Marie Howe

5 posts

Constructing Some Deconstruction, Derrida-Like

Yesterday I sent my message in two bottles to mentors-in-waiting Marie and Naomi (there’s a poem right there!). And, via the comments section, my good virtual friend, Carter, alerted me that I had stumbled upon a winner when I picked up Carrie Fountain’s book, Burn Lake.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the proof is always in the pudding (which we never eat in this household). Carter, a champion of the journal American Poetry Review, let me know that the latest issue offered up three coins, all of them Fountain’s.

A little research, and I discovered one of the three was posted live on the Net. It’s called “The Student”, and requires more than a passing familiarity with Jacques Derrida, some French philosopher or other famous for deconstruction. And although I am no philosopher, I do know a thing or two about deconstruction, having had more than one of my  seaside sand castles destroyed by my older brother—this after hours and hours of construction on my part.

You see? Philosophy is easy. But it might not help you understand “The Student.” My suggestion is that you read it, then read it again. In time, your “ah’s” will begin to construct “hah’s!” and thus are Joycean epiphanies made.

Meanwhile, what started the whole discussion: I started the 2009 National Poetry Series winner Burn Lake last night. Apparently there are a series of Burn Lake poems within it. Here’s the first, which appeared in Poetry:

“Burn Lake” by Carrie Fountain
For Burn Construction Company


When you were building the I-10 bypass,
one of   your dozers, moving earth
at the center of a great pit,
slipped its thick blade beneath
the water table, slicing into the earth’s
wet palm, and the silt moistened
beneath the huge thing’s tires, and the crew
was sent home for the day.
Next morning, water filled the pit.
Nothing anyone could do to stop it coming.
It was a revelation: kidney-shaped, deep
green, there between the interstate
and the sewage treatment plant.
When nothing else worked, you called it
a lake and opened it to the public.
And we were the public.


And here’s “Burn Lake 2,” the sequel, cooler still (if lakes be cool, and they do, at least up north):


“Burn Lake 2” by Carrie Fountain

All afternoon I’ve been swimming out
to the deepest part of the lake
and sinking down as far as I can
because for a long time now
I’ve wanted to feel dead and alive
at the same time
and for whatever reason I believe
this is the way to do it. So far,
it’s impossible to feel dead.
Instead, when I reach the cold sheets
of water toward the bottom of the lake
all the lights go on inside my body
and my legs pump, and before long
I see the determined lines the sun makes
on the surface of the water, and I reach
the living world again, the thin limbs
of the salt cedar wagging at the shoreline,
the wuzz of traffic on the interstate,
and my mother, far off, reading a paperback
on a little shelf of sand, smoking
one of those long , brown cigarettes
she slips in one sublime gesture
from out of a clicking leather case.
There is something that keeps
occurring to me in the moment I break
the water, though by the time I take a breath
I’ve forgotten what it was.


Strong finish, that. Subtle finish, too. A nice mix. A “how did she do that?” mix. Maybe Marie, Naomi, or Carrie herself can comment. Maybe they even will.

Meanwhile, back to swimming my own poetic lakes….

Dear Marie and Naomi: Want to Read Some Poems?


Every year, the National Poetry Series out of Princeton (I hear they have a college) stages an open competition for outstanding poetry manuscripts. To enter, it costs 30 bucks, and the submission period takes place from New Year’s Day to the end of February.

Though I’ve never entered, one thing that I like about the contest is that it is judged blindly. Top poets, the final readers, don’t know who wrote what. Submitting poets are not allowed to provide biographical info, a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, nothing.

St. Billy of Collins says this about the National Poetry Series: “I know of no program more vital to the launching of a poet’s career than The National Poetry Series. For over 30 years, 5 poets annually have enjoyed the immense benefit of having their manuscripts transformed into handsome books by some of the most prestigious publishers in the country. Measured by these hard, practical results alone, the Series deserves the support of every devotee of poetry. My own Questions About Angels, selected by Edward Hirsch in 1990, marked the true beginning of my public life in poetry.”

Which brings me to the reason I am writing this: Yesterday I checked Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake out of the library and am looking forward to reading it this week. It had a big stamp on the cover that read “WINNER, National Poetry Series, Selected by Natasha Trethewey,” which made me curious (and you already know I’m the curious type).

As is true with every poetry book I read, I first count the number of poems (here it’s 48) and then look at the acknowledgments page for marketing possibilities (here it includes AGNI, Ascent, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Cave Wall, Cimarron Review, Crazy Horse, cream city review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Marlboro Review, The Missouri Review, Southwestern American Review, Swink, and The Texas Observer).

Finally, I look at the “Thanks” entries. In the case of Carrie Fountain’s once-anonymous manuscript, thanks were extended “for help with this manuscript” to Marie Howe (!) and Naomi Shihab Nye (!). In Nye’s case, Fountain wrote, “My deepest gratitude to my teacher and friend Naomi Nye.”

Gulp. This once-anonymous manuscript forwarded into an open competition clearly had some high-octane help! Which makes me wonder, “Outside of signing up for an MFA, which is tough to do when you have a FTJ (full-time job), what can I do to improve my new poetry manuscript’s chances for the big-time?”

Such a rhetorical question! I haven’t signed on for any teachers, is what I can do, and should do if I decide to pony up 30 bucks for the 2019 competition and want to give it a Kentucky Derby’s chance (I’ll take the outside post, even) by having some very cool poets like Marie and/or Naomi give feedback first.

So this is an open letter to you, Marie and Naomi. No, it’s not anonymous, but I know that neither of you will be readers for the 2019 competition, so it’s all good. No worries.

Drop me a line! Take in a poem or two (I know you’re busy, so one or two will do)! Teach me things!



Random Thoughts on the Eve of Easter

  • The front page of newspapers is bad for writing poetry, especially these days.
  • So is watching 60 Minutes, where the forecast is mostly Stormy. It all clouds the brain. Anger “trumps” creativity every time. Turn off your TV, writers!
  • If you’re bringing your muse in for a check-up by telling friends you just don’t get ideas anymore, you’ve got more than mechanical problems.
  • Photography before, during, and after serving as president will age a person’s face. Photos of Abraham Lincoln, poor man, attest to that. The only other known ager of men is the poetry market, where you can grow a 5-year-wrinkle just waiting for replies.
  • For most occasions, “replies” being loosely defined as form e-mails.
  • March is down to but a few days of lambdom. Then it’s April, the month T.S. Eliot ruined forever by turning it into a cruller. No, wait. A misspelled crueller (sic) month.
  • (Yes, Virginia, it sometimes snows in April.)
  • It think it was Basho who once said (in 17 syllables) that selling poetry books is like selling winter coats in July. Renga that.
  • I once worked in the marketing department of a corporation. The line there was “pennies a day, Mr. Customer. Pennies a day.” So the next time someone looks at the price of poetry books in alarm ($15 for just 85 pages?), remind them that it is but 4/10ths of a cent a day.
  • Plus, unlike today’s newspaper, it rereads nicely. For years!
  • And you thought all the deals were at Target!
  • Almost Easter, which forever reminds me of W. B. Yeats “Easter, 1916,” which (while we’re talking risings) in turn leads me to his poem “The Second Coming” with its iconic lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”
  • Ordinarily that would be good enough to secure “The Second Coming’s” place among most-quoted poems or poems who gave other writers book-title material, but the poem contains yet one more gem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
  • I once went slouching towards Bridgeport. Does that count?
  • Just finished reading Marie Howe’s debut poetry collection, The Good Thief, which is not as strong as her later collection What the Living Do. The good news? I can learn as much from one as the other.
  • Why are so many holidays marked by sugar? With Easter upon us, I think of chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies, and (God save us all) peeps. Halloween? Nothing but door-to-door candy robberies. Valentine’s Day? Love plays second fiddle to sweets, Sweetie. Christmas? Cookies and candies and cakes, oh my! The sugar industry has done something right.
  • Opening Day in baseball is today. It’s as much a marker of spring as the redwing blackbirds I hear out back.
  • The problem with gift certificates to bookstores, online or brick and mortar, is spending them. Like Christmas Eve, anticipation is what makes it. Once you buy books, you inevitably bring them home, sometimes to never read them, sometimes to read them and get disappointed. Expectation is a tough character to match.
  • Spring also means my favorite made-up word: “mudluscious.” Any word e.e. cummings likes but autocorrect does not is OK by me.
  • If you celebrate Easter, “ham” it up. Me, I’m passing on the ham this year. You reach a point where you crave variety and throw yourself at a restaurant menu’s mercy.






Pulitzer Pablum and Other Curiosities

Hello, Ruby Tuesday. Special, apparently, to Mick Jagger, but for me, just another day of the week to wonder, whine, and wax ineloquent about this wonderful world we share through no choice of our own. (Please, though. Don’t blame Mom and Dad. They were young and restless, too, at one time!)

  • Is it me, or do award shows like the Oscars begin to verge on self-parody more and more?
  • March Madness is here! Unfortunately for NCAA basketball, the “madness” is more about corruption and greed than about zone defense and buzzer beaters. Bracket that.
  • I’ve loved getting to know Marie Howe’s poetry in recent weeks, but looking at her author photo makes me worry about the weight of her hair. What some of the receding-hairline crowd would do for some of that profusion!
  • Since writing about listening at poetry readings on these pages, I have heard from more and more people (even poets!) admitting that they often don’t fully grasp what’s being read to them, either. “Listen my children, and you shall hear…,” is all I can say. Well, actually, I can say a lot more than that, as you can see…
  • Ever notice how some poetry terms refuse to stick? Dactyls and litotes and haibuns (oh, my!). Like Teflon, I fear. Sliding off the cerebellum every time.
  • Best poet’s name of all time? I nominate William Wordsworth.
  • Did you know that Ernest Hemingway’s first literary efforts were in the field of poetry? It didn’t go so well, but credit where credit’s due: some men know when to retreat.
  • In reading William H. Gass’s essay, “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize,” I came across these amusing quotes: “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses…,” “Not only will [judges] be partisans of their own tastes–that’s natural–each will be implicitly asked to represent their region, race, or sex…,” “While the Pulitzer Prize for poetry has none of the esteem that the Bollingen conveys, it has been spared fiction’s shame, partly, I think, because there is no appreciable audience at all for poetry, consequently no reader whose moral and mental welfare the judges must consider their prizewinning poems to improve.”
  • Rest assured, when Gass uses “People’s” as an adjective, he means it as a pejorative.
  • While we’re on classical Gass and his opinions (the man does not lack!), he despises the present tense. (Should I say he despised the present tense?) Many poets, on the other hand, seem to love it as much as the dish did the spoon (hey diddle, diddle).
  • March, the Season of Mud (or “mudluscious,” as edward estlin might say), gives us but one holiday: St. Patrick’s Day. Call the famous beer mix a “black and tan” at your own risk (at least in Ireland). Half and half, that’s called!
  • And I have no idea what “Erin Go Bragh!” means, but I do know this much about the 17th: If you’re not Irish, fake it.
  • Enya: Flash in the pan, or talent?
  • The world is divided into two kinds of poetry lovers: Those who see Rupi Kaur as a “gateway poet” leading our youth to better things, and those who see Rupi Kaur as a gateway (in need of oil).
  • Credit where it’s due: Some “Instagram Poets” (anything like the “Lake Poets”?) are making more hay than their more conventionally-published brethren (ahem).
  • I love the word “brethren.” I like it’s sound: “Brethren.”
  • I am dabbling in Inscape, a meditation app that I borrowed my wife’s iPad to use (as I have no cellphone). The lady who leads you through your meditative practice has a lovely voice (making her my brethren), a lovely accent (though I can’t place the country), and a peculiar way of saying “nose” (like it’s the plural of “no”).
  • For those keeping score, so far it’s Monkey Mind 56, Me 0.
  • Goodreads, Amazon’s latest glom, recently switched its Goodreads Giveaway program for authors from free to $119 a shot (make that $599 for a “premium Giveaway,” because the word “premium” is expensive). Each GR author sees an “Authors & Advertisers” blog on his or her Author Dashboard. And Goodreads invites comments to these blog entries, of course — except for posts about the Goodreads Giveaway program. Comments are mysteriously closed on those posts.
  • Amazon, champions of freedom of speech! (Care for a little verbal irony with your coffee this morning?)
  • A good day’s reading, suggested dosage one poem each: Galway Kinnell, Jane Kenyon, Jack Gilbert, Robert Frost, Wislawa Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Marie Howe, Jane Hirshfield,  James Wright, and Tony Hoagland. With plenty of liquids and lots of bedrest.
  • I’m never quite ready for the surprise question: “Name your favorite poem.” Even if you tell me in advance.
  • Best headline seen the past month, from Charles M. Blow of the New York Times: “America Is a Gun.”
  • I recall the line “Pass, crow…” from a poem, but cannot recall the poem itself. That doesn’t stop me from talking to the birds in question, occasionally: “Pass, crow,” I say. They laugh in their crow kind of way.
  • I had to look up “pablum” for the headline of this post. Just to make sure. You know. Teflon again. But I had it right. “Trite, insipid, simplistic writing.” First drafts, in other words.

Eye Candy for Revisionists


Revisionist. It’s an ugly word in history and politics, but in the world of poetry? Nirvana! Frankly, I much prefer revising my poems to creating them. Birth from the white womb of blankness, page or screen, can be painful. Tinkering with existing words, lines, even punctuation? Another matter entirely.

Of course, revising must be earned. You can’t revise nothing because, in the words of the prophet, Billy Preston, nothing from nothing leaves nothing. (This is math I can understand!)

If you missed it, I have to share with you a New York Times feature on poets’ revisionary tactics. It was, as the phrase has been sweetly coined, “eye candy” for poets. You look at typed poems and witness glorious cross-outs, arrows, and scribbles. In short, a creative history of brains at work.

In this case, the brains are Eduardo C. Corral, Billy Collins, Jenny Zhang, Marie Howe, Robert Pinsky, and Mary Jo Bang. Which reminds me. Why can’t I have a catchy name like Mary Jo Bang? Holy cow. Where do people get such catchy names? I’ve no idea if it is real or a nom de plume, but either way, I like the sound of it.

You can check out this New York Times feature, called “Poets in Action,” here. Not only do you get to see who’s messiest, you get to read a bit of commentary by each poet below the manuscript. Not that’s a Saturday treat.

Bon weekend, people!