Of Lists and Longing

Bluebells in Ireland, May 2018

2018 didn’t quite go the way I thought it would. I could say that it was better and worse. I could enumerate all the broken pieces and all the shining moments. Every life has such. Mine is nothing special.

After a picture-book snowy December, we are pounded by rain, raveled by high winds. The gracious curve of the snow banks is now pocked and dirty, broken limbs, unburied trash, dog shit. And yet, a junco landed on the railing outside my window and clearly looked me in the eyes. There was a break in the cloud cover this morning unveiling a tiny sunrise, all golden and pink for the few minutes it held open.

2019 comes apace, a date I could not have even imagined when I was a child. The world now is different and the same. Politics eerily repeating itself like a warped tape, but I take a breath and there is ocean, rain, tomatoes to grow. 

Books to read. And so, I cross the threshold to the new year, the new list. I’ve been keeping a reading list for a decade or more, and how I wish I started sooner. Looking back, I see patterns, interests evolve and then fade away. But poetry. Oh, poetry remains. So this year I read 138 books, 82 of which were poetry collections. I’ve listed them below in alphabetical order by title. A rich stew of ideas, language, and heart’s blood. 

May the new year find us all looking toward the light. May we listen well. May we feel heard. May we not forget our place in the web of all life on this planet. May we remember that kindness is better than money. May no person be made to feel less than human, less than worthy of compassion. May we find teachers that help us become the most full expression of our hearts.

And may we read some poetry that connects us to each other.

Poetry Collections Read 2018

A Sleepwalk on the Severn by Alice Oswald
American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrence Hayes 
Anaphora by Kevin Goodan
Be With by Forrest Gander
Bind by Christine Murray
Bird-Woman by Em Strang
Bloodroot by Annemarie Ní Churreán
blud by Rachel McKibbens
Bread fro a Stranger’s Oven by Janlori Goldman 
Break the Glass by Jean Valentine
Bucolics by Maurice Manning 
Cairn by Peggy Shumaker
Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
Companion Grasses by Brian Teare
Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil by C.D. Wright
Corpse Whale by dg nanouk ok pik
Dear Almost by Matthew Thorburn 
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Anemic Writing by Sam Roxas-Chua
Ends of the Earth by Kate Partridge 
Extra Hidden Life, among the Days by Brenda Hillman
Feast Gently by C.G. Waldrep 
Feel Free by Nick Laird
First the Feathers by Amanda Bell
Flight by Chaun Ballard
Fur by Grace Wells
Geomantic by Paula Meehan
Human Hours by Catherine Barnett
If You Have to Go by Katie Ford
Inside, Outside, Morningside by Marjorie Kowalski Cole 
Insistence by Ailbhe Darcy
Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman
Lessons on Expulsion by Erika Sanchez  
Lies by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Liffey Swim by Jessica Traynor
Maiden Names by Martin Dyar
Miraculum Monstrum by Kathline Carr 
Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins
Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil 
Once in the West by Christian Wiman 
Randomer by Colm Keegan
Rising, Falling, Hovering by C.D. Wright
Rock Piles Along the Eddy by Ishmael Hope
Ruination Atlas by Sarah Pape 
Sailing the Forest by Robin Robertson
Saudade by Traci Brimhall 
Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua
Scavenger Loop by David Baker
Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey by Hayden Carruth
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers 
So Far So Good by Ursula K. LeGuin
Some Say the Lark by Jennifer Chang
Something Yet to Be Named by Kersten Christianson
Songs from the Blue River by Paul Kingsnorth
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss 
Swithering by Robin Robertson
The Astrakhan Cloak b Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
The Best American Poetry 2017 – Editor, Natasha Trethewey
The Dream of Reason by Jenny George
The Echo of Ice Letting Go by Julie LeMay 
The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa
The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven by Brian Teare
The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden 
The Grief Performance by Emily Kendal Frey
The New Testament by Jericho Brown 
The Rain Barrel by Nicholas McLachlan
The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney
The Undressing by Li-Young Lee
Things as It Is by Chase Twichell
This is Yarrow by Tara Bergin
This World by Teddy Macker
Thrust by Heather Derr-Smith 
To Those Who Were Our First Gods by Nikole Brown
Tough Luck by Todd Boss
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Water and Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha 
Witch in the Bushes by Rita Ann Higgins
Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino
With the Dogstar as My Witness by John Fry
Woman Reading to the Sea by Lisa Williams 

Good advice from Neil Gaiman … seriously good advice (especially if you an artist of any kind)

A threshold season, Alaska spring, commencement exercises, turning over garden beds…

For the most part, I find commencement speeches insipid. The same old platitudes, same cheeky graduates, stuffy looking faculty. Leave it to Neil Gaiman to shake up the paradigm.

If you are an artist of any stripe, you should take twenty minutes out of your busy schedule to watch this speech.


Make good art…. no mater what the world hands you.

Make glorious and interesting mistakes.

Walk towards the mountain.

Honestly, I love “walk towards the mountain” so much, I might have to get it tattooed someplace that I can see every day.

Week of Inward Looking – Art, or pole-sitting above the pit of fire

Question: Has my art been brave enough?

My answer: Before I started my MFA, I was the master of the safe, pretty poem. I’ve read a lot of these poems, pleasing but somewhat staid imagery, sentiment but no real depth of feeling. I can only imagine that the admissions folks of the several MFA programs where I was accepted looked at my poetry and wondered if I would ever be able to apply my polished sonic technique to poetry that actually said something worth reading.

Three years later, and several hard knocks over the line by my intelligent mentors, I was producing poems that were significantly better. The problem was, I still wanted to be good. I wasn’t risking being bad often enough to consistently find a path out of the lower atmosphere. Then a workshop by a poet (Li-Young Lee) who requested that we honestly put ourselves on a pole over a pit of flame and then decide what needed to be said. Oh, and try to say it in a way that no one else ever has, but which resonates immediately with any reader, even one who has never been in a similar situation.

Better poems.

Earlier this year I started writing a series of poems about my brother who passed away when I was 27. Dangerous poems. Poems with sharp edges. Poems that walked towards cliff edges in the fog. Often really bad poems. Sometimes poems that made readers flinch or gasp. A trade-off: safety sacrificed for work that will honestly bleed (and I mean that in a good, visceral way).

Still, in the last few months of 2011, those poems started to dry up. Only recently (say in the last few days) have I begun to understand why. I got busier, too busy to waste time writing poems that might suck. So, my poetry once again veered into that soft territory of pretty. I turned away from the fertile, mucky, swampy part of my memories, and started tip-toeing around the safe sun-drenched garden.

Time to go back. Time to write a lot of poetry that risks being bad so that there are a few that are actually brave enough to be good. Besides, I really want to finish this chapbook (or full-length collection). I’d better be ready to get back up on the pole and stare into the fire. Sure, it’s hot up there, but th0se flames burn away the merely pretty and light the way towards something worth more.