Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.

A Teaching Moment by Paul Crenshaw

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The assignment is this: explicate your favorite song as we have been explicating poetry for the last several weeks in Introduction to Literature. I get mostly the usual: Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson from the sorority girls; some Dylan from the over-achievers who want to impress me with their dedication to the assignment; Grateful Dead from the long-haired kids; Jack Johnson or John Mayer from the girls with bare midriffs and navel rings. I want them to understand literature through lyrics, to assess the world through words, but they’ve mostly cut-and-pasted, clinging to cliché and settling on summary instead of searching for any meaning in the song.  

E– brings in a song by Rascal Flatts in which a high school girl has cancer. During her chemotherapy treatments she loses her hair. She is worried about, among many other things, how she will look for her prom, but on prom night her boyfriend shows up with his head shaved in hopes of allaying her fears. The song, E– tells us, is based on a true story.

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She also tells us that she has recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She flies home every weekend for chemotherapy treatments. She leaves my class at 4pm Thursday and boards an airplane for home, where she will be hooked to a machine that pumps poison through her veins and drains all her energy and sends her spinning to the restroom every few hours to kneel on the tiled floor and empty herself of everything. On Monday she flies back and attends her classes. She is afraid of, among many other things, losing her hair.

My class claps quietly after she has finished speaking. We sit stunned through the Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, Don Henley. In the hallway outside the classroom E– is waiting for me. She is smiling. She is young, twenty perhaps. She apologizes to me for failing the assignment. She says she couldn’t remember everything she wanted to say, so she only summarized the song. She missed the bigger meaning, she says.   

I hold out the part of her presentation she handed in, and that I read biting the inside of my mouth hard enough to bring blood while the rest of my students were struggling through their songs. “You had it all written down.”

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She is twenty, young, perhaps dying. I am thirty-one. I drink too much on the weekends and worry about my job, whether I am accomplishing anything in the classroom. I worry if my wife and I are eating right and exercising enough, if we are putting enough money away for our children’s college funds, if we can afford to fly home this summer, where I can buy a new CD with lyrics I haven’t listened to.

“I didn’t present it right,” she says. “I guess I was afraid.”

Looking at her I am thinking about fear: the fear of losing your hair, losing weight, losing your life. About drugs that run rampant through your body, changing moods and balances and outlooks. About cells that multiply and mutate and take over. About being twenty years old and flying home every weekend to sit in a cancer ward while trying to find the greater significance in some stupid assignment an adjunct literature professor has given you, yet still being scared of standing in front of a class and explaining what a few words might mean beyond the surface of a page or the lyrics of a song.

But I don’t say any of that. Like my students, I cling to cliché. I settle for summary.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You’re doing fine.”


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Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Reviewand Brevity, among others. He lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife and two daughters.


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 (top illustration featured above) will be in upcoming 300.3, Summer 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

The Personal is Confessional by Metta Sáma

& so what.

This is personal. In 1993 and again in 1994 I was pregnant. By two different guys. One was my guy (’93) and one belonged to someone else (’94). Before I knew I was pregnant – pregnancy one and pregnancy two – my parents knew. My dad dreamt about fish and my mother looked into my face. By pregnancy two it didn’t affect me, that someone could dream my pregnancy into reality (not existence, just into the speakable & spoken word), that someone could look into my face and see a pregnancy. Pregnancy 1, however. . .

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A friend who had been pregnant and had a child said of her pregnancy that her body became a publicly consumable object. An object. For consumption. Of consumption. A free-to-consume body. Think of all of the times your own hands have reached towards a pregnant woman’s stomach. Without her permission. How many times your mouths opened to form the obvious pronouncement: you’re pregnant. How many times your eyes rested on a pregnant woman’s stomach and had thoughts travel from your brain to the woman’s body? How many of those pregnant women were strangers?

Pregnancy 1: my mother said to me: you need to go ahead and tell us. What could I tell them that I didn’t know? She said: your father has been waiting for you to tell him. She said: he thinks you’re trying to hide it. She said: your father’s been dreaming of fish again. And this is how I discovered my own pregnancy. My father dreamt of fish. My mother looked into my face. Who else could see it? Who else had seen it? How long did I have before the side-eying strangers would see it? Before the baby bump? That little bump that gives permission to say it, to see, it to touch it.

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When l think of the monster Argus, I think of the man, the young man, the teenager, the adolescent, the child, the toddler, the infant, the fetus, Argus. How easily my eyes travel to the interior. The uterus that provided shelter for the fetus. All of the eyes forming inside of the body. The eyes outside of the body. The fetus’s eyes. The community’s eyes. The storm of eyes. The congress of eyes. The rumor of eyes. The gaggle of eyes. The murder of eyes. Mine. Theirs. His. Yours. What is it like to be the pregnant woman? The body of consumption. For consumption. The freeto-consume body. The woman who is hyper woman. The woman who is no longer woman. Who is object. Objectified. Pedestaled. Whose pedestal is burnt while she teeters on it. The pregnant woman who is made Mother before she becomes a mother. The pregnant woman who is judged, castigated, brandished, branded before she becomes a mother.

What is the story of Eve before Cain and Abel? The story of a fallen woman. What is the story of Eve before The Fall? The story of a rib. Who was Mary before her body was burdened with the body of Christ. No imagined being. Who was Mycene before the monster Argus was slain? No imagined being.

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What a tragedy. To bear the body of a child whose 100 eyes will be the death of him. Whose 100 eyes will watch her imagine her construct, her deconstruct, her reconstruct, her deconstruct. Whose 100 eyes will overshadow the woman who bore him. The woman who was no one until after the making of the monster. Life in reverse.

My eyes, your eyes, the community’s eyes, the fetus’s eyes, the writer’s eyes.

Here is a different title to this piece:  To Dream Mycene I Became Mycene.


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Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under her legal name, Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, & book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem,Bone Boquet, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, entropy, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, Transitions among others. le animal & other strange creatures will appear from Miel Books later this year. Sáma is Assistant Professor & Director of Creative Writing and Director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College.


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?

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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.

The Red-Headed Stepchild by Gretchen Tessmer

Fan fiction is the red-headed stepchild of the writing world.  It searches for a home among reputable houses but, walking that fine line between plagiarism and hackneyed parody, it’s forced to live in the leaky, damp cardboard box in the dank and dingy alley outside, hoping tonight’s trash yields more than banana peels and half-burnt muffins for dinner.  The fact that it’s directly responsible for such illustrious (that’s straight up sarcasm, boys and girls—in case the tone fails to come through) works as Fifty Shades of Grey certainly doesn’t help its reputation.

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But I feel sorry for the red-headed stepchild.  At least, I feel sorry for how the kid has been treated by the family—by our cigar-smoking Grandfather (classics), our gin-swilling Aunt Vi (contemporaries), our overly dramatic younger sister Lisa (memoir) and slick Cousin Perry (critics), who can be somewhat of a pompous know-it-all.  Sometimes I even want to sing its praises, if only because no one else will.

First of all, it’s not masquerading as high-brow anything.  It knows its own limitations.  No fan fiction writer will ever achieve great fame and fortune for a job well done on a piece.  Even if the prose is all original, the manuscript has commandeered something, whether it’s a character, setting, or major/minor plot point.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be fan fiction.  So at least it’s self-aware.  Unless it’s pure plagiarism, of course, which is neither self-aware nor particularly bright—that would be Lisa’s ex-husband (let’s call him Bobby) who can’t seem to stay out of jail. Continue reading

At a Slug’s Pace – One Writer’s Beginnings by Martha Silano

I remember watching this video of Robert Bly when I was in my early twenties. He was asking the audience, “So, you want to be a poet? Do you have about fifty years?” Yes, of course, I thought to myself. I do have fifty years if that’s what it takes. I’d been writing poems since I was seven, and I knew I still had quite a few more bad poems to write—real stinkers—before I got any good.

Bly was one of my first teachers. Although I never took an actual class with him, I saw him read at Rutgers when I was fifteen, and it pretty much sealed the deal with what I wanted to do with my life. All Iron-Man John jokes aside, his attitude toward poetry, that it requires patience and some degree of stepping away from one’s ego, and that it takes a long time to become a master, have remained a central part of my creative practice.

robert bly Continue reading

Origins of “The Obituarist” by Jim Nelson from issue 294.3-4

I don’t recall which celebrity had supposedly died, but a wire service had scooped the competition with an obituary and the news spread from there. Soon thereafter the celebrity issued a press release, not as witty as “the report of my death was an exaggeration”, but in the same vein. Red-faced, the news service retracted the obituary. I suspect they eventually republished the obituary more-or-less verbatim when the personality passed away, much like an accountant getting a customer’s credit off the books.

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What I do recall is that this celebrity’s obituary was rather lengthy and complete, far too polished to have been the product of a harried all-nighter. This led to my interest in how newspapers craft obits well ahead of the subject’s death. At some point I scribbled this muddled note in my writing notebook: Continue reading

Writers are a Funny Breed by Nathan Leslie

“Writers are a funny breed,” the Jane Siberry song goes.  Indeed.

I’ve always admired writers willing—or forced to—abstain from writing for extended periods of time, who go through spurts and then return to the world of the living.  I think of Jean Rhys (who didn’t write for years).  I think of Toni Morrison—who has talked at length about writing when she could—as a mother.  I think of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, the two best known “working poets,” squeezing in writing when they could.  I think of Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee—one hit wonders who had to struggle with the next thing.

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Every writer is a person first.  At times we can easily forget this, overly concerned with the writer’s oeuvre, their brand.  Yes, Toni Morrison is, in a sense, her own little corporation, but she puts her pants on one leg at a time, also. Continue reading

Braiding My Life: On “Living at Tree Line” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro

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When I wrote “Living at Tree Line” some ten years ago, I had never before written a braided essay. In fact, I didn’t even know the form had a name, and what’s more, I didn’t consider myself a writer of creative nonfiction. At the time, I was working on my MFA in fiction, and as part of the requirement for the degree, I enrolled in a class in another genre, creative nonfiction. It was in that class, taught by Alan Cheuse, that I read Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole,” an intricately constructed piece that brings together the history of Arctic exploration with the author’s own personal experiences attending church and exploring her faith. This was the first braided essay I encountered, and I was enthralled by its possibilities.

After reading Dillard’s essay, I used it as a model to write my own braided essay—though I still didn’t know the name for it. The resulting piece, “Living at Tree Line,” was about bristlecone pine trees and my experiences working at a cemetery (the job I held while working on my MFA). I found the form to be freeing and innovative; I was especially taken with how placing two unlike things side by side causes each to cast a light on the other, illuminating previously unseen facets of both. Continue reading

Remove Udder: Good and Bad Criticism by Gwyn McVay


First the problem. Writers must seek criticism from others, especially those better than themselves (tournament Scrabble players study the strategies of those by whom they are beaten). It’s just like that or you literally lose the plot, and ten chapters later your tender romance that began on the sands of Nags Head has turned into an eldritch fable about the gods of the underworld. And someone has to love you enough – even just during workshop – to tell you that your poem has spinach in its teeth.

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But not all critiques are of equal weight, and you don’t have to take them on board. If a dozen people unanimously say that they didn’t understand that your metaphor meant “penis” (a scene I witnessed, in which the workshopped burst into tears), maybe you need to rethink that metaphor, and no, you don’t have to descend into vulgarity to do it. Yet just as there are those who, when you lay something bare on Facebook, critique your life, there are those who do a worse thing and tell you something uncomfortable about yourself that is actually true. And this time it’s your writing self. And sometimes you have really gone quite wrong and have a lot of revising to do before the thing is ready for prime time. Continue reading