my poems

32 posts

“Poems Hide”

barn

The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
 
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.

 

Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!

 

If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:

 

“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:

 

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.

 

“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:

 

From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.

 

“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:

 

Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.

 

I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:

 

You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.

 

You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.

 

Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

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Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

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Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

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Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

When Poems Start Speaking Another Language

The greatest mystery in life is death. Yet another coup for irony, no? And also for literature, which has been preoccupied with this central mystery ever since Adam & Eve brought the (tree) house down by biting an apple, thus opening the door for that narrow fellow not-in-the-grass.

As for me, I’m not above getting on the mystery train myself. Or of using light humor to treat such heavy topics. The poem “Death of a Conversation” (included in this post), found in the first section of my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, attracted the attention of translator Ralph Polumbo. Taken by the comic exchange between two neighbors – one a man trying to get to his car for a grocery trip, the other an ex-Jesuit hazarding answers to the great beyond – Polumbo decided to translate the poem (also include in this post) for a Spanish audience .

The lapsed Jesuit, Peter, has a thing for irony, too. His theory on the other side points to the contrast between the light people with near-death experiences claim to see and the dark that has been debated by others in both ways metaphorical and literal. Whether Peter has lost his way is left for the reader to decide. As for the poem’s speaker, he is simply in a situation familiar to  all of us, trying to disengage himself from small talk so he can return to the task at hand.

Here is the poem, which originally appeared in The Westchester Review, followed by Polumbo’s translation:

 

 

Death of a Conversation

by Ken Craft

 

Peter catches me between front door and car,

pretends to weed around marigolds. “Oh hey.”

That casual greeting his specialty. Daily conversations

mostly desultory before he breaks into his pet topic:

 

suicide. I know, a bad sign, but idle talk of killing himself

is Pete’s sole joy in life. At least he’s not overly repetitive.

He’s too much the lapsed Jesuit for that.

“That blinding light they talk about at the end,” he says.

“All bullshit. Black as coal dropped down a well at midnight,

if you want the truth. You recall anything –

a blessed thing — before you were born?

 

I want to say yes, I do, in fact. Make up stuff

about bullets bubbling the surf off Normandy,

the stench of canvas and sleeping soldiers in tents

under Shiloh’s heat, the wet patch of earth stuck to

Squanto’s umber knees as he finally stands

in his Pilgrim field of corn seed and fish corpse.

 

“It’s what makes death so easy,” he says. “It’s why

every fool manages it so professionally. It’s not

like we meet some snowy-bearded Maker

after unmaking ourselves — an angry God

directing us to Hell for jay-walking violations.

 

Mercifully, he never talks ways or means. Never razors

or hoses from exhaust pipes to windows of opportunity.

And certainly never the taste of metal, the last bullet

train to nighttime Tokyo.

 

“In fact it’ll be peaceful like the Garden of Eden

before the damn fruit and the sweet-talking serpent. Trust me.”

I want to trust him. I do. But I have to buy a quart of 2% milk.

A dozen pastured, cage-free eggs. Unbleached flour.

 

“Deer been at your hydrangeas again,” I note, pointing.

He glances at his patch of Eden, and I take the opportunity

to tell him I have to go. We all do, eventually.

 

 

Muerte de una Conversación

by Ken Craft, Ralph Polumbo (Translator)

 

Pedro me detiene entre la puerta de entrada y el automóvil,

simula estar quitando las malezas de alrededor de las caléndulas. -¡Oye!

Ese saludo informal es su especialidad. Las conversaciones diarias,

generalmente inconsistentes, antes de irrumpir en su tema favorito:

 

suicidio. Lo sé, un mal señal, pero cháchara de suicidarse

es la única alegría en su vida. Al menos él no es demasiado repetitivo.  

Él es demasiado reflexivo el ex Jesuita para eso.

-Esa luz cegadora de la que hablan al final –dice.

Son todas mentiras. Negro como el carbón cayó en un pozo a la medianoche,

si quieres saber la verdad. ¿Tú evocas algo –

alguna bendición- antes de nacer?

 

Quiero decir que sí, de hecho, lo recuerdo. Inventar algo acerca

de las balas burbujeando las olas en la costa de Normandía,

el hedor de lonas y los soldados dormidos en tiendas de campaña

bajo el calor de Shiloh, el húmedo parche de tierra pegado

a las rodillas marrones de Squanto, mientras él finalmente se para

en su campo Peregrino de semillas de maíz y cadáver de pez.

 

-Es lo que hace que la muerte sea tan fácil, -él dice. -Es por eso que cada

tonto lo maneja tan profesionalmente. No es que

nos encontremos con un Creador de barba

nevada después de deshacernos –un Dios enfadado

que nos dirige al infierno por cruzar la calle imprudentemente.

 

Afortunadamente, él nunca habla de formas o medios. Nunca de navajas 

o mangueras de tubos de escape a las ventanas de oportunidades.

Y ciertamente nunca del sabor del metal,

del último tren a Tokio nocturno.

 

-De hecho será tranquilo como el Jardín del Edén

antes de la fruta maldita  y de la serpiente que habla dulcemente. Confía en mí.

Yo quiero confiar en él. Yo sí. Pero debo comprar un cuarto de galón de leche al dos por ciento.

Una docena de huevos de pastura, libres de jaulas. Harina sin blanquear.

 

-El venado estuvo en tus hortensias nuevamente, – lo noto, señalando.

Él echa un vistazo a su porción de Edén, y aprovecho la oportunidad

para decirle que debo irme. Todos lo hacemos, eventualmente.

 

 

Translating is no easy business. Tough enough in prose, it is considered even more challenging in poetry, where questions of literal vs. figurative language arise, not to mention the minefields presented by idioms, slang, and sound devices.

Still, when you wake to find one of your poems speaking another language overnight, it’s a bit of a shock. Just like that, poems smarter than their author. Bilingual, even!

As for me, I’m OK with it. Flattered, even. After all, I’m still trying to conjugate the verbs to lie and to lay.

 

 

 

Memorable Lines: They Want To Be a Poem

Sometimes the genesis of a poem is an innocent but memorable remark someone once said to the poet. Many of my poems come into the world this way. 

For instance, “The Morning After,” which appears in my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, sprung from something my mother once said the morning after a party at our house. She woke up, came out into the kitchen where my brother and I were eating cereal, saw all the liquor bottles still on the counter, and asked us to put them away.

But it’s the words she chose that struck my young mind and lingered to the present day. The words had to out somehow. They chose poetry as a way to do so.

Here’s the poem I wrote to recollect that moment. It originally appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal.

 

The Morning After

by Ken Craft

 

The kitchen ceiling is a soft cirrus of cigarette smoke,

and the white globe light Mom loves glows like a full

gaseous moon. Below, a table of highball glasses, cards,

coin kitties, napkin-bedded baskets, chips and Chex mix,

 

ashtrays of butts bent 90 degrees, some ringed with lipstick, 

some slipped off the edge. Sounds tinny and thin through 

the tube of time: radio jazz, Kennedy halves, quarters 

sliding like silver pucks across polished wood. In memory,

 

hours and minutes sprint by, stopping only for Sundays. Talk

and laughter grow louder as we grow little-kid groggier, falling

asleep in our beds up the hall, dreaming of family, friends, and

neighbors who never grow old and never feel pain and never die 

 

of lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver or, God save us, natural 

causes. In memory, we eat Trix or Cocoa Puffs or Frosted Flakes 

as Mom comes out of her room in a housecoat Sunday morning. 

She’s squinting against a sunrise of empties and glasses half-filled 

 

with dead ice, the accordioned remains in ashtrays, the wounded 

bottles of liquor, brown and green and clear. She’s turning back

for the refuge of her room, saying: “Boys, could you put the bottles 

away for me, please? I can’t stand looking at them in the morning.”

 

What Color Is Your Book Cover?

A poetry friend asked an interesting question last week. She said, “What color is your new book’s cover? Is it blue like the first two?” (Leave it to a poet to rhyme.)

What’s intriguing is that colors of book covers never occurred to me. Or did it, only subconsciously? The first two are indeed blue, but the new collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, is green. Color never entered the decision equation when choosing the first books’ cover, but it did in this most recent. The fir tree branches are evergreen. The connection for me was in the title: reincarnation. So I chose the simple metaphor of trees that are green when all else is dead in winter: evergreen branches.

Of course, I know there’s a science built around colors. For example, I read that chronic pain sufferers, when shown the color red, will feel more pain than when shown the color blue, even though the pain is the same. But I guess the pain isn’t really the same, is it, because impressions count as much as logical facts. Science be damned — you feel what you feel.

So now I’m left with this — two blue books, one green book. Since it’s come up (thank you, friend!), I’m saying to myself now: Earth colors! Blue, green. This from a man who loves nature and writes not a few nature poems (including in this book).

Now I wonder what marketers would say about all this. I admit to “judging books by their covers,” but I didn’t realize color might be part of the judgement — subliminally if in no other way — when I reach for a book to purchase it (or eyeball it online before clicking “CART”)!

The question remains, then, for authors and readers alike: Do we favor certain colored book covers over others? Maybe it’s time for a little excavation of your bookshelf. You might find you’re part of Team Red or Team Yellow or Team Blue. For the moment, I’m squarely in the Team Green camp, holding in my hands a beautiful new cover designed by my evergreen daughter.

Reveal Party: It’s a Book!


This reveal party will include no explosives, no unexpected brush fires, and no confetti, pink or blue. No, just this: It’s a book!

A third book, actually. A collection of poems that I hope will look up to its older books, now aged 5 and 3. A collection that I hope will find some readers like they did, too. Readers who might not only enjoy some of the poetry, but relate to it as well.

So without the noise and the fire extinguishers, let’s celebrate the July 13th birthday of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants by passing the cake. Have seconds, if you want. Life is sweet and frosting was invented to be enjoyed!

So On and So Fourth of July

fireworks

Here we go again. My third least favorite holiday (after Valentine’s Day and Halloween, I mean). The one no one calls July 4th and everyone calls “The Fourth of July.”

Still, this year brings an unusual Fourth. First there’s the elephant in the world, Covid-19 variants, rubbing its hands in glee at the thought of unvaccinated targets. You know, the “I have my rights (to spread disease that might kill people)!” crowd who learned at the orange knee of Typhoid Donny.

Second, there’s the dream slash nightmare (depending on the cable news you watch) that America might actually be thinking of circling back. You know, to the mess the Founding Fathers left for future generations (Civil War being the result). The one still festering because of words like these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (except women, Blacks, American Indians, and assorted other minorities) are created equal.”

What if, some people are finally asking? What if we went back to all the beautiful language and ideals in our roots and made it real for everyone, not just the few and the privileged? And what if, other people are asking, we sent all these damn socialists back to where they came from so we can keep our myths how we like them?

So there’s that.

But this poem, a few years old now and originally printed in Issue 14 of Unbroken Journal as well as in my second book, Lost Sherpa of Happiness, is more of a lark. A rant, in fact, against all the  (insert invective here) fireworks. And drinking. And general mayhem particular to colors red, white, and blue. Writing it landed me squarely in Curmudgeons Amalgamated Local 406.

Hey. American or not, curmudgeonly or not, red, white, or blue, too, or not — Happy Fourth to you!

 

IT’S THE FOURTH OF JULY

by Ken Craft

and he’s listening to Oh Say Can You See in a sea of runners and an awakening 8 a.m. heat. The blue smell of Ben-Gay on the mentholated old guys & Axe on the sun-venerating young guys & armpit on the just-rolled-out-of-bed lazy guys & no one’s run a New Balance step yet. The ellipsis after the song’s last line is always a chant of USA! USA! USA! from the fun-run campers who must not read (at least footnotes) because they never feel the wet hand of irony in that disunited “U” running down their body-painted backs.

Jesus, but he bolts when the pistol goes, heat or no. On the course, though, he is passed by sausage-heavy middle-aged men & oxy-huffing retired men & stick-legged kids & women of all stars & stripes. Begrudge not, says the Bible, so he celebrates their speed or their youth, their fat or their fair sex—whatever hare-bodied thing there is to celebrate.

That night, after the picnic-table splinters & charred cheeseburgers, after the fries & bottles of we’re-out-of-ketchup, the fireworks mushroom into night clouds & umbrellas rain down hiss & heat sparkle, made-in-China reds, whites & blues. He cranes his neck, the skies soured with smoke & sulfur, holding tight the hand of his sweetheart.

Then it’s blessed be bed, after the grande finds its finale, only he is wakened by more (USA!) fireworks up the street (USA!) at 11:30 p.m. Still the holiday, after all, ignited by the undoubtedly drunk, after all, because booze is God-Bless-America’s drug of choice, after all. The outdoors explodes until midnight & he’s had about all he can stand lying down & cursed be Thomas Jefferson anyway, with his noble agrarian society & its whiskey rebellions & its pursuits of happiness & its God-given rights & its who-the-hell-are-you-to-tell-me, question comma rhetorical.

You know how this ends: It’s insomnia again. In the shallow, post-patriotic hours of the Fifth of July. Come cock-crow morning, on his walk, Fido sniffs the empty nips & plastic fifths along the sandy shoulder of sleepy roads. There’s even a patriotic Bud box, hollowed-be-its-name, white stars emblazoned on the blue of its crumpled carcass.

God bless America, he tells it.

My Poem in the Sunday Paper (Or: “Extra, Extra, Read All About It!”)

Although poetry is a familiar sight in small literary and university-based journals, it is increasingly rare to find it in larger, more mainstream magazines and newspapers. Meaning? When you do see poems in such widely-distributed periodicals, you cheer its editors and their priorities, which include getting more eyes on more poetry!

Perhaps the most famous example comes each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, which features a regular column dedicated to poetry. 

Another, just up the coast a few miles, comes from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald’s Sunday paper, the Maine Sunday Telegram, where the poet Megan Grumbling edits and introduces the “Deep Water” poetry column each week. In the June 13, 2021, paper, she writes a gracious introduction to my poem, “Core Body Temperature,” which will appear in my third poetry collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, due out in a matter of weeks.

Like many of my poems, the idea stems from a few simple words — in this case, a man who once knelt in a Maine lake, water neck-high, on a scorching hot day and told us he wasn’t coming out until he “lowered his core body temperature.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but both the words and the example surely impressed me, leading to this poem.

 

Go Deep! Go Wild!

Deep Wild

If you’re a FB person, I invite you to visit Deep Wild Journal’s Facebook Page, where they featured my poem “Thoreau Knows” yesterday to commemorate Henry David’s 203rd birthday.

The poem will appear in the print journal, Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry, the 2020 issue, which is scheduled to be released any day now. As I say of any journal that publishes my work, buy! I put my faith where faith is put!

So go ahead, FB types. Do some good for the little guy (Deep Wild Journal). Read their FB page. Endorse it. Then read it and, if you’re a writer and a lover of nature, submit to it for its next issue.

How Do You Like THEM Apples?

m80

There’s nothing quite like the quiet after a storm. Thus my love for the Fifth of July, waking early, hearing only birds and wind through tree and leaf. It makes me feel so, I don’t know. Independent of noise.

Thank you, God.

Yesterday was a passing strange day for this blog. Holidays are slow days for online traffic. Notoriously. I only put my poem “It’s the Fourth of July” up because, well, it was the Fourth of July.

But a lot of people must have been home and on the web because a lot of people visited “Updates on a Free-Verse Life.” Most the site’s seen in over a month, in fact. And from all quarters of the Internet.

No one bought a book, which, ironically, was the prime reason for starting the blog so many years ago, but hey, poetry books usually sell only when they come out. Period. Two years later? It would be like Lourdes, where you’d have to separate the mirac- from the –ulous to find readers willing to take a chance on you.

Plus there are all sorts of myths (truths?) about sales and poetry books. One is that only other writers of poetry books buy poetry books, but even that has limits. As a poet, you can only extend your fiduciary kindness so far.

Two is that established poets outsell still-establishing poets (“Here, Peter Quince!”) by a country mile (“country” being Russia, east to west).

Three is that poetry books cost too much. Yes, there’s that. Though you can also argue that poetry by its nature is richer reading than prose because it holds up to rereading and, like music, offers greater pleasures through the act repetition (think “refrain” instead of “refraining from reading”).

In any event, there’s no getting around the fact that parents advise their children to grow up and become lawyers and doctors, not poets. “My son is a doctor,” women will say to their golf party at the club, never, “My son is a poet. How do you like them apples.”

Oh, would it were so. Just to see the expressions on the faces of ladies wearing lime-green skirts and visors before they tee off on the absurdity of it all.

Happy Fifth, folks. Enjoy your barbecued leftovers or, if you’re not American, enjoy the all our ironies from afar. (Assuming you’re bored with enjoying your own!)