Saturday, December 21, 2013


by Barbara Crooker

Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon


ISBN 13: 978-1-62032-940-5

Purchase GOLD on Amazon

An Email Interview with BARBARA CROOKER by Caroline LeBlanc

CL:  Barbara, thank you for inviting me to review Gold on the Poetry Matters blog.  The interviews on your webpage, which I suggest interested readers consult, are informative and enjoyable so I hope I can meet the challenge of exploring your work in a new way in this interview.    
While your poems are full of gracious awe, they are not what I would call overly Christian or religious, even though Gold is published by The Poiema Poetry Series, which “presents the work of gifted poets who take Christian faith seriously.”  Carl Jung said, “If our religion is based in wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude,” and that is what I find in your poems—wonder & gratitude, despite the great challenges of your life, including a spouse who abandoned you into single motherhood,  a stillbirth, caring for your autistic son and dying mother.   The poems in Gold are spiritual and sensual, often moving in ways that don’t readily seem to go together.  Would you say something about how you think images of sensuality, spirituality and religion are related and their place in poems?  Also, what advice would you offer the “true believer” in any system of belief –secular or religious—about how to engender poems with passion without becoming dogmatic?     

BC:  This is a really great question.  I’m glad that you noticed, but were not bothered by, the lack of overt religious sentiment in these poems.  I love the Jung quote, and also this one by Wendell Berry, “Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.”  For while it might seem that my life has included more than my fair share of sorrow, the fact is, all of our lives are a mixture of sorrow and joy.  And they’re intertwined—you can’t have light without shadow.  To me, the fact that we live in these bodies is something holy indeed, and our sensual lives are part of our spiritual lives.  I confess that I don’t understand some parts of Christianity that want to deny the flesh, and its desires.  It seems to me that in doing so, we would be saying that part of God’s creation is flawed.  But God don’t make junk, as the saying goes, and in celebrating our sensuality we are also celebrating His creation. 

Now, how to write religious poetry without being dogmatic or didactic? Ah, there’s the rub.  Political poetry, too, falls into this category.  I’m not ever sure I’ve succeeded, but that’s what I’m aiming for, poems that are deeply religious/spiritual, but not narrow and rigid or tied to any one religious tradition.  I am a practicing Lutheran, but like to think of myself as a “Zen Lutheran,” as I borrow a lot from other traditions in my own spiritual practice, particularly the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. 

The other part of your question, “how to engender poems with passion,” speaks to something I also wrestle with.  I work equally hard on all of my poems, often going through fifty drafts or more.  But some of them are “dead on arrival”; i.e., they never get up off the page and sing and dance.  Others arrive almost fully formed, and full of life.  In both cases, I try to bring everything I know about craft to bear, but some poems rise up, while others don’t.  The ones in the latter category I winnow out when I’m putting together book manuscripts.  But back to “engendering poems with passion”:  I want my poems to touch other people, to mean something to somebody.  I don’t want to write mere decoration or intellectual doodlings.

CL: “Ambrosia” strikes which me as a good example of how you find a voice and tone that avoids getting mired in or clichéd about the difficult subject matter of many poem in Gold, i.e., your mother’s dying process and death.    “Ambrosia” is a bittersweet celebration of life even as your mother increasingly leaves this life.  Images of complex, robust foods suggest the equally robust woman who enjoyed them.   Then lines 6 & 7 take us to “simple [food], a sun-warm/tomato or peace” and the poem turns as you introduce us to an 85 pound woman, still robust in spirit, but not in body.   A woman who refuses to settle for a bland life and, even in her diminishment, finds ambrosia.  Would you speak about the craft of taking the reader through intense suffering, without becoming maudlin, and into celebration, without becoming trite or clichéd?

BC: Well, there’s the rub again, how to write poems that deal with death and dying without being trite and maudlin.  Your question is an excellent analysis of this poem; you are seeing exactly what I’m trying to do.   It’s taken me many years to get to this point, to feel that I no longer have to apologize for my subject matter, which is often domestic, and unafraid to sail on the knife-edge between sentiment (which is earned) and sentimentality (which is not).  I want to take it right to the edge, but not fall in.   I needed to write about our journey, but I didn’t want to descend into bathos, and it seemed that food was a way to keep it simple, yet profound. 

I’ve also realized, in doing readings from this book, that there are more poems about food than I noticed when I was putting the book manuscript together.  I think perhaps it was because there was nothing that I could do to take away my mother’s suffering, to stem the tide, to stop her decline, but what I could do was cook, or bring her what she was craving, like Dunkin Donuts and Peeps. And so I did.

I was actually afraid, when I started submitting this manuscript, that editors would look at the subject matter (dying mother, grieving daughter) and turn away, but, in fact, two presses offered me contracts.

CL:   We enter “Goddess” through women’s art & fashion, jumps from ancient love goddesses to a modern embodiment, moves to the more obscure “Enheduanna, the first poet,” whose words connect the poet to “the fabric of time.”  In the middle of the seventh line, the focus turns to your own and your friend’s loss of your personal mothers.  Then the poem returns to goddesses, this time Persephone and Demeter and the reversal of their archetypal relationship that your losses are. Yet  you and your friend are sisters of sorts in this “unmothered” state and from “black caftans” the poem travels “across town” where cherry blossom petals wrap the earth and transform into a ballerina’s silk ribbons that are “strong/enough to keep her on her toes/as long as she needs to remain en pointe.”  All in eighteen lines.   Other poems in Gold take us on similar twists and turns. 

“Goddesses” moves from institutions and monuments, to mythology, to personal loss, to nature out of which an image of true strength evolves. On your web page, Shirley Stevens discusses your use of metaphor, and writes that James Geary “maintains that metaphor breaks up common relationships and reorganizes uncommon combinations.”    Would you tell us about how you have arrived at a point where you can combine images that could easily be no more than fragmented lists into metaphors, even conceits, that birth such organic poems?

BC:  Again, what a terrific close reading you’ve done; you’ve completely delineated what I’ve attempted to do.  I’m not sure I can adequately describe how I’m able to do this, other than I’m trying to write the kind of poems that I want to read, whether it’s religious poetry that transcends merely retelling what’s in scripture already (a pet peeve of mine in sermons!), or lyric poetry that rises above a simple lists of images.  I’ve been working hard at this for about forty years, and one of the things I’m always trying to do is “push the envelope,” go deeper, have more layers, without losing my “ideal reader,” who I imagine to be my former neighbor, Joan, a woman without a college degree, but who’s smart and well-read.  She says she loves my work because for her, it’s like sitting down with me and a cup of coffee.  I want to keep that connection, while at the same time, I’m always trying to do things like enhance the music or the rhythm, or, as in this poem, throw a lot of balls up in the air (goddesses, ancient poets, the loss of our mothers, the cherry blossoms) and still have them drop gracefully into my hands at the end at the end of the poem.

On a more practical level, many years ago I started giving myself permission to start poems with really awful prose, what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.”  I typically write large, edit small, amassing as much material as I can, then chip away at it, until nothing but the poem remains.  In revision, I try to put pressure on the language, mining for metaphor.  I also believe in serendipity; this poem began when I was part of a group reading at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, where the exhibit on Mary McFadden was also being held.  One of the other readers was Pat Valdata, and we had that conversation about our mothers, plus we’d been in a symposium together previously for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets’ Timeline, where she’d presented a paper on Enheduanna.  I was staying with another poet, Rosemary Winslow, who organized the reading, and she and I walked the Tidal Basin in the rain, gasping at the cherry blossoms.  All of this became material. . . .

CL: As an older woman, yet not so old MFA graduate with a limited background in literature, I am drawn to “Weather Report” and “Very Long Afternoons” where you write about those voices that “[screech] not good enough” and the feeling of being “late out of the gate, plodding in the back.”    Clearly, the struggle continues despite your many publications and prizes.   And, as is often the case in your poems, someone else’s writing and nature offer ways to move beyond  your angst.  In the spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, would you compose a letter to us, especially us older- young poets, working to find our voice and place in the writing world?


Dear Poets,

First of all, you can’t go wrong going back and re-reading Rilke; I think he’s said many, many wise things about the writing journey.  Second, here’s a dirty little secret:  the struggle always continues.  You never feel “good enough.”  But here’s the thing, you have to keep trying.  It’s a journey, not a destination.

Let me also recommend to you the virtue of persistence.  I’m constantly stumbling over articles with titles like, “How to Keep Writing After You Get Your MFA,” and I think, “Huh?  What’s up with that?  If you’re a writer, you write.”  Some of the MFA programs  seem to offer a great deal of praise to writers while they’re enrolled, but then they face the “real world,” where it’s pretty much a constant stream of rejection, and it’s hard to keep going.  One of the things I was writing about in the two above-mentioned poems was the sense of self-confidence I see in new MFA writers that those of us who haven’t come up in these programs lack.  Or maybe I wasn’t there when these genes where handed out.  But I dwell in the land of self-doubt.  And then I keep going.

So let’s hear it for perseverance.  There are lots of people out there with talent.  But not all of them persist, keep going, and keep growing in their craft.  With autism (my son’s disability), we try to extinguish “self-stimming repetitive behaviors.”  With writing, we call this an asset—the poems go out, they get rejected, you send them back out again.  In time, you start to see their deficits, and you revise.  And then you revise again.  All the while, you’re constantly reading, and you’re setting the bar higher with your own work.

And you rejoice in the joy of “the made thing,” rather than looking for externals, like publications and prizes.  To quote Raymond Carver, that’s just “gravy.”

CL:  Unlike many of your poems, such as “Plentitude,” which offer indirect political commentary, “The Burren” and “Stones,” two of the last few poems in Gold, offer more direct commentary on political correctness and injustice.  “Stones” in particular calls to mind Eavan Boland’s poetry and essays about the Irish famine.  What went into this shift in the camera lens for you?  What are your thoughts on when to use a more direct or indirect methods of commentary in one’s poems? 

BC:  I wish I had something pithy to say here, that I actually controlled the process of writing poems, but really, the material chose me (and thus the focus) rather than the other way around.  Again, there was serendipity—I was in Ireland, so I was immersed in the history of what I was seeing (I do a lot of background reading when I travel).  I saw the young woman who looked so much like my friend Clare, and that flipped me back into her sorrows.  I’m pretty sure I wrote this poem a year or so after the actual trip, and that I was writing from photographs I’d taken.   The European Robin incident (again, serendipity) seemed almost mystical, and I very much wanted to have it appear in a poem.  I’ve been reading Eavan Boland for years and I’m sure she’s an influence, although not a direct one.  Most of the material in “Stones” came from the display material on the wall at the Famine Cottage site, which we toured with a young couple from eastern Europe.  They were in tears, as they didn’t know anything about the politics behind the lack of relief during The Great Hunger.  (The “undeserving poor” of that time.)  My background is Scottish and Italian, but one of my Scottish forebears was evicted during the Highland Clearances and ended up in Ireland just in time for the Famine, so that made it personal.  But my left-leaning tendencies were shaped during the protests on the Vietnam War, and although supposedly we grow more conservative as we age, I don’t see that happening.  Again, I’d like to tie this into my religious beliefs; I’m a peace and social justice Christian who’s feeling hopeful again these days, partly because of journals like Sojourner’s, and partly because of the stance taken by the new Pope, Francis.

Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve answered you vis-a-vis the close focus lens or the wide angle one.  I try and listen to the poem and see what it wants to become; sharpening the vision seemed to be the right thing for these two poems.  Political poetry is really tricky; you don’t want to be shrill or didactic.  I hope that the imagery saves both of these poems.

CL:  You have said that you often revise a poem fifty times before sending it out.  And that you send many poems out and get many rejections.  But an amazing number of your poems have been published and either nominated for and/or won awards.  On a very practical level, would you please share how you track you poems:  their revisions, submissions, rejection or acceptance and eventual publication? 

BC:  In this digital age of Excel Spreadsheets, websites that track these things for you, etc. etc., I'm as low-tech as you can go--I use a very simple method of 3 X 5 cards.  Each poem has its own card, with a note at the top as to when and where it was written, plus a date for every revision.  Each journal I submit to has a card, with a list of the poems I've submitted each time written on it.  When I send a batch of poems out, I enter the journal and the date on each poem card.  Every week, I note how long the poems have been out.  When I hit 12 weeks, I double-check the response time at the journal, and query if appropriate.  I've been at this a long time, coming up at a time when double-submitting was frowned on, but I'm doing it more and more these days.  When a poem is taken, I put a little "p" with a circle on the journal card--that gives me a sense of what this particular journal seems to like.  But then, I'm often wrong--in a group of five, I might have four poems I think they'd like, plus a filler.  Sometimes, they take the filler.

CL: Do you have any other words of wisdom for our blog readers?

BC: Only to read everything you can get your hands on. Gerald Stern has said you should read 100 books of poetry before you begin writing.  I’d add to this that then you should go out and read some more. . . .

CL:  Thank you, Barbara, for your poetry and the time you’ve given for this interview.

Barbara Crooker is a widely published, award winning poet.   Her fourth book, GOLD  (Cascade Books, 2013) was  selected by The Christian Century  as one of the five best poetry books of 2013.  Crooker’s web page ( contains the impressive list of her publications and awards, as well as a number of older reviews and interviews definitely worth reading.   Her poetry is frequently posted online and read on radio, including on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac.  She is a consummate poetry writer, reviser and manuscript submitter who wrestles with self-doubt and literary rejections like the rest of us; a mature writer whose poetry is rooted in her daily life.
* * * * *
GOLD:  A Book Review by Caroline A LeBlanc

The poems in GOLD are meditations on matter and physical existence as our mortal vehicles for engaging eternal realities such love, loss, mourning and remembering.  These lyrical, narrative poems navigate human loss without sentimentality or bitterness.  The cycles of nature, the transience of physicality is at the same time a source of the poet’s suffering, joy, comfort, and poems.  Crooker seamlessly weaves personal with archetypal perspectives, connecting disparate images into richly layered metaphors—most in free verse poems that read as comfortable narratives with easy, conversational rhythms. 

The fifty-five poems in GOLD are divided into four untitled sections.  The majority of poems, particularly in the first two sections, are elegies for the poet’s mother, recounting the path from her mother’s diagnosis through her dying, and the poet’s grief during the entire process.  Poems in the third section seek comfort and perspective in multigenerational realties, art, current relationships and events that give the poet’s life meaning.  The fourth section expands the focus on life’s hungers, injustices and paradoxes.
“Plentitude,” a multilayered poem in the book’s first section, is an example of how Crooker weaves images through skillful associations and turns in the text.  The first lines invite the reader in with homely images of warm sun, honey, “hands [that] curl/around a mug of tea,” both a “benediction” and a “reprieve” from the poet’s stress due to her mother’s illness and the lack of services for her autistic son.  Her troubles, named but not dwelled upon, are quieted by “the happiness that comes/from working again, even though rejections/…[are] thicker than snowflakes”—the poet’s cue to turn.   “Winter’s waiting…its breath/on the back of the wind. This is a bit of respite/before the storms roll in”—storms of life, death, nature, mentioned but contained by a quick turn to the “blue/mountains [that] cup me in their hands,” just as the poet earlier held her cup of tea.  The last two line of the poem are metaphorical mirrors its first lines, finishing the poem’s imagistic bookends with a “lucent afternoon/ and a spigot of birdsong [that] fill my bowl to the brim.”  Many poems in the book enact such imagery of embrace and nesting with these kinds of turns and returns.      
“Grief,” in the book’s second section, turns allusions to the river Styx, the Greek afterworld, earthly life and mindfulness inside out. For the poet, “Grief/is a river you wade in until you get to the other side [i.e. life]…/[where] there are apples, grapes, walnuts,/ and the rocks are warm from the sun. ”  In Greek mythology, it is the dying who cross the river Styx to the underworld, which for heroes are the Elysian fields of beauty and bounty.  For Persephone, Hades was a land without her mother, an images in “Goddesses” (two poems later) where the poet writes  that her loss is like living “Persephone and Demeter/in reverse.”  In “Grief” the poet’s personal loss corrupts one of Thich Naht Hahn’s classic techniques of mindfulness—embracing difficult emotions tenderly as you would an infant until you can release them.  “I’m going to stay here/in the shallows with my sorrow, nurture it/like a cranky baby, rock it in my arms./I don’t want it to grow up, go to school, get married./It’s mine.”   Crooker, acutely aware of the comforts and bounty waiting for her among the living, roundly rejects them in her sorrow.  Her terror over her mother’s death freezes her; she stands in the river “growing colder, until every inch/of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.”  The collision and confounding of personal, spiritual and mythological images in this poem enacts the psychological chaos of intense grief.  The poem creates a sense of the poet’s suspended animation in her desperate effort to deny that her mother is really “gone.”
“Soft” in section three, is one of the poems that celebrates the poets return to life and love.  The poet’s fascination with the pleasures of physical love still available in aging bodies is one of the pleasant surprises in this book that could have easily been formulaic in its dogma and darkness.   “I don’t want a younger man with a buff body,” the poem begins, with “the sine curve of his buttock, the way he doesn’t/yet know that sorrow’s going to find him.”  The poet wants “a man with a gut like a chair cushion, something/…to hold on to, sparse silver/hairs springing out of his chest and groin.”  In “Soft” the poet embraces the sensate details of the body with the same specificity and rich imagery as so many of her other poems recount details in nature.  The poet and her mate are a matched pair.  She writes, “My body, too, loosens, sags, the skin letting go,/…[the] sludge in my blood, crumble in my bones.”  Yet, despite the “erosion” of their years and their sheets, “under the covers, in the dark, I can edit him back to the boy/he was, the one I never knew.”   The poem ends with the kind of acceptance and wisdom gained in a happy, long marriage.  “Some nights/ we can.  Some nights we can’t.  Let’s praise/what’s still working.  This is every body’s story.”  A woman of any age can suffer the loss of her mother, understand a daughter’s grief, but only a woman of a certain age, with the experience of a satisfying long term love relationship, can write and fully appreciate a poem such as “Soft.”
Section four broadens the lens of this collection of poems.  In “Sugar” the poet’s mother has become a hungry ghost which could devour her daughter.  “Sugar” is followed by several more sensual poems of love and longing, a writer’s doubts and struggles, personal and political betrayals.  The last three poems connect images of food, the metaphorical heart of so many other poems, with the generations and the cosmos.  “Pistachios” is the unassuming, penultimate poem of the book.  The reader who has traveled the book knows that the first line, “They are already half-cracked, aren’t they,” refers to a Pistachio and the preceding poems about grief’s obsessions.  A tongue-in-cheek quality tints the line. Crooker’s capacity for captivating and combining unusual images shows up by line two, “the tongue/ of the nut peeping out.”  Then, a trademark leaping turn from the nut in hand to a Vancouver museum sculpture of “First Man curled in a clam shell, Raven/perched on top, waiting for it to crack open.”  Not only does the setting shift, the content moves from personal to archetypal where the poet engages the reflected personal question in its archetypal shell.  “If I had known then/ how much sorrow lay ahead, was yet to be borne,/could I have let my heart open like that?”  The line break on “borne,” plays on the larger theme of the poem, the birth of the Human race, even the poet’s birth (which some say we choose) and certainly the birth of her devotion to her dying mother, for the choice to not be fully present is always open to us.    From contemplating birth and the (green) pistachio, the poet wanders into eight lines of musings about other qualities of green:  “things newly minted,” spring  grass, things “unformed, unripe, even envy/is jealous of green, its freshness, its hope.”  The obscure green flash that sometimes happens at certain sunsets brings us back to the pistachio, how it, like the sun or a person, can slip “perfectly back into its shell, although you/ can never quite click the lid, tuck in the world’s/ sorrows …once the hinge/ is broken.”   In the last two lines, the poem turns again, taking the reader from a morose image of a broken world into an image of perspective:  “and the crack that‘s in everything/has let the light back in.”  Leonard Cohen fans will recognize the adaptation of his song lyric from Anthem.  There are all kinds of cracks in this poem and in life and if we can find the crack that lets the light in, we can survive and grow despite life’s imperfections, its cruelest losses and deepest grief. 
In this review, I’ve focused how Crooker’s uses turns and seeming disparate images to braid the ordinary and the extra ordinary in poems  that easily engage yet pull the reader into the depths of craft and experience.  I have to admit that, when I realized that GOLD was published as part of a Christian poetry series, I had second thoughts about my promise to review it.  For a number of reasons, I have not been on friendly terms with western religions in many years.  But a promise is a promise and my commitment was more than rewarded by the poems in GOLD.  The book is a comfortable and comforting read for the religious and non-religious seeker alike. 
Caroline LeBlanc turned her energies toward making art and writing after thirty-seven years as a Nurse Psychotherapist.   Her relocation from Northern New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico now involves unpacking box after box after box, including many book boxes.  In 2010, her chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle was published.  As the Writer in Residence for the Museum of the American Military Family, she is hard at work on the script for the museum’s upcoming summer exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family, hosted by the National Museum of Nuclear Science.  She hosts bimonthly writing salons for women veterans at a nearby community center.   As life settles into a routine, she plans to write more about her own experiences as an Army Nurse, a military spouse and mother; her Acadian and Franco-American ancestry, and her own relocation sagas. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Brilliant Explosions Alone by Steve Brightman


publication 2013
Steve Brightman

Review and Interview by Barbara Sabol

In Brilliant Explosions Alone:
A Brilliant Blending of Pitcher and Poet

     The writer who follows the adage “write what you know” is sure to produce a credible read; pushed further along the spectrum of engagement, however, he who writes not only from knowledge but from love creates work truly passion-infused. Such is the most recent poetry chapbook by Steve Brightman, whose knowledge and love of the game of baseball ignited the collection In Brilliant Explosions Alone, published by Night Ballet Press. More than baseball, it is about Cleveland Indians baseball during a particular 2008 season, and about a particular young pitcher with promise to spare who failed to live up to his own and the fans’ great expectations.  Jeremy Sowers, the subject of Brightman’s lyric sequence, embodies much more than a could-have-been-ace pitcher:  in these poems he is a metaphor for a dream and a dream dashed, a modern-day David whose Goliath might be a Yankee slugger or Life coming at you.  In the poem, “All Our Smaller Battles,” Brightman aptly plays on that comparison―the small man with the sling shot and the one with hard ball―in the poem’s final stanza:
           . . .        
         This is where our stoic southpaw
         became us, because not all of us
         get to slay Goliath. Not all of us
         get cast as David.
         Most of us rest our heads
         as the vanquished.

     In Brilliant Explosions Alone works almost as a lyric documentary, one that the reader views in her imagination, game-by-game, poem-by-poem.  The book is neatly unified around the 2008 Indians season and proceeds chronologically from Sowers’ opening game in March to his last in September.  Cleverly, play dates replace page numbers, a feature that draws the reader further into the atmosphere of the field, the fans, the solitary pitcher on the mound.

     The 22 poems that form the narrative of Jeremy Sowers’ turbulent season are bookended by a poignant prologue and epilogue.  The prophetic prologue poem, “Left and Nothing,” sets the tone of the collection:
          . . .

          He was
          small enough
          for shadows,
          small enough
          for getting lost
          in the crowd of
          everyone who
          paid to see him
          pitch that day.

The epilogue poem, “Or Best Offer,” closes the narrative with a suggestion of regret, of failure.  Each of the four stanzas begins with the line “Not one damn kid/”:

          . . .

          Not one damn kid
          signs on the dotted line
          thinking that he is going
          to find his cards buried
          in a box of commons or
          sold on eBay in lots of 50    
          for a dollar or best offer.

          . . .

          Not one damn kid
          signs on the dotted line
          thinking that he will be
          epilogue before he’s thirty.

In this closing poem, Sowers, our anti-hero, broadly represents promise unfulfilled and the sad regret of failure under the field’s night lights.  The poet’s richly sympathetic rendering of his subject is the heart beat of this book.  Brightman’s real skill lies in his ability to establish an authorial distance and at the same time empathize so fully with the struggling pitcher, such that, for the reader, his struggle becomes our own.    

     The poems are shaped by taut, condensed lines, often running unbroken down the page, much like the outline of a fast ball over home plate. This, combined with the poet’s employment of the game’s charged argot and repetitive phrasing, results in a compelling cover-to-cover read; for this reader, in one captivated sitting. Take the poem, “Counting Tigers”:

          Seven Tigers
          tonight grounded

          Six Tigers
          tonight made it past
          first base.

          Five Tigers
          tonight managed

          Four Tigers
          tonight were left
          stranded;  . . .

The recurring phrasing and form creates an urgent tempo that draws us through to the final stanza where the reference shifts to “One Indian/tonight has finished/counting Tigers.”

     An effective use of the speech line underscores the clipped vernacular in poems like “Perfect Through Five” where Sowers exultant voice animates descriptions of the game’s action:

          “Hell yeah,” I thought,
          “this was why
          they drafted me.”
          Home plate
          looked as big as
          the horizon and I was
          perfect through five.

     Brightman also effectively employs the rhetorical devices of anaphora and epistrophe−repetition of  phrasing at the start and ending of a line, respectively−blended with the first-person quote to reinforce the subject’s defeated and self-berating tone in “Like This”:

          . . .
          I could be 6-6. I could be 1-11
          I could be anywhere between.
          I could be a star.
          I could be in Columbus
          taking a bus.
          I’ve never struggled
          like this.
          I’ve never been hit
          like this.
          I’ve never doubted
          like this.
          I’ve never stood
          on the mound
          and questioned
          like this. . .

     Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the poems are persona, written from the pitcher’s alternately hopeful and hapless perspective. Another tight handful of poems blend poet’s and pitcher’s voices so seamlessly that narrator and subject become one. This is the greatest strength of In Brilliant Explosions: the poet aptly inhabits his subject, creates a credible voice that reveals the pitcher’s inner life, while making the game a palpable, dynamic and sensory-loaded experience. Brightman paints an intimate portrait of a player in the context of the great game of baseball.  These poems move the reader−baseball fan or no−because they manifest the ambition and struggle of an everyman with a dream and a chance to live it.  

Barbara Sabol lives in the Great Lakes area and has an M. A. in Communication Disorders, an MFA, and a BA in French. She is the author of two chapbooks: Original Ruse (Accents Publishing, 2011) and The Distance Between Blues (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in a number of journals, including The Examined Life, San Pedro River Review, The Louisville Review, on the Tupelo Press Poetry Project web site, and in the collection, Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems (Accents Publishing). 

Conversation with poet, Steve Brightman

What a great read In Brilliant Explosions Alone is. You really hit your stride with the language and rhythm of the poems, which enacted the struggle and loneliness of a person under great internal and external pressure to perform in the spotlight. A wonderfully intimate portrayal of Sowers, and also a great depiction of the game of baseball, which I happen to love, as well.  What perfect timing that Night Ballet Press released the book mid-October, right in the thick of the World Series.  As a reader, I could appreciate even more the baseball colloquialisms and calls and the rhythm of  the announcer’s patter as I read through the book – straight through.

This is such a satisfying  book of poetry for the quality of each poem individually and for how you stitched them into a such a well organized series, to create a narrative of this one player and a field-level depiction of the game.  Why don’t we begin by talking about how the book is put together.

B: The collection is wonderfully unified and composed with a singular focus, which perfectly suits the theme of one pitcher, one season.  I really loved that the poems are organized by game date versus page number, which lent to the sensation of travelling through an entire seven month season in the short space of 24 pages. Did the organization of the book precede the writing of the poems?

S: Yes and no. I wrote the epilogue shortly after I’d seen him with backpack at PNC. Once I decided to move forward with this as a collection, the organization dictated the production. I’d spent a lot of time on poring over the box scores, trying to get a feel for each individual game.

 B:  I know that you’re a great baseball fan and undoubtedly have some real ball player heroes. I’m curious about your choice of Jeremy Sowers as a sort of protagonist/anti-hero in that particular 2008 Indians season. 

S: I kind of stumbled across it in stages. It wasn’t a conscious decision to sit down and put him on a pedestal. I should start by saying that I’ve always been drawn to the anti-hero, so you can count that as the first stage: two of my favorite baseball players (Curt Flood and Roger Maris) were both maligned during their careers by the mainstream media and the public for one reason or another. The second stage was my general befuddlement at the relationship between Cleveland sports teams and their fans. Some guys become idols while others become afterthoughts and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to why. The final stage, the metaphoric straw, was seeing his game used jersey in the team shop for considerably less than other players’ jerseys. Heck, it was marked down cheaper than the manager’s and coaches’ jerseys. So I bought it. And kind of adopted him. Then I just had to figure out what to do with him now. Writing seemed like the most logical choice.

B: In these poems, Sowers is portrayed as both baseball pitcher and struggling human being; someone with a broad spectrum of feelings on and off the mound.  Reading the book, I was continually impressed with how you captured that alternately lonely and lofty experience of the pitcher.  How did you manage to step inside the imagined skin of your subject?

S: This was pretty easy. I’m a pretty big baseball fan, so the little boy inside of me still relishes the opportunity to see big league ballplayers in person (I hope I never outgrow that, FYI). One of the best places I’ve found to do this is at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Fans gather before the game outside the visitor’s entrance for similar type run-ins and photo/autograph opportunities. Ballplayers get dropped off by taxi or bus or whatever service their hotel provides outside the ballpark and a scrum of varying degrees ensues, usually depending on popularity (sought out by autograph seekers) or how good-looking a ballplayer is (sought out by girls of all ages). I was there before a game in which the indians visited the pirates a few years back and was part of the scrum. Everybody went ballistic over Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez when they left their cabs. Jeremy Sowers, meanwhile, walked up to the park with his backpack on, completely unmolested. It was like he was just some random guy walking up to the park to catch the game. That had stuck with me ever since.

B: There’s a wonderful balance of pathos and restraint in these poems.  On one hand, there are the numbers, baseball’s so amazingly abundant numerical data. And, on the other, the heart of the player. Did you consciously hold back or check your sympathetic response to Sowers by talking about speed of fast ball, field measurements, batting averages and so on?

S: Actually, I had to take a bit of the opposite approach if I wanted it to work on a personal level. I wanted to make it accessible to die hard baseball fans, but also casual fans (as well as those with little to no interest in baseball). I had to scale back my reliance upon the stats, rather than the man.

B: Most of the poems are persona, with Sowers relaying what’s going on in his head in the raw moment, as in “Empty Weird” or recollecting specific moments in the game, as in “This Is the One” (one of my favorites). I wonder why the intimacy of the persona poem, versus the straight narrative.

S: This kind of dovetails into my previous response. It was easier for me to access the man – Jeremy Sowers as Everyman, even – and avoid the clinical aspect of statistics through a persona. Statistics really only tell you about what happened, after the fact. They are their own narrative, so to speak.

B: The diction― the natural speech line, jargon―throughout is fantastic, reminiscent of the rhythm of the announcer’s patter. Did you deliberately fashion the lineation and cadence on how the game is called?

S: I did not. Over the last six or seven summers, though, I have spent a large part of my summers at games or watching and listening to games. March through October, baseball is pretty much the soundtrack of my life. I would have been more surprised if, upon completion, some of that cadence hadn’t seeped into my work.

B: Do you plan to write more books covering the life and times of one character?  I hope so, because you have a real talent for lyrically hunker into a character’s psyche.

S: Funnily enough, I’d been mapping out the idea of a Lou Reed chapbook, which was inspired by “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, excepting Lou Reed will be my blackbird. The title, then, will be “13 Ways of Looking at Lou Reed”. I’d started it about a month before he’d passed. Now that he is no longer among the living, I feel a bit conflicted about continuing. I don’t want it to seem like I am being a parasite or an opportunist, so the release will have to be handled delicately.

B: On that same note, I wonder what inspires you to take up the proverbial pen―what form(s) does your muse take?

S: I don’t really have a muse. I don’t really search for inspiration. I just keep my eyes and ears open and write. That said, I do have a consistent and particular audience in mind when I write.

B: This is your fourth chapbook in less than two years time, which signals that there’s quite a lot in your creative hopper to write about! Please talk about your writing regimen and how you manage to be so prolific.

S: My writing regimen is pretty simple. I write every day. Literally, every day. Halloween was 1400 days in a row. It boggles my mind a bit when I think about that (and the accumulation of forgotten poems). Sometimes, I’ll participate in poem a day challenges in order to find prompts that I wouldn’t normally use to write, but most days I just sit down and write. Granted, my writing style (short poems, mostly) lends itself to that routine, but in a lot of ways that routine has also lent itself to my writing style. As I was telling another writer the other day, I tend to write near the end of the day. My body winds down and becomes tired and my mind is quite near the muddiness of sleep. It is also quite clean as, by this point in my day, I’ve managed to move past the events of the day. My writing happens in that area in between clean and muddy. Obviously, some evenings I’m not near my computer or able to write due to other commitments. On those days, I try to write first thing in the morning (before my day has a chance to fill with events that need to be shaken free) or whenever my schedule permits.

B: You have yet another book coming out in the near future, correct? Can you tell us about it?

S: I have been wrestling with the idea of a full length manuscript, but have not really applied myself to that too seriously. If and when I do that, I will probably self-publish unless someone out there with a specific idea (and the means to wade through/cull my body of work) wants to take the reins on that.

B: What projects are you currently working on?

S: Well, as stated earlier, I have my running poem a day project. Not sure when that will end, although I realize it will eventually. I also have a chapbook slated for 2014 with NightBallet Press. Dianne Borsenik has really been a guardian angel with her oversight and presentation of my work.  

Steve Brightman, Biography

Steve Brightman lives in Kent, OH. He has published three chapbooks this year: In Brilliant Explosions Alone (Nightballet Press, 2013), Absent The (Writing Knights Press, 2013), and Like Michelangelo Sorta Said (Poet's Haven, 2013); and has just put the finishing touches on a fourth, 13 Ways Of Looking At Lou Reed. His work has also been included in a number of journals, such as Two Hawks Quarterly, The Cleveland Review, Junkmail Oracle, Bear Creek Haiku, and in  anthologies, such as Buzzkill: Apocalypse – An End of the World Anthology (Night Ballet Press, 2012), Lipsmack! A Sampler Platter of Poets from Night Ballet Press (2012) and I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems about Ohio (U of Akron Press, 2003).


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What We're Reading Now

It's October, the month of beautiful autumn weather, andat least here in Americathe month of embarrassingly-abundant processed sugar. With trick-or-treat and all that, we at Poetry Matters say Skip the caramel apples, candy corn, and tootsie rolls! Give us a good book instead!  So for our post this month we've got some poetry goodies for you: Nancy shares a couple of books and journals that she's currently reading, including Ultima Thule, one of her favorite poetry collections, and Temper, the debut book of Beth Bachmann. And after that, Karen delights us with a mini-review of Iris A. Law's poetry chapbook, Periodicity.

We invite you to take a longer look at these fine books. And as usual friends, please share with us what you're reading. We're always looking for good books.


 From Nancy's Bookshelf

Probably like most of you, at any given time I've got several books going, not just one. And usually one of those books is a favorite that I am re-reading. The favorite for this month is Ultima Thule (Yale University Press, 2000) by Davis McCombs. Ultima Thule was selected by M. S. Merwin for the 1999 Yale Younger Poet’s Prize. McCombs, who grew up in south-central Kentucky (an area known for its caves), served as a park ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park. The book was written, in part at least, while McCombs worked at Mammoth Cave; the poems center around caves in general, and Mammoth Cave in particular.

The book has three sections: The first and last sections are comprised of sonnets, and the section sandwiched between them is full of free-verse. In the first section, the sonnets are all persona poems written in the voice of Stephen Bishop, who was the slave of one John Croghan. Croghan owned Mammoth Cave for ten years or so in the mid-1800’s and Bishop functioned as a cave guide there for twenty years. Here is a link to my favorite poem in this first section, written in Bishop's voice as imagined by the poet. It’s the title poem of the collection, “Ultima Thule.” 

The second section contains poems that explore a more personal landscape. Each finely-chiseled poem in this section flows freely, unencumbered by the rigidity or stilted feel that some readers might experience in first section with its combination of sonnet-form and persona-voice. I have no favorite in the second section; all would be favorites, depending on where I happen to be in my head. Here is link to one of the poems for you to experience, “Freemartin.” (From—freemartin: “a female calf that is born as a twin with a male and is sterile as a result of exposure to masculinizing hormones produced by the male.”) 

The third section returns to the sonnet form, but now it is McCombs (or the poet-persona) who is the cave guide instead of Stephen Bishop. The sonnets in this last section have the same beautiful lyricism found in the second section. Here is a link to my favorite, which is the opening poem in this last section: “Dismantling the Cave Gate.”

I've read Ultima Thule several times now, and each time I continue to be fascinated by it, so much so that I've written the entire second and third sections out by long-hand, using a fountain-pen and fine-lined yellow paper, lingering over each poem. If you haven't read this book yet, you're in for a treat. 

Another book I’m reading is Beth Bachmann’s debut book, Temper (University of Pittsburg
Press, 2009), winner of the AWP Award Series 2008 Donald Hall Prize and 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The book addresses a murdered sister and a father who appears to be suspect. The poems in Temper are short and intense—the images, sharp and violent; the voice is restrained, at times distant. These poems are haunting, folks, each of them a lyric that together stitch a narrative. This book, this book …  I can’t put it down. It, too, will be one that I’ll read again and again. I won’t say any more than that. I'll just leave you with a few links to some poems, let you experience them for yourself:

As for literary journals, here’s what’s piled on my nightstand: Caketrain issue 10, Reed Vol 66, Mid-American Review Vol 33.2, Crab Orchard Review Vol 18.2, and the beautiful, beautiful Briar Cliff Review Vol 25. I love the look and feel of Briar Cliff Review! Here’s a link to the opening poem to that journal, “Break of Day,” by Beatrice Lazarus, winner of the their recent Poetry Prize.

Karen's Mini Review of Iris A. Law's poetry chapbook, Periodicity 

I met Iris Law at a "poet's lunch" during The Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, and later noticed her chapbook for sale. I was drawn to the cover art by Killeen Hanson, an incandescent blue-white flower sprig against a dark background, and the title whose meaning I wasn't sure of, as well as blurbs on the back of the book that mentioned women scientists. When I glanced at the book's center poem, "Blue," I was irretrievably hooked.

Iris A. Law, a Kundiman Fellow, is editor of the online Asian American poetry journal Lantern Review. She received a B.A. in English from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in such journals as Lumina, Phoebe, qarrtsiluni, Boxcar Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Collagist, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Periodicity (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Law's debut chapbook, celebrates women from various times and countries connected to the world of science. Thirteen of the eighteen poems are persona poems, written from the first person point-of-view of women such as: British botanist/illustrator/author Beatrix Potter, British biophysicist/X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, French-Polish physicist/chemist Marie Curie, American marine biologist/conservationist Rachel Carson, and Faith Sai So Leong, the first Chinese American dentist. Law uses various forms such as the tercet  in the voice of astronomer Maria Mitchell, and a cento, "Botanical Variations," composed of passages from the 18th century botanist Jane Colden's work, Botanical Manuscript which describes such plants as "S'alomons Seal," "E'nchanter's Nightshade," and "Lady's S'lipper."

Many of the poems explore familial relationships such as between father and daughter in "Ada" about mathematician/writer Ada Lovelace and her father, poet Lord Byron, and in "Anna Atkins" where Atkins, botanist/photographer, mourns the death of her father who was also a scientist; between wife Emma Darwin and husband Charles Darwin in "Finchsong" and Marie and husband Pierre in "Horse and Cart;" and between mother, daughter and sister in the poems centered around the Curie family, "Periodicity" and "The Girl with Radium Eyes."

The chapbook, named after the title poem "Periodicity," refers to the periodic table in which the chemical elements are arranged in related groups according to their atomic numbers. Periodicity also refers to anything having the characteristic of being periodic, occurring at regular intervals or having similar properties. The title echoes the overall compass of Law's book that re-imagines these dynamic women in all their complexities with a haunting sense of compassion and intimacy. We see them in moments of vulnerability and pain as in "Marie Curie, Dying" with stunning lines such as "On her tongue and in her cheeks, a constellation of throbbing stars" and "the ore, with its necklace of fallen particles, grows dim to her"; and in moments of everyday life as in "Finchsong," where she portrays Emma Darwin cooking and playing piano outside the door where her husband, Charles Darwin, "measured wingspans...parted stiffened beaks" and ends with the striking image of "those fingers / that bent the necks of birds would trace / blue nocturnes against your spine." Though the women presented in these poems are similar in spirit and the extent of their accomplishments, often working against gender bias, Law insists each is unique, as said so beautifully in the closing lines of the last poem of the book, "Slant," written for Chinese American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu:
                                                ...We do not mirror
            one another. Rather, we resist replication, shaping our stories
            stubbornly against our chosen vectors: one arm, one eye,
            a single plotted quadrant into which we arrange
            battered folding chairs and settle in to watch the sun
            slide liquidly into the diamond-speckled dark.
Law's use of "we," repeated throughout the poem includes not only Chien-Shiung Wu, but herself, the other women in her book, and all women, creating a feeling of intimacy and respect, as if the poet is directly speaking to the reader. Many of the Law's poems contain this close sense of connection to the reader, as in the first lines of the opening poem, "Field Notes, Lichen Morphology," where it feels like Beatrix Potter is whispering: " "Listen: / that // rasp. The fall/ of fractured // trees / predates // the quiet lying // down, the waiting". Law's use of repeated vowel and consonant sounds in these lines is mirrored throughout the poems; they resonate with rhythm, as they do with radiant images of the natural world, as in the poem, "Blue," describing Anna Atkins cyanotype prints of algae: "Lucid shadows, layered / on blue ground: a reverse / china pattern. Cystoseira / blisters, bifurcates to / deeper marine. Part wisp."

In Periodicity each poem is like a radiant jewel (sapphire, emerald), or an element essential to life (oxygen, hydrogen) that are linked by each woman's particular voice that reaches us through Iris Law's luminous voice. These unforgettable poems pulse with a sense of awe and longing, an invitation to pay attention, to explore, document, and revel in the wonders of the natural world in which we live.

If you'd like to read more of Iris Law's work, visit her website at