Reading Poetry

I know a lot of readers. Many of my friends and members of my family enjoy reading a variety of things like: fiction, nonfiction, sic fi, fantasy, young adult, mysteries, short stories, memoirs, essays, newspaper or magazine articles, blog posts, philosophy and cookbooks. 

Yes, they read it all! 

Well, almost all. 

They read it all except poetry. 

I think I understand why the otherwise avid reader avoids poetry. Perhaps they think it is too abstract. In fairness, it can be, but I’m here to affirm: Poetry can be many things! 

To prove it, I invite you to have a pretend conversation with me.

Trust me? C’mon, trust me. Hold my hand. Here we go…

M: Why don’t you read poetry?

Y: I don’t get it. 

M: It’s ok not to get it. 

Y: I feel like I’m supposed to-

M: Leave should. Greet the kid. 

Y: What? Please speak more directly. This is what I mean. You poets are so cryptic!

M: Forgive me. Poets like to play, but we are good kids, we share our toys, so when you sit down with a poem, be open. Poems are friendly, I swear.

Y: I’m an adult. I don’t have time. Everything is busy and stressful. I need to relax.

M: Poetry is relaxing. 

Y: Not if I don’t know how to read it. How do I read a poem?

M: Each one is different, but as a general method, pause at the end of each line. Take a breath. Let the words hang for a moment, and then fall into the next line. Follow the punctuation as it winds around. Try this one: 

By Takako U. Lento

There were dancing as if
swimming among rocks.
We stood by the wall
drinking beer
out of the green-labeled can.
We talked about 
shadow plays, operas and
how your friend’s father witnessed
Caruso break a goblet
by his forceful voice.
I laughed,
wishing I could break
the thin but inevitable glass
between me and your world. 

M: Or this one:

Homage to My Hips
By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
pretty places, these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
they hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

M: See? You could follow these poems, yes?

Y: I could! The language was clear and there were important messages in them. 

M: Yes! Poetry is strong, it can hold important messages. Here’s one I love:

By Wisława Szymborska

How leaky are the borders of man-made states!
How many clouds float over them with scot-free,
how much desert sand shifts from country to country, 
how many mountain pebbles roll onto foreign turf 
in provocative leaps!

Need I site each and every bird as it flies,
or alights, as now, on the lowered gate?
Even if it be a sparrow-its tail abroad,
though its beak is still home. If that weren’t enough- it keeps

Out of countless insects, I will single out the ant, 
who between the border guard’s left and right boots,
feels unobliged to answer questions of origin or destination.

If only this whole mess could be seen at once in detail
on every continent!
Isn’t that a privet on the opposite bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river? 
Who else but the squid, brazenly long armed, 
would violate the sacred territorial waters?

How can we speak of any semblance of order
when we can’t rearrange the stars 
to know which one shines for whom?

Not to mention the reprehensible spreading of fog!
Or the dusting of the steppe over its entire range
as if though it weren’t split in two!
Or voices carried over accommodating airwaves:
summoning squeals and suggestive gurgles!

Only what’s human can be truly alien.
The rest is mixed forest, undermining moles, and wind. 

 I love how ‘Psalm’ makes me think about humans, nature, borders and movement. 

Y: You think a lot. Is this a poet’s curse?

M: A curse and a blessing. I’ve also been thinking about objects, why I collect or keep certain things. This next poem addresses stuff, and I’m including it especially for my friend Dara, because she helps people with their ‘stuff’ for a living.

Thing Poem
By Petra von Morstein

Moving out
I was given
a vase. 

The notebook was bought
on the island
in the store there.

You found
the striped pebble
on the beach at Aber-Bach, in Wales.

With this pencil
I wrote
things nobody liked, not even I.

Take off these story tags.
I’d really like
a few things with
qualities of their own.

 I like how she pokes fun at herself and I love line: Take off these story tags. 

Y: I like how this poem reads like a list: vase, notebook, striped pebble, pencil. And you’re right, finding a poet who can laugh at herself is refreshing.

M: Do you think poets take themselves too seriously?

Y: Well, you are having a conversation with yourself about poetry.

M: Ha! That’s true. It’s just that poetry means a lot to me. My friend Alicia says that I should ‘give people validation to read [poetry] and feel it the way it moves them.’ 

Y: Validation…That’s a good way to phrase it.

M: Yes, she’s very smart. So, have I accomplished this? Will you read more poetry?

Y: Yes, I promise. I will read more poetry. 

M: Yay! That’s what I wanted to hear. Here are three more poems. Enjoy!

Love Poem
By Leslie Marmon Silko

Rain smell comes with the wind 
out of the southwest. 
Smell of sand dunes 
tall grass glistening
in the rain. 
Warm raindrops that fall easy 
(this woman) 
The summer is born. 
Smell of her breathing new life 
small gray toads on 
damp sand. 
(this woman) 
whispering to dark wide leaves 
white moon blossoms dripping 
tracks in the 
Rain smell 
I am full of hunger 
deep and longing to touch 
wet tall grass, green and strong beneath. 
This woman loved a man 
and she breathed to him 
her damp earth song. 
I was haunted by this story 
I remember it in cottonwood leaves 
their fragrance in 
the shade. 
I remember it in the wide blue sky 
when the rain smell comes with the wind.

English Flavors
By Laure-Anne Bosselaar

I love to lick English the way I licked the hard 
round licorice sticks the Belgian nuns gave me for six
good conduct points on Sundays after mass.

Love it when ‘plethora’, ‘indolence’, ‘damask’, 
or my new word: ‘lasciviousness,’ stain my tongue, 
thicken my saliva, sweet as those sticks – black

and slick with every lick it took to make daggers
out of them: sticky spikes I brandished straight up
to the ebony crucifix in the dorm, with the pride

of a child more often punished than praised. 
‘Amuck,’ ‘awkward,’ or ‘knuckles,’ have jaw-
breaker flavors; there’s honey in ‘hunter’s moon,’

hot pepper in ‘hunk,’ and ‘mellifluous’ has aromas 
of almonds and milk. Those tastes of recompense 
still bitter-sweet today as I roll, bend and shape

English in my mouth, repeating its syllables 
like acts of contrition, then sticking out my new tongue –
flavored and sharp – to the ambiguities of meaning.

By Ada Limón

I’ve come here from the rocks, the bonelike chert,
obsidian, lava rock. I’ve come here from the trees—

chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar,

one thousand oaks
that bend with moss and old man’s beard.
I was born on a green couch on Carriger Road between
the vineyards and the horse pasture.

I don’t remember what I first saw, the brick of light
that unhinged me from the beginning. I don’t remember

my brother’s face, my mother, my father.

Later, I remember leaves, through car windows,
through bedroom windows, through the classroom window,

the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that
power from roots. Imagine you must survive

without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves, 

I do not know where else I belong.

Partying with Poets

Since November, I’ve been meeting (online) with a literary collaborative called SunJune. It’s hosted by poets, Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs, and for each 2- hour session, we read and discuss contemporary poems, and we write, guided by prompts that Jessica and Nickole create. 

I first met this pair of poet goddesses in 2019 at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. After attending their reading on a Friday night, I fell in love with their work, so I signed up for two workshops and spent the rest of that weekend learning from them. In summer 2020, I took another (online) workshop from Nickole, and then in the fall, I reached out to her. I wanted to thank her for helping me complete a poem about wolves and my beloved dog. I also wanted some advice on publishing. We ended up having a lovely conversation, and thanks to our (virtual) coffee chat, I learned about SunJune. 

SunJune is 80 poets strong. This number excites me, and I have much to say about this beautiful group, but before I sing the praises of SunJune, I’ll offer a little more context on poets.

Poets are weird, word-loving introverts who sometimes want to be together. Like most artists, we need solitude, lots of quiet time, but when we’re ready to share, when that tiny part of us that is extroverted peeks out from our shells, well, we like to party. 

Allow me to offer more sophisticated phrasing… 

Poets enjoy attending soirees. We adore a brilliant salon. 

And SunJune has delivered, every time. 

Jessica and Nickole throw poetry parties with themes. They are warm hosts and healers. Why do I call them healers? Because they launched SunJune on election night. 

So as Benjamin and I watched the results with our dear friends, Allen and Nick, as we leaned on them, grateful for their intelligence, realism and optimism, 80 poets from all over this country (and some countries in Europe) were writing. 

Take that in for a moment.

80 poets. 

All of them writing toward the themes of Resistance and Resilience. 

I love this. 

I joined SunJune when the theme was Putting the Body in Embodiment. In this session, we studied poems by Sharon Olds and Ellen Bass. We wrote to re-see our flaws, celebrate them with humor. We wrote as if parts of us could travel away from the rest of our bodies. In my head, I heard, and then I wrote, My hair is listening to the neighbor’s conversation.From this line, I am crafting a new poem. Yay!

I’ve now attended SunJune for the themes: The Nose Knows, Reflection and Resolution, Metaphors Be With You (Heh heh-oh yes, for that one, our hostesses wore costumes), and most recently, The Name Game. 

I’ve read poems by: Amiee Nezhukumatathil, Frank Paino, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Jack Gilbert, Thomas Lux, Charles Simic, Jericho Brown, Dilruba Ahmed and Pádraig Ó Tuama. 

Because Jessica and Nickole believe in sharing the love, each session has also featured a guest editor/small press publisher offering opportunities for poets, so I’ve learned about presses like: Two Sylvias Press, Hub City and Cave Wall

And thanks to this literary collaborative, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in the (online) Palm Beach Poetry Festival, where I signed up for one-on-one manuscript consultations and was thrilled to land a meeting with Jessica. 

If it were a different year, one not heavy with the pandemic, Jessica and I could have chatted with the sound of the Atlantic as background music. We could have done what poets do best, sit in nature and allow poetic talk to wash over us. As much as I wished this could be the case, as homesick as I am for Florida, I felt beyond grateful for the opportunity to work with her in any capacity. 

In just one hour, I learned so much about my voice, my practice and publishing. 

Jessica advised me to establish foundations for my reader. She said something like, Once you ground me, I’ll follow you anywhere, but ground me first. She suggested using things like sign posts to direct my reader through time changes, longer lines for power, shorter lines to contribute to the music of the poem. 

When I asked for a compass in sending work out, she told me to focus on open submissions, to publish widely, sending out 5-6 poems at a time so that presses get used to my voice. She listed half a dozen presses for me to research. She reminded me to take my time and write toward the ineffable. To close our conversation, we did what poets do best, we talked about hawks and angels. 

In times of challenge, we all try to find our unique ways of coping. Jessica, Nickole and the poets of SunJune have been my saving grace. As I look forward to the day when I can be in the same room as poets, I remain grateful that I can at least be with them under the same sky. 

Thank you for reading and may a poem make your day!