Friday, October 31, 2014

Radio Interviews, Writing Fellowships, and More

I love radio. In a parallel universe I am a radio interviewer bringing poets, artists, and science writers onto my show. I think this would have been a wonderful fit for my curiosity and interest in intelligent conversation; the intimacy of the one on one conversation made public.

Thursday morning I was interviewed by the talented Mark Lynch for his radio show Inquiry on WICN in Worcester, Massachusetts which aired that night. Mark was kind enough to send me the link to the interview.

He was the best kind of interviewer: one who seems to possess an innate curiosity. He seemed genuinely upset when our time was over and asked me to come back again. We talked of my lifelong desire to be a poet (he thought this was extremely odd) and my drug of choice (less odd): travel. You can listen here. 

In other news: Two Sylvias Press is offering the Russell Prize for poets who have not yet published a first book. Submissions are open now --- and this year --- submissions are free.

Here is a list of fellowships for writers. I'd be happy with a year on Cape Cod or at Princeton. Perhaps it's my three cats but I find myself applying for less and less longterm fellowships. A few times a year, I pack my car with my computer, poetry books, and a travel printer. I go up to a retreat center in Washington State where there are few people and a small herd of deer. This seems to be my pace at the moment.

Happy Halloween! 

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 café 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: 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. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

10 Things to Consider When Conducting Creative Research and Hannah Maynard

Frieda Kahlo: a lucky artist time has not forgotten

What is creative research? This topic takes a little explaining. For my last two books Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist's Kitchen, I wrote poems based on the art work and the lives of two obscure women photographers: Myra Albert Wiggins and Hannah Maynard. This was a great surprise, at least to me. My experience with photography and historical sources was "elementary" to put it nicely.

Hannah Maynard, trick photograph, multiple exposure, c. 1893 Courtesy of the Royal British Columbian Museum 

As a poet who has been writing and publishing for something like 20 years (how did that happen?) I am rather tired of my own life --- even though it has been lived on three continents and in several professions --- I'm much more interested in the not me. And in this way, conducting creative research on women artists makes complete sense.

Five poems based on Maynard's photographs are in the recent issue of  Common-Place. There's also an accompanying essay on writing this sequence of poems. Common-Place is an on-line journal that describes itself this way:

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900.

Here are a few things I've learned along the way about conducting historical research for poems:

1. Women artists need us. There are many women artists that produced incredible bodies of work; yet today they are almost completely forgotten. Even more surprisingly, the work reads as radical even in 2014. Lenora Carrington, Baroness Elsa, and Hannah Maynard to name a few.

2. History and poetry share certain elements. Like poetry, history needs to be concise. It leaves out more than it says. For both the poet and the historian, questions are what compel us.

3. Learning about photography, or oil painting or sculpture, or old cars --- it all leads into new language. The language of photography deals with light and time. Sounds like poetry to me: shadows, reflection, aperture, lens. And so much more.

4. You can make things up. Yes, I know historians will squirm as I say this but as poets we go beyond dates and verifiable facts. Someone recently wrote to me and said she had lost a daughter in the last year. The Hannah Maynard poems spoke to her. This is the kind of truth that matters to me far more than a verifiable time line of events.

5. Best not to read too much before you start writing. See above. I'm happiest when I know just a few facts and can write into the open spaces. Mark Doty says ekphrastic poetry comes out of our own longings. The visual image is an anchor for our own interior lives.

6. Go slowly.  With each of my ekphrastic projects I took a few years before I could write the poems that made it into the books. Writing from historical images and documents is challenging.

7. Yes, you get to time travel. As a child I loved all books by Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit. Books that allowed you to walk through a garden or rub a small coin and be transported. Studying women artists has done this for me. I now feel that the late 19th century with the advent of train travel and the telegraph was similar to the times we live in.

8. Be open to different ways of writing. This was crucial for my work on Hannah Maynard. I needed a syntax and attitude different than what I had had available before this project.

9. Writing a sequence is different than writing a single poem. Forgive me for stating the obvious. This means that using epigraphs will help in bringing readers if you want to publish these poems individually. Remember the reader does not know all that resides inside your head.

10. Persona poems, ekphrastic poems, list poems: all of these forms and many others lend themselves to historical work. In other words, you get to recreate an entire world. And then enter it.