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Barbara Sabol, “slaking that yearning for connection.”

Barbara Sabol is our judge for the Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award for 2021. In responding to my question of how the events of 2020 have impacted the role of the poet, she writes:

The Transformative Power of Poetry in the Year of Covid-19

The best work of poetry is to render the personal universal, creating a tether connecting poet to reader, and beyond: casting outward to a broader literary and human community. This has been especially true during this year of extended isolation―our lives abruptly uncoupled to larger society because of public safety concerns. The ensuing sense of separateness.

Of poetry, William Stafford writes, “. . .It’s a shrine/by the road, it’s a flower in the parking lot. . .” in the aptly titled piece, “Poetry.” A poem can lift us out of isolation by transforming a solitary moment into an illuminating exchange between poem and reader. A lyric poem is an intimate gesture: it may enact grief, loneliness, love, wonder―the full scope of human emotion―and speak directly to a reader’s spirit. Even when a narrative of a poem falls outside one’s ken, the human element embedded in that poem may spark a corresponding response in the reader, slaking that yearning for connection.

I have found myself drawn to poetry even more during this long stretch of seclusion; reading books cover to cover, in keeping with the intended arc, versus a typical gleaning from one section to another. Memorizing certain poems so that they beat with my body’s pulse has been a meditative, stirring practice. Certain books and specially loved poems have become companions these sheltered-in days. Stafford is my current companion, and what soothing company he keeps! Lines of his poem, “Why I Am Happy,” reside now in memory, and smooth the way to a calming breath, or to sleep.

Of course, writing holds its own transformative power. The deep dive through layers of feeling and experience allows us to surface enlightened, and perhaps reoriented to the purpose of poetry in times such as these. For those of us visited by the impulse to write, it is essential that we follow that urge, for our own well-being, and with the belief that, upon reading our work, someone may be eased from hermitage back into community.

Barbara shares this sestina with us:

The Mill Wright

We dine atop the incline plane, suspended
above dormant industrial glory―the obsolete steel
mill, Bethlehem’s iron sprawl―slumber-dragon shackled
to Allegheny Valley’s blue-collar realm; smokestacks
hold their acrid breath. Against sunset, giraffe-neck cranes
bend on rusting joints in the silhouetted rigging.

Thirty-eight years my father labored, a journeyman rigger;
young and agile, he clambered scaffolds, suspended
like a trapeze artist. Balanced atop a latticed crane
he rode the platform’s sway in the wind off the hills, steeled
himself against fear, against weary, against the stack
of woe on the counter. Love kept him there, shackled

to the notion of provision. My father accepted the shackle’s
iron rub, its chafe against his soft nature―beneath the rigors
of winch and rope, torch and flame, his lot was stacked
with home-cooked comfort, arms ’round the neck. Suspended
between college and marriage, he had chosen to steal
my mother’s affection with a steady wage, means to crane

the bricks, shingles, circuitry into place so they might crane
their dreams to children, to ribbons and tinsel, the gentle shackles
of family. As a girl, scant memory of him; the mill would steal
my father’s daylight hours, his vigor. The Corporation, true rigger,
played grime-collar labor for its gain. Workers teetered in suspended
animation between blast furnace and bar. Hope, like dominoes, stacked

to tumble, another double all around. Next day’s shrill whistle, stacks
exhaled the dragon’s toxic breathing. Only the head of the crane’s
main boom above gritted mist: my father, mid-air, suspended
over hot metal cars, coke oven―A Chagall in overalls, unshackled
to the engine room’s black heart. His brand of faith, an invisible rigging,
secured him there―practiced hands, a common knot stronger than steel.

From the balcony we consider our hometown, far below a sky steel
gray as the old mill, monument to its rust belt heyday. Stacked
layer on decadent layer a chocolate torte for our desert; the rigging
of a certain privilege. Look! Leftovers wrapped in the shape of a crane.
A toast to our fathers, who kept this city humming. I am shackled
by the memory of him aged so young; by unspoken thanks suspended

in clouds over the mill. When the plant went under, elegant cranes
poised mid-swing. A final time-clock swipe; just like that, unshackled.
Single-file, workers passed the heavy gate, then into the air, suspended.

—from Imagine a Town, Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2020

Barbara Sabol’s second full-length book, Imagine a Town, was awarded the 2019 Sheila-Na-Gig Editions poetry manuscript prize. She is the author of Solitary Spin  and two chapbooks, Original Ruse, and The Distance Between Blues. Her poetry has appeared widely in Journals and anthologies. Barbara conducts community-based poetry workshops. She contributes poetry book reviews for The Ohioana Quarterly. Barbara received an MFA from Spalding University. Her awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. She lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.

Tanya McDonald, “so many haiku about masks”

Our Bloodroot Haiku Award judge is Tanya McDonald. Here is what she has to say about the current role of haiku.

The challenges of 2020 have affected us all, but as a haiku poet and editor, I don’t feel that the role of haiku poets has changed from what it was a year ago. Our job has always been to pay attention to the world around us and to convey those observations and experiences through concise language. These observations may include nature scenes and seasonal references—cherry blossoms, migrating geese, etc.—but they may also include everyday human life.

If 2020 has changed anything in haiku, it’s the subject matter and vocabulary. This year, I’ve read haiku about tear gas and marching in solidarity, about rampant forest fires and evacuations, about standing in line to vote, about work-from-home and homeschooling, about social distancing and cancellations, about essential workers, about a future vaccine, about isolation from loved ones, and so, so many haiku about masks. I will read more haiku on these topics because this is our world in 2020.

Our role as haiku poets is still to witness, to document, to interpret, and to share with others. Our haiku not only illustrate an observation, they invite readers to bring their own experiences and emotions to the poem. In this way, haiku encourage empathy, not only with the poet but with the subject matter, whether it’s a fawn taking its first steps or someone sleeping rough under an overpass. Whether we act like it or not, we really are all in this together, and if poets can inspire more empathy toward our fellow humans and this planet, then perhaps there is hope for a brighter future for all of us.

Tanya shares this haiku with us, originally published in Presence #68 (November 2020):

his gift of lilac jelly—
back to normal
in air quotes

Tanya McDonald is known for her bright plumage and her love of birds. Her haiku, rengay, and haibun have appeared in various journals. She judged the 2014 Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest (with Michael Dylan Welch), the 2016 Haiku Poets of Northern California Rengay Contest, and the 2018 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational (with Jacquie Pearce and Paul Chambers). Last year, she edited the 2019 Haiku Society of America’s members’ anthology, A Moment’s Longing, which prepared her for the launch of her new, print haiku journal, Kingfisher in 2020. A Touchstone Award winner and a New Resonance poet, she lives near Seattle, Washington.

Introducing Davis McCombs

Davis McCombs will be judging our Mary Ruffin Poole Award for poems on American heritage, nature, or siblinghood.

He has this to say about the role of the poet:

Even though the challenges and upheavals of 2020 have been unprecedented, I do not believe that the role of the poet—or of the poem, for that matter—have changed from what they have always been. So often in these last months I have thought of what Seamus Heaney wrote on this very topic. Heaney was my mentor and teacher in college and this brief passage is taken from his marvelous essay “The Government of the Tongue”:

“Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.”

No one wrestled with these questions more than Heaney did. And I think what he says here is wonderfully perceptive and absolutely correct. 

Davis shares this poem with us:

Davis McCombs is the author of three collections of poetry, Ultima Thule (Yale 2000), Dismal Rock (Tupelo 2007), and lore (University of Utah Press 2016). His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review and many other publications. A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, McCombs directs the Program in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he has taught since 2001.

Leatha Kendrick “the huge unknown of everything…”

Leatha Kendrick is the author of five poetry collections, most recently And Luckier, from Accents Publishing. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Exit 7, Tar River Poetry, Appalachian Heritage, New Madrid Review, the Southern Poetry Review, the James Dickey Review, Still: An Online Journal, the Baltimore Review, The Southern Women’s Review, and in anthologies including The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume 3—Contemporary Appalachia and What Comes Down to Us – Twenty-Five Contemporary Kentucky Poets. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky.

Leatha is our judge for the Joanna Catherine Scott Award for poems in a traditional form.

Here are her views on how 2020 has impacted the role of the poet:

As the pandemic spread across the world this year, poetry became one of the ways humans made it through the uncertain days. People went looking for the poems that had helped them through dark times in the past and shared poetry to comfort themselves and cheer each other up. Poets and those who maybe had never written a poem before were moved to a new intensity of attention. As 2020 unfolded we sat by our windows and went for walks, and the world leapt up on us like a big dog, nearly knocking us down. And we wrote what we saw and heard and felt. And on those nights when we couldn’t sleep, when the huge unknown of everything pressed in at the windows, we got up and wrote some more, saying this is how it feels now, and maybe this, as well.

The events of 2020 have not changed so much as affirmed “the role of the poet in society,” which is to pay attention to the world as it is and to shape poems from it. In a year filled with extraordinary and historic moments, poems have voiced our wonder – our outrage – our despair – our grief – our gratitude – our ordinary encounter with being alive in a particular body, culture, history, family, place, at this instant in time.

Poetry is uniquely suited to convey the immediacy of sensory experience and give a shape to the fullness of lived moments, with all the paradoxes and contradictions they contain. The shaping function of poetry creates Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion” for both poet and reader. Whether we are a writer or a reader poems both stir us up and settle us down. It’s why we turn to reading and to writing them again and again.

This poem, written in late 2018, was published by Rattle and turned out to be the opening poem in her latest book, And Luckier, published in April, 2020:

https://www.accents-publishing.com/andluckier.html

Introducing Corrie Williamson

Corrie Williamson will be our judge for the Alice Osborn Award for poems written by adults for children.

She has an unusual view point from which she considers the impact of 2020 on the role of the poet:

“Let me begin by saying that I am perhaps an anomalous source to ask this question of, at this moment in time. I have spent the majority of 2020 – beginning March 31st, as the fellow at the PEN Northwest/Margery Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, and have lived in a small, off-grid cabin two hours from cell service or internet in an old fir and madrone forest in southwestern Oregon, up a steep canyon from the wild Rogue River. In some ways I have been sheltered from the events of 2020. In other ways, they have been sharply on my mind with the clarity that distance sometimes brings. I say the following with one month left of my sojourn in the wilderness; I say it willing to have my mind changed upon re-immersion.

What I say is this: I don’t believe that the role of the poet has been fundamentally altered by the events of 2020. Now, the world we live in, write about, and hope to make better has changed, no doubt about it. We as people, if we’re paying attention, have changed. Under our feet the sands shift.

2020 has not been an easy year. But that pleasing numeric, reminiscent of keen eyes and the old adage about hindsight, is just a bracket containing and helping us consider a particular chunk of geologically minuscule time. And those neat brackets seem intent on cutting off bloodlines and ties and connections running forward and back. 2020, after all, is the scion of 2019, and while the US first began to sit up and take note of COVID-19 this past February of 2020, the virus’ launch into bloodstreams and eventual colonization of immune systems the word over began at the close of the previous year. The fires that burnt five million acres in one week in the west ravaged landscapes and ecosystems whose moisture began accumulating with the fall rains of the prior year, and are the consequence of rising temperature and aridity we’ve been well aware we’re causing and doing so little about now for decades. Police brutality and the relentless violence against black bodies are not a 2020 invention. A thousand sad or silly memes lament and lambaste 2020 for its cruelty and chaos, as if both were new, and will suddenly go away when the new year’s bell rings in 2021. A sweet dream in the age of instant gratification.

You could make the case, I suppose, that poets are sometimes valued more in hard times, more widely read during crisis and trouble. Over the past year we’ve seen book stores thriving as many socially distancing, home bound people turn to the written word and do their best to support locally owned businesses. A dear friend who owns a bookstore in my home in Montana told me: “People are loving reading right now – information as escape.” While I know it to be true that some poets publishing books in the COVID era are struggling to gain audiences and readership without the bump of in-person reading events and book tours, I’m certainly happy to think of readership widening and deepening. But I think this simply reflects and reminds us of a role for poets that is very old.

Langston Hughes did not need 2020 to tell us about inequality and the struggles of black folks during segregation. Seamus Heaney didn’t need it when he described the Troubles in Northern Ireland in Station Island. Whoever wrote what is often considered the world’s oldest surviving poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, on stone tablets nearly 4,000 years ago didn’t need 2020 to write about the harmful rule of a selfish king or the wanton destruction of the cedar forests. I could go on, but I trust you take my point. Does that mean we should fail to learn from the hard lessons of 2020? Of course not – just that we should always be learning those lessons, of every hard year, of every hard day. They’ve appeared in poems for millennia; they will appear in the days to come, and they are essential, and urgent.

Though I’ve mentioned a couple of poets addressing socio-cultural or political struggle, I don’t think that all poets can, will, or should address such issues. We have our own as well as collective stories. Times are always tough for somebody. Somebody is always hurting, struggling, fighting against injustice. Perishing. Right now, times happen to be hard for more of us than we’ve previously considered “normal.” Meanwhile, poets are doing, I believe, what they have always done. They have their ears to the ground. They are witnesses and news-bearers. Their great gifts are empathy, compassion, connection. They seize a moment, image, phrase, and distill them into transferable meaning. “Writing poetry,” Sam Hamill says, “is a form of concentrated listening.” Poets will listen to different stories and whispers, and write the ones that feel urgent to them. They may write about COVID or George Floyd or the Dakota Access Pipeline or Ruth Ginsburg’s death or the election. Or they may write about their grandmother losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. Or their boredom. Or what’s for dinner. Or their child laughing. Or their anxiety. Or the memory of seeing a stark white heron in the tidal flats as a small child and holding that memory as a totem for forty years without telling anyone until she put it into a poem, as my friend recently did in a draft she honored me by sharing.

The role of the poet has always been to shine light – on the beautiful, the fleeting, the sweet, sure, but also on the tragic, the unjust, the mind-numbingly brutal, the painful and the shameful, the stuff that makes us weep and squirm. What’s the old saying – art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

If there’s one caveat to my claim here, it would be that I do perceive a somewhat more serious movement, a more open and vulnerable (and also more complex) conversation, around elevating the voices of marginalized poets and oppressed communities, to ensure that these voices are heard and these stories told. I do not think that this is a product purely of 2020, but I do believe the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have pushed this idea deeper into the minds of writers everywhere and, in some cases, into the commitments and missions of journals and publishing houses. I hope it lasts; it’s up to us as writers and readers to see that it does.

Poets, like everyone else, must be active architects of the world they want to live in. I believe that every day of every year should make us better – first as people, all of us. The suffering of others – and the lights shone on that suffering by whatever source, be it a free press or a poem or the scent of smoke in the air or the knock of a neighbor on the door at evening – should make us better, more compassionate, more generous, more careful of one another and the world. The work of poets is to let such learning, heart-breaking as it often is, seep into poems. If we are lucky, someone will hear or read, and be moved – moved to action, maybe, or maybe just moved, which is worth more than we tend to acknowledge. It happens every day, and that won’t change.”

Corrie shares the following poem with us:

Chestnut Sabbath
Fincastle, Virginia, 1804

What clamored squall
in startling a tom turkey

back to chestnuts’ shelter
from his worm shucking

in the dawn-wet fields,
ritual of snaring &

snipping from their lives
the little soileaters pulled up

like thread from the earth’s
stormy needlepoint canvas

to keep from drowning.
He squabbles in shade

now, hunts leaf litter
& de-armors the chestnuts

beneath their mother trees,
watch-keepers aged & aging

in their uninterrupted
dominion. Time is its own

form of idle malady, which
stirs, brews, fruits, or

readies its black powder
beyond our knowing. All

things abide here between
summon & pluck.

Originally published in The Arkansas International

Corrie Williamson was born on a small farm in southwestern Virginia. She is the author of two books of poetry, The River Where You Forgot My Name (Crab Orchard Series/SIU Press 2019) and Sweet Husk (Perugia Press 2014). She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, with a BA in Poetry and Anthropology, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of Arkansas, where she was a recipient of the Walton Fellowship, and a Director of the Writers in the Schools Program. She has taught writing at the University of Arkansas, Helena College, and Carroll College, and worked as an educator in Yellowstone National Park. She was the 2020 resident of the PEN Northwest/Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, spending seven months off-grid along the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, Shenandoah, and many others. She lives in Montana.

Jaki Shelton Green, “Literary Citizenship”

Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and she will select the winner of our Poet Laureate Award.

I am honored to present her thoughts on how the challenges of 2020 have impacted the role of the poet in our society:

When I think about the role of the poet in this challenging season of uncertainty, I am reminded of a comment from Joseph Polisi, former President of Julliard, who wrote in his book titled, The Artist as Citizen, “I have wanted to emphasize my belief that artists of the twenty-first century must re-dedicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. Specifically, the twenty-first artist will have to be an effective and active advocate for the arts in communities large and small around the globe. These artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of their society— political, economically, socially— so that they can effectively work toward showing the power of the arts to nations and their people.”

This passage from his book ushers forth many questions for me in what I have deemed necessary personal requirements that guide and inform my role as NC Poet Laureate and literary citizen.  

Do we understand that witness is a generative act? How does how we witness change the world? How are we changed by what we witness as literary citizens? How close can we listen? How do we witness each other into being through our poetry? How does our poetry attend to the ways we authenticate our literary citizenship?

Over the past months, I’ve been actively engaged with a variety of regional, national, and international discussions and performances with poets, other artists, and cultural leaders reflecting on ideas and issues that shape our lives and challenge our times. At the core of these discussions, we are asking how do we develop new work that speaks to the great issues of our time? 

My question to my North Carolina poetry community is how do we use our poetry and work as literary citizens to create a healthy, supportive, respectful literary community with tenets of accountability, without gatekeepers, without power-plays, without meanness, that has a mission of eradicating bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, classism, and ageism wherever it continues to thrive and threaten?

As literary citizens, whose poems, whose stories are we discussing, exemplifying, and embodying? Audre Lorde wrote, “Without community, there is no liberation… but community does not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” 

During this multi-layered pandemic, I have witnessed poets reaching across and beyond boundaries reminding each other that WE ARE THE PEOPLE, and we are audience to each other, holding the qualities of civic-mindedness and social responsibility as we continually underscore the link between our practice as writers and its relation to the political and public sphere.

We are tremendously impacted by the challenges of 2020 as creative beings, but these unsettling times over and over again remind us that the act of writing is internal. It pulls out our relationships with experiences that become the vehicles that we are needing inside of this particular journey… for going deeper into the unknown landscapes of all the literature that is growing inside of us.

I believe that when poets imagine, we create, and when we create we realize that we can create a world that we prefer to live in, rather than a world that we are suffering in or in the words of Ben Okri, “Politics is the art of the possible; creativity is the art of the impossible.” 

Jaki has chosen to share this poem with us:

Christmas has a sound. It is crisp like green apples fresh celery or the first summer swim. The wind carries it like a newborn wrapped in cedar balsam spruce cinnamon cloves nutmeg. My daughter Imani loved Christmas. It was her favorite holiday. She became an earthly angel gathering us all up in her generosity of making merry. As a child I remember Christmas mornings backdoor visitors bearing smoked ham bacon fresh sausage the smell of sage permeated throughout our house. Clove studded oranges pear preserves sugar glazed apples yeast rolls makes the stomach recall other Christmases chess pies fruit cakes rum cakes German chocolate cake spiked eggnog caviar and deviled eggs shrimp rolls and cheese balls pound cake and pecan pies.

I sleep through the whispers of a holiday wind beckoning me to place my footprints in this new fallen snow and walk upright following the tracks of a deer fallen by a hunter. I am thinking of the dead deer my friend killed who will not return to his mate his children his clan. I am thinking of my friend who will not return to his wife his children his mother his sister his grandchildren his friends. In this moment I declare a new year for new dreams new purpose new beginnings.

In this moment breathing the breath of Christmas I declare that the halls bedecked that all the faithful embrace all the families torn apart at our borders. proclaim a silent night that slips joy into a world where babies are forced to sleep alone without mangers under cold stars without any shepherds watching where kings and men are not wise. Ring the miracle of the possibility of love and decency into the hearts of the heartless.

Hark the herald of nutcrackers, sugar cookies, tinsel, holly, and grandma ivory’s craved homemade cheese crackers.

Hark the herald of babies first Christmas trees and grocery lines spinning out of control. Make a joyful noise for the hope of families reunited. For the hope of self-Love spreading like a disease or the sprinkling of kindness over everything and everyone. Deck the halls with a peace we have yet to dream about. A tree decorated with patience, tolerance, forgiveness, benevolence. Wrap all the children in swaddling clothes and set them free in a world that sings joy and security into their hearts. Hark the herald for a multitude of wise women rising and leading us into a new world of rare and anointed possibilities. Let the holiness of silent nights crackle with the fires of friendships open tables and not the sounds of gunfire.

Let it snow let it snow let it snow but only if all creatures have a warm home and shelter. On the twelve days of Christmas may we greet twelve strangers with good will feed eleven hungry people gift ten loaves of nut bread to ten hungry people enjoy nine hours alone with our children bake eight dozen cookies from eight different recipes from eight different countries watch seven wimpy Christmas movies drink six glasses of eggnog while stuffing the Christmas duck turkey or tofu wrap five more gifts for fifty more children under the angel tree sleep four more hours than usual name the three wishes for your new year embrace just the two of you make this one day magical for someone who needs magic.

###

Jaki Shelton Green, ninth Poet Laureate of North Carolina is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. She is a 2019 Academy of American Poet Laureate Fellow, 2014 NC Literary Hall of Fame Inductee, 2009 NC Piedmont Laureate appointment, 2003 recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. Jaki Shelton Green teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and has been named the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill. Her publications include: Dead on Arrival, Masks, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, Feeding the Light, i want to undie you. On Juneteenth 2020, she released her first LP, poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst, produced by Soul City Sounds and Clearly Records. Jaki Shelton Green is the owner of SistaWRITE providing writing retreats for women writers in Sedona Arizona, Martha’s Vineyard, Ocracoke North Carolina, Northern Morocco, and Tullamore Ireland.

Welcome Robin Anna Smith

Judging the Poetry of Courage Award for 2021 will be Robin Anna Smith, a writer and artist whose work has earned numerous accolades, including The Touchstone Award for Individual Poems (2020), First Place in the UHTS Fleeting Words Tanka Contest (2019), and nomination for the Pushcart Prize (2018). Their work focuses on disability, gender, and systems from a neurodiverse perspective.

Robin has two chapbooks and two mini collections: Fire Rainbow (Human/Kind Press, 2020), Forsythia (Turtle Light Press, 2020), Systems Askew (Yavanika Press, 2019), and Controlled Chaos (Sonic Boom, 2019). Robin is the Founder and EIC for Human/Kind Journal and Press.

On our question of how 2020 has impacted the role of the poet, they write:

“The occurrences of 2020 have well-illustrated why poetry is so important. Over time, we have seen how history books have been rewritten by the powers that wield control, and important parts of the past have conveniently been erased. The onus is on us, as poets, to inject truth into our work to bear witness and to likewise lift up the works of other truth-writers who may not have the same platforms or privileges that we do.

As technology advances, much of our genuine communication tends to diminish, making it easier for propagandists to spread misinformation. I feel poetry occupies a unique space that can help bridge this gap and spark new conversations that may otherwise not take place. There is a way that poetry captures the essence of a subject that often cannot be relayed in prose. This can draw attention to important subjects in a manner that is unintimidating yet at the same time thought-provoking. My hope is that poets will use their positions to provoke positive change in society.”

Robin shares the following poem with us:

Honoring Bruce Lader and Introducing Kristina Erny

Our poetry of witness award is newly sponsored by Doug Stuber and has been renamed to honor Bruce Lader.

Of Bruce, Doug writes, “Bruce Lader wrote a wide variety of poems of witness that addressed many issues of our day. By applying his philosophy in wry verse he helped us nervously laugh about the foibles of those in charge of government and the armed services.”

Click this link to read one of Bruce’s poems, from the June 1994 issue of Poetry magazine: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=38967

The Bruce Lader Poetry of Witness Award for 2021 will be judged by Kristina Erny.

Kristina is a third culture poet who grew up in South Korea. Her poetry has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Yemassee, Bluestem, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, and her work has been the recipient of the Tupelo Quarterly Inaugural Poetry Open Prize and the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award. Her manuscript Wax of What’s Left was a finalist for Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize, Ahsahta Sawtooth Poetry award, and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. After many years of teaching internationally, she currently teaches creative writing at Asbury University and lives in Kentucky with her husband, sons, and daughter.

Of the role of the poet, she says:

“Rick Barot has a brilliant sequence of poems entitled ‘During the Pandemic.’ In Number 30, he writes ‘And there were days when I remembered the teacher who made us memorize a poem each week, and when we asked why, she said we might one day find ourselves in a wreck at the side of the road and we would recite these poems to stay alive.’

This summer I participated in a Writing Lab facilitated by Sarabande Books taught by Louisville poet Joy Priest. This was what got me through after months of quarantine, after marching, after watching my state of Kentucky and a city very close to where I live join the national stage in protest to American police brutality and injustice. Our little band of writers met on zoom for three weeks. We were writing into the wind, attempting to shout our own stories, our own visions, our own dreams, imagining a future for human survival and thriving. The poet’s role is to be alive, their mind an antennae to human experience. The poet’s role is one of truth-telling, bearing witness. This is necessary, essential: water, breath, light. Poetry’s mask demands speaking, not staying silent.

How did we survive 2020? The challenges of 2020 have underlined, bolded, and italicized the necessity of poetry to our survival as a species. Not only does poetry make space for the imaginative work which will ultimately shape our future, I believe that poetry has a unique capacity to engage human empathy and understanding. Maybe it’s the ability of poetry, as Naomi Shihab Nye has said, to hold space for the ‘other’. To place it’s hand around a frame and say, look at this. Be tender. Let your heart be changed. You are not alone. We are not alone.”

Kristina shares this poem with us:

The Mother Brushes Her Son’s Hair 

He’s tender-headed. She’s annoyed at his flinching, his calling out. This ritual 
cost of his long hair, longer than hers though hers isn’t long by any means. 

He made her a mother young, and there are days, like this one, 
she can hardly believe the same bald-headed baby thrust into her arms 

is this boy, as if this one sprang up fully formed out of a cactus flower,
just arrived this morning, to have her comb his hair. His jeans are rolled up, 

his bony elbows recently skinned. Between shudders, he looks himself in the eye.  
At his age, she’d sprawled on a red cushion, her hands a tripod beneath her chin, 

all her lenses aimed toward her teacher’s voice and the story of an unlikely sailor, 
a young girl who’d dressed as a boy, cut her own hair, and sailed into a cliffhanger 

at the end of each chapter. Her boy could be Charlotte, gentry turned sea-dog, 
arms muscled into tight strips of licorice, reaching for the next rigging, hair in his eyes. 

Last year she’d watched as he sat on a bench while two gangly short-shorn older 
boys pointed fingers long as levels at him are you a girl? 

They’d moved their accusatory palms to their mouths, eating giggles, 
and she’d watched. Her boy slumped downward, looked at his shoes. 

Now here he is in front of her. Hair almost to his waist. She sets down the brush 
and hugs her body into his shoulders. He allows her this. He runs out the bathroom door. 

Amie Whittemore: the necessity of poetry

Part of the indomitability of human nature is our use of lightheartedness and humor as a foil to oppression. Given that, I expect we’ll get some stellar work this year for the Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award.

Amie Whittemore will be our judge. This is her take on the role of the poet today:

I feel as though the myriad challenges of 2020 have made it at once more difficult to write poetry and, potentially, more necessary. A difficult combination.

I think the onslaught of tragedies—from the pandemic to the ongoing police brutality against Black people to the presidential election to wildfires ravaging the American West to whatever personal sorrow each of us is carrying—has made it hard to maintain the traits I find most beneficial to my writing: silence, calm, clear-sightedness, stillness. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt some of that stillness and calm as professional and personal obligations melted away, as time slowed down and grew murky and thick. But now, though I am still maintaining relative isolation, I feel like my personal and professional obligations have ramped back up, making it even more difficult to process and partake in the systemic changes—social, economic, and environmental—that so desperately require our attention and energy. The cynic in me would say this is in the best interest of capitalism and hegemony; the more overwhelmed we are, the more unlikely it is the collective action required to render widespread change will take place.

Which brings me to the necessity of poetry. I think poetry wears a lot of hats and somehow looks dapper in all of them, balancing precariously on its exquisite skull. For some poets, at this point, poetry is a place to release anger, grief, rage, to do the work of toppling oppressors and oppressions. For others, it is a way to cultivate beauty and peace, to reflect on love and connection—these nourishments that feel in short supply. Sometimes a poem can do both, rage and frolic, and that is a dazzling thing.

I think sometimes writers can feel guilty for writing about joy in times of collective grief (which is of course, a perpetual paradox, just one that feels particularly fraught at the moment). I know I have felt that way. I know sometimes joy also feels flimsy living in this age of extinction and decline; this era of earth-grief.

So, while no one’s asked me for advice, I feel compelled to offer some. I think 2020 is a year of reckoning in many ways, and all reckoning begins with an interrogation of the self: how can I be an antiracist? What does it mean to be a good citizen in a problematic nation? How can I demonstrate kindness to others and myself? How might being gracious with myself allow me to have grace with others? What does a sharing economy look like? What is the name of that bird I hear every morning?

Follow the questions. They will lead you somewhere new, likely a meadow full of new questions. Bring some good snacks for the road ahead. Drink water. Breathe deep. Wear your mask.

Here is Amie’s bio:

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the Reviews Editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

You can read one of her poems here: https://poets.org/poem/spell-end-grief

may I introduce Virgil Suárez

If your poem has a lot to say, it may be right for our Thomas H. McDill Award, which accepts work of up to 70 lines in any form or style.

This year’s judge is Virgil Suárez, who was born in Havana, Cuba in 1962.  At the age of twelve he arrived in the United States. He received an MFA from Louisiana State University in 1987.  He is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently 90 MILES: SELECTED AND NEW, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.  His work has appeared in a multitude of magazines and journals internationally.

He has been taking photographs on the road for the last three decades. When he is not writing, he is out riding his motorcycle up and down the Blue Highways of the Southeast, photographing disappearing urban and rural landscapes. His 10th volume of poetry, THE PAINTED BUNTING’S LAST MOLT, will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in the Spring of 2020.

On the subject of the current role of the poet in society, he says:

“I think young poets will have no difficulty in making their work more political, and more relevant to their times.
2020 has been a tough year for everyone. Personally, I have been able to get a lot of work done during
the pandemic. It’s what I’ve been training for all my life, having more time than I know what to do with,
so I write. The way folks have adjusted (well, some folks haven’t really, at all) but those of us who have
taken the pandemic seriously have adapted to best of our ability. I’ve been writing and cooking a lot.
I’ve been reading on Zoom from my new book: THE PAINTED BUNTING’S LAST MOLT out from
the University of Pittsburgh Press. I’ve been thinking about lines of distribution. About how so many
of us depend on medicine. What if medicine stopped coming to our local pharmacies? Such a question
lead to the poem featured here.”

Big Pharma Blues

Better living through pharmacology,
except when CVS can’t fill a pres-
cription, claiming your mental
health pills are no longer available.
Suddenly, the old fears emerge:
a man drifting through the back
roads, wandering between burning
pines and wild boars grazing
at his feet. If this is how the world
ends, then I want to be food
for the animals. They can sniff
out danger and the flesh of this
man gorged on Japanese natto
and tobiko. Sometimes you have
to lose in order to come back
in new formulated chemistry.
Nature doesn’t need medicine
to know how much fuckery
there is In the human heart.