Yesterday Afternoon: A Long Drive with Poetry by JM Romig

I am driving to work with the radio tuned to NPR. It’s the only thing that keeps my attention during the long drives to and from my factory job in Mentor. When I turn it on, I hear the voices of two women beneath the crackle of radio static. One voice, distinctly beautiful, is reciting a poem so think with imagery, I almost choked on it. I mean that is the most flattering way possible. This woman’s voice coupled with the lines she read transfixed me.

The host chimed in to remind the listeners that they are listening to Here and Now on NPR’s Cleveland affiliate. She is interviewing the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey – who is coming up on the end of her time in that position. Ah! That makes sense.

The poem that had my attention was titled “LIMEN”, it’s from Domestic Work: Poems, a collection I now feel I must obtain. A Limen, Natasha explains, is “the physical threshold of a door, but it’s also the threshold to an emotional or physiological state”. You can hear her smile when she makes this little caveat: “I didn’t know what the word meant until I wrote the poem, which is one of the joys of writing poetry.” The poem lingers on this image of a woodpecker, outside the narrator’s window:

LIMEN

All day I’ve listened to the industry

of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree

just outside my window. Hard at his task,

his body is a hinge, a door knocker

to the cluttered house of memory in which

I can almost see my mother’s face.

She is there, again, beyond the tree,

its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,

hanging wet sheets on the line — each one

a thin white screen between us. So insistent

is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be

looking for something else — not simply

the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift

the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,

tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

“Limen” from “Domestic Work: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey.
Copyright © 2000 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.

 

There’s not a lot for me to analyze here.  The poem is very beautifully written, and yet very straightforward and accessible. You can see a lot of craft in it, but you can’t see any of the seams. She compares the woodpecker to a doorknocker, and in this way, this woodpecker and the tree it is “worrying” provide that threshold the title is referencing that lies between the narrator, presumably Natasha herself, and her dead mother. She shows us how the clothes hanging on the line, act as a veil between the two worlds, a “thin white screen”.

The woodpecker, like Natasha’s narrator, is looking for something more than what the tree can provide. The woodpecker’s tireless work flutters not only the green hearts of the catalpa tree, but also Natasha’s heart as well, which is green and fluttering because it is renewed by the pleasant memory of her mother being brought back to her.

The poem lingers within me all day long. I keep returning to that image of the woodpecker as a doorknocker, thinking about limen. As I piece together the plastic cardboard in front of me into its desired shape, my mind is in the world of this gorgeous poem. I can’t shake the thoughts about the wonderful poet with a beautiful reading voice. I must learn more about this woman, and her work. For now, I am happy with the one gift I found when I gazed through the static, but like Natasha’s determined woodpecker, I will keep digging…

“Friday Night Writes” by Shawn King

“Friday Night Writes”

In the last ten months since I have started regularly attending poets hall there have been some really awesome open mics. Last Friday night was featured by local poet Greg Brown. He kicked things off with his own awesome brand of poetry, which I would describe as down to earth and life oriented. He did a series of poems that were tied together with the theme of breathing. I had heard some of these before, and to match my memory they were very strong. His entire set was very strong, but then at the end using some self-deprecating humor he joked about how the following poem might not be very good. It was untitled and the perfect way for him to end his set on a resounding high note. I heard several very good poets boisterously voice their enthusiasm for his reading of the untitled piece as soon as he finished.

Their seems to be this effect at Poets Hall where the open mic fuels the feature to step their game up, but last Friday I think Greg Brown going first flipped the script. He nailed his reading perfectly in my opinion, and we had a full cast of awesome poets to continue the energy into the open mic. Two entertaining acoustic musicians opened the night, and I followed with my long time friend Eric Larson. I have no idea honestly how I read, but it was very awesome to read on stage with my friend playing guitar. I have gone and watched him play probably a hundred times out and about Erie in various bands he has been a part of. Sean Thomas Dougherty was up right after me. This was incredible for me, I had that energy in me that you get right after you read, and then a poet I look up to and literally learned from followed. The rest of the night was crammed full of strong poets. All five of the community poetry laureate nominees as well as Tracie Morell and Bigg Wash read during the open mic. It was an incredible evening, and I highly recommend that anybody who has not attended an evening at the Erie Poets Hall should do so in the near future.

A great opportunity to get out to the hall would be next Friday May 30th.  My partner in crime here at Destination Detour, Josh Romig, is going to be having his second feature at Poets Hall. I will say that  Josh is very entertaining and a very strong writer.  If you have the time you should come check him out next Friday.

Help HEYMAN! Reach it’s Goal and Bring Back The Anonymous Rainbow Back For Another Year.

This isn’t poetry related, but it is art related, and relevant in that it’s a cause I think some of our readers can really get behind: 

Heyman Pride is a wonderful annual public art project by HEYMAN! Productions. Every year for the last few years they walk in the Cleveland Pride parade at the end of the parade, with rainbow Guy Fawkes masks covering their faces, passing them out to people watching and inviting people to join them in marching making for a massive amount of people on the ass end of the parade showing their love and support for the cause and having a blast.

 1 Last year they ran out of 100 masks in just the first few minutes. This year, their going bigger. 1 out out of every 10 masks this year will have a a unique design like so:

I know you’re thinking “wow, that’s fucking cool”. Yes, it is. The problem is that they need your help to keep this going. The Kickstarter created to fund this project is quickly running out of time and if it doesn’t get funded, this unique annual interactive art project may not get to happen this year. Now that you know this exists, do you really want to live in a world without it? I sure don’t. Please consider donating. All the money goes to supplies to make these masks. It’s a labor of love, and nobody is making any money.

-JM

Finances by Jeremiah Walton

I first met Jeremiah Walton at Poets’ Hall – this little spot doing big things with poetry and spoken word in Erie, PA. He was playing vagabond all long the East Coast and he found himself in Erie the same night I was featuring* at the Hall. Jeremiah is relentlessly passionate about poetry. He’s young, sharp-witted, and critical. His work plays on the ideas of 21st century life – questioning what it means to create in the digital age. I always look forward to Jeremiah’s work because he’s always doing the strangest most innovative things with the energy of a crack squirrel. Not long ago, he published an entire chapbook of poems as a status update on Facebook.

This poem here is from the perspective of money. Jeremiah imagines Money as a cocky egoist who controls our lives, and quite enjoys his status of Deity in our culture. As Money, Jeremiah takes shots at communists, anarchists, the barter system (Money’s “big brother”), and poets. Money is an asshole, but he’s right. That’s the sad fact of this poem. We do worship Money, and there’s really no sign of that stopping anytime soon.

This won’t be the last you hear of Jeremiah on this blog. I’m a huge fan of this kid, and I think he’s really got a food head on his shoulders. You can find out more about Jeremiah and all of the projects he’s involved with at http://jeremiahwaltonnostroviapoetry.wordpress.com/


*I think featuring is a strange sounding word. It sounds like some kind of sexual fetish.

 

The Puzzling Poems of Peter Valentine by JM Romig

Last week I found myself in the same boat as many other college seniors, avoiding the inevitable cram for finals on the sea of self-loathing procrastination. This particular evening I was indulging my instant gratification monkey with some undeserved time in the dark playground that is Reddit. I did not expect this little venture to be fruitful in any way; I was just killing time before time killed me.

So I was delightfully surprised when, while sifting through the sadly underpopulated subreddit known as /r/poetry, I stumbled onto someone’s delightful little project – Crossword Poems. This someone was taking the words from the New York Times crosswords, and constructing these three part poems out of them. Then, placing said poems in these textual graphics on Instagram and Tumblr. They all have little annotations embedded with tiny text into the poem indicating where they got the different words. It’s all very controlled and structured. The first section is composed of words he gets from the “Across” clues. The second is strictly the “Down” clues. The last section of the poem comes from the answers – like so:

Image

At first, I thought “that’s cool”, upvoted and went about my day. But the idea stuck with me. It was just such a cool little project. I had so many questions. Who is this guy? How’d he come up with this idea? What was his story?  I had to know more about this project, and about the poet behind it. So, after finals were over and I had the free time, I went about finding the man behind the Crossword Poems. Here’s what I found: that man is a playwright, screenwriter, poet and father. He grew up in California, lives in Brooklyn, and in his Facebook profile picture he is holding a rooster.

Image

Peter Valentine was having morning coffee one day, over a decade ago and doing the crossword puzzle. Rather than trying to race through the crossword, he was “sort of zoning out on the words in the clues” as he puts it. “I started playing with different combinations of words and then scribbled a line in the margin of the paper… and then a poem. I did it again the following day and kept at it for about 3 years” says the word bubble next to the picture of Valentine and his rooster.

When asked about the poems’ unique structure, he replied:

“The first couple poems I wrote started out as two-part poems: clues and answers. That made sense at first, however within a couple days I broke it down further to a three-part poem. As you said: across (words found in the across clues), down (words in the down clues), answers (words from the answer grid). The title of the poem can take words from any part of the puzzle” (Valentine)

Valentine believes, rightly so, that a “great trick” to writing is self-imposed structure. He and his rooster tell me that “limitations push you to explore new ideas, topics, [and] styles that you might never consider.” He wrote these every day for three years starting in 2003. When he started posting them online, it was before Facebook and Tumblr made it easy:

“In 2003 there wasn’t social, but I already had a website for all my quirky little flash movies, so I just put them there too. There must be over 600 crossword poems there.” (Valentine)

He took the practice up again in 2012 and has been using social media for the project ever since. He has a Tumbr, Facebook, and an Instagram. He just recently began posting the poems to /r/poetry where he claims he had his first bout with criticism, which is unsurprising. Redditors are relentlessly critical. It’s not a bad thing, though. Writers grow from criticism like the kind you get on Reddit, as much as we hate to receive it.

I spent my Friday evening sipping on a Summer Shandy and chatting with Valentine and his rooster about poetry and life ambitions. “The thing right now is completing my second screenplay and selling my first.” Valentine types. I assume it’s him typing and not the rooster. Though, you never can be 100% sure of anything. “Also trying to push forward a couple of collaborative music and media projects with my best friend and creative partner Matt Cornwall.”

When asked about what he hopes the future brings, he tells me “a book of my poems would be nice”. Indeed it would be, I think. After that the conversation died down and trailed off into small talk. I was on my third Summer Shandy and starting to feel a bit of a buzz, so we toasted to serendipity and parted ways -And by that I mean, we stopped typing at one another, but in all likelihood we both never left our seats. I stayed up and typed this out, and he likely stayed where he was and did whatever it is that people do.

The internet is weird.

I am Jack’s Squeaky Fan: My Experience at Write Club By JM Romig

 

If memory serves me correctly, I once saw Tremont near the top of a list of artsy hotspots. The blog claimed that the little Cleveland pocket of culture could be “the next Williamsburg” which I read as “safe haven for entitled hipsters” – a premonition I hope never comes to fruition. Danielle and I drove to the little art district the weekend before Cinco de Mayo and found the streets littered with porcelain white teenagers and twenty-somethings swimming in culturally insensitive ponchos and sombreros, doing the Mexican St. Patty’s Day bar crawl. I shook my head in mild disgust and re-focused my attention to finding the sign for Literary Café.

The Writing Knights are a small Cleveland press that holds events all over the city. This day, I was visiting the WK crew to feature as an opener for one of their most interesting and ambitious round tables. Write Club, an obvious punning of the Palahniuk novel Fight Club, is a monthly freeform workshop hosted by Skylark Bruce and Azriel Johnson of The Writing Knights and held at Literary Café on the first Saturday of every month. If the premise isn’t self-explanatory, I can sum it up by quoting from the flyer that was passed around, and plastered all over Facebook for weeks before the event, which further references the pop culture phenomena of which its name is referring:

“The First Rule of Write Club: You do not TALK about Write Club.
The Second Rule of Write Club: Copy the flyer and pass it on to others.
The Third Rule: If you condone hate speech or abuse your write is OVER.
The Fourth Rule: NO prewritten material
Fifth Rule: As many writers as POSSIBLE at a time.
Sixth Rule: Bring Dictionaries and other reference materials.
Seventh Rule: Writes will go on for as long as they have to.
The Eighth and Final Rule: If this is your first (k)night at Write Club,
you have to Write.”

If you’re still confused – that’s okay. I, myself, had many questions. Was it a workshop? Was it a reading? Was it some kind of hybrid of the two? I had no idea. This was a dramatic change in form, as every WK event I’d been a part of up until then had followed a typical format, with featured poets having ten minutes at the start of the show, followed by an open mic. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Inside Literary Café there’s a little back room where the walls were an audience of pastels and pencil drawings all staring toward the center of the room, where tables were arranged in a rough ovalish shape. It was not quite the dim-lit bloodstained basement you’d find on Paper Street. Skylark Bruce was the first person we saw as we entered. She was sitting to the left of Johnson, crocheting plastic bags out of other plastic bags and waiting patiently for guests to arrive.

There were three of us reading as featured poets at the beginning of the night. We were the only exceptions to the rule against pre-written material. I was first up, reading a handful of haiku I’ve been working on, and debuting a few of my NaPoWriMo poems from this year. Second to the microphone was a Tom Noy, who came to the show with his son, a shy little boy. The child sat patiently swinging his feet that couldn’t quite reach the ground from his chair. The boy’s father opened with an emotionally charged poem by Rachel McKibbens. I knew the name from somewhere – It took me a second to figure out that I’d heard a few of her poems before thanks to Indiefeed. Noy followed that with handful of his own original pieces, ending with a haiku of his own about the 27 club, which I found very well written.

The third feature to kick the night off was Jen Pezzo. Jen was introduced by Skylark as a member and contributor of Poets Haven, another Cleveland press [sidenote: you’ll find as I do more of these blogs, that the local poetry scenes around Cleveland and Erie tend to overlap a lot. These poetry circles are better understood as Venn Diagrams.] Jen’s set was very quick, but also very solid. The room was responsive to her work, snaps and claps filled the room as she read.

After that, the write had begun, every poet in the room began scribbling into their notebooks. Every few minutes someone would announce that they had something, and share a bit of a poem they’d just composed. A few poems lamenting factory work, a few others remarking upon racism, white privilege, and the cultural appropriation outside.  One by one they rose and popped like a bubble out of our collective primordial ooze. Then the room would sink back into silence once more, as the pens and pencils went back to scraping the page.

The only other noise you could hear was the bu-da-da-um-bum of a squeaky fan, spinning furiously from the ceiling as if it may break free and fly away if it just pushed itself hard enough. This fan acted as a prompt for a good portion of the night, leading to several poems being blurted out across the room. The Squeaky Fan poems ranged from serious (Jen Pezzo’s piece about a confession she could not share) to the intense (Rachel Roth’s piece which incorporated a breathy onomatopoeia of the fan being used as a metaphor) to the downright silly, in my case, with an extremely short poem that ponders if someone could waltz to the rhythm the fan was giving us.

As the night came to a close, I still struggled to define the event. It wasn’t a poetry reading, or a workshop, though it had elements of both. At a reading, the goal is to showcase your fully realized poems for the audience. At Write Club, the work was not expected to be fully formed at all. This was rapid fire brainstorming. The poems that are expected to come out are half-written, unpolished, and sometimes clumsy. At a workshop, you work through a piece and collaborate closely with others until it is as close to fully realized as one can get. That wasn’t the goal here either. The goal here seemed to be to generate the seeds of poems, as many as you could manage.

The poems started there that night would be later shaped and improved as the writers went home and sat with the pieces. It was a way to get things out and down on paper, an excuse to make something new. This is a necessary outlet for many writers. Sometimes we don’t have time to write, or we forget, or we simply hit a wall creatively. In moments like those, it’s ridiculously hard to get something started. Events like this give us an excuse to get out of our lives, enjoy the company of other poets, and most importantly, write something, even if it is just a beginning.

Here’s a little something I wrote at Write Club that night:

Circles
Poets skipping little flat rocks, like math classes,
all a-long the-lake
with each stone cast
– a cast of its own, forms a tiny circle around it
that with time, radiates further and further out –
words come crashing/splashing into one another
– the Rustbelt poetry song

On Meeting Ted Kooser by JM Romig

He sat there behind the table,
with his glasses sitting on his nose,
and his skin sitting on his bones – both loosely,
the way you’d expect someone to sit
after 75 years of good, but hard, living.

“The trick is-” he said
deliberately pausing to shift the weight of the sentence
toward the upcoming words
“you have to wipe away all the things you don’t want to see.”
He said this as he scribbled his name
inside my new copy of his old book
smiling in that gentle old man way.

I scampered away like a schoolboy
feeling like an idiot
having rambled at him
in my best impression of a scholar
– like a kid wearing his dad’s oversized suit.

I talked at him about
how well he captures a moment in poetry
like this former US Poet Laureate
wasn’t aware of his talent
and I was somehow the first
delivering the good news.

As I wander the campus,
having escaped my embarrassment
I think back to a poem he read tonight
about watching an old couple sharing a sandwich.
It was an ode to love,
an image you can see in any sit down restaurant,
literally anywhere in America.
He focused in on this couple,
in this diner
at this moment
apart from time, like a moving still life
forever framed by his words.

He wiped away the screaming kid
and its overwhelmed mother in the booth to the left,
the table of teenagers playing hooky to their right,
and the underpaid twnetysomething waitress
who clearly didn’t want to be there anyway.

He wiped away all of that distraction
and unearthed this beautiful moment
this pure example of true love-
A sandwich cut from corner to corner
by the shaking hands of a man
whose glasses sit upon his face
and skin upon his bones
all the way you expect a man to
with woman he’s loved for forty years
with whom he shares everything.

I think about the moments I have missed
the poems never writ
because I was staring at the waitress,
who clearly didn’t want to be there anyway.

Relief, Release, and Repair: An Evening with Ted Kooser by J.M. Romig

Ted Kooser Photo from The Poetry Foundation

A frail and gentle looking old man with kindness in his eyes sat behind a plastic table signing books. He sat there behind the table, with his glasses sitting on his nose, and his skin sitting on his bones, both loosely, the way you’d expect someone to sit after 75 years of good, but hard, living. “The trick is-” he said, deliberately pausing to shift the weight of the sentence toward the upcoming words, “you have to wipe away all the things you don’t want to see.” He then scribbled his name in my new copy of Delights & Shadows, and I scampered off, feeling like an idiot for rambling at him about how good he was at writing – like he didn’t already know.

Ted Kooser, former US Poet Laureate, read some magnificent poetry for Kent State students and faculty Thursday night. The entire room was floored by the way this man could take an ordinary solitary image and turn it into an extraordinary piece that somehow captured the very essence of being human. During Kooser’s introduction speech, the head of the Wick Poetry Center on Kent Campus described Kooser’s work as a sort of repairing. I would say this is a more than accurate statement. He shows you things in such a way that makes the simplest things seem full of wonder. It reminds you of how exciting, amazing, and literally awesome the world around us is.

Each of his poems read like a snapshot of a moment, usually very minimalistic and somewhat objective. He didn’t tell the audience what to think, not outright. He just showed us pictures. He only showed us what he wanted us to see, and by doing that he showed us more than we would ever have seen otherwise. There was one poem that focused on the hands of two men, clasping each other in love, as they descended down stairs. The two hands separate to let the poem’s narrator through, and rejoin each other after he passes. The short poem about family was well received by the audience who applauded, showering the kind old man with praise. He took it well, wearing a smile, patiently waiting for the adoration to dissipate, so he could move on to the next poem. Most pieces were like this, little moments we could all find easily identifiable. For example, his poem “Splitting the Order” chronicles the act of watching an old man cutting a sandwich in half:

…keeping his shaky hands steady

by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he had asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife… (Kooser)

The poem was charming and delightful. It is an ode to love. It’s an image you can see in any diner, anywhere in America. And yet, the way he words it makes it so that the love this couple shares is all that you see. He wipes away the screaming kid and overwhelmed mother in the booth to the left, the table of teenagers playing hooky to their right, and the underpaid twenty-something waitress who clearly doesn’t want to be there. He wipes away all of that distraction and unearths a beautiful moment that we miss out on every day, because it’s submerged in the stuff we don’t want to see.

I began that night uncertain of what this experience would be. I’d been to more readings than I can count, but I’ve never seen a poet laureate read. I was not at all disappointed. At the end, I felt better than I had in a long time. I left that auditorium with a spring in my step. I wandered aimlessly about campus and got taken by the sound of a sophomore with an acoustic guitar, singing his rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar”. I took a moment to soak in the experience, thinking – this is the kind of thing I’d overlook any other day. The image hiding among the everyday distraction. I don’t know if it was just the weight of winter finally falling off my shoulders or what, but I felt like I had brand new eyes. I took a nice long breath of the Ohio air and rocked back and forth as the musician played on. I felt renewed, no…repaired.