From my poetry collection Yearnful Raves.
make a ritual
in order to attend
in order to focus
on what is needed
to calm enough to get
outside the blather
between your ears.
Make a meal and share it.
Taste and season as you go.
Pick up trash along your walk.
Turn off the phone and sit
and wait for what turns up:
maybe a hummingbird?
Next time you point and say
“You’re not the boss of me,”
scowl at that annoying mask
(while I pout back behind mine),
what if we consider
that even now that little
bee of a bird is gaining weight
simply from sipping flowers
to somehow brave the Gulf of Mexico
again so his race can go on?
Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison. A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books. Check this out: I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”
We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind. He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems? I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one. The ones about your dogs? Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’ And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem. It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color? One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’ Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man. It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’ They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow. That poem about your brother, that was killer, man. Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”
I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems? Anybody’s poems, for that matter. And then a letter arrives this week from my friend. He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems. He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me. So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:
Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry. I enjoyed your work. I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic. The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth. I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog. Thank you. I look forward to your future work. Respectfully, _________
This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human. The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12. Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation. One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina. It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.
Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26. Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.
My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple. Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader. This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next. Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself. From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.
I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing. The three above make it worth the price. ______________________
One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle. You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign. My friend and his pals clearly get that. Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads. So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes. Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.
The Richmond, VA based literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has published one of my poems and one of my stories. Had a whiskey (natch!) recently with the journal’s estimable young publisher Hunter Reardon and he got me thinking about his new 5-7-5 syllable haiku contest (https://bottom-shelf-whiskey.com/). So here are a few I came up with (illustrated) – message me your own, or better yet, send it in to BSW (you don’t need to illustrate them, of course)!
Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society. A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail. This stunned me. Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written hundreds of things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading. It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers. Of course, the very idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job. So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it. Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published. But getting a check came as such a surprise! Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!
But that’s a snide thing to say. Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this. When they could be binging Netflix! Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin. A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me. It’s an odd cult, isn’t it? At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates. In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.
Then this. One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest. She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah. And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:
I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar. It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once: “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons: “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.” The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here. This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?” And that is a very good thing. The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness. The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo. I beamed! Thank you for taking the time to reflect.
No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah. I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again. On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you. We should all be so lucky.
By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here: https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/. Enjoy!