Monday, March 26, 2007

WSU Mikrokosmos Poetry Contest

I have been honored to judge poetry contests these recent years, and I posted comments already on judging--now in the archives. I would compare poetry to tennis: mastering the basic strokes is key. I see much well crafted work that misses very basic issues, like who is the audience? Why is this poem written? How does the language engage the reader?

Here are my recent remarks to the editors of Mikrokosmos of the Wichita State University writing program (of which I am an alumna!). I also post, with permission, the winning entry by Craig Blais and his biography. These will be published in the next issue of Mikrokosmos. Do consider subscribing!

"When judging contests, I like to start with a first read through all the entries. This gives me a sense of the peer group, including the range of skills. Then I sort the poems into definite no-s and maybe-s. I can say that this time I had to put virtually every poem into the maybe pile. I can see good editing is going on, as all entries have a sense of voice; a sense of controlled diction; and topical focus.

"The next several readings I read more deeply into the poems, opening my imagination and looking for rhythm of language—since ultimately poetry, unlike prose, is about line breaks. And that rhythm, if joined with a congruous topic, can propel me through the poem. I once heard a good poem described as a locomotive that screams by and takes you with it and never once lets up. Since my father worked on the railroad, some of my earliest memories are those of watching a train arrive and transform rails and concrete into an overwhelming, shuddering energy. That is the kind of propulsion I look for.
Several of these poems achieve this sustained drive: first “Ode to Memory: Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers.” This three-part poem uses dialogue to create tension and form. The poet also makes good use of Chagall’s own dialogic works that move between inner and outer landscapes. The three parts all have unique tropes—seven fingers, dust particles, solar system—and all three work together to allude to the great painter’s ideas and also to recast them in this new package.

"Also impressive, and honorable mentions go to them, were “Lulled from our mother’s slick womb” and “At the Bike Track.” “Lulled” uses sense imagery well and interests me as a reader with originality. “At the Bike Track” has compelling drive and narrative. Congratulations to the winners and all the poets."


by Craig Blais

For me a painting is a surface covered with objects depicted in a certain order. For example, the headless woman, who, with a milk pail, figures on this canvas—if I had the idea of separating her head from her body it was because I needed a space just at that spot. –Marc Chagall

I struggle to make room for you, Chagall, to let your childhood meld with mine, to imagine,
As I would have as a child, that your work steps outside of time
And is like any other fairytale, any other nightgown brushing against the peak
Of wine-drenched rooftops in the borderless villages of my dreams: easy to believe.

No milkmaids, angels, or yellow-vested painters in my childhood, Chagall. Chagall, Chagall … an empty easel chair.
We descend together into a rainstorm at so-many-thousand feet,
And the Eiffel Tower tears at the belly of the plane
Because it needs to be there. Landing gear, luggage, plastic cabinets fall in order as we float away

Over my neighbor’s side-lot—its triangular shape safeguarding the presence of frozen cats and fruit trees.
It’s good to see it again. It’s good to see it differently.
Chagall, push over, make room for me. I have seven fingers too,
Each wrapped tightly around the crabapple melting in my palm.


The first thing I ever saw was a trough. Simple, square, half hollow, half oval. A market trough.
–Marc Chagall

And the first thing I remember, Chagall, was daylight.
In fact, dust. Particles of dust swirling in the daylight coming through the bedroom

The light was still because the dust was dancing in it.

I could still look at it in wonder, too dumb to doubt its charity
Like the promise of air holding the parachute silk high above the children’s heads in the park,
Or water overflowing, pushing out the ripples, becoming like glass, before it falls.

We are like this, you and I, the trough, and the light and dust inside.


While in France I took part in this unique revolution of artistic technique, in my thoughts—I might even say, in my soul—I returned to my own land. I lived with my back toward what lay before me. –Marc Chagall

Planet, Chagall, in Greek means Wanderer.
Whenever we turn from home, like the earth turning from the sun, we begin our way towards it again.
The window open over your shoulder, for instance, might reveal
A field of wheat, a steeple, and a rusted train rumbling towards
Heaps of scrap metal on the horizon.
To chart the passage, compass and wind rose alone will not do.

Some landmasses must be stretched and some memories distorted
To make drunk the course leading to our respective points of origin.
Not every celestial body needs to clumsily orbit
A sun that turns blood red
and kilns the solar system before turning to dust inside.
And in the next life, Chagall, we will neither reflect nor emit light.
We will travel like dark matter, and move in all directions at once.

Craig Blais writes of himself:
“Born and raised in Western Massachusetts, I lived in San Francisco and South Korea before moving to Kansas to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, where I'm the 2006-07 Poetry Fellow. I've published in Flint Hills Review, Eclipse, The Pinch (the Memphis lit mag formerly known as River City) and Good Foot: A Poetry Journal. The best thing about studying at WSU is the time. I have time to read and write and develop my craft in an environment where I don't feel pressured to conform to an aesthetic that doesn't truly move me.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

CRITICAL MASS: Who the Hell is Troy Jollimore?

Kevin Prufer Interviews Jollimore at this link
CRITICAL MASS: Who the Hell is Troy Jollimore?

Women's Medical Drawings & Poetry by Leslie Adrienne Miller in KC

From the New Letters Events Page for Tuesday, March 20,
Award-winning poet Leslie Adrienne Miller reads from her newest collection, The Resurrection Trade, which explores explores the marriage of science and poetry. Miller will read in the University of Kansas History and Philosophy of Medicine Luncheon Seminar Series at the Clendening History of Medicine Library and Museum (3901 Rainbow Blvd., Robinson Building, First Floor, University of Kansas Medical Center campus, Kansas City, Kan. / 913-588-7243). Accompanying the reading will be a slideshow of antique medical images of the female anatomy. Lunch will be provided and the event is free and open to the public. RSVP at

Leslie is a professor at St. Thomas in St. Paul. She has an MFA from the U. of Iowa and a Ph.D. from the Univ. of Houston.

I saw Leslie read from this book a few weeks ago, and she has original, provocative images that suggest the historic and ongoing medical misinformation about women's lives. The medical drawings are a cultural cartography, which she interposes within her own textual frame.

In this March 20 reading she will show slides with the poems. If you can make this reading, it is really worth the effort. In Atlanta, where I saw her read, her books sold out before I could buy one. She read in Kansas City about 4 years ago for the Writers Place readings at the Johnson County library, where she read from Eat Quite Everyting You See. This is a poet to watch. Her work is solid, and her career is progressing. She has important commentary on the gendered experience of culture. I predict you'll see her name in even higher circles of Poetry Paradise.

And if you think women's issues are stale, I found a hatchet job on Miller as I was working on this blog by a male reviewer that reminds me, almost word-for-word, of ones I saw in the 70s about women's wiriting.

Here is a poem reprinted from Poetry Daily:

Wandering Uterus

Leonardo believed that semen came down

from the brain through a channel in the spine.

And that female lactation held its kick off
in the uterus. Not as bad as Hippocrates,

who thought the womb wandered the ruddy
crags of a woman's body, wreaking a havoc

whenever it lodged, shoving aside
more sensible organs like the heart.

All manner of moral failings, snits,
and panics were thus explained, the wayward

organ floating like Cleopatra's barge
down the murky canal of any appendage

or tying up at the bog of the throat.
One can't help but imagine a little halved

walnut of a boat like that in Leonardo's
drawing, the curled meat of the fetus

tucked inside, harboring near a naughty eye
or rebellious ear that never can hear

what a man might mean when he says yes
or always. It's all still beautifully true

what these good scientists alleged: the brain
is as good a place as any for the manufacture

of evanescence, and why not allow
that the round and sturdy skiff of the uterus

may float and flaunt its special appetite for novelty,
even if we dub it dumb, lined with tentacles,

many-chambered, and errant as the proverbial knight
seeking out adventure, but loyal to one queen.

And I'm posting my photo of Leslie, copyright Denise Low.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Neil J. Lehto on Jollimore's Tom Thomson

In my email today, I have this comment about Troy Jollimore's book:

"I note with interest your recent post about Troy Jollimore's book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, winning the National Book Critics Circle Poetry Award. I saw early report of the nominees and was quite intrigued because I saw nothing in the press reports or online discussion about that Tom Thomson is a Canadian icon. When I learned that Jollimore grew up in Nova Scotia, I wrote to him for comment. Jollimore responded promptly and graciously, confirming the character is drawn from the historical figure. Tom Thomson is Canada's greatest landscape painter. He drowned in Ontario's Canoe Lake under mysterious circumstances in 1917. I recently wrote a book about the subject, Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring. The book website is at "

Lehto, writing from Michigan, continues:
"I hesitate to forward from Troy [what he] said about the subject of using a very-wellknown Canadian cultural icon in the book for both himself as a writer raised in Canada in a book published in the United States.For me, my initial interest arose from the title andI read portions of the book at, in part, for its references to TomThomson. I ordered the book a few days ago. Certainly,my experience of the book will be shaped in part by my own knowledge of thecharacter. I am, like, Troy, I suspect, especiallyinterested now to see the if the book gains a Canadian market. (I know verylittle about where the book is now being distributed andhow and when that would happen but read somewhere there were 750 copiesprinted.)"

The book Algonquin Elegy looks quite good, and I need to learn more Canadian lore!

Monday, March 12, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Poetry Award

Troy Jollimore won the poetry award this year, with a long narrative poem about a character "Tom Thomson." Thomson is an Everyman struggling with vicissitudes of 21st century life. Jollimore's research and teaching concern ethics, political philosophy, and literature. He directs the Humanities Center at Cal.State Univ.-Chico. He is a visiting faculty fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center this academic year. In my recent travels to Chico I was scheduled to see him read, but got lost on the way to the campus.

My sister Jane Ciabattari, vice president of the NBCC board, says he gave a very wonderful reading at the finalists' reception and charmed the audience greatly. My friends Sally and Scott McNall of Chico report great confidence in his abilities.

I would note that this selection emphasizes my belief that poets need to have as deep and wide an education as possible--either inside or outside the academy. Poetry is about synthesis of cultural, historical, arts, science, and technological knowledge, and all we interact with as humans. Poets, through well chosen words, help digest the strands of experience into something manageable. Poetry is about cultural survival, a serious business, formed from the lyrical personal encounter.

by Troy Jollimore

Tom Thomson in Hiding

Trusts himself less, but more than others do;

when he an elevator boards, they stand

off to one side and keep an eye on him,

suspicious-like; when he picks up a phone

a little click lets him know someone else

is listening, too. Meanwhile, spy satellites

fly so low overhead they almost graze

and take away a layer of his skin.

He therefore cringes, hunches, don't look up,

contemplates fake moustaches and dark shades,

scurries from house to car, inside whose tin

and plastic shell he feels less vulnerable.

There is a war afoot: Intelligence

versus intelligentsia. This he knows.

Tom Thomson in Love

Love pushed him sidewise through the bleary nights.

It flew at him like storms. He tried to learn

to overcome, to do without, but could,

he found, not; nor cigarettes, neither. He stuck

to them like glue. Opinions stuck to him

and drugged him down into the muck. Always asked he

what lay so deep down there – well now he knows:

it's him – it's he himself, goes down so far

and lies at bottom and takes not one breath

all winter, like a turtle. Him, who looks

upward through bottoms of glass-bottomed boats

and so on into sky, sky up as he is down,

sky blue as he, and free as he is not.

People say "My friend" to him, but just ironically.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Native Readers at Atlanta Conference

Last weekend I attended the Associated Writing Program conference in Atlanta. I paid my own way, and it was, as usual, worth every penny to see former graduate school friends, colleagues in area colleges, great readers and panels. It is 5,000 people now, so it is not the intimate conference it was in the 80s, but still worth the crowds.

One of the highlights for me was the reading by Native writers in this photo, front row: Evalina Lucero (Isleta), Diane Glancy (Cherokee) (she read the night before), LeeAnne Howe (Choctaw), Heid Erdrich (Turtle Mt. Ojibwa), Gordon Henry (Ojibwa), Kim Blaeser (White Earth Ojibwa), Sherwin Bitsui (Dine), and Orlando White (Dine); and back row: Eric Garnsworth (Onondaga), Mark Turcotte (Turtle Mt. Ojibwa), and Santee Frazier (Prairie Band Potawatomi/Shawnee).

You can Google most of these folks for more information, but newcomers are Sherwin, Santee, and Orlando. You will hear more from them. They are all IAIA BA graduates who are now in graduate schools in creative writing. Lots of talent. Photo by Denise Low.