Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry Friday: Elizabeth Alexander & Katha Pollitt

In honor of Poetry Friday, I would like to offer up two thoughts:

1) Praise for A Praise Song for the Day, which I thought struck just the right We-the-People chord at Barack Obama's inauguration - Elizabeth Alexander was plainspoken where she needed to be, musical where she needed to be. And writing an occasional poem which you know many millions of people will be listening to when you read- well, the word "daunting" comes to mind. In fact, I think it's amazing Ms. Alexander didn't faint - she was calm and articulate and spoke from the heart, and I say hurray. This is only the fourth time in American history that a poet has been asked to create and read a poem for a Presidential inauguration. If you want to see the poem written on the page, as many people do (they like it better after seeing it) you can find it here. And you can listen to Alexander read it at the inauguration here.

Elizabeth Alexander

2) This lovely poem by Katha Pollitt, whose prose I know from her "Subject to Debate" columns (wonderful!) in THE NATION but whose poetry I was unfamiliar with. She published her first book of poetry, Antarctic Traveller, twenty-five years ago (it won the National Book Critics Circle Award) and her second book, The Mind-Body Problem, will be released in June. (How do you win a NBCC Award for your poetry and then stop writing poetry?) In any case, I've been looking back over her work and I like it quite a lot. I look forward to reading the new book.

Small Comfort

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We're near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm's green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.

Katha Pollitt

The Poetry Friday Roundup this week is over at Adventures in Daily Living.

Monday, January 26, 2009

ALA Announcements

Hooray - a morning of wonderful announcements. My favorite for the Caldecott actually won - the gorgeous House in the Night illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by by Susan Marie Swanson. I loved that book the minute I saw it.

And an Honor for Uri Shulevitz's How I Learned Geography, on my list of favorites for the year, too. Wonderful!!

I'm so happy for sweet Kathi Appelt and her Newbery Honor for The Underneath - well-deserved. And M.T. Anderson's Printz Honor for Octavian Nothing, Vol. II Both Appelt and Anderson are original thinkers and gifted writers, and I'm proud to say they are colleagues of mine in Vermont College of Fine Arts' Writing for Children graduate program - Appelt on the faculty, and Anderson now on the Board of Trustees (and previously a faculty member.) Jacquie Woodson, who got an Honor for After Tupac and D Foster, also used to teach with us. [If you're interested in our low-residency MFA, you can learn more at our website. ]

And poetry in the Newbery list!!!! The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle was a surprising but excellent choice, and it was a natural for the Pura Belpre.

Anyone else suprised not to see Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains in the mix somewhere? I know she got the Margaret A. Edwards awards for significant contributions to YA lit, but no mention in the Newbery or Printz choices - ditto The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And I was surprised not to see Nic Bishop's Frogs get a nod for the Sibert. I'm just surprised that they made so many "Best of of 2008" lists, yet no honors anywhere in the ALA awards.

Time to read The Graveyard Book! And those Batchelder translations - I've heard great things about Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poetry Friday - Marilyn Krysl

I'm currently out in Vermont for my teaching residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach in the MFA/Writing for Children program. What a wonderful place!! Such a community of funny, loving, supportive, crazy & talented people. I am both exhausted by and exhilarated by the residencies. This time around, I lecture on "How Poetry Works and How It Doesn't Work, According to Me." I'm sharing this magnificent poem by Marilyn Krysl with people who attend my lecture. Krysl teaches at the University of Colorado.

Saying Things

Three things quickly - pineapple, sparrowgrass, whale -
and then on to asbestos. What I want to say tonight is
words, the naming of things into their thing,
yucca, brown sugar, solo, the roll of a snare drum,
say something, say anything, you'll see what I mean.
Say windmill, you feel the word fly out from under and away.
Say eye, say shearwater, alewife, apache, harpoon,
do you see what I'm saying, say celery, say Seattle,
say a whole city, say San Jose. You can feel the word
rising like a taste on the palate, say
tuning fork, angel, temperature, meadow, silver nitrate,
try carbon cycle, point lace, helium, Micronesia, quail.
Any word - say it - belladonna, screw auger, spitball,
any word goes like a gull up and on its way,
even lead lifts like a swallow from the nest
of your tongue. Say incandescence, bonnet, universal joint,
lint - oh I invite you to try it. Say cold cream,
corydalis, corset, cotillion, cosmic dust,
you are all of you a generous and patient audience,
pilaster, cashmere, mattress, Washington pie,
say vise, inclinometer, enjambment, you feel your own voice
taking off like a swift, when you say a word you feel like
a gong that's been struck, to speak is to step out of your skin,
stunned. And you're a pulsar, finally you understand light
is both particle and wave, you can see it, as in
parlour - when do you get a chance to say parlour -
and now mackinaw, toad and ham wing their way
to the heaven of their thing. Say bellows, say sledge,
say threshold, cottonmouth, Russia leather,
say ash, picot, fallow deer, saxophone, say kitchen sink.
This is a birthday party for the mouth - it's better than ice cream,
say waterlily, refridgerator, hartebeest, Prussian blue
and the word will take you, if you let it,
the word will take you along across the air of your head
so that you're there as it settles into the thing it was made for,
adding to it a shimmer and the bird song of its sound,
sound that comes from you, the hand letting go
its dove, yours the mouth speaking the thing into existence,
this is what I'm talking about, this is called saying things.

This week I think Poetry Friday lacks a roundup....?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry Friday: Fleda Brown's Non-Inaugural Poem

I'm excited about the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, though 'excited" is not quite right - thrilled and terrified is more like it, though why terrified? It's not a rational thing, just a worried spot, deep in me.

I found this lovely poem by Fleda Brown (pictured here), written on the occasion of NOT being asked to write an inauguration poem for Bill Clinton. "Any poem would quiver with delight with the chickadee in it..." and quiver it does.

I'm so glad I'm a poet and not a politician.

For the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton, 1997:

Not having been asked to write the inaugural poem,
even though I am from Arkansas, I will take what's here,
the birds at the feeder, not saving the world but only
being it, each kind of bird taking up its career
to fill out some this-or-that of creation on a small scale,
like this poem nobody asked for and few will hear.
Cold birds, eating extra for warmth, finely detailed
to catch the sun. Ridged out in friction-gear,
they jerk from position to position, as if the eye's
first impressions have been caught before the brain
smooths them out. The chickadee clamps a precise
seed and tosses its shell, nothing amazing.
To start up a fanfare would be to see it as specimen,
to deflect one's attention from the exact life performing
its dip, crack, toss. The long beak of the wren
is extended by a thin white stripe traced full-swing
down the head, so the wren seems half beak. I need
to get these lines, delicate as a Chinese painting.
Any poem would quiver with delight, with the chickadee
in it, or wren, but wouldn't want to do anything
about it. That's the hard thing about writing a poem
that's supposed to inspire the country at a crucial time,
that's supposed to hammer like a woodpecker. No one
could hear, with its hammering red, black, white!
It doesn't bode well for the quiet poem, or the insect
inside the bark, or the old tree crumbling to dust
inside itself while the public word tree holds it erect.
Still, I think when the bleachers no longer rise august
along Pennsylvania Avenue and the meandering ocean
of confetti has been swept up, it is good to cross a bridge
in your mind, to something earlier, oblivious to emotion,
something like wrens going on inside the language.

-- from "Breathing In, Breathing Out" (Anhinga Press, 2002)

Fleda Brown is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. You can learn more about her at her Web site,

Poetry Friday is being hosted this week by Anastasia Suen over at Picture Book a Day.

Poet, Chickadee or President: which would you rather be?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Poetry Friday: A Sonnet for the New Year



A Sonnet for the New Year

Resolved: to be more alert, less snooze-deprived,
thus, to strive for clarity, or at least to make sense
after sundown, thus, tangentially, to imbibe
less Dark Italian Roast –triple shot, milk whole, foam dense.

Resolved: to balance my PH, thus, to be less heavyweight,
by filling myself up with pea vines and flax seeds,
cabbage, collards, kale, and barley grass in its raw state,
and to drink more reverse-osmosis water than a body needs.

Resolved: to be less critical, less caustic, to lose my edge
and be kinder to the Self-Help crowd. And to buy fewer books,
to organize my socks. To clean dog hair from under the beds,
to be less chatty, to be more contained, to be less of a shnook.

Resolved: I will control myself. I will be ruled, thus, less unruly.
You won’t even know me. So know me soon, while I’m still Julie.



Here's one of my favorite quotations of 2008, taken from a September interview of Billy Collins by a reporter for the Washington Times:

Q: The "Billy Collins" character you've created inside your poems, what is he like?

A: He's unemployed, obviously; he must have some kind of trust fund, obviously. He has downshifted tremendously, he is moving 14 mph, while everyone is moving at 65. He has a slow take on things. One of his characteristics is his ability to modulate time and let it wash over him, not to spend it. I wish I were him. I made him up out of other literary characters. He is wonderfully irresponsible.


Poetry Friday this week is being hosted over at A Year of Reading.