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Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Tim Mayo

Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


This week's poem from:

The Kingdom of Possibilities

By Tim Mayo

Mayapple Press


Frame of Reference with Sun Breaking Through

If the truth be known, I lied about the sun: how its
light shafted through the parting clouds as if
an unknown entity were blessing the landscape below,
the curving rows of grain molded to the hill’s shape,
how the field dipped out of sight then rose again
from an unseen vale climbing like the pelted back
of some animal yet to be classified: phylum
genus, species.

Even the landscape I made up
cobbling together parts of Breughel with memories
of a child’s book, The Farmer in the Dell, Old MacDonald,
the perfect rows of corn corduroying into the horizon,
and somewhere midfield and off-center to the left
a red tractor tries to gain the top of the hill.


Back to the sun:
I could have just left it there,
the high drama of its shafts stabbing
inspiration into the brown and green land,
demonstrating how divine intervention
plays out its not so subtle hand,
and you could have gone home,
rolled down your bed for the night
and pulled up the covers against the dark
knowing that the unconsciousness of sleep
was still safe, and the brush strokes
of my hand were benevolent, as always,

but I have left clouds, instead, and you must
sort through the sky as best you can.


One way to read Tim Mayo’s “Point of Reference” is as a commentary on the study and practice of literature today: on the canon, and the contemporary jettisoning of the canon for lesser known, more inclusive, works. The canon’s long history of interaction with the Divine provided a central point of view that everyone trained in the western classical tradition could accept or dispute. The contemporary desire to eradicate the tradition for the inclusion of other paths and voices is a decentralizing force stripping away traditional notions of what “good” and “great” literature is. Readers who value the canon and the canon’s interaction with the Divine as part of their point of reference find it unsettling when the canonical traditions are stripped away and devalued. As a poet who obviously has studied the canon, Mayo has created his own song of Innocence and Experience here with his two landscapes, one of the Ideal and the Divine, vs. the natural and mundane world where without such an ordering principle, life is more difficult to “sort through.”

The first stanza’s landscape, with the references to Breughel (and hence Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”) and the “rows of corn corduroying into the horizon” represents the lost Ideal, some bucolic, pastoral wonderland filled with plenty and light where even the vales can be neatly filed in orderly categories. This is the place of fantasy, the Ideal that we hold every autumn against that only exists in art or recalled in softly glowing “memories of a child’s book;” the good and orderly that we often tend to seek. For literature, the Ideal gave readers parameters through a simple comparison of the new work with the old. If the newly created book or poem fit the rules or broke the rules in interesting ways, then the work might be designated important. If the play or novel was not easily classified, then the work was most likely excluded, as has been the case with many works by women or writers outside the dominant norm.

The second stanza, which is an unmaking of the first, toys with our doubts, our fears and our uncertainty in this not-so-perfect world. This stanza provides an adult world where the stories from our childhood may not sooth us as we lie down to sleep, and where “divine intervention” may not clearly show “its not so subtle hand.” Where what we have been taught does not always explain the world we see around us. A world where the creator’s hand might not be “benevolent, as always.” Instead, the stanza represents a world filled with doubt and unclear motives. The only thing certain about the unmade landscape is the clouds that one must “sort through . . . as best you can.” For literature, the current inclusive, subjective acceptance of a wide variety of work as important has had a similar consequence of creating a great quantity of “clouds” that must be sorted through. Without the centralizing force of the canon, who is to determine the “good” when none of the traditional rules still apply? Since questions of what makes a poem good have changed dramatically in the last one hundred years, especially since the rise of modernism, it’s not surprising to find a poet struggling with the topic in his work and coming to the final conclusion, as the speaker states, that each of us “must sort through the sky as best you can” even without that secure frame of reference.


Q & A with Poet Tim Mayo

Q: Since I’m talking about the canon in this reading of you poem, I’m going to ask you about your education in literature and writing. Has your experience been “classical” or “non-traditional”? Is there a particular poem or poet whose work brought you to poetry?

Tim Mayo: I don’t remember getting interested in poetry until I was a sophomore in High School. I remember that one poem I showed to my English teacher was an imitation of Sandburg’s poem about the fog creeping in on little cat’s feet––or however it goes. I was in a military school in northern Indiana at the time, so Sandburg makes sense. Soon after that I left military school and went to a very progressive school in Western Massachusetts which emphasized the arts. It was at that point that I really began to read poetry and came across the two poems which probably I first fell in love with: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Howl.” So, although I don’t think of my own work as being eclectic, I seem to have always read eclectically, and my tastes in poetry seem to be wide enough to answer your question by saying “non-traditional.” It’s interesting that I’ve given you two longish poems and I never write long poems (never say never), but these drew me to poetry and I still hold them dear to me, but now along with so, so many others.

Q: How do you view the canon as part of your growth and development as a writer? In another poem from the book, I saw a bit of resistance to (and eventual embrasure of) the confessional mode, you seem to concentrate more about these issues of “how to write” as a subject matter than many contemporary poets whose works I’ve read. Why do you feel this is an important subject for you?

Tim Mayo: When I was younger, except for imitating poets, I had no sense of the canon. Today, I would guess I am in the process of trying to become a part of it, but if we are all governed by (and we seem to try to be) Ezra Pound’s precept “Make it new,” then we are all trying to write against the canon or some sort of tradition we label as being old hat. Although even as I say that I think of what one of my teachers Liam Rector said about trying to recognize and honor through your art the poets who preceded you. I think I am just stumbling along. There are some of my poems which at least begin as direct descendants of other poems, but then they seem go their own way or speak antiphonally to that poem out of which they grew. Compare the first two lines of “The Loneliness of Dogs” to “Musée des Beaux Arts” or read “At a Walmart in Southern New Hampshire” and then read Ginsberg’s “In a California Super Market.”

As for the confessional mode, which really is a ball and chain around the ankles of most poets writing today, I have taken the path of writing about what I know. This has meant that my poems are often anecdotes coming from something I have experienced and internalized to a point that the experience has an emotional weight and meaning for me. I don’t think I can write about something which doesn’t have that. But my intentions in writing about anything which has happened to me is not to recount my life, but hopefully to find and convey to the readers what it is about that particular experience which resonates for me and make it resonate for them as well. I’m looking to try and make universal observations out of individual and specific anecdotes. Boy does that sound highfalutin. The poem I think you referred to in your question “The Confessional Poet’s Confession” does poke fun at that confessional mode, but at the same time makes a serious confession and observation about how we (us poets––or actually anyone) often never look beyond our own personal pain to recognize the experience of others and be aware that we aren’t the only people suffering out there. It does happen to twist the joke into a serious (at least serious sounding) confession of what seems to be the speaker’s fault in a failed relationship. I’m not sure I want to say more about it.

Why do I write about writing? I guess it has something to do with a wish to be able to say or describe something, a phenomenon, so exactly that everyone just says, “Yes! That’s it!” That doesn’t really answer your question, but I think it is the wish that I might be able to do it someday in a poem. That how “it” was expressed would seem so absolutely right, no one could or would want to think of an alternative way to express it. Of course this is idealism, sheer fantasy or just the impossible at best.

Q: Who do you look to as “good” poets whose work you admire and might emulate?

Tim Mayo: Of the living poets whom I admire, there are many more than I can list. In any case here are a few. I put Charles Wright and Stephen Dunn pretty much at the top of the pile. This in itself is a quandary. For example, I am an atheist and Wright, I would say, is not, but I admire his meditations on all this as well as his sheer mastery of the line, his marriage of imagery and sound. As for Dunn, I think it is his poignant observations of secular life and the psychological truths he manages to splay open that I like. He is very deft at revealing these things. Ted Kooser can bring things to a heightened vivid description, but not so much about psychological things as making physical observations (Delights & Shadows). I am also a fan and devotee of many other poets. Mary Oliver, though to me I come away thinking she is writing the same poem over and over. I mean we all do that (my writing about writing is probably just that), but we usually try to disguise it (I obviously didn’t), and pretend we have a wider range than we have. She doesn’t which in some ways is very honest, but her complacency about it may not necessarily make for great art. You could say Wright is writing the same poem over and over, but I don’t seem to get bored with him, if he is. I also like Robert Haas. I studied under Henri Cole and love his work. As I do with other teachers of mine, April Bernard, Ed Ochester and the late Liam Rector whose work I’ve just begun to appreciate. I love the passion of Martín Espada. How he can make poetry out of politics which is something very few poets can do. I’m not much for making a hierarchy, I love so many different poets for so many different things, and I think if you do, then it is easier for you to see new paths to follow as an artist. Not that I am necessarily following any new paths, but I might start to soon.

Of the dead poets. There are too many, and I’m going to leave out many who are important to me as I have done with the living, but here we go. I do see Dickenson and Whitman as the true mother and father of American poetry. Everything we seem to have and do comes from them. I love Keats’s lushness of sound and imagery, Donne’s ability to construct conceits. I love Auden, Yeats, Shakespeare, of course, and to go American again, Williams, Hart Crane though the latter is too reckless with his poems. I don’t think he ever developed a unifying sense of a poem. He never lived long enough for that to possibly happen. I wouldn’t try to emulate Williams. I think his legacy writing in American speech patterns both freed us from the artifice of 19th century diction which you see a bit of in Hart Crane, but it ended up leading us down the path (through no fault of his own) to where we emulate speech so much in our poems, it’s hard to recognize them as poetry and it’s hard to insert anything which is startling vis à vis lush sound combinations (because people don’t talk that way) and it is hard to write something with truly startling imagery (also because people don’t talk that way) and well wrought metaphors or conceits since that is something which doesn’t happen in normal speech, because normal speech is not well thought out nor planned. But most of all this emulation of speech has lead to a total break down of any sense of line and stanza. I confess I may well be as guilty of this as anyone else. However, when I open a literary journal, I can read a poem in tercets or quatrains where syntax and sense have absolutely no correlation with the poet having organized the poem in either tercets or quatrains. The poet doesn’t even seem to be writing against them, he/she seem more to be writing and just cutting them up in lines that he’s gathered into threes or fours because that’s how he/she “feels” the poem should be. A little too much feeling one’s way through the poem. This I find to be also true for the way poets organize the line unit in a lot of poems. The reasons why a line ends where it does mystifies me at best in many poems I read. Again I don’t necessarily exclude myself from this. I struggle trying to justify to myself why the line should or should ot end where it does (the curse of open poetry/free verse) and I am probably in the end just as guilty as those I am criticizing.

Q: Of course there are many ways of reading “Frame of Reference,” and another of the interesting ones is that the poem plays with ideas of truth and trust between the writer and the reader, and also of the writer’s ability to be both creator and destroyer for the small space of the poem. So, how did this poem come into being?

Tim Mayo: As I mentioned I am an atheist and this poem seemed to develop out of an imagined one way conversation between God and some poor indivisible mortal under God. This was my governing impulse behind the poem, but it came out more as an artist (of which you can think of God as an artist) creating something designed to keep you wondering, hence the final couplet.

I think your mention of “trust between the writer and the reader” strikes a chord. I have always tried when I am writing to imagine that one of my readers whom I will reach is someone who is not “literary” and who may have very little experience with poetry. So I try when I make allusions to something literary in a poem that it doesn’t occupy a place in the poem where the reader comes away not understanding the gist of the poem because he doesn’t know what I was referring to. Oddly enough my poem “The Third Little Pig” may the big exception to that principle. I doubt the poem can be understood if you don’t know the story, but a poem based on “The Three Little Pigs” is very different from one based on some obscure reference to a lesser known work which only someone with an academic background would pick up on even though the principle is the same. I have had several people come up to me after either having read my book or after a reading I’ve given and said “I don’t usually read or like poetry, but your poems got to me.” Those comments mean a lot to me, but so does praise from the community of the well read. What can I say? I want it all.

Q: Any other thoughts on poetry?

Tim Mayo: I guess in the end it all boils down to what we think poetry is for. To me it must on some level delight the reader not through just a clever verbal manipulation, but also on a deeper more thoughtful level through metaphor and imagery. I think it also needs to provide some sort of comfort and satisfaction. Not the kind of comfort which says everything will be all right, but the kind which says to the reader you’re not alone in your troubled thoughts, that there’s at least this one other person who wrote this poem who has also experienced the same anguish you have. Or close to it. As for satisfaction, well, I think of that as the reaction the reader has when he/she says “yes, that’s it!”


Three More Poems to Note:


"Naming the Emotions"

"Father Poem"


Poet’s Biography:

Tim Mayo holds an ALB, cum laude, from Harvard University and an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. His poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Arbutus , Avatar Review, Babel Fruit , Big Toe Review , The Chrysalis Reader, Del Sol Review , 5 AM, Inertia Magazine, Mannequin Envy , Poet Lore, The Rose & Thorn Literary E-zine ,Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.

Among the awards his poetry has garnered are two International Merit Awards from Atlanta Review; he was also a finalist in the 2007 WinningWriters.com War Poetry Contest and twice nominated for the 2008 Best of the Net Anthology. In 2000 he was a semi-finalist in the “Discovery/The Nation Poetry Contest and has been awarded two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center’s annual Vermont Artist’s Week.

His chapbook The Loneliness of Dogs (Pudding House Publications 2008 ) was a finalist in the WCDR 2008 Chapbook Challenge in Ajax, Ontario, Canada, and his most recent publication The Kingdom of Possibilities (Mayapple Press) was a semi finalist for the 2009 Brittingham and Pollock Awards, a finalist for the 2007 Main Street Rag Award and lastly, a finalist for 2009 May Swenson Award. He is a former member of the Brattleboro Literary Festival author committee and lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

For more about this poet see his webpage: Tim Mayo and at his Red Room Author Page


Purchase information: Mayapple Press and elsewhere on the web.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Carol Levin's Red Rooms and Others


Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Brian Daldorph

Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


This week's poem from:

From the Inside Out: Sonnets

By Brian Daldorph

Woodley Press



He needs this cell. It was getting cold
out there and he’d done all the drugs he could buy.
It was either jail or die.
Sometimes he thinks he’s getting too old
for this shit, but it’s too late to start over
with some sweet-eyed lover
who says, “You and only you are the man I love.”
He’d be late for his wedding again,
and what woman would choose a man with a cracked brain?
He sees the young punks in here scared
about what they’ve gotten into, not
the cocky kids they were on the street who dared
to run faster than the cops. He ended up in this cell
where it’s warm enough. And three hot meals.


“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”
Henry David Thoreau

Brian Daldorph’s book of “From the Inside Out: Sonnets” utilizes many variations of the sonnet form. The sonnet form seems particularly appropriate for “Fall” and the other poems which are set in a jail cell. The poem, like the subject, must make do with a limited amount of space and breathing room. In the condensed lines we learn a great deal about the inhabitant of the cell: a sketch portrait in minimum of a habitual drug user, with a knotty life story at last taking ownership of his past actions. This is a poem of a man whose quite desperation has led him to an almost unthinkably constrained life.

In “Fall,” the tight construction of the sonnet requires a compression of the narrative but Daldorph manages, with some carefully selected modifiers, to imply quite a bit of the character’s back-story. One of the appealing aspects of this sonnet is the poet’s use of eye or sight rhyme that helps to reinforce the subject matter through the form: things are not always how they look. The reader doesn’t always get what he or she expects the form to provide, especially when the sonnet is read aloud.

Restraint might be the best adjective to describe the narrator’s approach; in looking quietly, Daldorph manages to fill the poem with an intensity of implied emotion. It would be easy to treat the convict with disdain for his ruined life, but somehow this portrayal is more sympathetic than one might expect. The sympathetic view succeeds in this poem because it is not didactic, the constrained form of the sonnet helps the poet to hold the emotional rein in check and prevent the all too easy slide into moralizing. One way the narrator builds this sympathy is through the contrast between the older inmate and the “young punks.” This portrayal shows the subject recognizing his younger self in the youth who aren’t so cocky now on the “inside.” The regret, although implied, is clear.

The way the inmate acknowledges his own faults and misgivings allows the reader a glimpse at how tenuous our civilized lives are and how difficult life must be when through addiction and poor choices the last way to provide food and shelter also means paying with one’s freedom. As Henry David Thoreau stated, “the cost of a thing it will be remembered is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it.” The cost for the inmate seems terribly high.


Q & A with Poet Brian Daldorph

Q: I’m interested in hearing about your work in the Douglas County Jail. How did you become a poet in the jailhouse? How has that influenced your work?

Brian Daldorph: I've been working at Douglas County Jail since 2001. Years go by! Two of my colleagues in the English Dept set up the program, and when they left, I took over. I've had many different teaching experiences in my career, including teaching in Japan and Senegal, but my jail teaching's been my best experience of all. It's endlessly exciting to see that the art form I love can bring so much to people in dire circumstances. I've learnt so much from my long commitment to jail work. My new book, Jail Time, is about my teaching there, and some of the people I've met.

Q: The speaker’s point of view in this poem is sympathetic in the manner it catalogs the inmate’s losses and lost opportunities. And there are so many hints towards a back-story that this poem feels like it might be a condensed version of a story. How did this poem come to be?

Brian Daldorph: This jail poem is really an amalgam of stories and characters from the jail. True of many of the poems. This is the artistic element, really. To take the raw material and try to transform it into something coherent, more than the sum of its parts.

Q: The photographs at the section breaks in your book show a ruined world that is fascinating in its decay; are you the photographer as well? Is your writing particularly inspired by the visual arts?

Brian Daldorph: These photographs are by my exceptionally talented former student, Matt Porubsky. (I collaborate with him in a number of different ways). I asked him for photographs that caught the mood of the poems rather than intentionally illustrated them, and these are the haunting poems he produced, visual poems really.

Q: For you, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the sonnet form?

Brian Daldorph: The title of my book, From the Inside Out: Sonnets, has several ideas. My idea about writing sonnets is that if you work with the form consistently, which I did, writing hundreds of sonnets over a 6 to 8 year period, then you can internalize the form and write out from the form rather than writing into it as though it's set out in front of you. I love the strong form of the sonnet, how it intensifies language, yet the poet can push against it and make use of it in any number of ways.

One more point I'd like to add: Jail Time published by Original Plus (England) and I'm very pleased with it. I think it catches a lot of what I've experienced with my jail teaching over the years. (purchase information: Jail Time)

I liked what Mike Caron had to say about Jail Time and it seems and apt description of “Fall” as well:

"What these poems do provide is something akin to dispatches from a nearby place we are far too conditioned to see as a foreign country. If we pay attention to Brian’s poems we may discover the inhabitants of that place are not so alien as we imagined. The distance is really not that great."
--Mike Caron, Programs Supervisor, Douglas County Jail


Three More Poems to Note:

“Prodigal Winter”


Poet’s Biography:

Brian Daldorph teaches creative writing, literature, and writing at the University of Kansas. He has also taught in Japan, Senegal, England, Zambia, and the Douglas County Jail. Two books of his poems, The Holocaust and Hiroshima: Poems, and Outcasts, were published by Mid-America Press. Jail Time, a collection of poems written about his writing class at the Douglas County Jail, was published in April of this year.

For more about this poet see his page at Kansas Poets .


Purchase Information: Woodley Press and elsewhere on the web.


Brian also has an upcoming reading:

TWP POETRY READING SERIES @ THE JOHNSON COUNTY LIBRARY Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - 7:00 pmJohnson County Public Library, 9875 W. 87th, Overland Park, KSPoets Brian Daldorph and Bill Bauer. Brian Daldorph, teacher at the University of Kansas and Douglas County Jail, edits Coal City Review. Bill Bauer's Pear Season and The Boy Who Ate Dandelions, published by Mid-America Press, was selected by The Kansas City Star as one of its most noteworthy books of 2006.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Tim Mayo’s The Kingdom of Possibilities.


Pages Rustle: Featured Poet John Gallaher

Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


This week's poem from:

Map of the Folded World

By: John Gallaher

Akron Series in Poetry

University of Akron Press


Anecdote of the Little Houses

They're folding maps out across the yards,
over the houses
on the north side of the street
and on the south.

Look, darling, they say, the houses
are all lit up.
It's a summer night, in blue.

In the houses, they've gotten new clothes
and they're trying them on.
They're saying yes,

and they're saying no,
whenever they step from a room.
They're saying, I think so, and is, or isn't.

The people
are folding maps out
across the streets.

Time keeps running out, they say,
and there keeps being more of it
as the surfaces flash by.

And below,
after they stop at their houses,
the lines rise above the lines.

The red and blue lines
rising and falling all night
in their sleep.


The experience of reading John Gallaher’s work is a bit disconcerting in both its stick- figure familiarity and its other-world strangeness. Not surprising for a book entitled “Map of the Folded World,” there is an eerie two-dimensionality to the reality portrayed. It is as if suburban America was dropped into Plato’s cave and Gallaher is writing of the shadows. This is “our” American life but rendered from outside the houses looking in. I’m reminded a bit of the dispassionate tone of Raines in “A Martian Writes a Letter Home,” especially in the way that a lack of emotion is projected onto the anonymous inhabitants of the poem. (There are several other parallels in the poem’s subject matter as well: a discussion of time, the way the way things flash by, and ending in sleep)

But even in its strangeness this poem is also very connected to the poetry that has come before. The title alludes to Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar” and with the way a simple object reorders the perception of reality from that of wilderness to that of inhabited land. Similarly, the maps of “Anecdote of the Little Houses” create a reordering of the three dimensional world into a two-dimensional “surface” world lacking the former’s complexity and depth.

In some ways, the poem distills us to our common parts: “They’re saying, I think so, and is, or isn’t” like we all do at one point or another. But the speaker doesn't seem to connect with the other inhabitants of the poem. Perhaps he might be critical of the contemporary society that is content to sleep peacefully in a superficial world, or he may merely be looking at the landscape as an outsider, not willing to adopt for himself the way other people live. Or perhaps, more optimistically, the speaker is trying to accept the way Americans live without passing judgment. The marked dispassionate tone keeps the reader guessing.

The poems highlights as well, our human, domesticated desire to have the way mapped out for us, to only go where the lines lead us and our easy satisfaction of living between the very lines that box us in and limit us. I like the Rorschach blot ambiguity of the red and blue lines above the sleepers, which may be the telephone and cable lines which are our umbilical cords to the media–driven reality we live in, or the lines on the map of our towns and suburbs that contain and constrain us, or even lines on the monitors representing our breathing and heart-rates blinking out towards our inevitable ends. Nevertheless, we feel safe in that mapped off world; we can sleep.


Q & A with Poet John Gallaher

Q: I’m very much always looking for a poem’s “significance,” and this is a poem that is in some ways resistant to a single way of understanding. As the poet, do you subscribe to McLeish’s idea that “a poem should Be/ not mean”?

John Gallager: A teacher of mine, Wayne Dodd, used to say that a poem should “mean AND be.” I always liked that formulation, and would like to, as he would say, associate myself with those remarks. But I feel like that might be hedging, to leave it at that. I am drawn to moments where meaning is deferred, knowing that meaning is inevitable, as our lives contain meaning, or embody meaning. So yes, I would side with the “Be” if such a choice were demanded. (And again, to remind myself that there’s a lot of meaning tucked away in that “Be.”)

Q: I notice in your biography that you’re originally from Oregon and now have settled in the Mid-West. How have your many relocations affected your work?

John Gallaher: I’ve lived all over the place. From Portland, I went to Wichita, where I moved when I was adopted. Then my family moved to Orange County California, and then on to Birmingham, Alabama, and Long Island, New York. As an adult, I’ve lived in central Texas, Athens, Ohio, Conway, Arkansas, and now, finally, in Maryville, Missouri, where I’ve now been for seven years (with my wife and children).

I’m quite sure that these relocations have had a large impact on my work. They’ve certainly had a large impact on me. I always dread the question: “So, where are you from?”

Q: In “Anecdote of the Little Houses,” you’re certainly flagging Wallace Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar.” Would you consider Wallace Stevens & Modernists to be a major influence on your writing? Or do you look more towards the New York School poets?

John Gallaher: The only two Library of America editions that I’ve purchased are the Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery ones. I know their work better than I know anyone else’s. So, if that might be evidence, I suppose the answer would have to be that I have a foot in each world. But, truth to tell, I read the poetry of Rae Armantrout (and Michael Palmer, Martha Ronk, and Charles Wright, as well) and numerous others nearly as much. There’s such a large world of reading out there, and I adore so much of it, I’d hate to narrow myself to one (or even two) influences. And that’s just poetry. I’m also very interested in painting. That’s probably had as much (or maybe even more) influence on the way I see things, or attend to things as poetry has had.

Q: I wonder in a “chicken versus egg way” about the creative process. Did you write the poem first and then find the title or did the title come first. How did this poem come to be?

John Gallaher: From what I can remember, the poem came to be around the image of the map rising and falling over the people as they sleep. I like looking at paintings quite a bit, and I often like to think up paintings that don’t exist. Painting can allow for a very specific, even neutral, stance toward a scene. I’m quite envious of that. Paintings are accepted more easily by viewers, I think. There’s more of a social aspect to them. They call out for the viewer to participate, and viewers usually seem fairly willing to do so. I wish poetry were more like that.

As for the title, I simply love the “anecdote” form, as it filters through Stevens. Calling a poem an “anecdote” is one of the ways I to try to get the reader into a participatory circumstance with the poem. I toyed with calling it (among other things I no longer remember) “Anecdote of the Map,” but in the end I liked the intimacy of “house.” “Map” seemed a little too abstracted to me, though now, looking back at it, I kind of wonder if that might have worked better.

I keep a little notebook with me at all times, and in it I write whatever comes to mind. That’s where I get most of the lines and titles that I use. I’m not sure in this case which came first, but I usually always write from a title first, though I often go back and revise the title later. I change things a lot. I like to revise. “You must revise your life,” as they say.

Three More Poems to Note:

"What We're Up Against"

"Poem for the End of January"

"In the Direction of X. In the City of Zero."


Poet's Biography:

John Gallaher is the author of the books of poetry, Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), The Little Book of Guesses, winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, from Four Way Books, and Map of the Folded World, from The University of Akron Press, as well as the free online chapbook, Guidebook from Blue Hour Press. Other than that, he's co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press. Currently he's working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, which is forthcoming from BOA Editions in Spring 2011.

For more about this poet see his blog: Nothing to Say & Saying It .

Purchase Information: University of Akron Press and elsewhere on the web.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Brian Daldorph's From the Inside Out: Sonnets


Summer & Such

The house became available earlier than expected and we've been moving and settling in and making new homes for everything. The poetry books abound and no longer are stuffed in a back room out of view. I'm thrilled to have bookshelves aplenty in the new house and at hand!

I will be back with more Pages Rustle in the near future. After a little break from poetry, it starts whispering once again and I can't ignore it for long.

Happy Summer & a very Festive 4th of July to you!

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Amy Fleury

Every few weeks, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!

This week's poem from :

Beautiful Trouble

by Amy Fleury

Crab Orchard Series in Poetry

Southern Illinois University Press

Commotions of the Flesh

after a line from Epicurus

To live in the world
is to live in the body,
the deepest heap of wants.

To hell with the mind
and is pursuit of its own
proper good. I am concerned here

with the commotions of the flesh.
Living in the fissure between desire
and the having, I have failed,

failed, failed to control myself.
From tooth to tongue, gullet to gut,
I have taken in the religion

of pork chop and gin, tasted
red meat and confection,
nectarine and absinthe.

And I have been pulled along
by the wild vein-song of sex,
the hunger that coils in the blood.

My children sing out to me
from their hammock between my hips;
they coax my fingers to touch.

Forgive me my weaknesses,
for bleeding and sweating and snoring,
for giving in to gravity’s tug.

Forgive my shivering, these tears,
this stomach rumble and bone-racket,
this agitation of the willful heart.


As the old saying goes “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” and the speaker in “Commotions of the Flesh” clearly knows about weakness in the face of temptation. What I like about the poem is that it takes on some heavy theological concerns: what to do with ourselves when we have God that gives us a messy disobedient body and then asks us to deny that body? She says she won’t address the mind thereby eliminating the need to address other struggles: those of faith, doubt, intellect, meaning and understanding. We have a hard enough time with the body alone.

Even though the speaker says “to hell with the mind” the whole poem is filled with motion, the verbs throughout: pursuit, pulled along, coils, sweating, rumble, agitation. These all show the speaker’s mind in conflict and in turmoil, not in peaceful repose. The speaker demonstrates the difficulties of being in the world, and of failing to do the difficult things that are asked of us.

We’re only different from the animal rule of instinct by our ability to reason, to deny ourselves these desires of the sensual world: our “deepest heap of wants.” And how often the mind fails to control the body’s deep instincts: we drink too much, eat too much, and let our drive for sex overwhelm our mind’s “pursuit of its own proper good.” How difficult is “control,” when it means attempting to overcome what we’re physically hardwired to do? The poem takes us right back there to the Garden, where we try to not eat of the forbidden fruit.

The poem doesn’t give us the stereotypical apple but provides us instead with “pork chop and gin” and “nectarine and absinthe.” (With that “sin” unmistakable in the middle.) After a stanza that ends with “religion” these shine in high relief as things denied: the unclean meat, the alcohol, the sweet flesh of the nectarine standing in as the fruit of knowledge. The next stanza even hints at the serpent that led to damnation, here as “the hunger that coils in the blood.” What can we do in the end but ask for forgiveness and live with our “willful heart,” our agitated, troubled selves with choices always before us, always the apple there within our reach.


Q & A with Poet Amy Fleury

Q: I often wonder where the seeds for poems come from. You quote Epicurus at the start; what were you reading when you began to form this poem? Or can you tell us a little about how this poem came to be?

Amy Fleury: I was actually reading Marcus Aurelius's Meditations in which Aurelius quotes Epicurus extensively. This was the match that lit the bit of kindling I'd already had, which was the first stanza of the poem: "To live in the world/is to live in the body,/ that deepest heap of wants." I'd been pushing that phrase around for awhile, but that just seemed too aphoristic. Sometimes you just have to wait around for something to knock loose the rest of the poem, and that is what happened with this one.

Q: The speaker of the poet says "to hell with the mind" but the whole question of the poem seems to be questioning if the mind is actually capable of controlling the body, do you think this is a question that poetry can address and provide a satisfactory answer? Should poetry even try?

Amy Fleury: Poetry should try everything, but having said that, I'd also say that I believe poems, and art in general, should be more about asking than answering, more about nuances than absolutes. I suppose this is the same as Keats's notion of negative capability--to live with mystery and uncertainty without the need to resolve them. The irony, of course, is that one can't ever wholly dismiss the mind, just as one can't dismiss the body.

Q: In a way, this poem acts much like one of John Donne's sonnets, at the end there's a bit of a turn and it is difficult to tell which way to read those last two stanzas and I like how there's a bit of ambiguity there for the reader. Do you read Donne? Do you see any of his influence in your work, here?

Amy Fleury: It's been many years since I've actively read Donne, though I spent a great deal of time with his poems and those of other Metaphysical poets when I was a student and admired them very much. Your question prompted me to flip open the Holy Sonnets and my eye was immediately drawn to the nineteenth which begins:

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vows, and in

Struggling with contradiction seems to be a central occupation of life, for instance considering what we ought to do and what we want to do (which is not always contradictory).

Q: After reading this poem, it seems that the world is full of both wonder and temptation, is this the "Beautiful Trouble" of the book's title?

Amy Fleury: Interestingly, I didn't realize how obsessed I was with this until after I'd compiled the manuscript, which really speaks to the revelatory nature of the writing process. It comes up again and again in the poems, how we need sorrow to know joy, hunger to appreciate satiety, trouble to recognize peace, and so on.


Three More Poems to Note:

"Aurelia Waiting"

"A Prayer for Intercession"

"Sonnet for Dissonance"


Poet's Biography

Amy Fleury is a native of Nemaha County in rural northeast Kansas, and graduated from Nemaha Valley High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree and her M.A. from Kansas State University, Manhattan, and her M.F.A. from McNeese State University.

Fleury’s work has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, North American Review, The Southeast Review, Laurel Review, 21st, and The Yalobusha Review. Southern Illinois University Press published her first collection of poetry, Beautiful Trouble, in 2004. It was the winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, and was also included in a list of 100 notable books of 2004 published by The Kansas City Star. Her book was given the number one spot on the “cream of the crop” list, the top ten of the 100 originally listed.

Amy Fleury has been a recipient of the Nadya Aisenberg Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony and a Kansas Arts Commission fellowship in poetry. She lived in Topeka, Kansas, where she taught creative writing for ten years at Washburn University, where she was Professor. As of the Fall of 2008, she became the poet in the M.F.A. program at her alma mater, McNeese State University. Biography from poet's page at : Kansas Poets

For more about this poet see her pages at the Map of Kansas Literature .


Purchase Information:

Southern Illinois Press and elsewhere on the web.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from John Gallaher's Map of the Folded World.


Draft: With Light

It's spring again, tornado season in Kansas. Last year, we were witness to the aftermath of the one that touched down in Manhattan. This year, another one has passed closely by in my county. You can see a fairly close up view of it in this video. Too close for comfort in my opinion.

So, not surprising, that my draft for the NaPoWriMO ends up with a tornado in it:

With Light
(a draft, by Amy D. Unsworth)

All day the sky brooding
the children muddy, the dogs picking
delicately across the soggy yard.

The sky, oh pewter sky,
how tired we grow of your threats
your clouds bunched into fists.

The long finger of the tornado
scraped across the plains
a welt, a warning. We’re not

comfortable yet with spring
with the grass grumbling
upwards, the mosquitoes

writing their memoirs
across the face of the ponds,
the sun-drunk cows swishing

away the flies. We cower
under the stairs, padding
ourselves with pillows.

Nothing comes of this:
pajamas soaked with sweat
the night interrupted

with lightning and hail.
Oh give us back our sleep
let the leaves remain

the branches unbroken
the flowers cup’s upturned
the frogs in their amorous chorus

along the banks of the drainage
ditches. Why this swollen ground
the carcasses of the worms--

winter was unkindness enough
the world shrunken and cold.
Give us spring, the air filled
with nothing but light.


Earth Day and Effort

Like many people, I'm tired of plastic bags that fly into the tree tops, clutter the streams, and pollute the ocean. It's the everyday things that add up over time. A plastic bag to carry home the gallon of milk, the carrots, the apples. A plastic bag to carry home the book from the bookstore. To carry home the pair of socks, the bottle of wine, these all add up to an enormous amount of waste. It just takes a little more effort, to find alternatives. I've been using the "store" bags for awhile (but they can't be washed), the bulky canvas bag (take up a lot of room when not in use), but recently I found these bags at a small shop in Leavenworth. It rolls up into a little pouch that is easy to carry around with me, it's comfortable to carry over the shoulder even when it's full. All in all, a great little bag to prevent more plastic bag spawn in the world. You can have one too: EnVbags. They come in different colors if truffle isn't your flavor.

Sure, it takes a bit of effort to buy and plan to have your bags with you when you shop. But do you know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where plastic is taking over the ocean, swirling together in a vast mire of tangles? The Smithsonian magazine awhile back had a photograph of a sea bird's dissected body that was stuffed with plastic that it had mistook for sea life. The bird had starved to death because the digestive track was blocked with our wastefulness, because we use up and throw away and don't look back. If you don't want to buy a bag, specially, then reuse the next bag that you're handed. Every time we reuse one bag, we reduce the demand for them. Think of it this way:

  1. It's easy to say "no thank you" to a bag at the counter. In the long run, it's good for the stores too to not have to pay as much for your shopping bag. Even if it's a fraction of a cent, they'll keep more profit on the sale, which should make stores happy too.
  2. Even if you return your bags to a recycle center, every extra use of a bag saves energy on the cost of transporting the recycled material and saves the environmental impact of the re-creation of a new bag.
  3. If you know you're going to the store, grab the bags. No room in the house? That's great. Store the bags in the trunk of your car. Then even if you're just dropping in for an after work snack, you still have a bag at hand.
  4. The more people who make an effort, the more people will make an effort. The normal thing should be for us to provide our own, reusable, cartons and boxes for our purchases.
  5. Why not try? So we can't all be perfect, we might sometimes still end up at the end of the day with an extra plastic bag, but if everyone tries, it will start to add up. One step at a time.

There are many poets who write about the environment. Try this essay from Gary Snyder or read some of his poems. I hope that we have a reason to write nature poetry for generations to come. Hopefully the image of the plastic bag in the treetop will be an image of our lifetime alone.

Pages Rustle: Featuring YOU!

If you like the new feature "Pages Rustle" here at Small Branches Poetry and would like to have a feature starring a poem from your book and a conversation with you, please let me know so that we can arrange all the various details.

I have several more poets in the queue: Amy Fluery, Tim Mayo, Brian Daldorph,and Carol Levin, thus far.

Happy Poetry Month!

Drafts & "How To"

For National Poetry Month, it's been a good April. I've been participating in a poem-a-day project which has produced several drafts I'm really pleased with, plus several more that might have productive strands to work with as revision time swings round. Here's a sample from a longer draft:

Write from the square space of your office,
of the way the paper clips
can only think of tangling together
how these become us
boxed in the days outlined on the calendars:
blank squares marching across the page

And several more poems from the circus, a theme I've been working on for some time now. What I haven't written, surprisingly to me, are more poems for the manuscript-in-progress. I don't know what that means, really. I'm starting to feel like I've finished that narrative and now need to begin the slow tedious process of actually putting the poems in their best order so that I can send it out into the world. This may have to wait until summer, or at least for a long, uninterrupted weekend.


Just a few days ago, I was able to go hear Sandra Cisneros speak at the public library in Kansas City. Now, this public library isn't like the libraries I grew up with. The library is a beautiful venue for a reading, the evening light was flowing in through the upper story windows, fluted pillars stood guard around the neat rows of wooden folding chairs. By the time she rose to speak, the room was overflowing with people.

Sandra Cisneros read and spoke mostly about being a writer, developing into a writer. She read "buttons"- the small essays that string together to form her books-- from her new book-in-progress to be called "Writing in Your Pajamas." She spoke about thinking in two different languages, creating space for one's self, things she's learned about finding her voice (the voice of a person completely comfortable, in her pajamas)

The audience was very receptive to her and asked many questions in a mix of Spanish and English. She shared with us her "top ten" things to do to develop into a writer. (You'll have to buy her book; I'm not telling!) And she also shared that writing requires both humility and courage, and that we should ask for these things each time we sit down to write. There were several other ideas that resonated with me "You don't know what you're writing about until you finish" "You don't always like what you find out about yourself" and best, perhaps "Write about your community with love, because someone else will write about it without love" (These are from my faulty notes, so not really direct quotes)

She also defined her vison of feminism as "human rights based with a compassionate outlook towards women." She also reiterated the need for writers to write and shared that she struggled with "what good is my writing; should I be doing something more practical?" when writing The House on Mango Street. But it was evident just from the crowd's reaction to her that she has done good work with her writing, showing as one person put it "that voices from the barrio could be heard."

She also encouraged us that we could change the world through small acts, through changing ourselves. I think that's another point on which we agree. I am reminded of Mother Teresa's words:

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

It's nice to hear that writing counts as one of those small things.


Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Each week through April and into May, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!

This week's poem: "Conviction" from:

Work is Love Made Visible

by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

West End Press



To the topmost branch of the cedar tree
that has lost most of its limbs to one storm or another
the mockingbird has returned.
He swings with delight on the supple branch
as it bends and sways in the gusty March wind.
He chortles his song and everyone else's
and answers my out-of-tune whistle with glee.
Does he not notice that each year his favorite tree
stands more bare and scarred, that it
weeps great rivers of fragrant resin and groans
and creaks at the slightest spring breeze or
is this his reason for returning, that
the tree could not survive the winter without
the conviction that the mockingbird would return
to sing of regeneration to newly forming branches
and to bring gladness where once there was only despair.


Most of us are familiar with the mockingbird, that jack-of-all-songs in the garden and fields, which is why he works well as a metaphor in this poem. "Conviction" is a poem that comes late in the book, a book filled with people: mothers, sisters, brothers, but mostly the women of the family who have been the keepers of the family stories, the ones who put down roots, whose work is made visible through plates delivered to customers at diner tables, through gardens filled with tomatoes, through handmade garments. So, it's a bit of a surprise to come across the bird and this broken tree, and a poem that seems to be a fairly straightforward and descriptive.

It's a lovely poem about what endures, how much we measure by what we've lost and perhaps more importantly, how too often we see the world not for the possibilities inherent but defined only by what is missing. I like how this poem slyly addresses the cyclical nature of the family, showing how grief and loss ebb and flow, how the losses in the family appear more evident, more damaging, to those who stand between generations, and especially so to those who are the storytellers and who chronicle the family's history.

The mockingbird, who we're never sure if he's chortling with us, or at us, acts to reframe the brokenness of the world into possibility. Even if the tree (and then by extension, the family) has lost branches, suffered trauma, and continues to suffer because of those losses, there's still the hope for future generations, continued growth, and a renewal come spring. And of course, the bird could be wrong, too. Too many branches might break; the tree could at last succumb to the weather, to the storms that have battered it. But this is how we go on, the new springs from the old which falls away, in turn. Perhaps, the mockingbird in this poem might just be that “thing with feathers,” hope for the future embodied and all of our songs remembered and sung back to us.


Q & A with Poet Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Q: Tell us a little bit about the photos that punctuate the book. Did you use the photos as writing prompts?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: Well, not exactly. Most of the poems in the book were already written when I discovered in my granny's album the photo-postcard of my great-great grandmother and the handwritten note on the back of it that closes the poem, "This is where I feed the hungry." I knew some of Grandma Mary Ellen's story, about how she'd lost her husband and
sons to a mysterious poisoning, but I did not know what happened to her after that. That poignant line, scribbled in pencil on the back of the photo, made me want to find out more about her, and then the poem happened around her story. Only after writing this poem in response to the picture did I realize that many of the poems I'd been writing could be attached to family photographs and movies. It may be that I had carried the images I saw in photo albums and during holiday movie nights in my head so long they became poems. My mother was astonished when I began asking for very specific photographs that I had not seen in years, but remembered clearly. I asked for the photos after I wrote the poems, though, so they weren't prompts in the usual sense, with the exception of "A Woman's Inheritance," which was a revision of a poem I'd been trying to write for a long time but that had resisted my efforts until I found the photos of my Aunt Polly as Rosie the Riveter and of the mysterious woman holding a baby in a christening gown. Both photos are directly referenced in the poem.

Q: There is an earlier poem in the book, "My Sister's Sacrifice." How do you see these two poems working together?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: This is one of the poems for which I requested a photo that my mother didn't remember having until she looked through her album. I recalled visual images of actual events that seemed to be reenactments of what turned out to be a perfect recollection of the photograph. It's as if my memories of the many, many, "last times" I saw my sister, as she was leaving, had become crystallized in my mind in the form of the remembered photo. The palimpsest imagery of "real memory" and "memory of photo" is very difficult to explain! However, discussing the poem's memory/imagery is actually less difficult than discussing its emotional genesis, even though my sister has recently returned to the family. For me, this poem is an act of forgiveness and an attempt to reach across a great emotional divide. It wasn't until I received your reading of "Conviction," in preparation for this interview, that I could see the connection between the two. I wrote "Conviction" for my husband who is figured as the (actual) mockingbird in the (actual) tree in our back yard. It is he who patiently taught me how to love with trust again, and through the poem "My Sister's Sacrifice" I attempted to refract what I had learned through his love and his patience with me into my relationship with my sister. I want to thank you again, Amy, as I did in our correspondence, for your sensitive and thoughtful reading of "Conviction," which has shown me connections I didn't consciously realize were there.

Q: There's a sense in this poem of the essentialness of returning again to home. Do you see yourself, too, as the bird who comes back home to retell and thus preserve the family through poetry?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: I came home driven by a profound land and sky homesickness, so strong it had physical components. I wonder if birds have a similar feeling when migrating back to their nesting grounds from winter roosts? Much of my family had moved, so the overwhelming ache for home I felt was truly about place, not about family. Perhaps can we call it, in reference to the literary, "sense of place" dysphoria? I left Wewoka, Oklahoma as soon as I graduated from high school; like I was "shot out of a cannon" as they say around here. Like lots of other small-town kids (Dorothy, are you listening?), I was hungry to see the
world and to have what I was sure were exciting new experiences unavailable at home. About twenty-five years later, I accepted the visceral fact I could not physically separate myself from Oklahoma any longer. I needed the lightning storms, the tornadoes, the exquisite cornflower blue sky, the spring dominated by purple (red buds, henbit), the purifying late-summer heat, the unrelenting wind. I also admitted to myself that it was against my raising to complain about my state's shortcomings from a distance and not do anything positive to
help. I came back in 2003 and I continue to put my shoulder to the wheel in many different venues to do what I can with my capabilities to help make Oklahoma the best place it can be, culturally, socially and educationally. Of course, realizing "you can't go home" and/or "going home" both have powerful emotional and metaphorical associations that are deeply tied to ideas of family and origins, so to make the choice to come home also meant, for me, to take up my family obligation as "the writer," which includes "the family history keeper," "the poet," and "the one who writes our obituaries."


Three More Poems to Note:

"Falling Stars"

"Story Teller"

"For Michael"

Poet's Biography:

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a native Oklahoman returned home after twenty years to study for her PhD in American Literature and to grow good tomatoes. Her poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible, was published by West End Press (in distribution partnership with the University of New Mexico Press) in March 2009. She lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with her husband, an engineering professor; they have a combined family of three sons, all between the ages of 17 and 19. Her mother and grandmother live just down the road.

She has participated in poetry readings and workshops for more than 20 years, including repeat performances as a founding member of the Woody Guthrie Poets at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. Other venues include Telluride Institute’s Native American Writers Program; The Taos Poetry Circus Invitational Reading; Red Dirt Book Festival; Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, C.W. Post Poetry Center at LIU; New York State Writers Institute Community Voices Series and Readings Against the End of the World, both in Albany, NY; and The Knitting Factory in New York City.

Jeanetta’s chapbook, Tongue Tied Woman, won the Edda Poetry Chapbook Competition for Women in 2002. She has published poetry recently in LABOR: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, Oklahoma Today, Poetry Bay, and in “Walt’s Corner” of the The Long-Islander. Mish’s creative non-fiction essay, “This Oklahoma We Call Home,” appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Crosstimbers. Anthology publications include poems in Returning the Gift and The Colour of Resistance. Jeanetta gives workshops in schools and libraries for both the Oklahoma Arts Council’s Teaching Artists’ Program and the Oklahoma Humanities Council’s Poetry Out Loud! Program.

For more information, visit http://www.tonguetiedwoman.com/.


Purchase information: University of New Mexico Press and elsewhere on the web.


Pages Rustle: Featured Poet: Carole Weatherford

Each week through April (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation! This week, a "Blog Tour Stop" from Carole Weatherford as she discusses her book this week across several different blogs!

Featured Poem: "Intro: What Shall I Say" from:

Becoming Billie Holiday

by Carole Weatherford

Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong

Carole Weatherford's introduces the poem:

When the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit debuted in 1939, Time Magazine’s music critic described Holiday as “a roly-poly young colored woman with a hump in her voice,” the critic claimed that the singer was drawn to “Strange Fruit’s” blues-i-ness rather than its social content. The critic ultimately dubbed the song “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Becoming Billie Holiday imagines the response of 25-year-old Billie to the 1939 article.

Intro: What Shall I Say?

The way Mom toted around
that magazine with my photo inside,
you’d have thought
I was Woman of the Year.
I don’t blame Sadie. Wasn’t everyday
that a colored face appeared in Time;
let alone her only child.
I was proud too till I read
what that two-bit critic wrote.
Called me “roly-poly;” said I wouldn’t diet,
was stuck on my own voice
and cared for tunes but not the words.
What did he know
about my taste in food or music?
I never even talked to the cat,
and he dare not cross my path.
If he does, he’ll get a mouthful,
hear just how I got to Harlem
and became Lady Day.
Oh, the tales I’d tell.


This poem (and the project as a whole) desires to set the record straight, to portray Lady Day in a sympathetic light that honors her way of understanding her world, her desires, and to reclaim her personal voice to work in counterpoint to the way Billie was portrayed in the media.

Even though there are historical documents that can be accessed, such as the one from the Time, they only tell part of her story and often from an arm's length distance but the poems invite us in for a closer examination of Lady Day's life and experience that still are relevant and fascinating today. Here's what Carole Weatherford says about the project:

Billie Holiday is my muse and she herself enlisted me to write her book. Ialmost didn't write it for fear that it would have limited appeal. Then an
eighth grade girl admiring Billie's likeness at the
Blacks in Wax Museum
convinced me that Lady Day never ceases to
be hip.

I wrote this book because Billie deserves to be better understood. I tried to portray her with empathy. My advance copy of the book arrived the day after what would have been Billie’s 93rd birthday—a belated gift. I thanked her for letting her song come through me.


You can find out more about the book at the publisher's site: Wordsong
and read more of her discussion on how her verse memoir Becoming Billie Holiday came to be as Carole's blog tour continues this week.

Next stop: April 7th at Beth Revis's blog : Writing It Out where Carole talks about her inspiration and approach to writing the poems.


You might also be interested in listening to Lady Day sing her iconic song:

"Strange Fruit"

and if you're a jazz fan, here's a review of the book from all about jazz.


Carole Boston Weatherford is a New York Times best-selling author and has 32 books of poetry, nonfiction and children's literature, including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, winner of an NAACP Image Award, Caldecott Honor Medal and Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Becoming Billie Holiday and Before John Was a Jazz Giant both won Coretta Scott King Honors; Birmingham, 1963 won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the Jefferson Cup; The Sound that Jazz Makes won the Carter G. Woodson Award from National Council for the Social Studies; and Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins both won North Carolina Juvenile Literature Awards. Her books have been short-listed by the International Reading Association, National Council for the Social Studies, and Bank Street College of Education and named best books of the year by the American Library Association, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and New York Public Library. Winner of the Ragan-Rubin Award from the North Carolina English Teachers Association and a two-time North Carolina Arts Council Writers Fellow, Carole teaches at Fayetteville State University and resides in High Point, N.C., with her family. A Baltimore-native, Carole is the daughter of Carolyn Boston and the late Joseph A. Boston, Jr.


Purchase Information: Amazon and elsewhere.


Memorable Poem: by PJ Taylor

When I first found the poetry community on the internet, I first participated at the poetry workshop at the Melic Review and also at Alsop Review's Gazebo. I remember reading this poem "To Jen, Who Died this Winter" by PJ Taylor in workshop. It's one of those poems that make you catch your breath. I'm happy to have found it again on the web. While we're celebrating poetry month, I hope you'll take the time to read her poem which first appeared in DQM Review in 2002.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Kevin Rabas

Second in the series Pages Rustle is a poem by Kevin Rabas. Each week through April (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


Featured Poem "Mermaid and Drowing Sailor" from:

Bird's Horn & Other Poems

By Kevin Rabas

Coal City Review Press


Mermaid and Drowning Sailor


Tonight, under the full moon, she has gone
underwater, her red hair thick and flowing
just above some underwater jet stream, billowing
up, her fingers touch, naked, she looks into the drowned
sailor's eyes, waiting. Will he awaken? Behind her,
the glass, placid face of the water.
Above, shining through, the cosmos,
and some galaxy she feels tonight, forming, nascent,
behind her, lit also by the lights of his boat, overturned,
spectral highlights warming her kelp hair. She descends,
tracking the drowning man, watching, praying.


Clown fish gather, sea horses,
anemone move their porcupine quills.
No luck. More bubbles escape
the side of the sailor's mouth, a pearl necklace
of air, escaping; one half of the lung going.
This does not faze her, his body softening,
the body giving now to the underwater jet stream,
gaining speed, drifting quick. She follows quickening,
tracking, her eyes darkening, sensing he may awaken;
he may awaken, before his corpse settles at the edge of the abyss.


There is a sense of strangeness and wonder in this poem: the telescoping view of the ocean, sky, cosmos, all acting as concerned but unhelpful witnesses; the artful details of the sailor's death; the uncrossable abyss, the otherness, that divides the inhabitants of the ocean and the drowning man. I'm intrigued by this mermaid, another of those mythical sirens who draws men down to where they cannot survive, with her (almost) innocent, prayerful curiosity, her desire to see him awaken in her realm, her universe.

I can't comprehend all this poem offers on the first read; there's more to see, there's more to think about than the gloss of "mermaid watches man drown." The poem holds a myriad of possibilities, explanations, avenues of approach. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the poem is as a tale of lovers who cannot bridge their differences despite their best attempts. She is beautiful, he is swept away, he cannot thrive in her natural environment, though he's tried. His boat attests to his attempt.

But it's that idea of otherness, that prayer, that repeated "he may awaken;/he may awaken" as invocation, those hints that there is even more to grasp in this poem that makes me want to read the poem again. I feel the pressure of that sky, that galaxy over her shoulder, the man on the cusp between the vastness of the cosmos and the abyss of the sea. What is a human body? We are minutia, comparably.

We soften, we change, we age, we die. What more could the mermaid do? She knows no other way than this way of the sea, gill and fin. She cannot understand why the sailor (so alike her, yet so different) will not awaken. Aren't we as humans as strange to one another as the clown fish and anemone, and often as prickly? And when it comes down to another person's death(no matter how much they are cherished or loved) or even just in moments of crisis in another's life--what more could any of us think to do, besides watch and pray and hope and follow? And so often, we fail to comprehend what the small thing is that we could do to make things right. We miss the signs that would show us and allow us to reach out in help, one to another.


Q & A with Poet Kevin Rabas

Q: This poem is one of a few poems about the sea in your book. I'm reminded of the old joke about the sailor who takes his anchor and walks, finally settling where someone asks him "what is it that you're carrying?" How does a poet from Kansas end up writing poems about the sea?

Kevin: As you know, Kansas was once underwater. Almost everything we see in terms of the land is made out of oceanic sediment, and so perhaps the sea is still with us here, although the water has left. We can’t help thinking about it. My parents are from around Lake Wilson, and during their childhoods they could walk out into a field and find shark teeth. It reminded them of what the land they were standing on once was.

For this particular poem, I found inspiration in the foreign film Sex & Lucia. If I remember correctly the film opens with a male novelist naked and underwater in the ocean. It is night, and he is committing suicide. They surface together and make love. So, my poem, unintentionally, is a version of that opening. On the special features of the film, there is a still photo slide show, and from one of those slides I found the image I was looking for in the poem. There is the woman who “saves” the novelist, her hair spread out around her, underwater, and the lights behind and above her looks like stars and a glimpse at the universe. I thought she looked a bit like I imagine a mermaid might, and drawing upon the classic tales of sailors and mermaids, I started my poem. Also, of course, as a young person I was very taken with the Daryl Hannah/Tom Hanks movie Splash, about a mermaid who follows a man onto the land. So, I guess all of these things came together, much of it subconsciously, in the poem

Q: I know that many of your poems are jazz inspired, and maybe I'm just not enough of a jazz aficionado to see it, but is this poem linked to a particular jazz song?

Kevin: You know “All Blues” comes to mind as a jazz standard (“The sea; the sky; you and I”); however, I don’t know if I was thinking of it. I do try to get at jazz phrasing, when I can. I often write runs that are long and spur-of-the moment, as a bop player might, but there is a difference. I can go back and change them. I can revise.

Q: "Mermaid and Drowning Sailor" is in a section of your book that is titled "A Thousand Ways of Holding." I'm reminded of Derrida's idea of the supplement, that in a way we create objects (especially writing) to help us substitute for something that has gone missing in our lives, even though the created object also acts as a (sometimes unhealthy) reminder of that missing piece and prevents us from moving forward. How do you see the "Mermaid" poem and "Ways of Holding" interacting with each other?

Kevin: I was focused a lot on breath in this poem, thinking what would it be like to lose your breath gradually as you sunk? I swam competitively in high school and was a lifeguard for three summers, and so I remember that feeling, of losing your air and sinking, during extreme exercises and while wrestling underwater. Also, I was diligently practicing yoga in Lawrence when I wrote this poem, and part of my practice was to do exercises where I controlled and watched my breath. My yoga teacher was a good friend, and when I learned I would soon leave Lawrence, I knew I would miss her and the practice of yoga. So, breathing intentionally became attached to thoughts of separation and loss. I did focus on the ways of the breath, and yoga, when I wrote this poem. The bit about the lungs in the poem came right from what I was learning from that practice of intentional breathing.

Of course, the loss of anyone is a bit like a drowning. They sink into memory, and all I often remember are memories that are locked as images and words, as scenes—as sequences that mimic the episodes we see when we think we might lose everything, those snap shots or videos of our last moments that the brain triggers with its intense chemicals.


Three Poems More Poems to Note:

"First Evening"

"Tiger Shark"



Poet's Biography

Kevin Rabas co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University and is co-editor of Flint Hills Review. He has two books of poetry, Bird’s Horn and Other Poems (Coal City Review Press) and Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano (Woodley Press). He is the winner of the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry.

More about Kevin can be found at the Map of Kansas Literature and at the author's website.

Purchase Information: Amazon.com and elsewhere on the web.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet RJ McCaffery

First in the new series "Pages Rustle" here at Small Branches Poetry is a poem by RJ McCaffery. Each week through April (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


Featured Poem: "The Raptors" from:

Ice Sculpture of a Mermaid with Cigar

by RJ McCaffery

three candles press


The Raptors

Come to the conservatory bloody and tangled
in wire, wings crushed by cars, or with a .22 gouge
through membranous mesh.

They come in milk cartons, washtubs, strapped
by belts, shrouded, tea towels over their heads.
They would break themselves further to escape.

There is no shame in the fight, the blood-spattering, the lash.
Their bodies, bound, fail--and there is no shame
in the slow slide to rot, as the rind over hollow bones
softens. Some die. And some entrenched, beat
against a dulling pain--and wait, and wait.

On the far wall, a light table casts a forest
of whitened branchings with darker breaks.
A large black bottle, the smooth instruments shine.

In her heavy gauntlets, the doctor leans over a hooded hawk.
Gray bones still showing, its unbound talons twitch.
Guess what? she whispers, reaching for a needle--You,
you get to live.


Many contemporary poetry books tend towards narrative, not necessarily a boldly announced plot, but sub-plots that act as anchors to the greater themes of the book. I'm a great believer in reading poems in context and enjoy the play between the individual poem and the larger stories presented in the book. It's fascinating how seemingly unconnected poems start to weave together to say something more, to tell a story. Or perhaps I'm just a reader who always looks for those threads.

"The Raptors" at first read seems to be a straight forward descriptive poem that tells of an encounter with an injured hawk during treatment. The description provides good detail--it's easy to envision yourself there, opening the box with the injured bird, hoping for the best. The comparison of the x-ray in black and white with the negative image of the bird with its gray bones works particularly well. It's a poem that deserves to be read more than once, and specifically, aloud. One of the excellent attributes of the poet's work is his attention to sound evident in this poem and many others throughout the book.

Perhaps the first clue that there might be more to the story is the ambiguity of the opening line's "Come." Of course, it can be read along with the title "The Raptors/Come to the . . ." but possibility of the imperative "Come" opens up the poem nicely to secondary interpretations which tie this particular poem in with one of thematic elements of the book: the death of a lover, early in life. Read with knowledge of grief--that which wounds, that which must be allowed to healed-- the poem opens deeper into an exploration of emotion and the long, difficult, process of recovering that cannot be rushed.


Q & A with Poet RJ McCaffery

Q: The Raptors" has a set of great images: the x-ray in contrast with the image of the bird itself. Any thoughts to why you decided to present the negative (static) image before the image of the live bird?

RJ: That's an interesting observation. I'm sure it wasn't conscious as I was writing the poem. Which isn't to say it was unplanned, as I have a very general-to-specific arc in the poem. I'm certain that I wanted to work through the inhumanity (or inbirdanity) of suffering/pain before settling on the human interaction ("you get to live") towards the end. So many ways to arrive in distress, so many things to cause pain. Then the one moment where the doctor focuses on the one bird, the one moment of speech/communication. And, often, the healing/treatment is a mixed blessing - the bird gets to live, but at further cost. A cost we as rational humans might have no qualms in paying. And so, too, perhaps the bird - just the basic will to live.

Q: In context with other moments from the book, I read the poem as an expression of the difficulties of healing from grief. How does this compare with your idea for the poem?

RJ: Yes. See above, also. The cure is also painful - what of the birds that died? Is it a reward to live in such distress? I chose not to answer that kind of question here.

Q:I like the attention to sound in this poem and others throughout your book. Is there a particular author that you read that helped you to develop your ear?

Lux as a tutor, and as for poets - Hopkins, Thomas are my mainstays. Lux taught me how to drive a long sentence - and while his works are musical, I tend to make mine a bit more ornate than his. Hence the Hopkins/Thomas. But not only and exclusively them. You know I think poems are an oppertunity to speak carefully and fully - to load every rift with ore (as Keats would say). There's no one source for speach in which all the tumblers line up. You hear it (not often) everywhere, from anyone. You just have to be attentive to it - the allied consonants/vowels, the stress rhythm in tension with the grammatical rhythm, etc.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add about the poem, a bit of the back-story, etc?

RJ: I knew a harpist who worked at an animal conservatory for birds in Georgia. I had been thinking about doing something in the wounded animal realm - the emotions of animals are so much purer in certain contexts. It just kind of all came together for me. I had been recovering from a debilitating illness myself (chronic, unfortunately) and had been reflecting on pain, giving up, not giving up, and the cost of all of it.


Three Poems More Poems to Note:

"The Angel of Sleep"

"This Book in Human Skin"

"Causes of Death in London, 1632"


Poet's Biography:

RJ McCaffery was born in Manchester, Connecticut. He attended Providence College from which he graduated magna cum laude with Distinction in English Literature. He subsequently completed his M.F.A. in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Since that time he has lived in: Providence, Rhode Island; Athens, Georgia; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington, D.C.

Following the tradition of many writers whose loyalty is first given to writing, he has held a bevy of jobs, working as a technical writer for an environmental engineering group, a public librarian, an immigration interviewer, a census taker, a handy-man, a mortgage processor, a receptionist for a health center, a teaching assistant, a student loan counselor, a warehouse palate-jockey, an eggplant picker, a car-deliverer, a book binder, a photo-developer, a web-site designer, book-store clerk, an office manager, a night shift connivance store clerk, a comic book editor, and a theatre manager.

An avid bicyclist, he builds his own bicycles which range from junkyard recumbents to fixed-gear uprights.

In the fall of 2004, he entered Georgetown University Law Center in D.C., in pursuit of a J.D., and not being able (or willing) to escape from poetry, he's recently been as pleased as punch to take up an editorial position at the New Hampshire Review.

More information about RJ can be found on his blog at http://scoplaw.blogs.com/


Purchase information:

Ice Sculpture of Mermaid with Cigar is available through the publisher: three candles press and elsewhere on the web.


Comments & Conversation always welcome!

Announcing: Pages Rustle: A Reading Series

I'm proud to announce a new series "Pages Rustle" here at Small Branches Poetry. Each week through April-Poetry Month (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a poet, a poem from his or her book, and a bit of conversation, too.

If you'd like to be featured in the future, please contact me at the email address listed on my profile. I'm particularly interested in work by poets in the Mid-West. Suggestions appreciated!

Upcoming Featured Poets:

RJ McCaffery, Carole Weatherford, Kevin Rabas, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Tim Mayo, and more.