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Chicken Scratch: The Red Hen Press Blog

A Little Bird Told Me: Summer Updates from Cynthia Hogue

As we inch ever closer to the upcoming release dates, our Q&A fall preview continues with poet Cynthia Hogue, whose new collection, Revenance, is available August 26th. Read through the interview below for her thoughts on writing, what draws her to stories about “ghosts,” and more.

Cynthia Hogue

1. What’s one event you’re most looking forward to this summer?
How could a poet who has essentially written a book of mystical poems in the tradition of New Spiritualism (albeit that, by coincidence)—including a number of otherworldly stories that people shared with me as I traveled across country to various places of power (Taos, New Mexico, Saratoga Springs, New York, among others)—not be excited and honored to be reading at the Annenberg House? My LA sister, a KABC news producer (formerly of the ABC West Coast office), Elaine Hogue, mentioned that the Annenberg had been part of Marion Davies’ estate, and I thought, Why, I’ll read a few of the ghost poems. Although my poems are very not-Hollywood, I am fascinated by the ghosts of the old Hollywood days. I mean, really, who isn’t?

2. How did your title, Revenance, originate? Did you consider other titles for the book?
I didn’t consider other titles, no, because of the nature of this book. As I say, quite a few people gifted me with their visions, their “ghost” stories, some of which transformed into poetic material for me. As I traveled a lot across country helping out my other sister, Chris Stegel, who was on the parental caretaking frontlines in New York, I witnessed things that can only be described as inexplicable, unless one accepts that there are extrasensory elements of existence to which we open as loved ones pass from one world to another. For instance, literally in the moment my father was dying, my very deaf mother turned to me and asked if I had just said, “We love you, we love you.” I hadn’t heard anything myself, but I said, “We aren’t alone,” and together we held my father’s hand and he died. My heart was pretty much open, vulnerable, breaking during this time—it is very moving, as anyone who has been through this knows—but I wanted to reach beyond the sentiment for that which is at once so awesome—the mind cognating the end of life—which enlarges our capacity to perceive and to empathize, and also for that which we see but cannot explain.

“Revenant” is French for “ghost,” which I’d been thinking about simply because my husband is French and I’m studying and translating French with him each summer. Revenance came to me as I sat with the poems a few years ago, putting them together into what would become the book, meditating on how the poems were working together. I made up the word, but it sounds like the plural in English: Revenants (which is the title of Mark Nowak’s wonderful collection of poems).

3. What’s your spirit animal?
If one has a spirit animal, or rather a spirit guide, one cannot divulge that so lightly, but in Revenance and in the new book I’m working on right now, there is a good deal about eagles.

4. What did you learn about yourself while writing Revenance?
I’m not sure that I learned this about myself, or that it was a confirmation of what I already knew about myself, but I write by listening, by “bearing witness,” to others, to another, or an otherness, and also, that if I’m not careful, I am sentimental. It’s fine to be sentimental in person, I think, and I probably am more often than not, but the poem suffers if it is rife with sentimentality (a danger in the elegy, of course, of which there are several in Revenance).

5. Are you a social writer? Who do you trust to read the earliest drafts of your work?
I think of myself as a private writer, because I don’t often show early drafts to anyone while the poems “brew.” But for each book there are a few readers of individual poems I have consulted, and with this manuscript, they are Kathleen Fraser, Jeannine Savard, Alan Michael Parker, and Alicia Ostriker. There are others I have learned from over the years, whom I thank in the acknowledgements. On the other hand, once a manuscript is assembled, it is really hard to ask of anyone such a gift of time, reading the whole book in advance, but three friends graciously agreed: Karen Brennan, Norman Dubie, and Elizabyth Hiscox. In the past, I’ve also consulted Sarah Vap, Afaa Weaver, and the Icelandic poet, my friend Christopher Burawa.

6. First book you read and loved?
I am probably misremembering that I read and loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, but when I was 11, I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Regent’s Park, and I got fascinated with the era, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare. My mother bought, I believe, a young adult set of the plays (or a set translated into modern English) for me. Then, soon, it was on to Jane Eyre and Gothic romances! I have been writing poetry since I was 8, but to be frank, I don’t remembering reading a lot of it when I was young. Hiawatha, yes. And Evangeline, which was my mother’s name.

7. Do you stick to a daily writing routine?
When I have time, which is rarely. I had time this past spring, and wrote every day for almost two months, but I had a book project, so I was mining a particular subject. Usually, I don’t have that, or the time to write every day.

8. What’s your best method for overcoming writer’s block?
Just do it. Don’t think, just write.

9. Did your own writing ever surprise you during the process?
I think your writing always has to surprise you or you aren’t going where you need to be going. I mean that formally as well. I have poems that experiment with form—both traditional form, which is always a surprise when I happen into that terrain, as well as innovative free verse. Poetry isn’t about reviewing what you already know, at least, to me it isn’t. I lose interest. If my poem doesn’t interest me, why would it interest anyone else?

10. Favorite writing instrument?
I used to have a sacred pen (well, I still do and love to write with a Mont Blanc my sister gave me), but mostly, I write on the computer. Not sure I’d call it a “favorite writing instrument,” but I do find it liberating because you can work so fast.

11. Can you imagine exploring the content of your upcoming title in any other genre?
No. Well, maybe prose poetry, or film. But actually, there are a couple of pretty wild and experimental ekphrastic poems, some dialogic poems, and poems of eco-ethical conscience, and I don’t see other genres accomodating the linguistic flexibility and experiment that the lyric does. Poetry best approaches the unsayable, the unknowable, but it also best stretches and explores language’s expressive capacities down to the level of syllable, morpheme, down to the elemental. I say these poems are “ghost” stories, but that is just a way to describe them briefly. They aren’t really narratives, but more about tracking the sensory impressions, the mind making sense or trying to process something that actually doesn’t “make sense.”

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Cynthia Hogue has published seven previous collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (interview-poems and photographs), both in 2010. Among her honors are a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, an Arizona Commission on the Arts Project Grant, and the Witter Bynner Translation Residency Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. Her new collection is Revenance, available now for pre-order from Red Hen Press. It will be released August 26th.

 

 

A Little Bird Told Me: Summer Updates from Elissa Washuta

Our sneak peak at Red Hen’s fall titles continues this week with responses from Elissa Washuta, whose memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is available August 12th. In the interview below, Elissa opens up about her genre, the necessity of distraction, and the chapter of her memoir that just didn’t work out. Read on to learn more about Elissa’s upcoming title, and when you might find her negotiating with her cat.

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1. Describe your “happy place.”
There is a public dock in my neighborhood tucked away at the end of a road. Apparently, according to a new sign that’s been put up, it’s called the “Beaver Lodge Sanctuary,” but I know it as The Spot. It’s not the kind of dock that invites diving—the area is swampy, full of lilypads, and inhabited by beavers. It’s hard to believe this is in Seattle; it’s even harder to believe that it’s a stone’s throw from a manicured, gate-protected golf course.

2. Your biggest distraction from writing
For me, all writing resides within a tangle of distraction. I do not tolerate unbroken periods of writing time. While writing, I cook, clean, Facebook, tweet, gChat, negotiate with my cat, take walks, listen to music, read books, and feed crows. To spend weeks in a residency without internet would fill me with dread.

3. Can you imagine exploring the content of your upcoming release in any other genre?
I can imagine the possibilities, but they seem crummy. The book, at one time, contained poems that I have since discarded. I was once told that it would work better as a novel—I disagree. The inherent urgency of fact is important to my work.

4. Please provide our blog readers with one summer reading recommendation
The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp: I messed up—I saw the film adaptation before I read the book, defying conventional wisdom about the order of the universe. Both are brilliant. This slim coming-of-age novel about a Dogrib Dene teenager from the Northwest Territories of Canada is funny and dark. The prose is stunning, and the weather is cold.

5. Biggest challenge while writing My Body Is a Book of Rules
I wrote a chapter about fencing that I worked on for years and, despite throwing out every word and starting over with a new form, I couldn’t get it to feel like anything but a half-asleep foot in the middle of my manuscript.

6. Is there a passage of the book you’re most excited for your audience to read? A passage you’re most nervous about your audience reading?
I’m excited for people to finally read “Sexually Based Offenses,” the chapter that concerns Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, because I’ve been talking about it for years now and people have responded to the idea with enthusiasm, but it hasn’t really been available. I don’t think there’s any part of this book that I’m not nervous about my audience reading. It’s a book about my darkest things and I didn’t try to make myself look pleasant.

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Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, was born in New Jersey and now lives in Seattle. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2009 and has been the recipient of an Artist Trust GAP Award, a Potlatch Fund Native Arts Grant, a 4Culture Grant, and a Made at Hugo House Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Third Coast. She is an adviser and lecturer in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. My Body Is a Book of Rules is her first book. It is available now for pre-order from Red Hen Press and will be released August 12th.

 

 

 

 

A Little Bird Told Me: Summer Updates from Pete Fromm

Red Hen’s fall season is fast approaching and in light of the anticipation, our authors have taken some time this summer to reflect on their upcoming titles. This week, our Q&A fall preview begins with Pete Fromm, whose novel, If Not For This, is available August 5th. Check out the interview below to learn more about Pete’s relationship to the rivers of the world, the invitation he can never refuse, and where the story behind his new novel first began.

Fromm Photo1. Are you working on any exciting projects this summer, related to your writing or otherwise?
I’ve got the rough draft (very rough) of a new novel starting into rewrites, and a slightly less rough draft of a second memoir to work on. I’m also seeing one son through a stress fracture that’s put his soccer career on hold, the other home from his first year of college, and my French publisher coming to visit with his family. I guess you could call them all projects, or fun, or whatever.

2. A book you hated reading in high school. How do you feel about it now?
I tried not to read a lot in high school, but my junior year a teacher got a hold of me and fed me The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, First Blood, Lord of the Flies, and I started to see some value to the whole game. I don’t really remember hating anything in particular. Maybe Shakespeare, all those thees and thous.

3. Do you remember where you were or what you were doing/ thinking about when the inspiration for your upcoming title struck?
I wrote a short story in 1998 about a couple marrying on a river bank and setting off in a raft to start their lives together. Nearly ten years later, I began to wonder what had ever happened to them, which, as usual, led me into some wild places, the results of which are If Not For This.

4. Biggest challenge while writing your novel?
Trying to write the story of a huge love without getting either weepy or saccharine. I wanted to write the life story of this couple, and wanted to ratchet up what time does to us all, so put this huge obstacle in their way, MS. From there I just watched how much grace and strength they built from their love in negotiating around it.

5. Can you recommend an ideal location for readers to enjoy If Not For This? What is it about this place that speaks to the book?
Well, in the Tetons, where it all began for Maddy and Dalt, beside the Snake or Buffalo Fork, would be pretty sweet. Some little cabin, where you can hear any river hustling by.

6. We already know you love canoeing; what is it about the river that you find relaxing?
A good, wild, river is so outside the world, or the manmade version anyway, that I just can’t not watch it. And it’s going somewhere and will take you along, an invitation I can never resist. I worked for years as a river ranger in Grand Teton National Park, floating solo every day, and I’ve never gotten over it. Twain probably, as usual, says it best, in Huckleberry Finn. “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”” Or, from his own time running the Mississippi, “The face of the river, in time, became a wonderful book. . . delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it had uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”

7. Please provide our blog readers with one summer reading recommendation
Oh, man. One book? This would change from month to month, week to week, and naming one would exclude all the other great, great books out there. Just from these questions there are the two Twain books, but to get more contemporary, one of my all time faves is Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha. The way he gets into the skin of a ten-year-old kid in Dublin and stays there is just incredible, as is how he uses humor in a story which can go so dark. It won the Booker Prize twenty years ago, when I was on tour with my second book, and it was everywhere I went, so I picked it up, as I continue to do with the Booker Prize winners, the award I think sticks truest to quality, rather than fad or reputation or buzz.

8. Did you learn anything new or surprising, while working on your novel?
I learned an awful lot about MS, of course. But I learned about love, too, the grace involved in turning yourself over to another, making something greater than yourself alone.

9. Best advice you’ve ever received from another writer?
I kind of run solo, so don’t really recall getting much advice. All the basics seemed pretty apparent to me from the outset; it’s just a job, you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to write what you love, you can’t do it for money, write what you know, show don’t tell. I learned it from reading instead of talking about it, which may be decent advice in itself.

10. What does independent literature mean to you?
Good writing, nothing chasing after the latest trend, or the biggest explosion. In my case it’s about the people, which is about the emotion, which, in the end, makes it, in one way or another, about love.

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Pete Fromm is a four-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award for the novels As Cool As I Am and How All This Started, a story collection, Dry Rain, and a memoir, Indian Creek Chronicles. His new novel is If Not For This. The film version of As Cool As I Am, starring Claire Danes, James Marsden, and Sarah Bolger, was released in June of 2013. He is the author of four other short story collections and has published over two hundred stories in magazines. A core faculty member at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program, he has a degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana and worked for years as a river ranger in Grand Teton National Park. He lives with his family in Montana, where he can often be seen walking underneath his canoe to the river.

 If Not For This is available now for pre-order from Red Hen Press. The novel will be released August 5th.

Verónica Reyes’ Chopper! Chopper! wins big at the International Latino Book Awards!

Latino Book Award Ceremony--Best Poetry

 

 

 

 

Verónica Reyes new poetry collection, Chopper! Chopper! recently received two awards from the International Latino Book Awards. The book tied for first place in the Best Poetry Book category, and was awarded second place in Best Book Design. In addition, because of her wins, Verónica now has the fantastic opportunity to participate in the 2014 Award Winning Latino Authors Tour, a series of at least 10 major book, media, Latino professional and Latino consumer events in the USA and Mexico. These events will have a minimum combined attendance of 250,000 people.

For more info on the awards and the tour, click here.

Congratulations to Verónica on the awards!

 

Celebrate Father’s Day with Our Special Promotion!

Douglas Kearney 2014

What better way to celebrate Father’s Day than listening to brilliant words about fatherhood from Douglas Kearney himself. In a special Father’s Day promotion, we’re giving away three audio recordings of poems featured in his new book, Patter. Simply send an email to publicity@redhen.org with either a confirmation or a picture of a receipt that shows you purchased Patter from June 14-July 1, and we’ll send you the credentials to log in and download the recordings! If you’ve never heard Doug perform, or if you want to own a piece of it, here’s your chance. You don’t want to miss out on this special opportunity!

But wait, there’s more! Doug will be on the Weekend Edition of NPR this Sunday, June 15, discussing his new book and experiences of becoming a father. It is surely to be an amazing interview that you don’t want to miss! Check it out Sunday at 9:40 am, 11:40 am, and 1:40 pm EST on your local NPR station or on their website here.

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Make the most of the final days of National Poetry Month!

What better way to end National Poetry Month than by attending the following events?

April 23, 7:00pm
Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood

Come hear Kate Gale & Rex Wilder read from
new poetry collections, The Goldilocks Zone
& Boomerangs in the Living Room.
225 26th Street at San Vicente, Santa Monica, CA 90402
(in the Brentwood Country Mart)

April 24, 7:30pm
Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore
The store is celebrating National Poem in Your Pocket Day
& will host poets Kate Gale, Douglas Kearney,
& Peter Kline. Make sure to visit!
2904 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705

April 26, 4:00pm
Beyond Baroque

Spend your Saturday afternoon listening to Veronica Reyes
read with two-time national slam poet Matt Sedillo.
681 Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA 90291

April 27, 4:00pm
Beyond Baroque
Our stellar National Poetry Month Showcase
will feature Brendan Constantine, Nicelle Davis,
Gary Geddes, & Kim Dower as moderator.
681 Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA 90291

April 27, 7:30pm
Rhapsodomancy Reading Series

Douglas Kearney will read from his brand new book, Patter,
at the Good Luck Bar with Melissa Broder, Jan Richman,
& Wendy Oleson. Make time for this!
The Good Luck Bar, 1514 Hillhurst Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027

April 29, 7:00pm
Boston Court Performing Arts Center

Co-sponsored by the Poetry Society of America,
this event will put Ron Koertge & Robin Coste Lewis
on stage for an evening of fantastic poetry.
What better way to end National Poetry Month?
70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106

Email publicity@redhen.org with questions.
We hope to see you soon!

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Red Hen Authors

Readers,

This April marks the 19th year that the US has celebrated National Poetry Month! Isn’t that wonderful? In honor of National Poetry Month, Red Hen Press would like to present to you some of our Spring 2014 authors and how poetry has affected their lives.

We asked each of our Spring authors ”What poem has changed your life and why?” Below are their responses, both touching and inspiring.

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Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes author of What Does A House Want? 

As an author and editor of 45 books, my life has been changed incrementally by everything I’ve read and anthologized. However, one of my favourite poems of recent years is Robert Hass’s short narrative poem called “My Mother’s Nipples.” In seven pages, Hass sounds many emotional chords as he performs a skillful dance on the subject of displacement, comparing a child’s removal from the mother’s breast to our gradual and brutal displacement from the natural world. Technically, he foregrounds the competing impulses of story and song, or lyric and narrative, and with considerable irony privileges the prose passages with the most moving and unforgettable images and scenes, in one of which the speaker as a young boy, on finding his mother drunk and passed out in a park, sits down, leans back against a tree, and places her head in his lap so it looks as if they’re having a picnic and she’s only sleeping.

Lisa KruegerLisa C. Krueger  author of Talisman

Since I was young I have loved Lucille Clifton’s poem “Miss Rosie.” The poem is a call to action framed in a powerful lyrical declaration. Clifton’s condensation of language is masterful and conveys the essence of women’s fortitude. “I stand up/ through your destruction/ I stand up”.

 

 

David Mason in Delphi c. Chrissy MasonDavid Mason author of Sea Salt

Poems can and do change lives, like omens or revelations. I could go back to Lewis Carroll—read aloud to me by my father—and my delight in the line “Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!” But I think I’ll regress only as far as my serious teenage years and T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” one of the first poems I ever memorized for oral interpretation events.

Growing up in Bellingham, Washington, the only cities I had seen were Seattle and Vancouver, B. C., so these gritty images of Boston, where Eliot wrote the poem, only confirmed my sense of urban grayness and human isolation. I didn’t understand the philosophical subtext of knowledge and experience—Eliot was studying philosophy at Harvard, which to me might as well have been Mandarin on the moon.

What I got was a sound, the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” and “grimy scraps of withered leaves” and “newspapers from vacant lots.” Vacancy was cool to a teenaged pessimist, but the boy I was could also be “moved by fancies that are curled / About these images and cling: / The notion of some infinitely gentle, / Infinitely suffering thing.” Somewhere deep inside me lived such a creature, held at bay by the fledgling cynic: “Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh; / The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

Bitter vacancy and bad weather—that was the stuff for a sixteen-year-old boy in the Viet Nam era. But there was a sound in the poem that won me from the start, a music I have always thought must be the stuff of poetry.

sj mishler author photo lg52b333a15047aSusanna Mishler author of Termination Dust

I discovered Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in high school and was changed by its ferocity. It spoke to something that resided just under my skin – an unarticulated question and desire – it answered “YES”.

 

 

 

Dennis Must colorDennis Must author of The World’s Smallest Bible

In response to the question “What poem has changed your life and why?” I prefer to respond to it another way.

Being that we experience dissimilar seasons in life as we age, at this my 80th year I’ve chosen Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Lament.” I believe my explanation may be self evident. The poem embraces the innocence of a childhood parable and the wisdom of simple metaphors to illuminate the ineffable.

Lament

LISTEN, children,
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there:
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco.
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on
Though good men die.
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine.
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

AndreaHeadshot6Andrea Scarpino author of Once, Then

Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” dramatically altered my understanding of what can be said in poetry the first time I read it, and continues to inspire me to write the world fearlessly and beautifully. Because one of the wonderful things about “The Colonel” is how it mixes absolute horror—the human ears the Colonel carries in a sack, glass embedded in the wall—with an unparalleled loveliness of language—the green mangoes, the moon that “swung bare on its black cord over the house.” Forché teaches us that poetry can say very hard truths with lyricism and beauty. That one does not preclude the other.

And she teaches the importance of writing with fierce complexity. No matter the number of times I have read “The Colonel,” each new reading yields something new: the wife’s traditionally gendered behavior, the Colonel’s wealth (his maid, his extravagant dinner), the two outsiders invited into a terribly dangerous political situation, the friend’s complicity in silence (“say nothing”) at least long enough to get them out of the Colonel’s house alive, the Colonel’s famous threat and challenge (“Something for your poetry, no?”), Forché’s use of reportage, how the poem builds tension, hinting throughout the opening lines of the horror to come (“a pistol on the cushion beside him”)—every sentence in “The Colonel” bears weight. Every word is put to good use.

And even in the ending’s horror, we have beauty mixed with political content: “Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I read “The Colonel” for the first time, my previous thinking about what and how poetry can speak cracked wide open. And with every subsequent reading, I learn something new. And that is what makes it a life-changing poem—I return to it again and again and always find a new lesson, a new way of thinking about poetry, a new way of seeing the world.

AmySchutzerAmy Schutzer author of Spheres of Disturbance

Of course, there’s no one poem that changed my life, but a cascade of them over the years. Like a song captures the underlying music of a particular time, so, for me, does poetry. As a writer, poetry instructs through its content, its rhythm and structure. I have found that to be invaluable as a poet and a prose writer. Here then is one poem with the whys of its magic:

 

Again and Again and Again
By Anne Sexton

You said the anger would come back
just as the love did.

I have a black look I do not
like. It is a mask I try on.
I migrate toward it and its frog
sits on my lips and defecates.
It is old. It is also a pauper.
I have tried to keep it on a diet.
I give it no unction.

There is a good look that I wear
like a blood clot.  I have
Sewn it over my left breast.
I have made a vocation of it.
Lust has taken plant in it
and I have placed you and your
child at its milk tip.

Oh the blackness is murderous
and the milk tip is brimming
and each machine is working
and I will kiss you when
I cut up one dozen new men
and you will die somewhat,
again and again.

She doesn’t hold back, does she? The poem is in service to the poet’s incredible duplicity of feeling and what is put forth to the world. When I got into Anne Sexton’s poetry I was dropped into the calliope of wildness, obsession, unloosening of manners, emotions, and poetic structures. She was writing her way into a world, that at that time, didn’t have much room for her. There is a good look that I wear . . . I have made a vocation of it. This poem, then was a rallying cry, don’t pretend, find your own voice and use it.

Jim TilleyJim Tilley author of  Cruising at Sixty to Seventy

Of course, the full answer is that so many poems have moved me, made me think about life in some non-obvious way, that it’s almost impossible to choose but one.  But if I’m asked, as you have, to single out a poem, I would have to march all the way back to high school when my love of poetry took root and say it is Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias.”  From its technical construction, showing that one can break rules, adopt unconventional rhyme schemes, to its content, I found it a marvel.  The sculpture in the poem speaks to a poem as sculpture.  A perfect sonnet with 140 syllables, same as the maximum number of characters in the original Twitter tweets.  Imagine that!


William TrowbridgeWilliam Trowbridge
author of Put This On, Please

I’d have to say the poem that changed my life is Howard Nemerov’s “Mousemeal,” which I came across  while studying for my P.hD. comps. Till then, I was planning to be a scholar, not a poet. My dissertation was on the novels of William Faulkner. But after reading and reading Nemerov’s poem, with its stunning combination of humor and darkness, I decided to try my hand at writing a poem. Then I wrote another and another. It didn’t take long for me to revise my life plan.  

 

Melina DraperMelina Draper author of Later the House Stood Empty

Take Care of the Little Box

by Melina Draper

 A poem by the Yugoslav poet Vasko Popa, “The Little Box” from a cycle of poems by the same name, changed my life back in 1999 when I aspired to write but didn’t know quite where to begin. I’d tried my hand at a few short stories, and I yearned for something more. I was 25, struggling in the messy chaos of a relationship with a brilliant and ineffectual alcoholic lobsterman. I was looking at graduate school as an exit ticket out of the life I’d made for myself, which had become a puzzle box of unfortunate and painful constraints.

Then I bought The Horse Has Six Legs, an anthology of Serbian poetry translated by Charles Simic, on sale at Gulf of Maine Books, from the friendly bearded storeowner who vaguely encouraged me to write, and I read the little box poems. The little box does unimaginable things, things that are unimaginable for a little box to do. She grows bigger, so big that the cupboard she was within is now inside her, and then everything is inside her, the whole world. And then, “The little box remembers her childhood/ And by a great longing/ She becomes the little box again.” What magical, expansive, delightful thing was this? She becomes the little box again, only this time, she carries the whole world in miniature within her. The last line reads, “Take care of the little box.” Was I the little box? Should I take care? Was this poem written for me?

How can a poem change your life? It seems too much to ask of a poem, any poem, especially one about nothing more and nothing less than a little box. Popa’s little box poems showed me play, light, gave me something to aspire to, an idea to write poems, to write funny and silly poems, to make a little box, a sweet lovable little box, into a powerful and dangerous thing. The poem for some reason provided a way to make sense of what was happening to me. The flavor of these Serbian poems was very different from the American poems I’d been reading. They didn’t seem to be personal snippets of someone’s life who I couldn’t relate to, so different was my point of departure and my daily agony and delight—and what a relief! The little box poems became snippets of my life in a more real, more fully imagined and imaginary way.

If the little box could do all these things, so could I. She was terrifying, mysterious, expansive, yet humble. All sorts of bizarre things go on to happen to the little box, and likewise went on to happen to me. I made my way to the University of New Hampshire, and studied with Charles Simic, who also happens to have the kind of odd sense of humor and eye for the bizarre that I so fell in love with on that day back in 1999 in Popa’s poems. I disentangled myself from the arms of the compelling lobsterman who loved to read.

The little box was a certain unexpected, expansive, and odd doppelgänger. I am so grateful to the little box! I would kiss the little box if I could. If you happen to see her, please convey my gratitude and devotion. But be careful, she can be dangerous and may be full of stars.

Frannie LindsayFrannie Lindsay author of Our Vanishing

When I was an MFA student at Iowa, I brought with me, along with way too much luggage, a lust for words—as many as I could cram into a single poem. A fair number of us came to the Workshop with such extravagant poems. More was more. The three or four students astute enough to trim them back didn’t care much about popularity. They possessed, instead, a surgical clarity that the rest of us experienced as a lack of mercy.

Donald Justice was one of my teachers at Iowa, and I don’t think I knew how privileged I was.  The simplicity of his poems was fearsome; I thought it unnecessarily austere. So I hung onto my voluptuous over-writing for dear life. It was Don who urged me to read William Stafford, and so, grudgingly, I did. In comparison to what Don called my “pretty writing”, Stafford’s was plain whole wheat. I saw the discipline but none of the beauty. It was all so masculine.

Years later, wanting to re-examine that simplicity, I bought Stafford’s little book Smoke’s Way. It is not a well-known collection, but I gravitated toward books that most people had not heard of. This one is a compilation from previous limited-edition and out-of-print volumes. The poems are nearly monastic.

The poem in which I took up immediate residence is very short. It is called “Brother.” I still live in it. It reads, in its entirety:

Brother

It’s cold where Bob is:
I’m glad the rich have cozy
homes, and anyone can huddle.

Out there, it’s cold
and Bob has gone so far
no one in the world can touch his hand.

Such broken years as
he had, now belong
to others. I turn to them, to live.

But Bob was.
He lived.
I had a brother.

Stafford has stripped the language of all but the slightest imagistic gestures. I wanted to write like that. These were quickly-told secrets, and I wanted to tell my own.

It took me eleven years of not writing a thing—nothing—to come back to poetry. I stopped in 1990, having simply run out of words, and came back in 2001 with a much leaner, but not-very-good, poem in response to 9/11. I came back via Stafford—that book, that poem. I read it over and over, many times a day; and I read it before bed. It kept showing me new things. It kept showing the subtle power of meter, and the eloquence of white space.

Such broken years as/he had, now belong/to others. It is a sentence devoid of pity, either for the speaker himself or for the deceased sibling. It conveys sorrow through its halting linebreaks alone.

And so, in my newer work, I held every word that wasn’t a noun or verb as suspect. I started learning which ones were there on official business, and which ones were nothing but flirty little swoops. I was done writing “hippie poems”.

My paring-down of voice may not have changed me very much–I still wear long skirts and shawls and live much too subjectively. I may still be known for my eccentricity, but my work is leaner. A single word has a lot of work to do, and I like to think that I have chosen the few that are sufficiently muscular to do it.

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Poetry is life-changing, gorgeous, and thought-provoking. Treat yourself to an experience in poetry and celebrate National Poetry Month with Red Hen and our authors. You might even find your life-changing poem.

Sea Salt Goes Visual

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David Mason’s poem, “Sea Salt,” from his latest poetry collection of the same name, got the Motionpoem video treatment. The amazing visual was created by Amy Schmitt, Kelly Pieklo, and Emily J. Snyder.  Sea Salt, Poems of a Decade 2004-2014 came out on April 1.

 

Click here to check out the video.

Red Hen Press at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

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Red Hen Press is sharing a booth with Poets & Writers this Saturday and Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Join us in the shade at Booth 346, grab a catalog, and ask us about our new releases, upcoming events, or Writing in the Schools program.  Plus, hen house authors Melody Mansfield, Douglas Kearney, Jessica Piazza, Bart Edelman, Laurel Ann Bogen, Kim Dower, and Rex Wilder will sign copies of their titles, too. Make sure to stop by!

New titles from RHP!

It’s April 1st, and we all know what that means…. the start of National Poetry Month, of course! In honor of this special month-long holiday, we’re releasing a number of new titles throughout April, starting today! Check out our release schedule below and get in on the goods:

April 1

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Spheres of Disturbance - Amy Schutzer

“Spheres of Disturbance is a book the way books were when people got lost in them, lost hours and days in pages. It’s beautiful and musical and wise and curious, like your first trip to a library: go.”

—Carol Guess, author of Doll Studies: Forensics

 

 

 

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Sea Salt, Poems of a Decade: 2004-2014 – David Mason

“Mason’s formal excellence is cause enough to celebrate these poems, but it is the emotional honesty, sentiment not sentimentality, that makes Sea Salt such a deeply moving and memorable reading experience.”

—Ron Rash

 

 

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The Love Project: A Marriage Made in Poetry – Wanda Coleman & Austin Straus

“In the unique geography of any marriage, there are many and varied landscapes, cityscapes, main arteries, side streets, and dark alleyways. Wanda Coleman & Austin Straus have mapped theirs with courage, passion, anger, joy, exasperation, and gratitude in language that speaks—and sings—to anyone openhearted enough to hear.”

—Stephen Kessler, author of Moving Targets: On Poets, Poetry, & Translation

 

 

 

 

April 15

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Talisman – Lisa C. Krueger

“In this collection, rational thought is turned into exquisite music to invent a kind of new language with which to express the human experience….There is hardly a line, let alone a poem… that isn’t surprising, memorable, and important.”

—Laura Kasischke

 

 

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Later the House Stood Empty - Melina Draper

Later the House Stood Empty crosses borders, over the river and back again, where imagination and reality are neighboring countries. These finely wrought poems are both explorations and evolutions as they consider inner and outer landscapes, love and history.”

—Derick Burleson

 
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Cruising at Sixty to Seventy: Poems and Essay - Jim Tilley

“Jim Tilley is a bracing and quietly confident writer, able to consistently surprise us, whether in missives from domestic life, topical poems, or poems which quirkily address what he calls ‘the big questions.’ These are wry, bittersweet, and unobtrusively instructive poems in the tradition of Wilbur, Schuyler, and Dunn, and they are very much worth reading.”

David Wojahn