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The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo

A delightful, short, rich book about writing, deserving of (literal) pocketing alongside Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

This book is subtitled “lectures and essays on poetry and writing,” but I found it as intriguing as a creative work in itself as it is a wise craft book. On the surface, it appears aimed at poets, but I think all writers can benefit. Hugo has a refreshingly irreverent attitude and I wish I could have known him–he died the year I was born.

His self-effacing, humorous, but somehow also very serious approach to writing makes perfect sense to me, and his ideas about practice and luck mirror things I’ve been thinking for some time: that all the “bad” work we put in makes room for the good, and that practice allows for luck. (See the title essay, “The Triggering Town.”) There are some lovely essays in this book, as pieces of craft in themselves. How do we count a craft book? I considered annotating either of the last two, “Ci Vediamo” and “How Poets Make a Living” (that is, writing a craft essay for school about one of these essays). The line between craft books and creative works can be broad and fuzzy, can’t it. Recall again Strunk & White, which is such lovely, humorous, personality-rich writing. I’ll be returning to this one for encouragement and warm feelings. And maybe I’ll get around to annotating some, even.


Rating: 9 cartons of cigarettes from Spinazzola.

One Big Self by C.D. Wright

One Big Self is a poetry collection inspired by, and meant to record, visits to three Louisiana prisons. C.D. Wright accompanied photographer Deborah Luster on a few of the latter’s trips, and the poems in this collection borrow heavily from the speech of inmates–their vernacular, their direct quotations and their concerns–as well as from signage and other found text. Some of the words on the page are Wright’s, but some are collected. Themes include family ties; the trauma and damage caused by incarceration; and the boom of the for-profit prison industry. Of course much of the subject matter refers to violence, crime, faith, and local culture.

Especially because these are offered to me as persona poems, I am very curious to know how much is transcribed directly as found speech and how much it has been manipulated. Unlike the other persona poems I’ve just read (Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead,” Shara McCallum’s “Calypso,” Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting”), these do not read to me as being about one persona per poem, but rather the collective–the persona of the incarcerated mother, say–by a series of individual contributions. This concept is in the book’s title, One Big Self.

It’s hard for me to see from here who said what. Sometimes individual lines are attributed, but often I’m left wondering. Which lines are quotations, which paraphrases? Why skip the quotation marks, which would have made clear where the speaker stops and the poet begins? And what does each choice contribute–the inmate’s words, against those of other inmates, or against Wright’s?

Sometimes the references or language hint towards Wright. This is my bias at work: when I have to look up a word or a name, I suspect that it’s a decorated poet and not a prison inmate speaking. I looked up terms like cicatrix; the Heisenberg principle; Gramsci; Fila Brasileiro; metonymy; Cioran. Cultural references like these, that go outside of Angola, Louisiana, feel external to the personas in focus here. On the other hand, certain repeated phrases fit our expectations of the setting and scenario: “She was a slab of a woman.” “That’s the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy.” Mostly, I’m guessing whose speech is whose. And perhaps this guessing game, this blurring of the lines between poet/recorder and inmate, is what’s really being got at by Wright’s project, and by her title, “one big self.”

I can only close by repeating my usual lines about poetry. This was pleasant and thought-provoking to read. I like it. I don’t understand it.


Rating: 7 plastic soapdishes.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

Poems and essays by a range of writers address race in the United States.

the fire this time

Responding to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others, the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement and a feeling that not much has changed, Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones; Men We Reaped) felt moved to build a collection of words to counter the pain and injustice she saw. Essays and poems, many of them solicited by Ward, make up The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Its title, of course, answers James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, which addressed the same questions of being black in the United States.

Led by Ward’s powerful introduction, contributions from Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Edwidge Danticat and more consider past, present and future–Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. Honorée Jeffers writes in defense of Phillis Wheatley’s husband, a man apparently wrongfully denigrated, and honors Wheatley’s legacy while questioning the way it’s been written by others. Kevin Young muses on Rachel Dolezal’s interpretation of race. Garnette Cadogan writes movingly of what it looks like to walk through U.S. cities as a black man. And Ward offers an essay on her own ethnic heritage.

These powerful words from a range of sources vary in specific subject matter, but all make the same vital demands: for black citizens to have true equality. The entries in the collection are a little uneven, but each is stirring in its way, and the finest among them offer poetry as well as truth.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 names.

Maps to Anywhere by Bernard Cooper

maps to anywhereMaps to Anywhere is a surprising, complex, lovely collection of essays. I read it for class (one of the creative nonfiction writing classes I’m taking at Western Washington University), and I wonder how I would have approached it otherwise: would I still have been quite so focused on reading like a writer, on dissecting and searching for Cooper’s process and strategies? I hope so, but I can’t say.

It is an impressive collection of work, and I mean ‘collection’ precisely. The essays themselves are impressive, and varied: some lyrical, including some I unequivocally call prose poems; some more narrative; some conceptual and wandering, some rooted firmly in fact, and some clearly rooted in imagination. But the method of collecting the individual essays is one of the central points of genius that caught my mind. How selected, and how arranged?

Some longer essays are their own entire section. Some sections are made up of shorter essays, and take the name of one of them.

first page of table of contents

first page of table of contents

I marveled over Cooper’s titles, and also his final lines, the way they wrap things up and the way they leave an image or a sound (or both) in the reader’s mind. He is a very aural writer: much of his work demands to be read out loud, or simply makes itself heard. I found assonance I loved, as in the line, “Can mother muster enough thrust to leave the earth in a sudden leap?” (How is this not poetry?) There were amazing concepts, intriguing stories, and a perfect evocation of an era: the U.S.’s forward-looking, plastic-happy 1950’s. In other words, so many skills: I can see why a writing class teaches this book! But again, it was the organization of the moving parts that most confounded and fascinated me. I think I understand that Cooper builds an overall movement (and a sense of movement is central to his work throughout) from a childhood self to a mature and outward-looking one. But the content of the pieces in between jump around in time; it’s far from chronological. Oh, a puzzle: I can’t entirely explain this collection to you. You should go explore it for yourself.


Rating: 9 names.

War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue

This epic retelling in verse of Homer’s Iliad is worthy of the classic.

war music

Upon his death, poet Christopher Logue left unfinished a full-length reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. His fellow poet and friend Christopher Reid applies a careful editorial hand to the papers Logue left behind to release War Music, which includes both previously published works and new material.

The result is as epic and evocative, as emotional and resounding as the original, yet also surprisingly novel. Logue employs memorable images, as when the two armies meet “like a forest making its way through a forest.” He is unafraid of wild anachronisms: “As many arrows on [Hector’s] posy shield/ As microphones on politicians’ stands”; “Blood like a car-wash.” But this is no attempt to modernize; the rage of Achilles, Helen’s beauty, capricious gods and customs of battle remain set in Homer’s Greece. Rather, it is an enrichment of a well-known and loved story, in swelling verse and with the same clever eye for tragedy and sly humor of its model.

Reid finds Logue’s “capacity for the grand conception dashingly and convincingly executed,” as near “pure Logue” as possible. His preface and comments in the appendix (where the manuscripts were roughest) offer insight for readers unfamiliar with Logue, who references Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, as well as Homer. Expertise with the original is unnecessary to enjoy this version; although such knowledge will increase the impact, the grandeur of War Music is gripping and suspenseful regardless of the reader’s background. No fan of Homer will want to miss Logue’s contribution.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 topaz saucers heaped with nectarine jelly.

poetry: Dickinson, Frost, Coleridge and more

The papers have been piling up on my desk. Once upon a time, while working as a librarian, I had a volunteer who helped me out one full day per week, who was herself a retired librarian. I was at the start of my career. She said once that you can always tell a busy and productive librarian by all the piles on her desk. (My mother points out that this is not necessarily a sign of productivity, but I like Anne’s thought better.) Well, I have piles. Hopefully this wisdom applies to writers, too.

I often pick up tips or follow links to short pieces of writing. For whatever reason, I am much more eager to pick up a whole book than I am to read an essay or short article; must be a mental block. When I come across short things that need reading, I often print them out and stack them up. After carrying this stack of papers cross-country on at least two trips now, I have finally gotten around to some reading. Today’s theme is poetry. And you may know that I am a perfect amateur when it comes to reading poetry, so these are the layperson’s interpretations.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (text of 1834), by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: this was by far the longest poem of the stack, but it was a pure pleasure. I can remember my mother reciting the lines, “water water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink… nor any drop to drink” from way back, but I’d never read the whole thing. I love the rhythm, the rhyme, and the sound: I found myself mouthing the words, repeating lines and stanzas, tapping out the beat; the pure language and music of it is astounding art. I enjoyed some of the usages that are no longer modern, and have some questions for Mom (who is, among other things, a linguist) about historic pronunciation. Beyond all of these features, there is a story, that I found charming as well – particularly the concept, that this man must tell his story, that it is something like a bodily need. Naturally, for those of us that love stories, that is appealing. As I often feel when I encounter poetry, I wish I had an expert to help me delve into its depths; but I found The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to be more accessible than most. It has musicality and storytelling, and was easy to follow. Clear win all around. I can’t wait to read it aloud. Will Husband tolerate it?

Next, two Robert Frost poems: “The Oven Bird” and “Mending Wall.” I am sure I pulled these two titles from something I read recently, but I didn’t make note of the reference; why?? I’m afraid Frost lost me. For one thing, I kept looking for rhythm and rhyme, which Coleridge did so beautifully, and what I found here was no rhyme, and any rhythm was scarcely or not at all discernable to my untrained mind. The subjects were a little obscure to me as well. Ah me. I need the seminar course.

And then a batch of poems I pulled from someplace, some months ago, with the bizarre idea that I wanted to try memorizing poetry. (This may go nowhere.) They are therefore, mostly, short. I’m afraid I have lost my original source for the list. Nevertheless, here they are.

Risk,” by Anaïs Nin: eight lines, clever, thoughtful and wise, unrhyming but perfectly clear to me: lovely.

Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost: nice, short, clear Frost for a change. Like many in my generation, perhaps, I first met this poem in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. (I haven’t seen the movie; does Ponyboy recite the poem like in the book?) I seem to still have it memorized from that childhood reading. It made an impression; and it rhymes. Maybe I’m simpleminded, but it’s easier when it rhymes. I like that it involves nature as well as a plainly stated concept about Life.

The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop: I read this aloud to Husband and he nitpicked the details of the story, because he is a fisherman and perfectly literal-minded. I find it a lovely piece of description and imagery, but I share his concern that she let the fish go without removing those other nasty hooks. No rhyme, but I found it a perfectly readable, comprehensible piece of carefully composed writing.

Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: I recognized the language, the lilt and sound immediately, and felt glad. The story here is less clear to me, but I like the sounds. This is where I definitely need an expert to walk me through.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas: unlike Coleridge, whose beat varies throughout, this one has a single, strident, regular rhythm. It is a strong poem, and with strong subject matter. I again wanted illumination of the finer points, but have no trouble understanding on some level what he is getting at, and the tone and pace of it is powerfully captivating. I would certainly be glad to have this one handy in my head to recite at will.

Hope,” by Emily Dickinson: it’s been a long time since I’ve read Dickinson (high school English with Mrs. Smith; I still own a big fat volume of it), but I suspect not all of her words are so clear as these, and I feel sure not all are this hopeful. I love love love the image, and every line of this short, charming poem is as good as every other.

Richard Cory,” by Edward Arlington Robinson: am I the only one who thought of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby? Sort of as a counterpoint. Powerful images, a strong and regular beat (although not so drumlike and insistent as Thomas), and a clear and striking finish. Not my favorite here – perhaps because its ending is so disturbing, as it is meant to be – but very good.

No Man is an Island,” by John Donne: I have always been captivated by this poem, because its concept is so big and calls for contemplation. There is the added attraction of its famous penultimate line, which as we know as been recycled as the title of one of the finest novels I know. Free verse again, but somehow still with a rhythm, a compelling set of sounds that propel it to its finish.

The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost: I am aware of some question as to Frost’s point in this one, and again wish I had a friend to discuss. Pleasant images, certainly, that I would sit comfortably with for an afternoon. Clearer than those Frosts, above. But somehow not my favorite.

This has been an enjoyable and thought-provoking exercise; I should do it more often. As to memorization, my busy schedule says HA!, but I would love to learn a few of these by heart: “No Man Is an Island”; “Hope”; “Do Not Go Gentle”; “Risk.” And for that matter, I would love to be able to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by heart – but it is fifteen and a half pages long; I may as well aspire to learn the Odyssey (which would be great). I would happily settle for paraphrasing, and a few individual lines here and there. My brain is filling: for years and years I knew the title, author and synopsis of every book I’d ever heard. And then in the last two years or so, I stopped being able to add new ones, except for the very most outstanding of the books I continued to discover; and the less impressive of those from years back began to fade away. Ah, me. Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

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