti-war poem also by Frost. Then passersby began asking for a poem for December. “That’s when the schoolteacher in me really kicked in,” says Kollar, a retired high school English teacher and alumna of the UW Department of English.
Before long Kollar had installed a wooden poem box built by her brother, and was placing hundreds of copies of a poem in the box each month. She hasn’t missed a month since the box was installed more than three years ago.
“I put out about 200 copies each month, in batches of 20 to 50,” says Kollar. “I’m always surprised when the box is empty.”

Often Kollar sees people take a sheet as they pass her house on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Some are joggers, some are neighbors, some are parents walking their children to school. She also has seen cars stop so that a passenger can run out and grab a copy of the poem. It is, she says, a fascinating turn of events.
“When you think about it, anyone who wants to read a poem can open a book,” says Kollar. “So why are they so interested in getting it out of a box when they’re walking by? Who knows?”
Kollar’s own fascination with poetry dates back to high school, when an English teacher had the class read a collection of Robert Frost poems. “I’d never studied poetry before,” she recalls. “I found it hard and intriguing.”

Frost remains one of Kollar’s favorite poets and has made several appearances
in the poem box. But she tries to balance her selections, striving for a range of styles that reflects the diversity of her readers.
Selected poets have included legendary UW professor Theodore Roethke, Mona Lisa Saloy (while Saloy was a visiting artist at the UW), and Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, whose poem she printed in English on one side of the sheet and in Spanish on the other.

Kollar rarely provides a tutorial along with her monthly poem, but she did add a few comments at the bottom of last December’s selection. The poem was Robert
Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which she had long resisted placing in the box. “I thought it was too common,” she admits. “Everyone has had
an experience with that poem. Yet people often read it in a shallow manner. There are many ways to appreciate its complexity.”

As Kollar describes the poem’s interlocking rhyming scheme—in which the minor rhyme of the first verse becomes the major rhyme of the second verse— and its abundance of rich vowel sounds, her fascination with language is evident. “When I put poems in the box, I try to keep the English teacher out of it and let the poems speak for themselves,” she says. “But it’s hard.”

That’s understandable, considering Kollar taught high school English for nearly 30 years, including 12 years at Bothell High School and 10 years as chair of the English Department at Woodinville High School. She also worked with the Puget Sound Writing Project and served as co-director of the Center for Capable Youth (now the Robinson Center for Young Scholars)—both UW programs—before retiring in the mid-1990s. She continues to spread the gospel of poetry, teaching classes at senior centers and volunteering in elementary schools. “Have you ever taught poetry to a kindergarten class?” she asks, her eyes widening. “Oh my. That’s difficult.”

... While these gifts are satisfying, Mary still gets a kick out of reaching out to people through the poem box—and occasionally hearing back from them. She has many stories of thank you notes left in the box or visitors eager to chat when they see her outside. One of her favorite moments was when a jogger, employed at nearby Group Health, came to the door. “She wanted me to know that she gets the poem each month and reads it aloud, by cell phone, to her mother,” recalls Kollar. “The mother, who lives in an assisted-living facility in Massachusetts, has started a poetry group there that starts with my chosen poem and then researches that poet and his or her other poetry.”

Kollar’s efforts have also inspired others to create poem boxes. Guy Holliday, who lives several blocks away, now has a box through which he shares poetry he has written. Profiled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Holliday credited Kollar with sparking the idea.“Talk about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery—I think it’s great,” says Kollar. She adds, clearly amused by the attention, “I think this is wonderful. It was never meant to be a big deal.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here's Why I Am Going to Madison WI: And to Support the Protesters!

What a trip this will be! I've been invited to speak at the Peace Corps and Africa Conference scheduled for March 24-26th in Madison, Wisconsin. And while I've been excited to visit Madison before the events of the last week, now I'm totally fired up and ready to go. Since this conference / celebration is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin - Madison, I know the strike will be near and dear to the organizers hearts and sure to become an aspect of the conference.

March 24 – 26, 2011
Wisconsin Memorial Union
800 Langdon Street
Madison, WI

Join former volunteers, musicians, artists, storytellers and some of the Peace Corps early founders and present-day leaders to celebrate, reflect, and debate the legacy of the Peace Corps in Africa and beyond.
Highlights include a visit by StoryCorps and talks and roundtables with Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps; Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs; former U.S. Ambassadors Mark Green, John Lange, and John Campbell; founder of Africare, C. Payne Lucas; and award-winning poet Sandra Meek.
For more information visit

To secure your spot, register by March 1, 2011.
Questions? Contact us at
Please forward to friends and family who have been touched by the Peace Corps!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dreaming of a Snow Day: White Powder for Morning Commute

So the sun is shining, but we're all hoping for a snow day tomorrow. I know I am. I love this before time when the grocery store, the campus, the media, and the gas stations are all abuzz with what might happen. It's a time when we "dwell in possibility" as Miss Dickinson might say. The sense of uncertainty, the element of surprise, and the ever so slight danger makes us pay attention to our lives. My students were giddy with the hope of a day of their own; and who can blame them? May the snow gods smile on us all tonight.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How to Get Your Book Published: Hugo House this Saturday!

How to Get Your Book Published: Take Janna's “Art of Pitching” class at Hugo House this Saturday!

your back-breaking tome
You’re a writer. You’re badass. And you’ve finally finished your novel or nonfiction book proposal. (Yay you!) You’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into this baby–not to mention every spare moment you’ve had for the past year decade.
So now what? Are you going to throw together a quick letter, cold-query a few agents, collect form rejections with your name filled-in-the-blank and misspelled, weigh the cost of weekly therapy versus Peanut Buster Parfaits, opt for the Peanut Buster Parfaits, then slip your book into a closet to keep your other skeletons company?
That’s precisely what most writers do. (Yes, really.) But no. Not you. Not badass, rockin’-writer you.
Instead, you’re going to take Janna’s pitch class at Hugo House this fall. Why? Well, because you’re smart. And also because you want to be able to:
1) sell your book to an agent or editor at a writer’s conference, or
2) have a perfect paragraph to put in your well-targeted query letter, or at least
3) have an answer for well-meaning family and friends when they ask what your book is about.
Doesn’t that sound better than Peanut Buster Parfaits?
Here’s the nitty-gritty:The Art of Pitching
Saturday, February 26, 2011
1 – 5 PM
Richard Hugo House on Capitol Hill
1634 11th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 322-7030
Class description:“So, what’s your book about?” It’s the simplest question, but so tough to answer, especially without feeling boring, cliché, or confusing. Pitching is the art of talking clearly and confidently about your book–whether it be fiction or nonfiction–so that you are better able to sell it. This hands-on workshop will cover the elevator pitch, the extended pitch, pitching etiquette, and useful tips specific to writers conferences. Attendees will write, deliver and get feedback on their pitches in class.
Instructor bio:
Janna Cawrse Esarey is a former English teacher and the author of the Indie-bestselling memoir, The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, & a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife (Simon & Schuster). APublisher’s Weekly Summer Favorite and “Today Show” rec, it’s the humorous, true story of a woman who sails across the Pacific on her honeymoon, but struggles to keep her marriage afloat. A 2008 Jack Straw writer, Janna found her fabulous agent by pitching her pants off at writing conferences. Watch her book trailer at

Friday, February 18, 2011

If You Live in Massachusetts and Love Music, Poetry, and Especially EB

Lloyd Schwartz describes himself as the one person who didn't want to finish his Ph.D. And who could blame him?

In 1975, Schwartz was at a dead end on his PhD thesis and realized he’d like to write about [Elizabeth] Bishop though he was afraid her shyness would make her reject his plea. But Schwartz says, “She was very generous. I seemed to tap into a maternal instinct. She felt young people ought to finish their degrees. She’d do anything to facilitate that.” In the following year the two met regularly to discuss her poems. “I was one of the few people who didn’t want to finish a dissertation.”

Join Lloyd Schwartz and musician Sebastien Jean for a fund raiser for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

Massachusetts Poetry Festival Fund Raiser
Thursday, March 17, 7-9 p.m.
Suggested donation: $50
Register now!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lyrical and Often Haunting: Review of The Alchemist's Kitchen

Thanks to Style, Substance, Soul, for a feature on Read More Poetry. Surely, that's sound advice for most of us. I know I need more poetry in my life, especially in Week  7 of the quarter -- where I am now! Here is a review that Style, Substance, Soul printed along with a great review of Elizabeth Austen's, The Girl Who Goes Alone. 
"The poems of Susan Rich explore the world around and inside us with raw emotion and sensitivity. The words themselves are lyrical and often haunting, and titles like An Army of Ellipses Traveling Over All She Does Not Say … beckon you in with their humanity and universality. Her collection, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, is a warm and welcoming place which will feed and nurture your soul. "
I know poetry can be .... Read full article

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day: And a Valentine's Day Gift for You and Yours

Sign up for Poets on the Coast before Monday at midnight and receive a free gift and a great price
In the Northwest, Valentine's Day is known to many as the day to prune the roses and prepare the bushes for a season of abundant blossoms. This strikes me as a great expression of love: to believe that winter will eventually end and there will be bouquets of flowers, a scented landscape even in a city garden.

Perhaps that's why Kelli Russell Agodon and I chose this holiday as the final date for our pre-conference special rates. Those writers who sign up for Poets on the Coast before midnight on February 14th will receive a one year subscription to Crab Creek Review and a reduced rate on our weekend writing retreat.

Since we first posted information on Poets on the Coast, we're excited to announce that we've added an optional yoga component to the weekend. Certified yoga instructor and fitness specialist, Kay Jensen, will  lead a morning yoga session on both Saturday and Sunday.

Our September 9-11th weekend is the only conference of its kind (well, that we know of) on the Oregon coast. We're thrilled that writers are coming from all corners of the country to join us; we're hoping that you  (or a writer you know) will consider joining us too. For more information on Poets on the Coast, click here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Open Letter: Do You Write Poems Concerning Race? Why or Why Not?

Many of you have likely been following the AWP aftermath concerning a panel that surprisingly, dealt with race.  Many of you have no idea what I'm referring to. 

To find Claudia Rankine's initial presentation, you can go to her website. You can also find some fine poetry there. I applaud Rankine's call to poets to openly discuss race. I'm hopeful that this will lead to a nuanced and varied dialogue. As crazed as I am with school work, I'm going to make time to add my voice to the song. I hope you will consider joining in. 

Dear friends,

As many of you know I responded to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at AWP. I also solicited from Tony a response to my response. Many informal conversations have been taking place online and elsewhere since my presentation of this dialogue. This request is an attempt to move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.

If you have time in the next month please consider sharing some thoughts on writing about race (1-5 pages).

Here are a few possible jumping off points:

- If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?

- How do we invent the language of racial identity--that is, not necessarily constructing the "scene of instruction" about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?

- If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?

- If you don’t consider yourself in any majority how does this contribute to how race enters your work?

- If fear is a component of your reluctance to approach this subject could you examine that in a short essay that would be made public?

- If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?

- Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history?

- Is there a poem you think is particularly successful at inventing the language of racial dentity or at dramatizing the site of race as such? Tell us why.

In short, write what you want. But in the interest of constructing a discussion pertinent to the more important issue of the creative imagination and race, please do not reference Tony or me in your writings. We both served as the catalyst for this discussion but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments.

If you write back to me by March 11, 2011, one month from today, with “OPEN LETTER” in the subject heading I will post everything on the morning of the 15th of March. Feel free to pass this on to your friends. Please direct your thoughts to

In peace,

Friday, February 11, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil: A New Novel (new to me)

This past summer I took a chance on a novel that I thought was sure to be awful (not cheerful). How happy I was to be proven wrong. Michael Sledge, author of The More I Owe You,  has written a poignant and beautiful book documenting the long standing love affair between Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop's arrival in Santos, her winning of the Pulitzer Prize, and her time teaching in Seattle at the University of Washington are all told with a light touch -- backed up by meticulous research. Catch words like "pellucid" and "binoculars" show up in unexpected spots letting us know that Sledge is familiar with the poems as well as the biography. A guilty pleasure for any Bishop fan.

And fans of Bishop may already know that a festival in Nova Scotia is in the works for this summer. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia is planning an art festival for August. See you there, perhaps?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Fish" in Elizabeth Bishop's Own Voice

I've been listening to Miss Bishop again and again. What can we learn from a poet's voice? I hear New England and a no nonsense tone. I can assume that EB was also nervous, she isn't performing as much as trying to make it through the poem. In the final lines, "everything is rainbow, rainbow, rainbow" her voice lifts up "and I let the fish go" works with her subject and with a clear joy of completing her reading.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop On Youtube: One Art with Octavio Paz

My Favorite Elizabeth Bishop Poem: Yes, Honestly, This is It!

     Questions of Travel

 There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
--A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
--Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
--And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?" 

Elizabeth Bishop 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

She's 100 Years Young: Happy Birthday Elizabeth Bishop

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Bishop: poet, painter, and prose writer. In the top left hand corner of this image is the message I'm sending to Miss Bishop in her own hand. "In this picture the tablecloth is part landscape, part map; the mirror part self, the newspaper part epic event." This Table with Candelabra, undated, was in the collection of Alice Methfessel, one of Bishop's lovers.

This watercolor is one of the many paintings Bishop did that are collected in Exchanging Hats. William Benton collected these forty-two paintings both from Vassar College and private collections all across the country for a gallery exhibit in the East Martello Museum, Key West,  1993.

I love how happy she looks in this photograph - one leg tucked behind the back of her other knee. I imagine her both intense and playful, capable of great sadness and great friendship. And although I never met her, never heard her read (although we both lived in Boston at the same time) I feel a strong kinship with her. Perhaps I will raise a glass to her tonight as I meet with other writer friends. I think she would approve.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop in Key West: Birthday Count Down

Elizabeth Bishop first came to Key West in the 1930s. She lived in this nineteenth-century 
clapboard eyebrow house at 624 White Street off and on from 1938 to 1946. 
In a letter to Marianne Moore she wrote: “It is very nice here; I wish so much that 
you and your mother could come here sometime, I am so sure you would like it. 
The sea is so beautiful– all spotted and striped, from dark black-blue to what 
my aunt calls ‘lettuce’ green.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Bishop: Bishop turns 100 on Tuesday

A long time "dead mentor" of mine and an inspiration for me is Elizabeth Bishop. She turns 100 on Tuesday and this seems a perfect opportunity to highlight her poems, her paintings, her prose, and her life all week long. Here is a poem to begin the celebration!

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Elizabeth Bishop
I'm beginning the week with my favorite poem of Bishop's; perhaps this is my favorite poem of all time. The villanelle with the end rhyme of "master distaster" has helped me through more than one difficult experience in life. I've memorized this poem and imagine if I am ever imprisoned in solitary confinement, this poem will keep me sane. I've shared this poem with students and each time there is someone who falls in love with poetry, and someone else who needs this poem because they are nursing a bruised heart. Even if one's heart is singing, the poem retains its power: a kind of how-to manual for a fractured world.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

See you at Bus Boys and Poets (K Street) at 7:00 pm Thursday

 I am looking forward to arrival in DC - but not the flight itself! Perhaps I will get to sleep or actually sit and think. I think I will absolutel outlaw grading papers on the flight. Instead, I will put together a fun reading for:

7:00 PM, Thursday night, please join me at Bus Boys and Poets (K Street ) for the White Pine Press reading. I will read with four other White Pine Press writers, all of whom have books out this year. I'm looking forward to seeing old friends from a decade ago as well as new friends that perhaps I have yet to meet face to face.

If you can't make the reading, I will be signing books at 2:00 PM, Thursday, at the White Pine Press table. Please come by and say hello. I have a dread of twiddling my thumbs while people push by me trying to get to the book next to mine. When I read in Portland (Oregon) there were many people who looked at my book, The Alchemist's Kitchen, and were disappointed that it was not a cook book.

For all the craziness of AWP, I know that this is where my tribe meets and my tribe is not looking for a cookbook. See you there -- live or on-line.