100 Thousand Poets for Change—and You

100 Thousand Poets for Change

A 100 Thousand Poets for Change poster by volunteer designer Odysseas Milios (info@ijustdesign.gr)

What will you be doing this Saturday, September 24, 2011? How about taking part in what’s billed as the biggest poetry event in history?

100 Thousand Poets for Change is the unifying force behind the widely diverse and decentralized endeavors to take place on September 24. Some 600 events in 450 cities and 95 countries are planned, and the numbers are growing daily. The movement is radically inclusive—the only requirement for an associated event is that it promote some kind of environmental, social, or political change “within the framework of peace and sustainability.” In the big bucket of change, the poets and others participating decide what to do. As a sampling:

  • People will chalk the sidewalks with poems in Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • A dance party is planned in Greece, and drum circles will beat out hope for peace in California, New Mexico, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Gambia.
  • A poet will sit at a typewriter in an independent bookstore and produce poems on demand—while dressed as the Poetry Fox. (Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what a Poetry Fox looks like. My understanding is they’re exceptionally rare.)
  • At least two poets are planning to read poems while flying commercially (on different flights).
  • Another poet plans to read a poem to an Eastern seaboard marsh she’ll drive past on that Saturday.
  • And there are literally hundreds of readings, slams, open mics, and workshops around the world.

While I’m hoping to do more on September 24, I plan at a minimum to participate in an effort to inundate with poetry the inboxes of state and local government offices in North Carolina (where I live). Poets and poetry lovers are encouraged to e-mail poems to their elected representatives. Poets Joseph Bathanti and Kathryn Kirkpatrick, North Carolina organizers of the mass e-mailing effort, explain the details:

Please use the poem’s title for the subject line, and place the poem itself in the body of the e-mail, with your name and the town you live in at the bottom of it. No additional message should be inserted. Our aim is for the poems themselves to be the message. The poem you elect to send does not have to be political, per se, though it can be argued that all poems are political. Of course the subject matter remains solely your choice. We request, however, that this action be one that underscores our dignity as poets and the integrity of our art. Our intention is not to shout at our politicians, or in any way insult them, but to present a powerful united advocacy for change—and to alert them to our constituency.

I already have my poem picked—it’s one I’ve had memorized for years, and it seems to fit the bill. (Be sure to read “7 Reasons to Memorize Some Poetry” on Jeff Cobb’s Mission to Learn blog, if you haven’t already.)

In Place of a Curse
by John Ciardi

At the next vacancy for God, if I am elected,
I shall forgive last the delicately wounded
who, having been slugged no harder than anyone else,
never got up again, neither to fight back,
nor to finger their jaws in painful admiration.

They who are wholly broken, and they in whom
mercy is understanding, I shall embrace at once
and lead to pillows in heaven. But they who are
the meek by trade, baiting the best of their betters
with extortions of a mock-helplessness,

I shall take last to love, and never wholly.
Let them all in Heaven—I abolish Hell—
but let it be read over them as they enter:
“Beware the calculations of the meek, who gambled nothing,
gave nothing, and could never receive enough.”

So what will you be doing September 24? Whether you live in North Carolina or no, whether you’re a poet or not, you can e-mail your legislators a poem. Or you can find some local happening at http://www.100TPC.org. Or you can organize your own. We’d love to hear what you plan to do—so let us know by leaving a comment.


This post was originally published on Mission to Learn. I recommend the Mission to Learn blog, which is dedicated to lifelong learning.

Review and Poems in Wild Goose Poetry Review

Two of my poems (“The Feeder” and “Pie at 3 AM”) and a review of my chapbook How Language Is Lost appear in the summer 2011 issue of Wild Goose Poetry Review, a quarterly online journal of poetry, reviews, and poetry-related news, edited by the prolific, generous, indefatigable Scott Owens.

Since it’s an online journal, there’s no reason you shouldn’t browse poems–there are many fine ones–and all five reviews, which cover Ron Rash’s and John Lane’s new poetry collections.

Carrboro Poetica on the Radio

On July 25, I read on Carolina Book Beat, along with the other members of Carrboro Poetica, a bi-monthly poetry critique group. Co-hosted by Audrey J. Layden and Paul Nagy co-host, Carolina Book Beat airs on WCOM, a community radio station tucked in a tiny building in downtown Carrboro.

An MP3 recording of the hour-long show is available on the Carolina Book Beat site. So please check out Sara Claytor, Phyllis Jean Green, Barbara Kenyon, Priscilla Webster-Williams, and me reading our own poems and talking about the dynamics or our critique group.

Raleigh Review Workshop with Laux and Millar

Raleigh ReviewMemorial Day weekend I attended the Raleigh Review‘s first workshop in its Writers’ House series. The Raleigh Review is new—volume 1 (2010-2011) just came out at the beginning of this year, and volume 2 is due out early in 2012—but the board and staff, which include poets Rob Greene, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, come with street cred.

Laux and Millar, talented teachers and poets, led the workshop—and they donated their time so all the proceeds from the workshop fees could go to supporting the Raleigh Review. The workshop was generative, and we met for two-hour sessions over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The format for each session was simple:

  1. Get a writing prompt. (And if you don’t know The Poet’s Companion, which Laux wrote with Kim Addonizio, check it out—they know how to give some good prompts.)
  2. Write for 30 minutes or so.
  3. Read what you’ve written, listen to others read their work, and hear feedback from Laux and Millar. I was impressed at what astute comments they were able to provide based on hearing people’s raw material aloud one time—I’m a hemmer and hawer and a visual learner to boot, so I was truly awed.

Beyond the prompts, Laux and Millar also gave us workshop participants a resource that we can keep going back to. The idea is to document your personal universe, using all five senses. (I appreciate the senses as key to poetry—and learning in general—as “A Sense-full Approach to Learning” demonstrates.)

The personal universe is discussed in a piece by Laux posted on Read Write Poem. But the Read Write Poem article uses the personal universe as a prompt for writing one poem—and it’s great as a prompt—but the way Laux and Millar characterized the personal universe during the workshop was as more as an ongoing tool or resource.

They invited us to make a chart with the five senses as columns and, for rows, the major periods in our life (e.g., childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or whatever makes sense to you). Then you complete the chart by filling in words (five or more) for each sense at each time period. So under smell for childhood, you might have something like “Pop’s clove cigarettes.” Under adulthood and taste (or smell, depending on how you remember it), you might write, “pear wine.” You’re also supposed to pick words to go with an array of topics: “seasons, times of day or night, astrological signs, totems, heroes and heroines, nicknames, places in the universe, invented words or sounds, snippets of dialog.” You’re also to pick an abstraction: “Then find an abstraction, a word you might use to define what most motivates or controls your life.”

Again, the Read Write Poem article focuses on the personal universe as a prompt for one poem. And you can certainly use it that way. But I really like the way Laux and Millar presented it at the workshop—as an ongoing resource. I like the idea that I now have something I can turn to to help me when I get stuck in poem. If I’m at a dead end, I can randomly pick a word from the chart to use and get me going again. If I’m looking for concrete details and descriptions in a poem, I can look at my chart to jog my memory and senses.

There are prompts a-plenty out there—and I’m not knocking them because, Lord knows, I use them—but I find the personal universe an appealing more-than-prompt. I hope you will too.

How Language Is Lost Unveiled

How Language Is LostLast Tuesday I attended the Emrys Annual Meeting at the beautiful Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC (Who knew that Greenville has a museum row? Presumably lots of folks, just not I.) As part of the program, I read from the just unveiled How Language Is Lost, published by Emrys Press.

Jeff Cobb posted video of me reading the title poem from the chapbook on his Mission to Learn blog, and I’m including the text of the poem below.


How Language Is Lost

The Abipón had a word for
everything, even the invisible
amphitrichous spirits that
swam the Argentine Gran Chaco.

Wrestling, riding, raiding the Spanish for horses—
tributes to unseen gods (rabbit-like, prone to disappearing)—
gave way to farming, kneeling in naves.
Their own shamans couldn’t shape-shift anymore,
forgot the prophesied destruction—a vast yellow snake
swallowing rivers, trees whole—and crouched silently in the dust
as a clerk counted them like animals, like cattle,
sent his report back to court: 5,000 in 1750.

When King Carlos expelled the Jesuits in 1768,
half the Abipón had died of small pox.
The cleavage between this life and the old was complete.

Fifty years later, when a shriveled woman
with spiraled palm leaves in her pierced ears
and blue tattoos around her elbows lies on a straw mat
in a hut corner in Resistancia,
————————————————the younger woman—no relation—
cooking over a smoky fire and soothing a baby to sleep
does not understand her dying words,
her articulation of the world to come,
the world lost.

–Celisa Steele

Excellent Afternoon at the Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival

Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival

Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival

Yesterday I attended the third annual Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival. It was a wonderful afternoon and evening of poetry, Turkish music, Turkish food, and comraderie. The event showed that North Carolina poetry is thriving–and being enriched by poetry from beyond its borders.

I attended last year for the first time, as one of ten winners in the poetry competition (for my poem “How Language Is Lost,” which has become the title poem of my first chapbook due out next month from Emrys Press). I had such a wonderful time last year, and Mehmet Öztürk, Buket Aydemir, Birgül Tuzlalı, and the other organizers do such a wonderful job that I couldn’t miss this year.

Highlights for me from the festival include:

  • Learning more about contemporary Turkish poetry and hearing some fabulous examples, particularly the concept of eda, from Murat Memet-Nejat, editor of Eda: An Anthology of Modern Turkish Poetry
  • Getting absolutely energized by the work of Kane Smego, CJ Suitt, and Jake Jacoby, three Sacrificial Poets–my first taste of slam poetry, I’m chagrinned to admit
  • Beautiful Turkish music in original arrangements performed by the Serami/Aydemir/Öztürk trio (guitar, violin, and cello)
  • Readings by Dorianne Laux and John Balaban

I’ll conclude with the Hikmet poem that opened yesterday’s festival. It appears in Poems of Nâzım Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. (Mutlu Konuk was the featured speaker at last year’s Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival.)


The Cucumber

The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and still coming down hard:
it hasn’t let up all morning.
We’re in the kitchen.
On the table, on the oilcloth, spring–
on the table there’s a very tender young cucumber,

pebbly and fresh as a daisy.

We’re sitting around the table staring at it.
It softly lights up our faces,
and the very air smells fresh.
We’re sitting around the table staring at it,


We’re as if in a dream.
On the table, on the oilcloth, hope–
on the table, beautiful days,
a cloud seeded with a green sun,
an emerald crowd impatient and on its way,
loves blooming openly–
on the table, there on the oilcloth, a very tender young cucumber,

pebbly and fresh as a daisy.

The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and coming down hard.
It hasn’t let up all morning.

–Nâzım Hikmet

Thomas Lux on the Cusp of Poetry Month

Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux (photo © Dorothy Alexander)

Thomas Lux read at the Craft Center in the basement of Thompson Hall on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh Wednesday night, and I was glad to be in attendance. He read mostly newer things, including “Dead Horse,” which can be read on the American Academy of Poets’ Poets.org Web site.

In preparation for Lux reading, I decided to memorize one of his poems–I like to memorize poems, and it had been a while since I added a new one to my repertoire, so his reading was a welcome push. I chose “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy.”

Although he didn’t read “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy” Wednesday, much of what he read hewed to the same aesthetic–a simplicity of style and voice, a quirky humor, and leaps that can be breathtaking in their unexpected aptness.

“Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy” begins:

For some semitropical reason
when the rains fall
relentless they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise
bright and scary arachnids.

And ends:

that you are good,
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

How could you not love a poem that starts with rain and spiders and ends with salvation?

The Poetry Foundation has a recording of Lux reading “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy,” as well as the full text. Give it a listen–not a bad way to kick off Poetry Month 2011.

A Sense-full Approach to Learning

Learning with the sensesUp to your shoulder inside a cow, you feel the hot heavy squeeze of her, but I’ll never forget my startled delight the first time I withdrew my hand slowly and felt the cow’s muscles contract and release one after another, like a row of people shaking hands with me in a receiving line.

A couple of months ago I read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired the Nova miniseries Mystery of the Senses and is the source for the quotation above. A Natural History of the Senses is not a new book—it was published in 1990—but Janice Moore Fuller, a writer and teacher, recommended the book at a poetry workshop I attended this summer. Fuller’s point was poets must understand the five senses; they are, finally, the only material we have with which to weave the warp and weft of poetry.

Ackerman herself is a poet, and her skill in grounding description in the vitality of the senses is everywhere apparent in A Natural History of the Senses, which reads not like a typical, thesis-driven work of nonfiction but like so many meandering letters to these loves of her life: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision.

So What?

But why do you care if you’re not an inspiring poet like Ackerman or Fuller (or an aspiring one like I am)? Because the senses are, in the end, how we learn anything, the only way we know anything. “When scientists, philosophers, and other commentators speak of the real world,” Ackerman writes, “they’re talking about a myth, a convenient fiction. The world is a construct the brain builds based on the sensory information it’s given, and the information is only a small part of all that’s available.”

Sometimes deprivation heightens our awareness of the senses, and Ackerman uses one acute, well-known case to make this clear:

One of the greatest sensuists of all time—not Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, Proust of any of the other obvious voluptuaries—was a handicapped woman with several senses gone. Blind, deaf, mute, Helen Keller’s remaining senses were so finely attuned that when she put her hands on the radio to enjoy music, she could tell the difference between the cornets and the strings. She listened to colorful, down-home stories of life surging along the Mississippi from the lips of her friend Mark Twain. She wrote at length about the whelm of life’s aromas, tastes, touches, feelings, which she explored with the voluptuousness of a courtesan.

Author, advocate, and activist, Keller exemplifies a mission to learn, arguably better than any other individual.

I mention—and more, recommend—A Natural History of the Senses not for the interesting and often bizarre tidbits (the receiving-line metaphor that opens this post, for example, or “In the Elizabethan Age, lovers exchanged ‘love apples’—a woman would keep a peeled apple in her arm pit until it was saturated with her sweat, and then give it to her sweetheart to inhale.”) No, as intriguing as those morsels may be, I recommend the book primarily because of the opportunity it offers to become more conscious of the senses and how they shape our knowledge. Without the burden and gift of Keller’s disabilities, we can still learn new and exciting things from the senses we often ignore.

Now What?

So take some time today to be more conscious of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches around you. At your desk or in your yard, close your eyes; focus on the smells (an appealingly bitter aroma of coffee or the pungency of decaying leaves) and sounds (the quiet hum of the computer or the disruptive drone of an airplane). Hold some everyday object, like a stapler—discover its cool heft. You get the idea.

These are exercises not intended to teach you anything in particular. They’re meant to nurture a keen awareness of the senses, those media that moderate our interaction with the world and construct our ability to learn from it.

“It is both our panic and our privilege to be mortal and sense-full,” Ackerman writes. “We live on the leash of our senses. Although they enlarge us, they also limit and restrain us, but how beautifully.”


This post was originally published on Mission to Learn. I recommend the Mission to Learn blog, which is dedicated to lifelong learning.