Category: Poetry (Page 1 of 10)

Author Q & A with Beth Ann Fennelly

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, once again stretches her literary abilities with a new release she calls “a true hybrid.”

The Oxford author who has netted a considerable number of writing awards and accolades as a poet and novelist captures the attention of readers in a fresh, new approach with Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, with entries that range from one sentence to five pages.

heating & coolingThe micro-memoir, she has said, “combines the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction,” in works that include “memories, quirky observations, tiny scenes, (and) bits of overheard conversations that, with the surrounding noise edited out, reverberate.”

Writing micro-memoirs, she said, was “liberating” after she had co-authored The Tilted World, a novel that required extensive research, with her husband Tom Franklin. “After living in the heads of characters, now my own thoughts, my own experiences, seemed newly fresh,” she said.

Additionally, Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction Great with Child. She’s won grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission (three times), the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and was included three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She was also the first woman to claim the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Griffin Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Writing.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Fennelly said her first love was poetry, which she studied at the University of Notre Dame, earning first a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1993; and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1998.

An English professor in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She and Franklin, also an English professor at Ole Miss, are the parents of three children.

At what point in your life did you discover that you were a writer?

I was always an artistic kid, loving the theater and music and reading and writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I got to college. That’s where I experienced my first truly great teachers and was exposed to contemporary poetry. In my high school, we only read the classics. I think that’s one reason why I take my job as a college professor so seriously–I know how an engaged teacher can turn a student’s life around.

Poetry is a different kind of writer’s challenge. How were you drawn to poetry?

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction–how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was, and still am, in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to take a poem into your body through memorization and release it back into the world with the air that rises from your windpipe.

Your newest book is a nonfiction collection of brief personal thoughts, idea, and memories, along with several short essays. They deal with family, marriage, fears, triumphs, nostalgia, and hopes. Was this a collection you have gathered through the years, or did you write these specifically to be published as a book?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: We spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from our book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.”

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-embedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing.

So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, “What if this ‘not writing’ I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

Today, you and Tom are professors in the English department at Ole Miss, where you teach poetry and nonfiction writing–and where you have been named Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I really like working with young adults–I think they keep me young in certain ways, because I’m always getting exposed to new ideas. I love the feeling of being in love with a book or an author, and not just conveying my own passion, but kindling that same passion in my students.

Books have been such important companions to me, and reading has schooled me in empathy and reflection. These are skills the world isn’t encouraging in our young people. I’m honored that I get the chance to share the transformative power of literature with them.

In 2016, you were named poet laureate for the state of Mississippi. What are your duties that go along with that?

I’ve just finished the first year of my four-year term, and I’ve had a blast. I’m interested in getting poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible, especially children. The position is honorary in that there’s no salary involved, and therefore my “duties” are probably more “suggestions,” but I’m traveling to a lot of libraries and schools, and I’m deeply involved in our state’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I think every high schooler should be a part of.

Beth Ann Fennelly will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 9, to sign and read from Heating and Cooling. The signing will begin at 5:00 p.m. and the reading will begin at 5:30.

Ellen offers opinions on Olds’ outstanding ‘Odes’

So, I’m not sure why, but I have not been able to get enough poetry as of late. I feel like I spend most days at work figuring out which book of poetry I’ll read next. Now mind you, I don’t like flowery poetry that I have to turn my brain inside out attempting to figure out what the string of words mean when put all together. I like it to be right out there in front of me, screaming.

odesAll of that is to say I am reading A LOT of poetry right now. However, in my mind, one collection of poems currently shines above the rest. Sharon Olds won the Pulitzer with her 2012 collection, Stag’s Leap. Her newest collection is entitled Odes. Olds uses this old form of a poem to celebrate all parts of herself and female sexuality. I can’t stress enough how excited I was to get home every night and read some of these poems. I could have plowed through the book in one sitting, but I opted to savor every single one, only allowing myself–at most–five poems at a time. The subject matter of the poems ranges from the purely sexual to the everyday mundane: “Blow Job Ode”, “Ode to the Clitoris,” “Hip Replacement Ode,” “My Mother’s Flashlight Ode,” “Real Estate Ode,” & “Ode to the Last Thirty-Eight Trees in New York City Visible from This Window”. The imagery conjured by these poems is at once brilliant and so obvious, at least once Olds has put it in front of you. Many times I found myself asking in my mind “Why haven’t I ever thought of that before?” These are beautiful and brilliant in their simplicity. Get in this mix guys.

“Ode of Girls’ Things”

I loved the things that were ours–pink gloves,
hankies with a pastoral scene in one corner.
There was a lot we were not allowed to do,
but what we were allowed to do was ours,
dolls you carry by the leg, and dolls’
clothes you would put on , or take off–
someone who was yours, who did not
have the rights of her own nakedness,
and who had a smooth body, with its
untouchable place, which you would never touch, even on her,
you had been cured of that.
And some of the dolls had hard-rubber hands, with
dimples, and though you were not supposed to, you could
bite off the ends of the fingers when you could not stand it.
And though you’d never be allowed to, say, drive a bus,
or do anything that had to be done right, there was a
teeny carton, in you, of eggs
so minute they were invisible.
And there you would be milk, in you, too–real
milk! And you could wear a skirt, you could
be a bellflower–up under its
cone the complex shape like a closed
buckle, intricate groove and tongue,
where something like God’s power over you lived. And it turned out
you shared some things with boys–
the alphabet was not just theirs–
and you could make forays over into their territory,
you could have what you could have because it was yours,
and a little of what was theirs, because
you took it. Much later, you’d have to give things
up, too, to make it fair–long
hair, skirts, even breasts, a pair
of raspberry-colored pumps which a friend
wanted to put on, if they would fit his foot, and they did.

National Poetry Month (An Ebullient Elegy)

You guys! It’s National Poetry Month! Unfortunately, it’s almost over. Fortunately, poetry is for all seasons. And I am here to talk to you about POETRY!

National-Poetry-Month

National Poetry Month was started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets as a way to celebrate all that poetry has to offer. National Poetry Month seeks to show people the wonders of poetry, and its place in our culture and in the literary world.

In my belief, and I’m sure in many others, poetry is the oldest tradition in the literary world. Epic stories were often told in verse form; we are all at least a little familiar with Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as epics like Beowulf and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which is mostly in verse. We all know the classic poetry, the most famous poets. We may all even be a little familiar with the different forms poetry has taken and the different eras it has gone through in the course of history. These are the things I find most beautiful about poetry: its ever-changing, ever-evolving, yet persistent and immortal nature. Poetry is everywhere, and will always be everywhere.

Now, I may not be in the same camp as some readers, but in the past, I have found myself desperately wanting to like certain canonical poets and poetry, but finding myself disenchanted with a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, I have found a few favorites in the poetry of old: T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” being a few. I greatly admire Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Edgar Allan Poe, as well. I also really liked, in a strange, sort of morbid way, John Donne’s “The Flea.” Sadly, however, I have to say that most of the time in my undergraduate poetry-as-literature class at LSU, I did not enjoy many of the poems our professor assigned to us, even some by poets that I really thought I would enjoy.

Don’t hold that against me, though, because during the next semester, I took a poetry writing class rather than a poetry-as-literature class, and that is when I discovered much more recent poetry that I naively (I’ll admit ignorantly) thought existed only online. Thanks to Mrs. Wilky, I discovered more female poets, which was something I had hoped to learn about in my poetry-as-literature class. In her class, I learned the most wonderful thing I had yet to learn about poetry: there is so much poetry out there that you can always find something you enjoy reading and can relate to.

insomniaI am happy to say that since I started working at Lemuria, I’ve discovered wonderful contemporary poets who write poetry that I can relate to. In one of my first blogs for Lemuria, I took on Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey,feeling like no amount of words could do it justice. I have just recently finished Linda Pastan’s Insomnia: Poemswhich was wonderful, and highly relatable for me; I feel the same way about it as I did Milk and Honey. It is a short little volume about living life and living it well in this incredibly fast-paced world, which I think many would love as much as I did. I have discovered books by other young poets, such as Tyler Knott Gregson; I found his “Typewriter Series” online years ago, but I never knew about his books, such as Wildly into the Dark.

Anyway, I wrote about all my experiences with poetry to tell you that poetry is one of those things that I didn’t really enjoy until I related to it, and I am sure I am not alone in this. I have been grateful for the last few years to learn about the wonders of poetry, the versatility of poetry, through classes and amazing events like National Poetry Month, as well as just browsing the shelves at Lemuria. john keatingThe versatility of poetry is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place; poetry has many different uses: to convey love (or even hate) and other emotions, to appreciate nature, to appreciate culture, and to encourage activism. Whatever your interest, there’s going to be poetry out there for you to discover. Come and see sometime what poetry has to offer you.

Ron Rash and his powerful ‘Poems’

I’ve stopped fighting Ron Rash.

This is how it usually happens: I see a book on the shelves at the store, hear other booksellers talking about it, and think to myself Sounds good, but I really need to wait till my next paycheck to buy another book. Then, said author shows up and does a phenomenal reading. Predictably, my aforementioned responsibility dissolves, and I become Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, clutching a copy of the book and mumbling to myself, “I want it NOW!!!”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Source: The Wall Street Journal

However, I’ve learned to stop this futility with Ron Rash. When he read from Something Rich and Strange, I knew I would love the book, and I snagged a copy before he left the store; when he read from Above the Waterfall, the entire audience was transfixed to the point of collective held breath, and I knew I needed that power on my own bookshelf. So, when I saw his Poems: New and Selected, I didn’t even wait till he came to the store. I went home with a copy that afternoon and haven’t regretted it.

Rash is one of the rare writers who can shift between prose and poetry seamlessly. Fans of Rash’s fiction often cite the depth of his characters, rich description, and gorgeous language. These things are present in his poems as well. Yet a poem can explore an idea in a different, more direct way than fiction can. While fiction examines the condition of humanity and relationships, a poem can focus on things beyond humanity, like the natural world. Take his short poem “Deep Water” for instance:

The night smooths out its black tarp,

tacks it to the sky with stars.

Lake waves slap the bank, define

a shoreline as one man casts

his seine into the unseen,

lifts the net’s pale bloom, and spills

of threadfin fill the live well.

Soon that squared pool of water

flickers as if a mirror,

surfaces memory of when

this deep water was a sky.

Jacket (4)First off, the description of the night being a “black tarp” that’s held in place by stars is simply genius. Trust me: this will affect the way you look at the night’s sky from now on. And the way the poem shifts its (and our) focus from the sky to the lake in which this unnamed man is flinging his fishing net feels natural. This sky/lake relationship is maintained at the poem’s close when, as the threadfin fish slip out of the seine net, the lake is compared to a mirror that reminds us of “when/ this deep water was a sky.”

How, exactly, was the water once a sky? That depends on who you ask. For the fish, the water is their atmosphere, and its top is to them as the sky is to us. For us, when we look skyward and see clouds, there is also a quiet understanding that those clouds will fall as rain and eventually become an earthbound body of water. Rash cleverly puns on the verb “surface,” the word serving both as the action of rising to the top (literally, the memory is being brought up) and as a reminder of the barrier between air and water.

Whether dealing with the complexities of humans or of nature, he always delivers with inventive description and clever language. If you find yourself mildly afraid of or curious about poetry, come pick up a copy of Rash’s Poems: New and Selected. Or, if you need a little more convincing, come hear Mr. Rash read from the book this Thursday. You’ll get firsthand evidence of why I’ve quit resisting his books when you listen to the current of his words, and any hesitancy to buy the book gets swept away.

2015, I’d like to kiss you on the mouth.

dbdb37f2-a00d-4114-b5d6-1e42a0bc65cfThis year was a doozy. I consumed everything from nonfiction about animal consciousness to the modern classic Fates and Furies by Lemuria’s new best friend, Lauren Groff. I can’t even get into the second paragraph without telling you that The Godfather was hands down my favorite read of the year. You can read my blog about it here. I had the chance to sit down and talk to Garth Risk Hallberg about his meteoric rise in the literary world. Jon Meacham made me cry.

I personally made the move from the hub that is Lemuria’s front desk to the quieter fiction room, where I now am elbows deep in the mechanics of our First Editions Club; and am coincidentally even more in love with fiction than I was before. My TBR pile has skyrocketed from about 10 books to roughly 30 on my bedside table. It’s getting out of control and I love it.

[Sidebar: This year, I fell even more in love with graphic novelsNimona surprised us all by making one of the short-lists for the National Book Award, and we were so pleased to see it get the recognition that it deserves. Go Noelle Stevenson! You rule!]

As a bookstore, we were able to be on the forefront of some of the most influential books of 2015 (see: Between the World and Me– when we passed that advance reader copy around, the rumblings were already beginning). Literary giants Salman Rushdie, John Irving, and Harper Lee put out new/very, very old works to (mostly) thunderous applause, and debut novelists absolutely stunned and shook up the book world. (My Sunshine Away, anyone? I have never seen the entire staff band behind a book like that before. We were/are obsessed.) Kent Haruf’s last book was published; it was perfect, and our hearts ache in his absence.

We marched through another Christmas, wrapping and reading and recommending and eating enough cookies to make us sick. We hired fresh new faces, we said goodbye to old friends, we cleaned up scraggly, hairy sections of the store and made them shiny and new. We had the privilege of having a hand in Mississippi’s first ever book festival. We heaved in the GIANT new Annie Leibovitz book, and spent a few days putting off work so that we could all flip through it. In short, this year has been anything but uneventful; it’s been an adventure. So here’s to 2016 absolutely knocking 2015 out of the park.

Read on, guys.

 

9XL0vUY

Bleak but Relatable: Happenstance

In my opinion, just because someone can compare a cup of sugar to the idea of love does not mean they are a clever writer. I prefer poetry that can make me think, and I only came across this poem for my British Literature class in college. But it really resonated with me, because it was one of those few times I read something and felt relief because someone addressed a really specific feeling I’ve had.

Hap is basically about how Thomas Hardy wishes that some god or higher being would tell him that the hardships he’s had to endure in his life have some meaning, even if it is only for the entertainment of the god. But Hardy knows that most likely there is no meaning to his life at all, everything that has happened to him is simply chance, thus the title of the poem, Hap, is short for the “happenstance” of his life’s events.

Yay existential crisis! So it’s pretty sad, but just the idea that a famous poet has felt something that I have makes me feel a bit better. It’s a pretty cool poem, and is worth reading and researching the words that Hardy uses to describe his feelings because they have specific definitions that help with understanding the poem. Also, if you feel depressed after reading the poem, just imagine reading it out loud in the middle of the rain while sad music plays like in a movie, while you, I don’t know, shake your fist at the heavens. Then it’s hilarious. So I hope you read this poem, and I hope you feel oddly comforted by it like I did.

4S0iQTs

 

 

Hap                                                                                                                                                 By Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

 

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

 

But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Blackberry, Blackberry, Blackberry

Blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

 

Every time I eat a blackberry or see a blackberry, I think about Meditations at Lagunitas by Robert Hass.  For somebody who loves words, the way they feel in your mouth and the way they look on the page, Hass’ poem is a gold mine of beautiful language and a love letter to the written word.

In the line, “a word is elegy to what it signifies,” the entire written world is open for interpretation. A blackberry in my mind is different from a blackberry in the mind of somebody else. Because you can read the word blackberry, and it is no longer just a word, but takes shape in your mind, takes on a feeling, evokes memories of summer, the way the juice stains your fingers dark purple. My favorite lines:
…because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

And then at the end:

There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Meditation at Lagunitas

By Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

A Little Lust Is a Dangerous Thing

Ok, let’s talk about sex.

People having been writing about sex, love, and loss for centuries. Recently, I assigned myself the mission of rifling through our stock of erotic poetry here at Lemuria to see what it is that makes poems about sex so damn interesting. Is it the snickering, childish curiosity that moves us, or is it a yearning for the familiarity of human touch, even if it’s from a page?

In haiku, desire is portrayed almost entirely in natural images; flowers opening, the cool rain on hot, dry earth. It is subtle and easy to misunderstand. The words are gentle and soothing. A favorite of mine:

 

By Yoshiko Yoshino

 

nights of spring–

tides swelling within me

as I’m embraced

shunya miuchi ni ushio unerite dakare ori

 

Similarly, the erotic verse of the sixth Dalai Lama relies heavily on natural imagery, but brings an achingly human element to the stories being told. So often the poetry recalls unrequited love or the yearning of . . . being . . . horny.

 

So out of my mind with love,

I lose my sleep at night.

Can’t touch her while it’s day–

Frustration’s my sole friend.

 

When I picked up E. E. Cummings book Erotic Poems I had NO idea what to expect.  Turns out it is as confusing and tender as his other collections; a combination of jagged, unfinished thoughts, and jarringly familiar moments (i.e., the phrase “don’t laugh at my thighs”). Several times I was caught between “aawwwwww” and  “what the hell?” moments. Here’s a favorite that savors strongly of The Song of Solomon:

 

[my lady is an ivory garden]

 

my lady is an ivory garden,

who is filled with flowers.

 

under the silent and great blossom

of subtle colour which is her hair

her ear is a frail and mysterious flower

her nostrils

are timid and exquisite

flowers skilfully moving

with the least caress of breathing,her

eyes and her mouth are three flowers.       My lady

 

And then there’s Jill Alexander Essbaum; poet extraordinaire and April’s First Editions Club author here at Lemuria for her debut novel, Hausfrau. Before Essbaum wrote Hausfrau, she dabbled in erotic poetry and came up with some blush-worthy stuff. Where the Japanese are subtle and coy, she is brazen and honest. Instead of constant natural metaphors, she gets straight to the point, and there is something refreshing and scary about that, if I’m being completely honest. Essbaum pulls a lot of spiritual references into her poetry, pushing the imagery as far as she can possibly go. It is insulting, impossible to put down, and strikingly beautiful. Here is a tamer poem from her collection, Harlot:

 

Psalm of Shattering by Jill Alexander Essbaum

 

Oh Lord of Hosts and Nazarenes,

Hear my Psalm of Shattering.

How do I come to feel these griefs?

A little lust is a dangerous thing.

 

Beneath the orchard canopy

As balm of pear swelled in the breeze

I squeezed his pulse between my knees,

And behaved my hands so shamelessly.

 

Our eyes belied a hot-blood need.

He stroked my body, crease to pleat.

A passerine purled from the fork of a tree

As he passed his mouth all over me.

 

But the torture of Christ was shared with thieves.

His was the right cross. The left was for me.

I lumbered up to Calvary

As cloud moved into mystery.

 

I’m fifty kinds of agony.

And so damn drunk I cannot see.

And so damn sad I cannot breathe.

I meant well, if half-heartedly.

 

So I laze in a bed of catastrophe,

And sleep these dreams that are not dreams.

I’m guilty of nothing but defeat.

His ardor caroused the unrest in me.

 

But nothing will rouse the rest of me.

 

This blog was about two weeks in the making and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I was looking for or even found what I was looking for at all. I guess I’ve always known that not all erotic poetry is the same, and that I’m enormously uneducated when it comes to poetry in general. What I have figured out is that there is so much beauty in erotic poetry. Maybe it was my upbringing in the the church, hiding under pews and trying to figure out the infinite mystery of sex that was handed to me in The Song of Songs, but I know in my heart that poetry about the intimacy between two people can be a very spiritual thing. To connect with another human, even on the page; that is a kind of fulfillment that everyone deserves.

 

 

 

Southern troubadour, Frank Stanford, finally speaks from the grave in ‘What About This’

1978, the poet Frank Stanford shot himself three times in the heart. His second wife and his lover were in the next room.

During his lifetime, Stanford’s poetry never found a broad audience. The rare and worn copies of his published works were passed poet to poet. His short, autobiographical film, It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was A Flood has never been digitized.

Jacket (2)What About This is the first collection of Stanford’s published and unpublished work in one volume. It is important not just for readers already familiar with Stanford’s poetry, but for the rest of us who have never seen our South with such a sharp eye nor heard it recorded by a pitch-perfect ear. His poems are pinched from the world around him, changed just enough that the lines are both familiar and strange.

Born in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford lived in an orphanage until Dorothy Gilbert Alter, a single mother, adopted him. In 1952 she married Albert Franklin Stanford, a levee engineer from Memphis and shortly afterward, the family moved to Arkansas. Showing poetic promise, Stanford was asked to enroll in graduate level courses in creative writing as an undergraduate student. But he never finished college.

It is easy for the exploits of a poet’s life and death to overshadow their work. The life and death of Frank Stanford is no exception. His self-destruction hums on every page. Death stalks his lines:

I am not asleep, but I see

a limb, the fingers of death, the ghost

of an anonymous painter

leaving the prints of death

on the wall… –from the “Transcendence of Janus”

Frank Stanford is a disguised intellectual. He is among us when we are knee-deep in mud and grass, he sits beside us on the front porch and cracks one open, he’s in the hot summer nights and the still air, and he watches as nothing much happens except the slow close of day. He sifts the banality of the every-day for poems that are more then they are.

His poems wade through dreams and reality. They are a surrealist vision of the muck and grime of life. Of the workingman. Of juke joints and women and rivers that govern the pace of living.

Throughout the collection, Stanford appropriates from Southern heritage. Jimmie Rodger’s Blue Yodel’s are reimagined into ballads of the hard life. In “Blue Yodel a Prairie,” Stanford captures the spirit of Jimmie Roger’s down-and-out songs, but with a poet’s sensibility toward images heavy with meaning:

Whenever I think of the shadows

Two oranges cast on the piano

When the sun drives a horse mad in a dry spell

I think of Virginia Day

Hanging up sheets in her backyard

She has a pair of blue jeans and a brassiere on

Holding the prairie

With a clothespin in her lips

A 20th century Walt Whitman, Frank Stanford sings of the South. In a place overflowing with literary voices, Stanford holds his own alongside James Dickey and Faulkner. He is a troubadour of the Mississippi Delta.

Nearly forty-years after his death, Stanford’s poetry is still a poignant and accurate depiction of the South. Our traditions hold us close to the ground. Our rivers roar and crawl, they overrun their banks and seep into the earth, but we keep a record; we remember our past.

So have respect for the dead my dear

And watch your heart like a jukebox. –from “The Visitors of Night”

 

National Poetry Month: Feet Soaked in Gooey Earth

tumblr_ms5c76TZoM1qa785bo1_500Hurray for April.  Yes, April is the ideal month to celebrate poetry, especially that poetry that raises the roof beams, making room for all the fresh, blooming air, pressing the bleak winter away while standing ankle high in mud puddles.  Puddles are the playground for spring madness and feet soaked in gooey earth just like e. e. cummings said in his poem In Just:

n Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it’s
spring
and

         the

                  goat-footed

balloonMan          whistles
far
and
wee

 

Then came my senior year at Murrah High School, in 1965, with my great, good, four-leaf-cloverful luck having Bee Donley as my English teacher. She taught us that poetry mingled all the great issues of life in such a profound poem as Dylan Thomas’ The force that though the green fuse drives the flower (1934):

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer.

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

[Stanza One]

 

So as a young child I adored the pure innocence of e. e. cummings (not to mention the cool way he spelled his name in lower case). As a teenager, I was mesmerized by Ms. Donley’s eloquent teaching of Dylan Thomas and the depth and width and height of “real” life as captured in the great green force. Then as a mature adult (in years but not in heart), I was introduced to Mary Oliver at Lemuria mainly through our children’s manager at the time, Yvonne Rogers. Ms. Oliver became my official priestess of the higher arts, a word magician, and a most spiritual priestess who kindled the scared beauty of the earth and animals and filled my imagination with wonder as in this poem from her collection Dog Songs:

 

Every Dog’s Story by Mary Oliver

I have a bed, my very own.
It’s just my size.
And sometimes I like to sleep alone
with dreams inside my eyes.

But sometimes dreams are dark and wild and creepy
and I wake and am afraid, though I don’t know why.
But I’m no longer sleepy
and too slowly the hours go by.

So I climb on the bed where the light of the moon
is shining on your face
and I know it will be morning soon.

Everybody needs a safe place.

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