On Poetry

National Poetry Month: Molly McDonald

Molly McDonald has an M.F.A. from the University of Montana and now lives in Eastport, Maine. She wrote the text for "Your Beautiful Grunt," a 2008 performance by Holly Faurot and Sarah H. Paulson, and she is currently working on a project with Heidi Fahrenbacher that incorporates poetry into functional ceramics.A line of poetry by Molly: "That once I was a sequin sewn to a bodice."For the past several years, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the idea of incorporating falsetto into my poems. The problem is, I can't quite figure out what falsetto would look like on the page. Where would it be located within a word, line, stanza if it were simply lying there inertly, rather than getting squeezed through the lungs and wide open mouth of a singer? Could it be translated onto the page without any typographical clues? And if so, how would the reader know to shift from one mode to the next without italics or exclamation points or bolding?I think the difficulty stems mainly from the fact that I'm not entirely sure what falsetto is. I mean, I understand what it is, but I don't quite understand how it is, or who it is, or where it is that it takes me when it seizes me by brain and heart. I suppose it could be argued that falsetto indicates heightened emotion, or false intensity, or a return to an always-evasive before (before voice change and ball-drop and gendered performance) - but that is the kind of poet-talk that makes poets seem like dickheads. And - and this is the more pressing point - these definitions fail to take into account that falsetto, at its best, socks you right in the gut and leaves you panting, frozen there in the moment between the assumed voice and the actual voice.I like falsetto in all its forms, but I like falsetto of the rock and roll variety the most. I am especially enamored of Mick Jagger's falsetto - particularly the falsetto featured in songs on the second half of The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You. The dreamy, magical quality of these songs is well-documented; fans and reviewers alike have been attempting to articulate the awesomeness of the album's "slow sides" for almost three decades. My brother's girlfriend talks wistfully about missing highway exits whenever she plays the album during late-night road trips. A friend's ballroom dance instructor used "Waiting on a Friend" to teach his students how to waltz for weddings. The songs even made a cameo a few years back on an episode of Veronica Mars (wherein a charming young history teacher uses them as "mood music" to try to seduce high school students into his silk-sheeted bed: nerdy scriptwriting at its best).They are not quite love songs, but they manage to maintain the rawness and vulnerability of the best love songs. They push up against the over-the-top sentimentality so often found in rock ballads, but never quite succumb to it - always perched just on the edge, teetering and hypnotic. To be perfectly honest, the more I listen to Tattoo You, the more I want to string a hammock between Mick Jagger's falsetto and his normal register, and live there, forever, swaying gently. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I'm being earnest. (Poets are nothing if not earnest.)Take, for instance, "Worried About You," the first of the album's ballads. I already had a play-it-on-a-loop fondness for the song, but then I found the original music video for it on YouTube. Now, far too many views later, I am positively smitten. See for yourself:There are many things to love about this video. I love Mick Jagger's interpretive dancing, his facial acrobatics, his tiny swiveling hips. I love his finger-snap/lip-bite at minute 2:04. I love Keith Richards' green scarf and chest hair and waxen aloofness. I love Charlie Watts' epic, slightly hostile, eye roll and Ronnie Woods' yellow suspenders. I love the band's skinny awkwardness in front of the camera, as if they can't fully buy into the music video form. I am most interested, however, in the silence from minute 1:28-1:32, which comes between the first verse of the song and the chorus. It is there that I'd like to string my hammock, in the place where Mick's falsetto is plummeting and the listener's longing for a return to his regular voice is soaring.That kind of silence - the kind that spans two entirely different modes of meaning-making - is often what excites me most about poetry and its possibilities. Sometimes this silence comes in the form of a line break or a stanza break; sometimes it comes in shifts of diction or syntax, or in transitions between lineated verse and prose. Sometimes it comes in the form of wild compression or wild expansion or crazy, erratic leaping about on the field of the page. Those transitions, by turns thrilling or poignant or painful, are what I find I seek out in poetry - those moments of expectation that marry the established rule with its variation. They can come in the form of a return to normalcy (as is the case with "Worried About You") or in a reaching toward something different, something new. My favorite poems, the poems I read again and again, tend to establish these leaps seamlessly. Charles Wright, in his gorgeous poem "Clear Night," articulates this desire well: "I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed. / I want to be entered and picked clean."We navigate that space between falsetto and the "normal" register in a way similar to the one in which we navigate the formal or tonal leaps in good poems: we enter into them blindly enough, but hopefully we emerge from them on the other side, changed or startled or star-struck. I realize that my falsetto project is probably an exercise in futility, since I want my falsetto poems to do for the reader what this 1981 music video of the Stones singing "Worried about You" does for me: that is, I want someday to slay the reader with the unnerving sound of my tiny mouth's single, shrill utterance of the word "baby." Perhaps this will happen, perhaps it won't. But I have to remain hopeful, right? Otherwise, why write poems at all?More National Poetry Month at The Millions
On Poetry

National Poetry Month: Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda's fifth book of poetry, Weapons Grade, will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this fall.A line of poetry by Terese: "A fly with a human head/ heads for your screen. It's Mom."Since Weapons Grade, my forthcoming collection, is all about occupations, I thought I'd direct your attention this April to the poet's pre-occupations: sex and death, with their romanticized corollaries, love and war. Since I'm an American, I write a lot about sex (though perhaps far less than Italians, judging from their magazine ads), have myself been death-struck and love-stricken, and produced the appropriate poems. What I've experienced of war, however, has mostly been secondhand and is harder to write about. The secondhand war stuff is what gets fingered as fake or gets the finger from the rest of the world. Three thousand dead at WTC? Nothing.Take, for example, the war experiences of South Sudanese, whose 27,000 Lost Boys walked hundreds of miles to find refuge from war, only to be turned away at the Kenyan border and forced to walk hundreds more to Ethiopia. Many of these boys - now men - have now settled with their families within two hundred miles of where I grew up, in Nebraska. I met a number of them for the first time a few weeks ago when I was awarding a scholarship for their high school graduate's best song.By amazing coincidence, I had visited their tiny villages - remember, Sudan is the largest country in Africa - and collected and translated the songs of their parents and grandparents. Oh, such shrieks of delight there were when I shared their compositions, and my delight with the scholarship winner's song.For the Southern Sudanese, song is their most developed art form. Their homeland had few natural resources to encourage more concrete forms of artistic expression: no stone to sculpt, no metal to cast, and very little wood. Because they migrated every six months, or as the Nile flooding dictated, it was extremely difficult for them to transport anything extraneous to daily life such as sculpture or books. Song records their history, puts their children to sleep, attracts lovers, seals agreements, spreads the news. The role of song for the South Sudanese is so powerful that if a man sings well enough he may move up his wedding date, and it is sometimes used as evidence in a judicial hearing. Everyone knows hours and hours of songs and can recite them at will. I'd like our (my) poetry to make such a claim, as I peer at the world from my Cabaret-like comfort. Auden tried.September 1, 1939I sit in one of the divesOn Fifty-Second StreetUncertain and afraidAs the clever hopes expireOf a low dishonest decadeThe UN recently put out an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President for his part in the occupation of Darfur.But how exactly is his case different from ex-President Bush's occupation of Iraq? Both regions have oil, and Darfur has the further incentive of uranium. What poet will parse the subtle difference? Maybe Emmanuel Jal, an internationally renowned south Sudanese hiphop artist who most recently appeared in the movie Blood Diamond and in his own movie, War Child, about being a child soldier.The song that follows was composed by the wife of a south Sudanese government official who had fought as a guerilla fighter near the Ethiopian border. It reminds me very much of Pound's "translation" of the Chinese poet, Li Po, "The River-Merchant's Wife."Road to the CongoYes, Jules sleeps but troublemakes him toss and turn.I wait for him across the border.I've never seen Ethiopia but I knowhe'll be where there's gunfire.Bul Dieng, the village was torn apartas if by weaverbirds.Yes, Biel went to Khartoum,Cuany went to Mading Buol.We are all travel-weary.We leave for Kator, for the town of Juba.Let me say that on the road to the Congoeven the little girls of Riawanganswer us with a honk.Yesterday, Tuyel, someone brought over his photo."Dieng, don't blow on the fire inside the house -you are blinding me. Let me see.Jiok Lual, who is this stranger?My heart is filled with longing."It will be a year before he returns, Gabriel.Col Bewjiok, I stay by the bridgeto answer his greeting.Writing just puts me further from him.Sung by Nyagak PinienMore National Poetry Month at The Millions
On Poetry

National Poetry Month: Nathaniel Bellows

Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, On This Day, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?.A line of poetry by Nathaniel: "It takes youth to witness such desperation and read it / as joy..."At a recent reading in New England, I was asked two questions that stumped me. They shouldn't have, but they did. The first was: Why do you write both fiction and poetry and how are they different to you? The second one was: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?The questions weren't necessarily complicated, but they brought up things I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about. Or, rather, things I haven't spent time articulating to myself. As a result, my responses were pretty poor. To the first question I said that my fiction attempts to tell other peoples' stories and my poems attempt to tell my own. This felt true, if overly simplified. The second question was harder and I answered: "I'm really not sure."On the train ride home to New York, I thought a lot about the questions and my answers to them. After the train left Boston, it went through various neighborhoods and shopping districts outside the city limits, all of which seemed strung together by an endless line of telephone polls. These telephone polls brought back a memory I hadn't thought of in years, of when I was a kid walking home from school just as it was getting dark and the streetlights were coming on. We lived in a small town back then and as I made my way down the quiet streets, the pools of light from the streetlights grew more and more distinct against the growing darkness. It was both terrifying and exciting, passing from shadow into light - being hidden and then revealed - knowing that at the end there was the safety of home.Thinking of this memory, I remembered how I'd described it to a high school fiction writing class years before as a way of explaining my approach to writing fiction. Like that street, the reader progresses forward in a story through passages of ambiguity and mystery, stopping periodically in stations of light and clarity, which the author has strategically placed along the way. The reader is urged forward through these opposite and sometimes uncomfortable states by the promise of a secure, however unknown, destination.After Providence, Rhode Island, the train tracks closely hugged the shoreline. The views of the marshes and ocean were beautiful. We passed by a beach, which was empty except for a couple and their dog. The dog ran along the waterline chasing after its toy; its dark coat against the white sand made me think of our old lab who used to follow us down to the cove near our house where we'd all go swimming.One of my most vivid memories of that place was from high school, just before I left for college, swimming after sunset. The water was calm and the wind was warm. I floated on my back a few yards from shore, listening to our dog chewing on driftwood, the wind rustling the leaves on the hillside, the water echoing in my ears. Slowly, the stars appeared in the sky above me - and then, somehow, all around me: blue and glowing, lifting with the gentle waves and spiraling around with the current. I was surprised but not afraid: I had seen this before - phosphorescent algae in the marshes and water in the area - but I had never swum in and among them. They were everywhere. The dark water pulsed with an otherworldly glow that seemed to surround and include and devour me all at once.I looked out the window of the train and over the winter ocean and thought: that's what poetry is like - that feeling of being immersed in black water, shot through with tiny living lights. It seemed as truthful a comparison to my poetic aspirations as the memory of walking home on that lit street came to represent my approach to telling a story. These memories weren't perfect analogs to why I've come to do what I do, and they couldn't have served as sufficient answers to the audience members at the reading. But they were answers I felt grateful to come upon, embedded, as they were, in a version of myself that feels very far away.So in that way, I guess I did arrive at a response to that second question: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I think I would have to say: when I was still very much a child.More National Poetry Month at The Millions
On Poetry

National Poetry Month: Zach Savich

Zach Savich's first book of poems, Full Catastrophe Living, won the 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize. He has recent work in Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, notnostrums, Bat City Review, and the anthology Best New Poets 2008. You can read an interview with him here.A line of poetry by Zach: "I am made of feelings and toys."Singing School: How Poetry's Music Knows1. O Fret NotIt is spring and I am thinking of John Keats. "O fret not after knowledge," he says (well, ever the ventriloquist, Keats has a thrush say it), "I have none, / And yet my song comes native with the warmth."I love that this "O" is closer to weariness than to rapture. And, each year more convinced that ideas are only so many words, I love its version of going native. Cells spread with warmth. The few notes we have, our recurring emotive range, come together once more, song leading to little but more singing.Marsyas, flayed after challenging Apollo in music - I want to hear the song he played then, scabs grown into calluses. Did that flaying kill him? What if it did?Sarah Manguso: "The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I'm dead is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then."2. On the Difference Between Poetry and ProseI write poems because I believe that most explanations merely describe; you can sum explanations up as "we made explanations." Ditto stories. Every story can be reduced to "a story was told about it." Stories and explanations can give you knowledge, but where does knowledge get you?I'm not speaking against intelligence but on behalf of the rigors of warbling. "Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence," writes Yeats. "Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is."Rarely is what we already know how to say worth saying, for we know not what we are. For poets, the music of language casts out toward dark coasts like lighthouse beams do, like a bat's echolocating clicks. In the darkest zones, our instruments of knowledge are useless, having come from floodlit labs, yet one can sing out - who's there?The note that follows is not random. It is an answer. It reveals the shape of my prerequisite lungs.Poems break into song as days break into rain. What's the difference between poetry and prose? Prose is the sidewalk, poetry is the rain. "Oh, cut to the chorus," writes New Zealand poet Sam Sampson. Lyric poetry is that impulse. We are on an awkward first date. We are fighting in the car. A song comes on the radio and we pause to turn it up. You are on your way to your beloved and hear the cry of peacocks. Or is it the hemlocks? O, fret not...My friend asks, "If you could sing like Otis Redding would you still write poems?"3. A Taxonomy of SingingIt is spring. I want to say: forget MFA programs (I'm in my second one) and the glossy craft industries' self-help circuits, which can offer a medicine ball when you need a medicine man; forget perfection; forget the vanity that asks if poetry can matter rather than seeing poetry as matter itself, which can save you. Want to write a poem? How about, be moved to honest song, as a singer is, as the dancer listening is moved, and follow what this honesty necessitates.I mean "honesty" in a sense neither terrible nor inspirational.Honest not to what we know but to what the language knows. To how the world around us orchestrates. World neither trite nor impenetrable but hopelessly absorbing. Galway Kinnell: "The self is the least of it."But, Poet, what forms can your singing take?Pure SongLa la la. Signals a state of mind purling into a state of being. See Roethke. See hey nonny no.Interrupted SongLa la la mother. Signals trauma, mind breaking into being. Lear garbling but daughters break in.Pure InterruptionMother mother mother. Lament, dirge. Caliban distressed. Beckett? Stein? The broken mind fallen into horrid order.There's some knowledge for you, in spite of myself. Does it earn me some warmth? Are you now wondering what my thigh feels like? Will you put your hand on my throat to feel my song? Will you put your teeth there?More National Poetry Month at The Millions
On Poetry

National Poetry Month: An Introduction

I like poets. At Iowa, they wore the best jewelry, they hosted read-aloud Shakespeare parties (alas, I never attended); some of them went shooting (I mean with real guns); many drank too much, fell in and out of love easily, danced well and terribly, talked John Donne. One poet I know kills turkeys for money. Another has impeccable finances and a mythic mother. In my worst days, I think fiction writers are merely diluted poets - heavily, and erroneously, diluted. Why do we need all these words, when a poet, with fewer, can say it better - or best?I've heard many bookish people proclaim that poetry scares or bores them, and I can't understand it. Poetry is so pleasurable, so moving. Before going out, I love to say to Patrick, "Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table." When I am annoyed, I consider "Purple Bathing Suit" by Louise Glück, with its final lines: "...I think/ you are a small irritating purple thing/and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth/because you are all that's wrong with my life/and I need you and I claim you." A single word, said three times, can bring me to tears: "blackberry, blackberry, blackberry." (Oh, Robert Hass, you slay me!) I find that when I need to revitalize my own work, and recall what words can and will do, I turn to poetry. One of my favorite novels, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, is written in verse.And yet, I don't read poetry regularly, and I rarely seek out new collections. Why not? Why has poetry retreated to school lessons and a thing for other poets to enjoy? It doesn't seem right.So this:April is National Poetry Month, which means... I'm not sure. At The Millions, it means getting to know some very fine contemporary poets who have keen insight on all matters related to poetry. Over the course of the month, both emerging and established poets will share their thoughts. We will listen, and maybe take poetry with us, come May.This post will be the index for the series, and as we add our guest poets' contributions to the site, we'll link to them from this post. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new poetry posts appearing at the top regularly throughout the month, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Zach Savich author of Full Catastrophe LivingNathaniel Bellows author of On This Day and Why Speak?Terese Svoboda author of Weapons GradeMolly McDonald author of "Your Beautiful Grunt"Kiki Petrosino author of Fort Red BorderJamey Hecht is the author of Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder FilmDorothea Lasky author of AWE and the forthcoming Black LifeKazim Ali author of five booksRebecca Keith poetKwame Dawes is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Hope's Hospice, and many books of fiction, non-fiction and drama.
On Poetry

“April is the Cruelest Month…”

Thursday, April 17th, is the first national Poem in Your Pocket Day. To celebrate, carry around one of your favorite poems in - you guessed it - your pocket, and share it with anyone who will listen. You can download and print poems for the occasion at Poets.org. Or, if you're more technologically savvy, simply carry around your iPhone and play for your friends and family a poem from Continental Review, an online magazine which features video readings of poetry. (I highly recommend those by Kiki Petrosino)At the Vroman's bookstore blog, our very own Patrick Brown is honoring National Poetry Month by posting and discussing a poem a day. So far he's covered, among others, Anne Sexton, Robert Hass, and Edward Hirsch, whose new collection Special Orders, came out in March.If you need more inspiration to read (and buy!) poetry this April, try this, or this, or this.
On Poetry

The Poetry Corner

Now, I'm sure the many poetry fiends who haunt this blog are already deep into their "National Poetry Month" saturnalia, this being already the third of April after all. Still, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you can get a poem delivered discretely to your inbox every day this month from the Academy of American Poets. One poem a day not enough? Visit Knopf to double your daily poetic intake. And now, three poetry books I have liked:The Pill Vesus the Springhill Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan - see "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" and others here.Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara - see "A Step Away From Them" and others here.In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson - about In MemoriamIn the spirit of National Poetry Month, I encourage you to share your poetic favorites in the comments.