What I Learned from Carol Channing by Michael Spence

Michael Spence discusses perseverance throughout his career and the success it brought him, and ultimately what he learned from Carol Channing. He last appeared in the North American Review with his poem “Consensus” in issue 298.2, Spring 2013. He also discusses “Consensus” in an earlier post

Perseverance

Carol Channing

Photo courtesy of deserthealthnews.com

Carol Channing was not an actress I ever paid much attention to.  I knew her name and that she’d been in some well-known shows and films, but I never would’ve thought she’d have made any comment that would mean much to me.  As with many other things in my life, I was wrong.  One day she appeared on a TV talk show and was asked, in the face of constant rejection and difficulty getting her career going in her early days, how she found the strength to keep going.  As I recall it, she said, “You just keep trying and trying and trying, and finally, fate gives up.”  That’s a great, funny way to phrase it, implying that whatever forces may seem aligned against one’s efforts at least can be worn down enough to allow a victory now and then.

I recently had my own Carol Channing moment in the world of poetry book contests.  Like many of us, I’d dutifully sent my manuscripts to competitions large and small.  For three decades I tried contests from the Walt Whitman Award to lesser-known ones sponsored by presses that now, alas, have vanished or ceased publishing poetry.  I was fortunate enough occasionally to get a kind comment or two from the judges, and I even “finalized” (as novelist and short-story writer Marjorie Kemper put it) a few times through the years.  But I could never get the last nod needed to actually win such a contest and get a volume of poems published that way.  Though I kept on sending manuscripts out, fate showed no sign I could see of giving up, so I came to the conclusion that such a win just wasn’t in the deck of cards I was playing with.  Mathematically of course, it’s always the case that the odds are tiny that a particular person will win:  There are hundreds or thousands of manuscripts being submitted, and only one is selected.  Still, we keep trying, because maybe…

So I was, as I like to now joke, completely floored and walled and ceilinged when I learned that the manuscript of my fifth book of poems, Umbilical, had been selected this January as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.  I kept reading and re-reading the email telling me this, certain that the words would morph into the this-came-close/thanks-anyway comments I’d been “trained” by all these years to expect.  The volume is slated to appear this fall from St. Augustine’s Press.

All of which is to say that, if you believe in your work—even if you don’t necessarily believe the outside world will favor it—you have to keep on trying.  Fate is so fickle a thing, you can never tell when it will finally give up.


ms

Michael Spence retired on Valentine’s Day, 2014 from thirty years of driving public transit buses in the Seattle area.  His poems have appeared recently in The Hudson Review, Measure, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry.  New work is forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, and Southwest Review.  His fourth book, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, was released last September by Truman State University Press.  (The Spring 2015 issue of The Hudson Review includes a quite complimentary review of Threnody.)  He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State.  His fifth book, Umbilical, is slated to be published this fall by St. Augustine’s Press as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.

 

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Throwback Thursday featuring Roy Bentley from issue 293.2

“Funerals in the South” first appeared in issue 293.2, March-April 2008. It was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2008.

DVD 731 GRIEF FOOD . (Mobile Register, John David Mercer) LIVING RELIGION

Funerals in the South

We didn’t sing “My Old Kentucky Home” or “Dixie,”
but we might as well have. Without fail, neighbors
poured in with Tupperware-sealed Texas sheet cakes,
Jello, to-die-for fried chicken, ham, pecan pie. Grief,
it turns out, swallows easier than you might think.
I can tell you now the adults scared us, the children,
opening their hearts to loss. The scariest of mourners
had to be Myrtle, my aunt, a holy-roller fond of saying
Satan had her by the throat—she called him Beelzebub,
as though a sort of respect or friendship had sprung up.
At the eulogy—hellfire and damnation were preached
over our dead who, byGod, had to listen—she’d raise
a bony arm to signify that the Holy Ghost, “the Spirit,”
was upon her. Sooner or later, shouting Je-sus! Je-sus!
until it echoed in the funeral home like a braking train
whose wheel-song of descent calls to mind journeys,

an end to journeying. If the casket was closed, she’d
pound a lid; if it was open, she’d take hold of a hand
or trace the rouged-and-powdered contours of a face.
Thankfully, she had limits. Mouths were sacrosanct.
No smooching the chill lips of the Departed. Which
I understood, even then: a body’s temperature after
embalming isn’t a thing to have register at any age.
If April is the cruelest month, then it’s always April
in some part of eastern Kentucky. I wanted to sing:
Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
But I was a kid. I sang what and when I was told.
If there’s a God, enthroned in some obscene palace,
weeping because one Cross and Savior isn’t enough,
not in the coal towns, then she was right to sign on
as cheerleader. If not, there’s the solace of food—
napkins under chins to catch the hallelujah crumbs.


Ohio, 2014

Roy Bentley has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Blackbird, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine, 2006), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House 2013). He has taught creative writing and composition at universities and colleges throughout the Midwest and in Florida. These days, he teaches English and composition courses for Georgian Court University and lives in Barnegat, New Jersey. 

Concerning “Man in Flower” by Brian Patrick Heston from issue 300.2

Man in Flower” was an Honorable Mention in the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize contest.

Roy Batty

With “Man in Flower,” I was attempting something of an urban pastoral. Yet rather than celebration, I was interested in something more detached, where wild nature could take precedence in a place, the city, which we usually attribute to civilization. However, since detachment is so foreign to how we humans experience the world, I decided the scene needed some form of human presence, but not a living presence, because a living human would ultimately take over the landscape both physically and metaphorically. The man in the poem is dead because death has a way of lifting our veil of illusion. When we bury bodies, we do not see the equalizing force of decay. Yet, what happens to the man in the poem is exactly what goes on once we are buried in the earth. I wanted to present the man, objectively, as dissolving organic matter that feeds other organic matter. Ultimately, I am attempting to explore a vision of a connected nature, where nothing is wasted and everything, including human bodies, are transformative matter.

The last layer of metaphor I hoped to get across in the poem was the very fragility of civilization itself. Though it may be the greatest invention of the human species, it is never far from collapsing under the immense weight of all the demands we put on it. Countless civilizations before us have disappeared, and before their disappearances, the inhabitants of those civilizations felt just as secure, just as indestructible as many of us do today. Therefore, the poem borders on the apocalyptic, but I hope it resists apocalypse because nature once again reclaims the cityscape.

Slug

The man might be dead, but everything else continues to live, which is very much something we seemed to have forgotten in our mad rush to set wider and wider boundaries between our civilization and the rest of the nature we share the planet with. So, I guess, in the end, I wanted to write a poem of recognition rather than a warning. Warnings seem too human-centric and only end with a fear that moves us to protect ourselves. Recognition, though, offers us so much more than fear. It offers us understanding, and in this particular case, the understanding that polluting and destroying the nature that sustains us is not only foolhardy, but also ungrateful. We have had the privilege to exist on a tiny blue oasis in the middle of frigid airlessness. It has given us oranges, sex, and Paris. It has allowed us sunny stoop and porch days filled with birdsong and the scent of baking pizza, and if there’s one thing our probes sent into the abyss of space have communicated back, it’s that nothing of what we have here can be found out there.

We are, as far as we know, stranded on an island, but unlike Crusoe, we do not long for England because there is no England. There is only the island for as far as the mind can fathom. And here we remain blissfully ignorant of how truly rare we really are.   


Man in Flower

The man lies in the tall grass by the old railroad yard.
No one walks this way anymore, it’s moon-filled
and sun-stilled. Trains haven’t run here since before
the bicentennial. Weedy trees rise up around the man
like a jungle, or barley waiting for the farmer’s scythe.

A white flower has burrowed its way through his temple,
blossoming from his bottom eye. He is man with flower
now/man-flower. Above him, in the ratty leaves
of an ash, starlings have made a noisy nest. Each day,
they speckle him. Seeds also gather, stubby sprouts

already rising from his thin jacket, his faded jeans,
the loose skin of his face. His body will be safe
for a while. But once covered in grass, in the heaviness
of daisies, everything the man is will shrink, flatten out,
until what remains is a field where no one ever goes.


Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, and the Lanier Library Association. His first book, “If You Find Yourself,” won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. He is also the author of the chapbook, “Latchkey Kids,” which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Many Mountains Moving, Rosebud, West Branch, Harpur Palate, 5AM, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, South Carolina Review, River Styx, and is upcoming in Borderlands, Tampa Review, and Canary. Presently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Flashback Friday featuring Devi Laskar from issue 294.2

Necessity breeds invention!

4-17

I was in an online poetry boot camp and had a few hours to come up with that Tuesday poem. Everything I had written that day stunk like raw fish baking on a dry dock. I overheard my children discussing their favorite movies at the time. My oldest said “Little Mermaid” and my middle said “Sleeping Beauty” and my youngest said “Snow White.” When I asked my youngest why, she said the wicked stepmother had the best laugh. And a poem was born.

“Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother” first appeared in issue 294.2, March-April 2009. Here is a flaskback of the poem as well as link to purchase your very own issue.

How to Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother

First you’ll need the accessories,
dazzling with mischief and ill-
intent: poisoned apples, floor-length
mirrors that talk back in iambic
rhyme; sinuous black evening
gowns, eye-shadow the color
of a bruise, lips too crimson to
be kissed, a castle with a working
dungeon; stone stairs always in need
of mopping, henchmen, preferably
hunchbacked, a charcoal forest whose
trees disappear into the abyss
of moonless nights, a thunderstorm
thick with jagged rain; oh, and a man
with a charmed life standing before
you, confessing his abiding
love for your sister, or best friend
since the second grade. The rest
is easy, look into the glass, bite
through to the core, delicious,
forbidden down to the guttural,
and feel the crows’ wings fluttering
in your belly finally rise.


photoselfie

DEVI S. LASKAR was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a BA in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Ms. Laskar is a photographer and writer—and a former crime reporter in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Illinois. Her poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, the Squaw Valley ReviewPratichi, the Tule Review, and the North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2009 and 2011. 


CLAIRE STIGLIANI (b. 1983) is a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), RussellProjects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

IS RISK-TAKING ADVISABLE IN WRITNG POETRY? ALWAYS. by Robert Nazarene from issue 300.2

I am especially pleased to appear again in America’s oldest literary review. With respect to my poem, “A Day in the Life”, I want to express my view that poetry which does not take risks is of insignificant value. Having served as an editor and publisher for a decade, I came to believe a distinctive voice is the most prized attribute of any poet. Witness the likes of cummings, Berryman, Plath, Wier and Eliot–just to mention a few. No cookie cutter poems here.

gingerbread-boy-dress-up-cookie-cutter-tin-set-cg1-p6060

I feel that all too often poets tend to hold their work at some distance from themselves. And mindless abstraction in poetry is poetry’s greatest enemy. (You know who you are.) As human beings, it is my firm belief we are connected not so much by our strengths, but rather, by our woundedness. (Here my spell-checker tells me I may be guilty of yet another neologism.) I believe as well that there are only two purposes of poetry: to disturb and to console. And, on rare occasions, to achieve both. I am always impressed by the quality of work found in North American Review.

A Day in the Life

Last whenever I suffered a major stroke
it’s caused me to gain 15/1000ths
of a second on my 440-relay time
the druggist at Sam’s Club asked
if I had any questions? yes would it hurt
to give half to my dog for her high
blood pressure she loves anything
with speed in it in the checkout line
my ATM card was approved
for the amount of purchase that’s
a first and the receipt checker
at the door made me turn my jacket
pockets inside out something about
cans of chick peas disappearing
from the store and after 26 years
of continuous sobritety I got kicked
out of AA. they said they were
more after “fresh” meat and that
last whenever I got locked up
in the nuthouse faster than
you can say Jackie Robinson
and also people with bipolar
disorder aren’t worth a fast fucking
glance in the rearview mirror.


ROBERT NAZARENE founded MARGIE / THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POETRY and INTUIT HOUSE POETRY SERIES where he was the recipient of a publishers’ National Book Critics Award in poetry.  His first book of poems is CHURCH (2006).  A second volume of poetry, Puzzle Factory, is new in 2015.  His work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse The Iowa Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, North American Review, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Salmagundi. Stand and elsewhere.  He was educated at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

Thursday Throwback blog featuring Ted Kooser’s “The Corpse of an Old Woman” by Michael Jackson

Ted Kooser’s poem “The Corpse of an Old Woman” can be found in Vol. 251, No. 6 (Nov., 1966), p.14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25116500.

THE CORPSE OF AN OLD WOMAN

It has been lying on a braided rug
with a teacup in its hand since yesterday
at supper-time, and the neighbor-ladies shrug
and say “She lets the lights burn night and day.”

Its cat sits in the window, watching birds,
and the phone rings now and then, mistakenly;
the mailman bangs the box-lid to be heard;
Someone may stop this afternoon for tea.

– Ted Kooser


Screenshot (1)

Some years ago, on a typically freezing Iowa February morning, I went out to start my car, in order that it could warm up a tad in the 20 below weather. Doing so at 6:00 a.m. in the morning was nothing unusual for me at that time as I started my cubical-based life by 6:30 am every morning. Returning to the car a few minutes later, not having paid heed to the icy conditions overnight, I slipped in my dress shoes and fell straight back. The only thing that saved me from a concussion was the back pack I had slung over my right shoulder which provided enough of a cushion between me and the unforgiving cement that I was able to avoid smashing my head. However, by that time in life, I had developed back problems and everything immediately went into what felt like a full body spasm, driven by the wreck that is my back. As I lay there, a morbid thought did more than just cross my mind: I was going to lay there in the pre-dawn darkness and freeze to death before anyone found me (I doubt I was wearing a jacket).

brain-pain

This was more than just a random thought as I knew not one of my neighbors beyond saying hello occasionally if we happened to cross paths entering and exiting our apartments, and anyone I have a personal relationship with lives at least a hundred miles away. After laying on the ground for a minute trying to regain my senses, I realized the car was still running and I needed to get it turned off before I went back into the house. Unfortunately my ability to stand up was compromised by the back spasms, and I had to crawl from the sidewalk to the car and drag myself into the driver’s seat far enough to reach the ignition, shut it off, and pull out the keys. Somehow I managed to crawl, drag, walk myself into my apartment where I collapsed on the couch and lay in pain for the next four hours waiting for my back to shut the hell up.

The good news, at least partially, is that had I failed to show up for work, remained laying there in that parking lot, someone would have noticed my absence and eventually found me before the day was over. Whether or not I would have frozen to death by the time my neighbors started their day is doubtful, but still a powerful enough memory that I’m still holding onto it years later. What isn’t good news is that were I to fall in my apartment now, coffee mug in hand like Kooser’s corpse, I shudder to think how long I would lay there before I was found. I still don’t know any of my neighbors save one, and I only speak to him on a highly sporadic basis, and I no longer have a job to show up for at a strict, regulated, cubical-based time.

Because of this possible scenario, and the morbid thoughts it conjures up, I am immediately drawn to the use of the word “it” in Kooser’s poem. The corpse is not a person, a man, or a woman, but rather an “it,” a non-entity that serves only for gossip for the nosey, but not compassionate, neighbors. There “it” lies, burning those lights like “it’s” made of money. I wonder then if I am an “it,” a thing in a place, rooted to nothing. Will my neighbors complain about my lights burning? Doubtful. Would they notice a smell if I dropped dead and lay unclaimed for weeks? Maybe. What’s more absurd is that for a time period of about eight or nine months, I lived without a phone of any kind; no landline, or cell phone. 911 for me during that time would have consisted of pounding on the wall of my neighbor’s apartment, hoping to hell they called security to come scoop me off the floor, assuming of course I hadn’t had a heart attack and was incapable of dragging myself to the thin and poorly constructed wall.

4043384111_998bb069f9_zSuch thoughts also lead me into ruminations on death itself, outside of thoughts of my own demise. Having buried a few too many family members already, including my father, it’s odd to observe the grieving process we all have as individuals. Or the dying process for that matter. My father, for example, spent his last few weeks acting childish and immature. Though this is not particularly surprising if you knew him, it was still odd to watch his behavior through what was then my thirty-two years of experience with him. I vowed then, and still do, that should I know my time is coming, whenever it does, that I will maintain dignity until the end. But perhaps I am lying to myself, perhaps I will act even more ridiculous, decrying all the wrongs that have been done to me in the past, cursing God as my father did, defiant until the end. But who’s to say, who can tell the future?

The corpse of the old woman, it appears based on the teacup in her hand, died suddenly. Perhaps then this idea of sudden death is the one to hope for, should it be that one has the option. Or not, as she, or “it,” clearly lacks dignity after her death, left to rot on her living room floor, apparently missed by no one.

The problem with death, apart from death itself, is that it is such a difficult topic to discuss. Not as a concept necessarily, but as a more concrete and personal thing. Some people outright refuse to discuss the topic, perhaps out of fear that it will come true, perhaps out of immense sadness and a lost love one, you can never tell. They simply won’t discuss it. Others see the topic as morbid, judging those who would discuss it (I’m sure if you’ve read this far you’ve formed an opinion on my opinion of the subject).

cross-finald

And yet death remains a fact of all of our lives, the one absolute inevitability that we all must face at some point or another. On occasion I like to fool myself and act as if I’ve come to terms with it, not as a concept, but as a reality. For example, with recent news of a purposely crashed commercial airplane, I tell myself that had I been on that flight, I would have had my brief moment of panic at the realization of what was occurring, before taking a deep breath and accepting the circumstances at hand. My last thoughts would be that this was okay, that I have already made my peace with death and the universe, that my dignity would remain intact, and that my acceptance would be absolute.

But here I am, writing about my fears of dying alone in my apartment, not to be found for weeks until I’ve rotted into a nuisance smell, something for the neighbors to complain about. Clearly I am not yet at peace with the reality, though I’ll still pretend to be with the concept. I’ll also assume that Kooser had similar thoughts, at least in some manner, before writing this poem, which is what led him to the concept of using “it” instead of “she” to describe the corpse. Maybe the fear is death, maybe not. Maybe, more likely, the fear is that once we die we no longer exist to the outside world, the one we try so hard, for so long, to get to understand us.


Michael Jackson is a graduate student of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is also an intern here at NAR. Other work can be found at hobopancakes.com.

The first and third image are from wikimedia commons.
The second and final illustration are by NAR’s very own contributor Anthony Tremmaglia.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

My Daughter Asked Me Once To Write Her a Poem by John Guzlowski

Otherworldly Grounds: Page 1When she was about nine years old, my daughter Lillian asked me to write a poem about her. I told her I would try.

She had seen me writing poems since she was a toddler, and she had heard me give poetry readings, and she had seen journals with my poems in them.  She knew I could write poems, and she really wanted me to write her a poem.

So I tried and tried.  I thought that I could write her a poem about how she was my angel.  That seemed simple enough.  I would start out with the line “I never called you angel.”  Or maybe that would be the title.  Then the poem would go on and on about how even though I had never called her “angel” or any of the other dozens or hundreds of endearing things (honey, sunshine, mouse, sugar, etc.) parents called their kids, she was still my angel.  You get the picture.  It should have been easy.

Malcolm

But it wasn’t.  I tried over the course of about a decade to write that poem and failed over and over.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write about her.  I couldn’t write about anyone I was really close to.  I couldn’t write about my wife either.  And this is an ongoing problem.  Even though my wife and I will have been married for forty years this April 4th, I have never ever written her a poem.  In the thousands of poems I’ve written, there is no “Ode to Linda.”  There isn’t even a single poem that indirectly mentions her!  If I could Google all of my poems, the search engine would come up “No Results.”  Nothing about how much I love her.  Nothing about the color of her hair or her smile.  Nothing about the way she’s made my life perfect in ways I could never have imagined.  Nothing like that at all.

Some future literary critic (if there are still literary critics in the future) looking over all my writing would have to conclude that I was either unmarried or divorced or unhappily married, and that’s why there aren’t any references to my wife and only one reference to my daughter Lillian, the poem “Advice to My Daughter, A Sonnet” that recently appeared in the North American Review.

So why haven’t I written more about my wife and my daughter?  For that matter, why haven’t I written about myself?  In all my forty-some years of writing poetry, why haven’t I written about them or me?

The answer is probably pretty simple, and I probably should have gotten around to spelling it out sooner, and I apologize for not having done so. Here’s why I can’t write about my wife or my daughter or me:

I’m overwhelmed by the story of my parents.  They are the only people I seem capable of writing anything about.  Let me explain.

The Battle of Imphal

My parents were two Polish Catholic farm kids who were taken to Germany as slave laborers during World War II.  My dad was captured in a round up in his village in 1941, and he spent the next four years in Buchenwald concentration camp.  My mom was captured in 1942 after seeing her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby killed by German soldiers.  My mom spent the next two and a half years in various concentration camps in Germany.  Like about 12,000,000 other people, my mom and dad were put to hard labor working in German factories and on German farms to support the German war effort.  My parents were starved, beaten, and brutalized.  My dad saw friends castrated and hanged.  My mom saw guards cut a woman’s breasts off with a bayonet.  She saw babies thrown in the air and shot to death.

I’ve written four books of poems about my parents, and a fifth called Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald is coming out next year.

When I sit down to write a poem, it’s their voices that come to me.  I can hear my mother telling me about the day the Germans came to her house in the woods west of Lvov.  I can hear my dad telling me about standing at a barbed wire fence and day after day watching the slow collapse of men starving to death.

LILA

When I was still teaching creative writing, back before I retired ten years ago, I used to tell my students to find a muse and listen to her.   They would always think I was joking.  Nobody believes in muses, they would say.  Muses were just some kind of ancient Greek convention, something Homer thought up.  But I wasn’t joking.

I really think my parents are my muse.


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John Guzlowski’s creative writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, Ontario Review, North American Review, Salon.Com, Rattle, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere.  His poems about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his books Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.  His critical essays on contemporary Polish, Jewish, and American novelists have been featured in Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, Polish Review, and other journals.  His novel Road of Bones, about two German lovers separated by war, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.  Of Guzlowski’s writing, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Should White Poets Write About Race? by Holly Karapetkova

Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote in a recent issue of Poetry magazine,  “Don’t write about being white,” a quote the editors thought important enough to reprint on the back cover of the magazine. Certainly Betts and the editors wanted to raise a few eyebrows, and certainly a careful reader will relate the statement to a quote elsewhere in the essay: “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” The comment, which Betts attributes to an unnamed “reviewer,” happens to belong to Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963, and it highlights the dilemma at the core of the American experience where whiteness is taken as the given and anything questioning (or even calling attention to) the centrality of white experience is marginalized and disparaged.  But the essay, and the response it elicited from some white readers, raises a good question. Should white poets write about race?

HeadsnClouds_web

I am certain that many white poets who are sensitive to the subjects of racism and injustice are wary of the potential to inflict harm. Many of us fear that because we are not fully aware of what it means to move through this world in non-white skin our words might, no matter how good our intentions, cause others pain. Hasn’t racism as an ideology and an institution done enough damage without white poets putting their foot in the hornet’s nest? This fear is closely connected with another reason I believe white poets shy away from the topic of race: the sense that we are not really the experts here. What white people do know about race is often enough to assure us of just how little we don’t know about the impact it has on the lives of people of color.

Indeed, contemporary poetry offers us some key reminders of what can go wrong when white poets attempt to take on the subject of race. In the worst cases, the text can come across as ignorant and dismissive, and insensitivity to the insidious nature of racism can create hurt and offense, as in the famous case of Tony Hoagland’s “The Change.” We do not, of course, have to identify the poet with the white speaker of the poem. We can also appreciate Hoagland’s comment in a later interview that “white anxiety about race is an under-represented, under-articulated part of American society”; the poem is intended to make such anxiety visible. But the response of Claudia Rankine on The Academy of American Poets website reveals the potential harm in such a piece, whatever its intent. 

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Major Jackson takes on the reticence of white poets on the subject of race in his 2007 essay in American Poetry Review, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” attributing white silence to a desire for poetry to create a politically correct, emotionally safe sphere for language and thought: “so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create ‘speakers’ in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable.” Of course, he also notes the desire to censor one’s own more embarrassing thoughts in a genre where the speaker is typically received (whether true or not) as a thinly veiled representation of the writer herself.

But at the end of the day he finds (and I agree) that all of this logic begins to sound like sorry excuses. At the end of the day, white silence is potentially as hurtful as getting it “wrong.” This gross ambivalence toward, or even indifference to, the subject of racism allows it to continue, passing itself off as invisible. Even a seemingly more noble reluctance to overshadow non-white voices on the subject of race implies a troubling fact: the relative absence of race from the conversation in contemporary American poetry in general. As one of the key traumas marking the American experience, race is relegated to a shockingly small portion of what is published, read, and written about. And all poets, including white poets, would be well-served by demanding more space for this conversation. Without a more fully developed discussion of racism in all of its various guises, we cannot truly understand its impact. We will remain, as Jackson claims, spectators on one of the key issues of our time.

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Poetry is a space where, as many poets before me have remarked, several things can be true at once. Moral judgement is not required; right and wrong are not required. The truth, which is always more elusive than words can lay their fingers on, is allowed to be complex and bewildering. Racism is complex and bewildering. It is often boiled down to matters of right and wrong, just and unjust, but the truth is not always what we think. I have both benefited from and been traumatized by whiteness. I have been both oppressor and victim. I have been complacent in my racism and I have grown furious, raging against it. Poetry, with its silences and absences, with its contradictions and its refusal to make logical connections, makes excellent territory for grappling with racism.

If we are going to finally confront the sickness that has dominated life in America since its foundation, then we need a literature that explores its impact from as many angles as possible. We need a complete picture, and we very much need poets willing to explore what whiteness is and what it does, even if they sometimes get it wrong. We need more white poets willing to enter the conversation.


Holly Karapetkova’s poetry, prose, and translations from the Bulgarian have appeared in Mid-American Review, Huffington Post, 32 Poems, and many other places. Her first book, Words We Might One Day Say, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of over twenty books for children. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches at Marymount University. Holly was a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize 2015 with her poem “Big Hair” which can be seen in issue 300.2.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Flashback Friday featuring Rebecca Foust from issue 294.2

Rebecca Foust was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2009. Her poem “The Cormorant” was featured in issue 294.2.

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“The Cormorant”

Satan “flew, and on the Tree of Life . . . sat like a Cormorant;”
—Paradise Lost, Book IV, ll.194-96

The four-chambered heart and wings
somehow transcend his reptilian brain
and come with dusty black feathers

that fray the frock coat of this dour,
penurious parson. An oddly dense
puddle of shadow inking the float,

he does not give deign even one glance
in our direction. We dog-paddle close,
but he waits until we touch wood

to unfold awkward, creaking wing,
splash down on water, upend, dive
and sleek as a snake disappear,

no ripple or wake. We climb up, cold
and late. The sun in decline has turned
the lake red; it’s already starting to burn.


From the author: I wrote this poem when, during a re-read of Paradise Lost, I was struck by the detail mentioned in the epigraph: on his first trip to earth, Satan came not in the form of a serpent but in the form of a cormorant. Cormorants are shore birds, dark-feathered, and sizable, weighing upwards of 11 pounds and with wingspans as wide as 39 inches. All species are fish-eaters, catching their prey by diving from the surface, sometimes as deep as 100 feet.

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The events recounted in the poem occurred in the summer of 2008 when I was staying in outer Cape Cod with my family. My husband and I somehow managed to get away by ourselves for a late afternoon swim and decided to go to Slough Pond, a tiny, pristine kettle pond whose location is a closely guarded local secret. To get there, we wound through thick woods on a single-lane sand road, ending at a clearing just big enough to park our car, then picked our way down a narrow foot trail. It was a perfect Mary Oliver kind of cape afternoon, with the smooth surface of the pond inked slightly more indigo than the sky, and a few wild azaleas blooming at the water’s edge. We’d gotten a late start, and when we arrived the shadows were already long on the water, the light beginning to slant. We’re strong swimmers, and so we planned to swim all the way across the pond and back, resting on an old wooden float moored about halfway. We noticed a cormorant there perched on the float, spreading its wings out to dry, and I remember thinking that it looked like a dark blot on or tear in the otherwise bucolic canvas of water and sky.

I may have been musing over the name of the pond as I started out across its cool surface, thinking about how some people pronounce “Slough” to rhyme with “cow” and others to rhyme with “cue.” I may also have been thinking about the “Slough of Despond” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The sky was completely clear when we entered the water but then dark clouds blew in, turning the pond gray and chopping up its surface. The waves made it hard going, and we wanted to rest on the float before swimming back. We expected the cormorant to fly away but it remained, implacable, and looming larger and larger as we approached. It looked, as I said, like a blot on the day, and I felt some kind of deep, old fear. Utterly unperturbed, the bird waited until we actually touched the float before taking off—huge and black and suspended on air for a second before diving and submerging. As it disappeared, I saw the dark, sinuous form eeling away under the surface, and it may have been then that I thought about how much the bird resembled a snake. While we sat on the float catching our breath, the storm blew over and the sun came back out to descend with fiery radiance, turning sky and pond red and orange as any ember. It had completely set by the time we swam back to the bank and emerged, chilled.

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A few months later I came across that reference in Paradise Lost and remembering the day at Slough Pond, thought about how birds and reptiles share a common ancestral root and have similar physiologies with feathers and beaks perhaps being modified scales. That got the poem started. I must have been reading one of Lemony Snicket’s books in the Unfortunate Events series to my kids that fall, because it occurred to me that the while drying its wings, the bird looked a lot like the Baudelaire children’s evil uncle (Count Olaf), envisioned by me as “a dour penurious parson.” I thought about how the bird didn’t move until we touched the float, and about how that could be expressed as “touch wood,” a superstitious ritual with roots in touching a relic of the true cross. And I loved the connections between the cormorant and the snake, not just what I’d observed, but also their sharing a common evolutionary ancestor, and both being forms assumed by Satan while on his mission to bring about Eden’s fall. I wanted the poem to convey what I felt that day, a horrified realization that evil can show up in the middle of any ordinary beauty and that even when you cannot see it, it is still there, a reminder that what looks like Eden is not really Eden at all. The reference to the fiery lake in the poem’s last line is straight from Paradise Lost.

This poem, in pretty much the same form you see here, was reviewed in a workshop during the second semester residency of my MFA program at Warren Wilson. In what would be my first experience of the “herd mentality” that can mar such workshops, the teacher pretty much advised me to scrap the poem and start over, with the others sitting around the table chiming in their agreement or saying nothing at all. I did not scrap the poem, and my belief in it was validated later when the editors at the North American Review notified me that it was a finalist for the James Hearst Prize. It was my first sonnet attempt and is among the first dozen or so poems I ever published, but “The Cormorant” remains important to me because it was what taught me not to take writing workshop pronouncements as gospel and to trust my instincts about my own work.


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Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence and is the recipient of fellowships from the Frost Place and the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and will be released in April. About its linked narrative, Thomas Lux says “There is great music in these poems, and sonnet after sonnet is masterful. Not since Berryman’s Henry have I been so engaged by a persona.” You can order Paradise Drive by visiting http://www.press53.com and clicking through to Foust’s author page.

FYI: Since 2007, Foust’s poem’s have appeared in 7 issues of the North American Review. She won second place for the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2012, and was also a James Hearst Poetry Prize Finalist in 2013. Rebecca’s poem, “Prayer for my New Daughter” is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.


Top Illustration (Sneak Preview) by Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Second & Third Images: Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Why We Need Description by Wes Ward

Most of us have two eyes. And with those two eyes we see things that others see. But
because my eyes are different from yours and hers and his, nothing we see can ever be seen the
same way.

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To make matters worse, when we try to communicate what we see, the reality we try to capture is never accurate. It can’t be. It’s impossible to see something and communicate exactly what we see because the words we use to describe an image are just, well, words. Take the human hand for example. I can describe a hand by using words like smooth, soft, stubby-fingered, calloused, etc., but those words are merely labels—intangible labels—that we try to apply to something in the physical world.

So there you are, trying to describe an object or a scene or a feeling with words that have
no physical existence in a physical world. You’re bound to fail. And if that’s not foggy enough,
in walks someone else to try to do the same thing, describe that object or scene or feeling. But
wait. Your eyes are different and, therefore, you will see things differently. Your impossible
mission just got worse.

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The secret to descriptive writing is that there is no secret. You can only hope to capture a
fraction of the reality you experience. We do that with sensory details, describing the physical
world (sometimes figuratively), while relying on dominant impressions, those invisible vibes
we get from a particular experience. We want the reader to see what we see, taste what we taste,
hear what we hear, etc. So we rely on the words we’ve learned throughout life to convey those
sensory details: His boots crunched through the snow is a lot different than He walked through the
snow. In the former, I see “boots” and I hear “crunching”—two details that second sentence
lacks. Again, this helps the reader get a better idea of what you see and what you are trying to
make him or her see. Consider this sentence about eating: We inhaled our cereal, knowing we would be late for school once again. The figurative “inhaled” (unless the cereal was actually breathed in) expresses the speed at which the cereal was eaten, but it doesn’t descriptively paint the picture, like this: We shoveled the cereal into our mouths and, without swallowing, inhaled the next bite with a continuous spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth motion. Only the sense of sight is used here, but at least a clearer picture is provided with the description of the physical action in the second sentence.

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Be careful. It’s possible to describe too much. Your reader doesn’t need to see, hear, or
touch everything you do. The doorknob to your apartment doesn’t need to be described as a
smooth, brass knob, cold to the touch. Just open the door, please. And The way the wheels of the car slipped across the loose gravel isn’t necessary either, unless a description of that scene is absolutely significant to the purpose of your writing (a car crash, perhaps). Once, a student of mine wrote a personal essay about visiting his mom in the hospital after she was diagnosed with cancer. In the essay, he filled an entire paragraph about the floral design on a box of tissues in the hospital room. Because he couldn’t bear to look at his mom, he focused on the looping green vines and the curling tips of the white flowers—a typical decorative box of tissues but a significant object in this particular setting.

The bottom line is to make connections. As a writer, you want to connect to your reader. After all, it’s the primary purpose of writing: I have something to say and I want you to hear it. The more carefully and meaningfully we communicate with our words, the better connection we
make. We’ll never be able to know exactly what someone else sees and how he or she sees it. (Is
that dress on the Internet white and gold or blue and black?) But thanks to descriptive writing,
we can make valid attempts to communicate and connect with our readers, even if we fail to
depict, with words, the reality our senses perceive.


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Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Philadelphia Stories and other publications. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches high school English and lives with his wife and two children in Pennsylvania. Wes appeared in issue 297.4, Fall 2012.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Fish Cleaning Makes for Dirty Work, Good Poem by James Proffitt

An article I wrote for Ohio Outdoor News this summer detailed the industry that, in Ohio, is uniquely Lake Erie: Fish cleaning houses.  They are smelly, wet and when the fishing is good, extremely busy.  The workers are paid piecework, generally — that is, by the pound.  The more they clean, the faster they clean, the more they get paid.  It is long, hard, dirty work, but can pay well.  While I usually clean my own walleye, I always take my yellow perch (which are tiny compared to walleye) to the cleaners.  And there began my admiration, and there began my poem, “The Fish Cleaners.”  A little imagination, a little thinking, a little verse.

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Mostly the cleaners use commercial food prep knives, and not birch-handled knives.  But there is a company in Ohio, Warther & Sons, which has been making beautiful knives, including fileting knives, for years, so why not birch handled knives?

And the anglers bringing in fish are often giddy, and often childlike, filled with their joy.  Yet it is the fish cleaners who tackle the toughest task, the cleaning.  And while there is a honkeytonk in the area with great specials on eggs, ham and whiskey and such, it ain’t dockside and the fish cleaners ain’t there at dawn because they finish at night or in the early a.m. and sleep, waiting for the next catch to come in.  So yeah, it’s clear I embellish, I move things around, I make it fit.

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