Welcome from Amy D. Unsworth

Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

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.