Robert Hass, U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at Cal-Berkeley, and long-time environmental activist, published his first collection of poems, Field Guide, in 1973, and his latest, Summer Snow, in 2020. In all he has published seven collections of original work, eight volumes of translation (seven of Czeslaw Milosz’s writing and one of Japanese Haiku), and four volumes of criticism. Hass has won a myriad of awards and prizes, from the Yale Younger Poets Award to the Pulitzer Prize, and for five decades has been a presence on the California literary scene.
George Guida: Did you understand from an early age that you wanted to be a writer?
Robert Hass: I didn’t know how you got there from here, whether it was a pipe dream or not, but that’s what I thought I wanted to do. When I graduated from college, I was writing poems, stories, essays. It was in graduate school, when I was 21, 22, 23 years old and had access to a library that had lots of literary magazines, where I really started reading contemporary poetry. I also took a couple of graduate classes with teachers who were very charismatic.
GG: Who were they?
RH: One of them was Ivor Winters, who was an incredible reactionary. I didn’t agree with anything he said. Actually, I didn’t know enough to agree or disagree, but I had never heard anyone talk so passionately about anything in my life as he talked about poetry. He was extremely contemptuous of his students. He’d say, “I’m an old man, but you’ve come to hear me, because I said, ‘Crane got sold the Brooklyn Bridge by Emerson and Yeats is an overrated poet and a fascist.’ Let me tell you this: Poetry is a serious art. People go into it with almost no apparatus to defend themselves against their feelings. My friend Heart Crane killed himself. My friend Ezra Pound ended up in an insane asylum. Coleridge was an addict and a depressive. I don’t have much use for you. I think you’re going to become sentimental old college professors, dabbling, to the destruction of your betters,” and he walked out the room. First day of class.
GG: This was at Stanford?
RH: Yes, in 1963. I thought, “Wow!” But he interested me, and, again, I was reading the literary magazines, which featured novelists of the period: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Cheever. And I read the poets and thought they were way more interesting.
GG: Who were those poets?
RH: Gary Snyder, for sure, for California writing. I was also reading Ed Dorn at that time, and William Stafford, because they were also Western writers. Then too I read the New York School and the Black Mountain School. The Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, had just come out. It seemed like there was this incredible range of ways you could go about writing poetry and also of materials you could get to from writing it.
GG: At that point did you feel not only that you wanted to write poetry, but also that you wanted to be a part of that world?
RH: No, I didn’t imagine such a thing. The world that I imagined joining existed in the literary reviews—The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New Republic—but it wasn’t particularly about poetry. The world I was signing up for included James Agee writing about movies, Clement Greenburg writing about art, Delmore Schwartz writing about Kafka and existentialism. It was a world of ideas and art. It was thrilling to me.
I could see that among the poets at Stanford there was this little clique of people who were trying to write in a way that Winters would approve of. And I knew that there was a Beat scene, where something really interesting was going on, and that was also a community, I didn’t particularly think of it as a literary community. I thought of it as a countercultural—though we didn’t have that word then—community.
GG: What was your relationship with the countercultural community, other than seeing it from afar?
RH: In high school our older brothers and sisters, not mine but my friends’, were in North Beach. They were the people who were sort of the outsiders in high school and who listened to Jazz.
GG: Were you a city kid?
RH: No, I was a Marin County suburban kid. In the city we got snuck in with fake IDs to the Anxious Asp, to hear Jack Spicer read his poetry on Blabbermouth Night. At the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was only years later that I read about the event.
GG: So you probably ran across a lot of the figures of the era without knowing who they were?
RH: I knew where City Lights was, and I recognized who Ferlinghetti was. Another thing that would give me a sense of community were the journals in the basement of City Lights.
GG: The mimeographed magazines?
RH: Yes. I remember that Ferlinghetti published a magazine called The Journal for the Protection of All Being. It came out once a year for a few years. There was an essay in it by someone who, at the time, I’d never heard of, Gary Snyder, called “Buddhist Anarchism.” And I thought, “I’m not sure what Buddhism is and I’m not sure I know what anarchism is,” so I started reading. And then there was the symphony and the kids in my high school who were interested in classical music, which I knew nothing about. Wednesday night was a student night in the balcony and I would see these older students, now college kids, wearing black jeans and black turtlenecks, alongside all the fancy folk who had symphony tickets and were dressed up.
GG: Did you come from a family of intellectuals?
RH: No. My parents were socially a bit unusual. They were from the Depression Era. Their parents had been to college, but they didn’t go. They were plenty smart, but they were just raising kids. My dad was a tax attorney for an insurance company. They read the Saturday Evening Post and subscribed to the book of the Month Club.
GG: But you had this younger generation around you and your grandparents.
RH: My grandmother would recite poetry
GG: What would she recite?
RH: “Godfrey Gustavus Gore / would you please shut the door? / I’ve told you again / I’ve told you before.” But she could also recite some Joris-Karl Huysman and the poets a literate college girl of her generation would have known.
GG: So your entrée was mostly the older kids and what you read when you got to college.
RH: Also the Donald Allen anthology gave me a sense that there were poetry communities and a poetry world. At that point I was trying to write stories and poems both. I was involved in activism on civil rights and against the war. I started a weekly newspaper with friends, called Resistance. The first issue we called Commitment: A Journal of the Asylum. It reflected the existentialist ideal and our political commitment. The more radical people in our group wanted a more militant sounding name, so we changed it to Resistance. A lot of what we did was research into military contracts. The Stanford Research Institute was helping to prosecute the Vietnam War.
GG: I know when your first book appeared, and I have a timeline of when you start publishing your work, but when did you start perceiving yourself primarily as a poet.
RH: Sometime after 1967. At Stanford there were a group of people–partly around Ivor Winters–and each of them was going around writing poetry, saying, “I’m a poet.” Robert Pinsky was one of them. James McMichael was another. John Mathias and Kent Fields, who was Winter’s replacement. I I thought they were conservative in their practice. Then I met Mitch Goodman, who was the husband of Denise Levertov and an anti-war activist. He was a lecturer for a couple of years. He saw that I moved around Wallace Stegner, and he thought, “Here’s someone who isn’t a Winters person.” He would say to me, “What poets would you like to hear? We’re trying to invite some that Ivor”—”Arthur,” they called him—”would disapprove of.” I said I’d love to hear Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara.
The last couple of years at Stanford I started to write more poems. When I thought of a line, I couldn’t wait to get home and write it down. I had little kids, so I would go home and take care of the kids and take out my notebook. And I saw once that a copy of The Hudson Review had the last fragments of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and they said there would be more in another issue. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be published in the same magazine as Ezra Pound, so I sent poems to The Hudson Review, and they took two of them. To me that was an incredibly big deal, and I had absolutely no one to tell it to except my then-wife, and she said, “That’s nice.”
Then I got my first job at SUNY-Buffalo. I went there because it was teeming with poets, though I didn’t quite understand how much. The summer I arrived, I saw this whole rich—I wouldn’t say community. “Network” is certainly a useful word for this purpose. That is, many different groups interacting, and playing out their rivalries. I thought I was going to Partisan Review heaven. Leslie Fiedler had taught there. Joe Barber. Michelle Foucault was on the faculty. Susan Sontag was there for the summer. My second year there, Merce Cunningham and John Cage had a joint appointment. Robert Creeley was on the faculty. Charles Olson was on the faculty, and he’d hired a lot of Black Mountaineers to teach in the night school. There was a very intense group around Creely and Olson. There was an intense group around John Logan, and around Irving Feldman. The younger generation of poets from the New York School, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Tom Clark, were very active. That was when I came to see that it was a scene. By then I was trying to focus on writing poetry. I had done my academic work in a completely other area, and I didn’t even tell them I wrote poetry when I was hired at Buffalo.
GG: Your degree is in?
RH: A Ph.D. in comp lit and the novel. I’d done a dissertation on Dickens and Doestoevsky and Freud and capitalism and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was still thinking that stuff through, because I had finished the dissertation when I was there, but I had lost interest in it. I was really interested in writing poems.
GG: And you entered into this world of poetry silos at Buffalo. These were not overlapping circles of poets. Were they camps?
RH: It’s difficult to describe.Here’s an idea: I had mixed feelings about the social position of Elizabeth Bishop. That was a period when Howard Moss was Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. Bishop’s poems appeared there regularly, and they seemed, at that wild and wooly moment, very well-behaved—but subtle and musically kind of amazing. Creeley would ask me, “What poets are you reading?” and I happened to say Bishop, and he said, “Oh, dear.” I thought, you may not like her, you may think she’s conservative, but how could anybody who writes poetry not think she has an amazing ear. Hearing Creeley read, you understood his poetics. Logan read in this rich, orotund way these off-rhymed Lowell-ish poems. Irving Feldman was outside of poetry scenes and contemptuous of them. He was writing out of the Jewish Eastern European experience.
GG: When and where would you hear these people read?
RH: Almost every night. In coffee houses, on campus, all over the place. I had gone from Stanford, where you just didn’t hear much poetry at all, and then suddenly there were readings everywhere. The summer I arrived, there was a reading from summer visitors: the Irish poet Austin Clarke and William Empson. Empson was there for 2 summers, and I was put in charge of taking care of him. He was a serious drunk. Paul Carroll, who was the editor of Big Table Books. Michael Rumaker, who was a fiction writer and poet from Black Mountain. There were tons of poets reading, and there were overlapping communities of interests. The Olson people were either, “You’re cool or you’re not one of us.” Logan’s circle of friends included A. R. Ammons and James Wright, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Isabelle Gardner, Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwyn. They were a group of poets who were expressive, while the avant garde poets were more interested in analytic technique issues. The bars were full of poets.
When Creeley was going on leave, he said, “Why don’t you try teaching my contemporary poetry class while I’m gone?” I was teaching these courses on the novel. I said, “What I’d really like to do is take the difference between your salary and my salary and bring in a bunch of poets. I can teach the poet’s work on Tuesday, have them read on Wednesday, and they could teach the class on Thursday.”
GG: That sounds like a perfect world.
RH: Sure. So I invited Alan Ginsberg, who said he would only come if I invited Gregory Corso. Years later I stood on Corso’s grave in Paris and said, “Gregory, you owe me 400 dollars.” Anyway, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, William Merwyn, Ed Dorn, Ginsberg and Corso taught the course. Corso gave a talk on the origins of cave drawings of people getting stoned on morning glory seeds. I was suddenly submerged in this world. And there were many other things going on that were interesting. Ray Federman was part of a group of people, along with John Hawks and Jon Barth, the new fictioneers.
GG: It may warm your heart to know that Buffalo still has a vibrant literary community on many levels, including the local community level, but the scene you’re describing is remarkable.
RH: There were readings at bars with local poets. I remember one guy with a Greek surname, from Buffalo, who read a long poem that went on and on about the Marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. He didn’t quite get booed off stage, but after a while people said they’d really heard enough. He came to the bar, and I said, “That was a long poem,” and he said, “Onassis is going to be so pissed off.” Delusions of grandeur.
GG: The distinctions between academic poets and community poets have, axiomatically, eroded over the last twenty or so years. What was your experience negotiating those two milieux?
RH: I was aware of the distinction early on, and my impulse was not to buy into it. The way the allegiance thing worked was that if you were in the Creeley camp you had to think Joel Oppenheimer was a great poet and Galway Kinnell was a terrible poet. I would think, “Joel is a charming guy and he’s kind of writing like Creeley. He’s very funny, but his poetry isn’t very deep.” At the time Galway Kinnell was writing The Book of Nightmares, trying to write Rilkean poetry in America. The place asked you to choose camps, and I didn’t want to choose. I also saw that, in ways that seemed to me not completely healthy, they formed affiliation gangs. Each one drew on the energy of the star poet in the center of that group. It’s perfectly natural it would happen. It’s the way aesthetic and spiritual transmissions get made.
GG: How do you mean?
RH: Around that time, I was in New York visiting a friend. She was taking acting class. We went by to pick her up and we were standing outside the classroom where Uta Hagen–who had been in Lee Strasburg’s class and had done the first blind reading of Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando–was teaching this group of students And it raised the hair on the back of my neck, thinking about the way artistic transmissions happened. It’s very much like the way transmission happens in Buddhist communities: You find a master, you learn from the master, you eventually become a master yourself. It’s through that semi-erotic attachment, complicated by power relations. I loved the work of several of those poets, but I didn’t want to sign up particularly.
GG: So at some point you left this community in Buffalo?
RH: I would come back here in the summertime, and I would see the silos in San Francisco.
GG: Do you agree with that assessment, that it’s a siloed city?
RH: Yes and no. There’s leakage all over the place. I came back in 1971. I published my first book in 1973. At that point what I was interested in was poetry. I also saw here versions of what I’d seen in Buffalo: this group, that group. There were the San Francisco State poets. Berkeley was pretty dead, actually, in terms of a poetry scene, but here were terrific poets. Thom Gunn was here, but he was interested in the Castro and that world and not interested in a poetry scene. Ishmael Reed was here. Pinsky was teaching in the English Department. Josephine Miles was at the edge of retirement. So Berkeley had a rich tradition of growing poets–Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer—so there was a lot here, but the graduate program was not a creative writing program. After I got a book published, I got invited to read in Berkeley, and someone said—maybe it was Jack Foley—”Good luck. It’s like beating a very ancient carpet.” It didn’t feel welcoming and alive.
GG: San Francisco did?
RH: San Francisco did.
GG: When you say San Francisco, are you talking about City Lights or other venues?
RH: I’m trying to remember. I was raising small children, so I didn’t have much of a social life. But I would get out every once and a while to poetry readings at the San Francisco Poetry Center. But from here that’s a long schlep over to San Francisco State. Intersection was the place that tried to make an art community in the city at that time, and that’s where a lot of the cool readings were. It’s gone now, but I think for 20 years it was a venue. I forget what year New College began. The language poets as a group in the 1980s gave a series of talks at 80 Langston St, which is a little alley between Market and Mission. And that became a kind of downtown place for all non-academic-centered ideas, particularly linguistics and critical theory and language poetry. That was the cool scene, and they were interested in their different kinds of community. Folks like Ron Silliman. They would read for a couple of hours outside BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] stations. At the time Silliman was helping to edit The Tenderloin Times, which was a newspaper for street people to sell, in order to have something to do.
GG: Now the reading that happens at BART station is an impromptu spoken word event where they draw a chalk circle at the 16th and Mission Station, and there’s no order. It’s just jump into the circle, jump out of their circle.
RH: The language poets’ writing was extremely heady, but Silliman would tap his feet to the rhythm as he read. So it was poetry that denied having a body, even though it was totally bodily in the way that it was performed. There were a lot of people working in different ways. There was still a kind of Beat scene, though Gary Snyder was gone and Ginsberg was long gone. Jack Hirschman and Neeli Cherkovski were there, among others. There was a group of poets around Robert Duncan at San Francisco State. Stan Rice, the husband of Anne Rice, was a hot young poet in San Francisco, before they moved to New Orleans. Jack Gilbert and his partner Linda Gregg formed a kind of group.
GG: I want to go back to your idea of community in a more platonic sense, regarding poetry and being laureate. What’s your perception of the situation now in San Francisco? Of the community’s poets? Of poetry here generally? The power of it, relative, cultural?
RH: I don’t feel at all on top of what’s happening here, but one of the things that’s definitely happened is this: When I started reading poetry in 1963, ’64, ’65, I could read every book of poems published in America in a given year, including the mimeographed stuff. There were maybe 17 books of poems published a year. Last year there were 1400 books of poems published.
GG: Those are just books by the presses acknowledged as national presses.
RH: There was no thought that you could make a career writing poetry. When I was graduating college there were two creative writing graduate programs: Iowa and Stanford. I was in Stanford, and I wasn’t in the creative writing program.
GG: But you were aware that the MFA existed.
RH: I wasn’t actually, I don’t remember being aware of it as a choice. I thought at that point, “I want to be a writer.” I’d already gotten married, I’d worked 2 summers doing research at a bank, and it made it perfectly clear to me that I didn’t want to put on a suit and go to an office from 8 to 5. And it seems that’s what you do when you graduate from law school. I went to graduate school for a PhD in the same spirit in which I might have decided on law school. There weren’t models of poets teaching in the university, particularly, yet. What changed things was by the time I was back here in 1971, there were creative writing teachers at every college, so there came to be MFA programs, which exponentially increased the number of people writing poetry, and the number of people publishing poetry, and the number of communities usually organized around the aesthetic of the charismatic teachers in each program. That was also true of New York at the time.
GG: Those developments have had enormous implications in a couple of ways. The first of which is for the state of poetry. Do you have strong opinions about those implications?
RH: The writers of the older generations were extremely suspicious of the academy. There’s a poem of Theodore Roethke’s era about Roethke raging in the cage of the university. Kenneth Koch wrote in “Fresh Air,” that poets were “trembling in the universities and publishing houses,” “bathing the library steps with their spit.” They feared the university as a trap.
The greatest period in the history of lyric poetry was the Tang Dynasty in China, which produced, over 100 years, five or six of the greatest poets who have ever written in any language, and they all had to take exams in poetry in order to get the jobs as secretaries, in the waterworks, and in the other administrative jobs for Confucians. The evidence is that the more a culture encourages poetry, the better the poetry it produces.
GG: You would say generally that there’s more good poetry being written now than at any point in American history?
RH: We don’t know. Great poetry is mysterious. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are. On one hand the history of American poetry is the original work came from people who were on some level profoundly loners. I mention the Tang example as a counter argument to the idea that there’s a kind of static uniformity.
GG: Not a static uniformity, but let’s say we have a large number of programs producing poets who then become solitary poets, and they’re all over the place, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet in the United States.
Robert: I think that’s a really important thing. Look at early 20th-century American literature. In 1915, roughly when Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Pound were getting started, only 16 percent of Americans graduated from high school.
GG: It makes me think of poetry scrapbooking in the early 20th Century. It was a time when many people had scrapbooks of poems, but not everyone was writing poems. Now not too many are keeping scrapbooks, but everybody’s writing poetry.
RH: It was middle-class people who were keeping scrapbooks. In Sherwood Anderson’s stories of small-town life, people were going crazy and running through the streets naked in the middle of the night, in these oppressive environments. Now every disturbed and upset person in the country can find their way to some community college where somebody who loves poetry or painting or musical composition is teaching them. What’s not good about that?
GG: There is no downside to that.
RH: But this was the point I was coming around to, what’s been interesting about the Bay Area in the last 20 years. The creative writing program at Dominican University at San Rafael, the old hallowed one in San Francisco State, the College of Arts and Crafts, St. Mary’s, Mills College, they’ve each spilled into their surrounding communities. The graduates from my wife’s program from Saint Mary’s now have two or three different weekend poetry reading programs. There’s an audience of 75 to 100 people every couple of Friday nights. There are salons. And the groups intermingle and overlap–some, and some they don’t. The young poets want to take their art out into the community.
GG: That’s the experience that I’ve had, that just as you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poetry reading, Everywhere, every night of the week almost.
RH: You’ve got people saying that Americans don’t like poetry.
GG: That’s hard to believe.
RH: There were maybe 5 poets working in every University in America in 1948. Now every single college, university and community college in the country has two poets and two fiction writers teaching creative writing.
GG: It’s an amazing industry.
RH: And somebody’s paying for it, tax money mostly. We have on this campus our monthly poetry reading series and a biweekly one. Meanwhile there’s the Starry Plough and Studio One, off-campus venues
GG: So this is progress? Socially?
GG: The effect on society is positive, because…?
RH: It’s hard to say exactly. Everyone loves to quote William Carlos Williams: “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found [in poems].” Jeremy Nobel, a doctor at Harvard, started a non-profit called The Unlonely Project. He started working with veterans, writing and reading poetry. There are things like that going on. Lyn Hejinian has said that poetry coteries, her word, are necessary, because young poets need support and nurturing to find their little groups.
GG: I’ve discovered that poets leave coteries.
RH: People have talked about that in different ways. Somebody asked Robert Pinsky about being a Jewish poet and he said, “It’s the neighborhood I come from.” Some people stay there forever, or at least they become professionally associated as a spokesperson for that neighborhood of poetry.
Jane Jacobs, who is great on the subject of community, said, “New ideas come from old buildings.” Most new social initiatives of all kinds have to do with creating community. Another background of all of this is the distinction between community and network, and the networks that capitalism, a market economy, creates; and the kind of community good that has become the rhetoric of poetry and of the people who try to raise money to promote the arts as a way of promoting community.
GG: There’s a network of practicing poets in the academy. I have poet friends who know your wife professionally. I didn’t know that until two days ago when one of my friends mentioned it. There’s a reason they meet at the AWP conference every year. Then there are many communities that I’ve encountered in which people have absolutely no interest in networking, less than zero. They don’t care to get out beyond their specific communities. And I would say that’s the majority of people who write poetry. Were you aware of this when you were Poet Laureate? Did it feel like part of the task to encourage any particular sort of community?
RH: I had been traveling around the country, giving readings, for maybe twenty years by that time. I knew that in Yakima, Washington, you might think you’re going to get four people at a reading and the place is full, because somebody happened to have taught your poetry in their class, and you go to another place and nobody shows up. From that perspective, a poetry community feels like a pond where the temperature keeps changing.
As Poet Laureate I was interested in creating readers for poetry, figuring out how to do that, and using the position to confront fundamental issues of literacy. Because I was also the first person from the West of the Mississippi to have this job, I thought I should do something related to the environment. And they said, “We have $30,000 for you, to have some kind of conference.” Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress had just been elected. For the first time in fifty years, a Republican was in charge of financing for the Library of Congress. So I said, “I’d like to get the environmental writers together, because I hear that the lobbyists are sitting in the offices of these new freshmen Congressmen, rewriting the environmental legislation.” I went back the next week and they said, “We thought we had money available for a conference, but turns out we’re not going to this year. Sorry”.
GG: The Contract with America.
RH: So I said to them, “If raise the money, could I go ahead and do it ?” And they said, “Sure, if you raise the money.” I had never tried to raise money for anything. I called around to some people. Very quickly somebody called me, a guy named Charlie Hopper, who was the director of a foundation that used the Sara Lee Cheesecake family money. He said, “I hear you’re thinking of doing an environmental program at the Library of Congress, and I think that’s wonderful, and maybe we can give you some help”. I said, “I could use about $30,000.” He said, “How about 100,000?” I went to the Center for the Book, at the Library of Congress. It’s a place that produces those maps of writers that you see in schoolrooms. I thought “Bingo! If you just add environmental responsibility and the natural history writing tradition to these maps, you’ve got exactly the community poetry is interested in.”.
GG: But this could apply to other issues as well? It’s just a sort of paying attention that poetry demands.
RH: When Rita Dove had the job, she organized the first literary conference on the great diaspora, on what took black people out of the Jim Crow South and into the cities of the North, and created the art scenes that happened in places like New York and Chicago. It was about literature creating communities for people.
GG: As a white male Poet Laureate, were you very conscious of the imperative to diversify perspectives in and on poetry? We’re to the point now where many of the most celebrated books are by poets of color, gay poets of color, immigrant poets.
RH: I was certainly aware, because I grew up with the civil rights movement, so I understood very well the need for it, especially sitting in the Library of Congress where almost all of the employees were black and all the appointed staff were white. One day I went to work, there were an older guy and a younger guy, like they were in an August Wilson one-act, sitting on a bench outside the entry. The young kid said to the old guy, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t have to take this shit anymore.” And the old guy said, “Son, you do.”
I’d also started this environmental poetry program for children, and the first place we did it was in the Anacostia district in D. C.. I met a guy, who was a descendant of Daniel Boone, who created the Friends of the Anacostia River Society. Washington has a dual-store sewage system, like most American cities. Every time there’s a heavy rainfall in D. C. the sewers from the Federal Triangle overflow into the Anacostia River, and all the Congressional shit flows through the poorest neighborhood in the city. How’s that for a definition of community? So I was discovering a lot of stuff from doing that and feeling like bringing poetry into these communities that were concerned with the environment and with social justice was part of the work to be done.
GG: Is this something inherent in poetry which lends it to alliance with social justice movements? Or is that something that’s just happened?
RH: Well, that’s an interesting question. What do you think?
GG: The thing that occurs to me when I think of this possibility is that I have a friend who’s a a good poet, a professor, and a very conservative Christian. He rages about having to be a poet in an academic environment defined by the constant imperative for social justice. He thinks it’s all a bunch of…
GG: Right. To my mind poetry usually attracts people who are concerned with social justice, because it’s the people who reflect the most who are most concerned with social justice. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what it feels like.
RH: You can date the imperative for social justice of the kind that we have now, poetry arts in general, from Romanticism and the French Revolution. Was Shakespeare concerned with social justice when he was writing the Sonnets? I don’t think so. Were the great 17th-century religious poets concerned with social justice?
GG: I would think about Blake, but I would say poets of those times were concerned more with the awareness of social injustice, not so much with campaigning for social justice.
RH: So Blake is the turning point.
GG: The Industrial Revolution.
RH: Somebody said that The Vicar of Wakefield is the first novel in which someone mistreats a child. And it’s the same period when poets started writing poems about wounded animals, like Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse.” The moment of the birth of modern liberalism comes from romanticism and poetry of that period. Resistance to power has been an element of the arts since the end of the eighteenth century.
GG: At the risk of sounding ill-informed, when I think about the Modernists, I don’t think particularly that that’s a group of poets concerned with social justice. Eliot, Pound, even Stevens.
RH: In the Depression they turned themselves to that question, each of their own way.
GG: So you look at the poet of The Four Quartets as a different poet from the poet of The Wasteland.
RH: At the same time, Langston Hughes was writing, Carl Sandburg was writing. In his way Stevens, in “The Man on the Dump,” tried, from his lofty heights, to address the Depression.
I have a friend who was reading applications in the graduate program he’s in, with a couple of younger poets on the faculty. One of the applicants said that she particularly wanted to come to this program, because she really wanted to work on issues of gender injustice and inequality, and this older poet said, “This is not a program in gender and social inequality. It’s a program in poetry.” A younger poet on faculty went to the chair of the department and made a formal complaint against this poet for making a racist remark. Somebody else, somebody teaching at Harvard, told me that he was teaching Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” After class a woman came to him and said that, as a survivor of sexual abuse, she was very disturbed by how casually he had used the term “ravished.”
GG: I’ve heard people put this more vulgarly: that having the correct pronoun is not the same as having someone grab you.
RH: So right now that’s the moment. On the other question, of the spread of graduate programs, which has caused people who want work and who love this art to want it in more communities, I remember when Dana Gioia published the book Can Poetry Matter? Czeslaw Milosz was enraged by that title. He said, “This assumes John Carson matters.” He meant Johnny Carson and late night t. v. It was evident to him, who had seen whole generations carted off to the gas chamber, that the conversation that went on in poetry was a matter of life and death. That way of thinking also belonged to a time when it was only an educated aristocracy who read and wrote poetry.
GG: I did take issue with Gioia’s argument. It seemed to me that he was talking particularly about a subject of his next book, about San Francisco and the way the publishing industry here had disappeared.
RH: There’s another aspect to that discussion. First of all it’s only from the middle of the 19th Century that most people could read. And right around the time of Whitman’s debut there began to be cheap enough printing to make books.
GG: Compulsory education began in 1840.
RH: 1840. Unless you were black, and then you could still get killed for trying to read. During that period from about 1840 to 1920, the main source of information was newspapers and magazines, so people who work in the print media created celebrity. And what happened, beginning with radio and then with t. v., is that celebrities became people admired by the producers of news and entertainment. So the Modernists, who disliked popular poetry, which people had been working very hard to use in the spirit we’re talking about, for creating a community, were basically biting the hand that fed them just as it was being withdrawn. And they remained stars, so they–you know, Eliot and Pound, would show up in Bob Dylan’s songs. That was the end of that particular kind of celebrity for writers.
GG: I often look back on the 1980s, when I was in undergraduate, as the last gasp of the New York literary old line. I interned at The Hudson Review and The Paris Review then, and that was the last gasp of seeing literary types go to Elaine’s or seeing John Updike get into an elevator at a swank party. That sort of literary celebrity doesn’t appear to exist much anymore. And that’s not all bad. I can come here and interview you. You were Poet Laureate. And I was able to ask another Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, to visit with my class. And I’m just some guy at the City University of New York. It’s not the same sort of exclusivity.
RH: I have no clear picture of the way things are now. It’s clear that the Internet is changing the whole discussion about community and how you make it. Virtual poetry communities are everywhere and nowhere. I think the rise of identity politics is a subject for poetry, is connected to everywhere and nowhere. You have to talk about this carefully, because it has a blood and soil element. It was complicated for me, figuring out how to do environmental poetry without talking about how important attachment to community is, at the same time that cosmopolitanism is the solution to small-town prejudice. You encourage Nebraskans to be Nebraskans by taking care of their environment and stop polluting their rivers.
GG: I talked to two people this week who have said outright or implied that when push comes to shove people retreat to their tribes. Last night someone very close to my age who was running a poetry slam said basically as much. Berkeley is for Caucasians. Oakland is for brown people, as she put it. And last night at the Oakland Slam, there was as diverse a mix of people as I’ve seen, and I come from a place that was diverse and have taught for 30 years at a university that is.
RH: Fifty-five percent of undergraduates from Berkeley are not European-American in one way or another, and twenty percent of them don’t speak English as their first language at all.
GG: The definitions of diversity are interesting too, because back at my college in Brooklyn, the students speak one hundred and fifteen different languages. If there’s a dominant group, maybe it’s Latino students, but even they are from various places. I’m staying by Lake Merced in San Francisco, in an area that is predominantly Chinese American, almost entirely. Is that diversity?
RH: In my growing up, San Francisco was very much the patchwork model.
GG: Yes, and that’s New York as well, in terms of ethnic neighborhoods. I perceive that this generation of students is different. They really are blending together in a way that previous generations have only lip paid service to. But there still seem to be lingering doubts, especially among people who are part of communities of color, that there is a kind of final blending of communities, which includes poets. Do you believe that poetry is an effective vehicle for social change? Not necessarily for social justice, but for change.
RH: Here’s my formula for understanding poetry this way. For reasons that nobody quite understands, in the middle of the 18th Century, theologians were really puzzled by the existence of mountains, because they were such a waste of space. By the 1790s Friedrich Holderlin was writing these amazing poems about climbing up mountains. Coleridge and Wordsworth read Holderlin, and Thoreau read Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Muir read Thoreau. And Teddy Roosevelt read Muir. And we got national parks. Poetry isn’t responsible for what happens, but it’s the archive of everything human beings have thought and felt, more powerfully expressed than any place else. The idea is that the seeds of new things find their first shape in music, images, lines of poetry.
GG: What distinguishes poetry from other sorts of writing that could effect social change is that it’s got those elements that are part of the subconscious, that consciously work on a subconscious level.
RH: In the way that metaphor does. The oldest associations of poetry in every language from which written language emerges are with memory. It’s the power of poetry to invoke memory, making the way you say things memorable by making it rhythmic. If there is a world community, it’s that community. You were talking about poets belonging to networks on one hand and communities on the other and kind of moving between them. But I want to talk about this other thing, about spiritual traditions of transmission that happen inside and across communities. That is to say that people who love and practice an art are companions to everyone who loves and practices the art. When a painter dies it means something to the community of painters. That’s why the elegy of a poet for a poet is such an important form. I respect the work of almost anybody who gets work done.
GG: Did you continue to teach when you were Poet Laureate?
RH: I taught on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I caught planes on Wednesday mornings. What I did first, before I got involved with the environmental stuff or with writing the column, was to talk about literacy. I got invited to a downtown Oakland business club, and I called somebody in the school of education, and I asked, “What’s the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” and they told me. Then I went to the Oakland Rotary’s breakfast and said, “How many of you can name all of the linebacker corps of the Oakland Raiders?” And everybody could. Then I said, “How many of you know the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” And nobody could. And I said, “I couldn’t either, until I asked.” Then I said, “They’re you kids. If they can’t read, it’s your fault.” That was my attack on community at the outset. I ran around saying that imagination makes communities. Self-interest makes networks. Imagination makes communities. I just said it as a mantra. Poetry, by feeding the imagination and describing for us our shared world, makes a community of value. That’s partly true and partly a wish.
George Guida is author of nine books, most recently the novel Posts from Suburbia (Encircle Publications, 2022) and the collection of poems Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020). He is at work on Virtue at the Coffee House: Poetry and Community in America.
New York City College of Technology
Posts from Suburbia (2022)
Zen of Pop: Poems (2020)
New York and Other Lovers: Poems (2020)
Pugilistic: Poems (2015)
The Sleeping Gulf: Poems (2015)
Spectacles of Themselves: Essays in Italian American Popular Culture and Literature (2015)
The Pope Stories (2012)
The Pope Play (2009)
Low Italian (2007)
The Peasant and the Pen: Men, Enterprise and the Recovery of Culture in Italian American Narrative (2003)
The most significant photo
of my childhood isn’t of me
but a man three stories down,
alone, galoshed, earflapped,
woolen (long before parkas
even for soldiers), bent against the wind
(there was always wind), responding
tactically to ice ahead. It could
be noon but is almost as dark
as the brick apartment buildings
in their long lifetime
of soot. An age and neighborhood
of small deals, nominal
top tax rate 94%, the B-36s
of the Strategic Air Command
protecting us. (I could sell you
reasonably the damp grey
dry-rotted windowsill above
the radiator, over which
I could almost see.) All I know
for sure about the walker
is that he’s dead. So I can
hope that his small deal
that day went through – that
the girl, lawyer, shop steward
accepted the line
he was rehearsing. And
coopt him for other purposes, as
he was already.
What if art had been different? During the
rappel à l’ordre
of the 1920s, everyone shifts
to tapestries. (What manifests ordre
more than a tapestry?) Not just a few
luxury experiments – the norm:
more weavers, brought in from the provinces,
in Paris than lithographers
(someone always profits). Leger’s robots,
Braque’s tremulous (head-wound) yellow-greens,
fuzzy. A creeping if not creepy
nostalgia for pre-artillery
stone walls sets in; Maurras and his cane-
wielding monarchists approve;
Dada withers, Surrealism
never takes off. Everywhere
texture, pastels in the light
of calla-lily lamps, covert vertical
frottage. Bonnard’s twelve-meter offering
at the Hôtel de Ville. Even
the poor nail up their linsey-woolsey
reproductions of “Verdun.” Soon, portraits
of various Leaders assume
this presence all over Europe,
wall-posters vaguely déclassé. In an
Italian film (the “White Telephone” school
absorbs neorealism), a girl
of the people, being kept by
an aristocrat, pulls
a tapestry from his wall and
wraps herself in it,
lying on a patch of parquet; her dark
eyes flash as she cries,
“My whole family could sleep under this!” …
You can see her, can’t you.
I came voluntarily.
It was nicer than I’d hoped.
They were pleased I’d given up
without a fuss my tent beneath the overpass,
brought nothing but a clipping,
didn’t fight (like some I knew)
for every plastic bag. Accepted
delousing, tests, shots,
without screaming. And the jumpsuit.
Answered their questions, said I had no skills
(which gratified them after days and weeks
of shamans, lathe operators,
superannuated sex workers, agents
of or against the secret masters, ex-
Didn’t ask for a drink.
There but for the grace of God,
I’d like to think they thought.
On the benches in the big room,
the shadows of four windowless towers
(more going up) crossed
my comrades, who, if they talked at all,
said one way or another
It won’t hurt. One yelled we’d be killed
immediately, or our spoiled bodies
flushed in a year or two
down some hole; he was dragged away. Few
speculated when we’d be awakened.
I thought of nothing else.
Didn’t imagine a fresh start,
cures, kindness. Only
the power keeping on and on,
concrete remaining whole, letting us out
finally on a former
sea floor. What I’d really like
is just eight minutes as the sun goes nova …
the sun will need me.
With the demise of monasticism, there is now no place where one can
professionally execrate the world.
After the Revolution, we take seriously
Cioran’s lament. With the joyous, self-congratulatory
élan that comes with the demise
of money, we build in forests and waste places
negative structures: not pseudo-ancient
or aggressively austere.
The chapels at their heart
lack altars, but the chairs are hard
and widely spaced, the quiet quieter.
With our usual warmth, we ensure
that those who wish to enter
have not attempted suicide too often,
or killed, and probably won’t. Offer
counseling, leave a number
they can call if they want. (In all this
we show a consideration
not extended to religion.)
Left alone, they tend to adopt
a partial code of silence, banning
the loudest and most defensive. Make their beds,
grow their food. Through
the windows in the common room
or, often, from narrow hallways
they stare at cherished birds and trees and
sometimes, on the horizon,
us building. Nights they see a face
they wounded, or their own. They consider
the dark beneath the earth. Whisper
curses shaped over years and carefully
inscrutable. Gods and things like gods
exude like sweat or winter breath; despite
the care they have for each other,
to some the place feels always hot or cold.
And they fight and break up fights, and eat in dimness.
Co-ed. Flirtation frowned upon.
But sometimes two wind up in the same cot.
With the understanding that, tomorrow,
they will leave without goodbyes,
fasten each other’s pack, descend
to the trailhead and the nearest town
with its windmills, brass band,
and equivocating, indispensable banners.
Eventually they return
my passport, jacket, tie,
phone, and hat. One declaims
haltingly their sorrow
for any inconvenience; I sign
a form saying I have no complaints.
Become almost tearful,
seeing again my stickered, scuffed,
beductaped leather suitcase.
It will look as suspect and as quaint as I
(I know – I’ve followed the world
on television) among
those twirling, weightless things
that people pull along
like aphids dragging pupae. These
unfurl, I’ve heard, into well-appointed
shelters for those homeless who can afford them.
Prepare hot meals on the run.
Equipped with stirrups, can be ridden
or (for all I know) flown.
Are in touch with the great mainframe
and commiserate with their owners
on the horrors of travel. My smartphone,
likewise, will seem no longer
smart. No more will I – must reinvent
my look as “aged but resolute.”
Nor, I must say, do the officials,
whose uniforms were redesigned
(and not to their advantage) during my stay.
They hesitate, handing back
my suitcase. Will they subject it
to yet more dogs, decryption, x-rays, profiling?
“Would you like to check … ” asks one
with unauthorized compassion.
I smile as if I scarcely care.
After so long, I know what’s in there.
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems: THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both from Story Line Press; the former to be reissued by Red Hen Press. Also two collections of shorter poems: A POVERTY OF WORDS, (Prolific Press, 2015) and LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018). Pollack has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark, Rat’s Ass Review, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, etc.
anne sexton, at what point were you surprised to see the waters still
rippling in the long island sound?
anne sexton, 2 o’clock on a tuesday, august 1960, has everything
happened, or has nothing happened at all?
anne sexton, did your sun-drenched yellow dress add light upon light
under intrusion of the pock-filled hospital room ceiling, nurses and
doctors with scissors in hand, making origami of your tender pale skin?
how much for the poem, anne sexton? how much for the sea? how much
your pack of cigarettes, dangling from a sunburnt hand relaxed on the
pane of the ship, and where, by the way, is your wallet? where, your keys?
anne sexton in the age of luminous eyes!
anne sexton, composing ‘keep off!’ against the
lovely surface of the sea.
anne sexton, the good fat plump happy babies have sunk snug into their
carriages heavy like stones, and so why are you saddened, why
anne sexton says nothing at all.
is as fragile as sponge.
light as a cup of milk.
they have their words to keep wheeling, whispering.
have their stories always spinning.
the poets will yes inherit the world come
have their rhyme, their meter, their
the poets are now forming a corporation.
conducting business overseas.
holding late-night clandestine
get-togethers, serving white wine & chocolate biscotti & discussing
the meaning of it all.
ten dollars an hour the poets are paid.
twenty on particularly productive sessions.
bonuses each time a new poem
breathes on its own.
the poets walk the streets, shuffling like madmen,
joy burning in the eyes.
it’s funny how one might say to another:
the day is young, the season
sometimes the poets rest in tall homemade hammocks,
their gnarly raw language setting the sun.
each new break-of-day, the poets can be seen dropping
bread-crumbs to geese,
such happy animation dancing through breeze.
they hiss & they howl & they
generally carry on.
the poets speak of things which
they – indeed all hoomankind – shall
love, they moan outloud,
love is a chinese riddle!
the poets create poems on napkins,
tabletops, restaurant barstools.
(the poets have convinced themselves
graffiti is no crime)
once a new poem is borne, the poets
circumcise it, speaking a little hebrew,
careful not to cut too much.
at age 13 the poem is thrown a huge party in
which the poets get drunk &
dance into the skies.
yes the poets are really getting ahead in life.
really grasping a handle on
how much mess there is to be made.
weaving freshly-woven limericks into flower petals,
thrown to the wind, the poets take
long afternoon naps,
dreaming of eternity
– and –
the day when all
humankind will take to
writing love sonnets
sixty-one times i lost my soul to the small asian lady wearing pink cotton
jumpsuit and large copper earrings behind the counter at my favourite
place to grab lunch in san francisco chinatown
sixty-one times the colour of my true love’s hair
sixty-one the number of tics i glance at the young couple as they sink into
snuggling state of union, the movie theatre down in the dark front-corner
row, matinee showing of the life of freddie mercury
sixty-one times playing with soft language until we approximate
sixty-one calls to arm a busy nation policing the planet
a budweiser country high on box-office porn, buttered beer and
woke up this morning with poetry crusted in the eyes, tried to rinse it out
while it spilled into these dog-eared pages
sixty-one stages in pure confused delight
sixty-one flags lowered at half-mast
some small god’s wind attempting to schmear it back up
the length of the pole
sixty-one, says the city bus driver
6161 pennsylvania avenue, dripping with blood,
fangs in the eye-sockets
and kerouac’s railroad earth is drenched in sunset
and all of general georgie washington’s d.c. is drenched in heavy flooded
observe the great heavenly satellite sky hovering over every man woman
child—she is a drunken sailor, smacking chewing gum grit & grin
and the humble buddha here on earth, schvitzing heady mindful practice
at the guidance of a video rental on the subject he got for a buck-sixty-
one down at video review on lawndale boulevard
and the sea, she is whispering sixty-one
and the old-growth forests are burning alive on tee-vee sets
and sixty-one hills and valleys busy shedding their stubborn
botanical growth as the great gab-smacked goddess returns with baggies
of dust, of deceit
how does one begin to spell out mother earth?
the way we are all fashion’d from star?
glorious hydrogen oxygen calcium carbon organic,
sent spiraling spending the lonely centuries speeding thru milk the
way a baby, rocked gingerly, might burp into
some semblance of
1. as if your precious fucking life depends on it
2. as though, through the magic & craze & pure joyous glee
involved therein, at once nothing matters save
that freeing dance with words — broken, insane
she is a gatekeeper — the poem — and
when you come a-knocking she’ll rise & rise &
cast a heart into hot jazz graffiti
this & that informatics, baby — charged, symphonic,
this beating sweating flirting flickering
storm that is
itself the poem
knowing well every hearty morsel
4. with a newfound peace
5. for the sole purpose
being caught inside the words
Jonah Meyer is a poet, writer, and editor based in North Carolina. His creative work has been published in O.Henry Magazine, Ampersand Literary Journal, Carolina Peacemaker, Bohemian Review, American Crises, JAB Fiction and Poetry, Found Spaces, The Mountaineer, Cold Lake Anthology, Raise the Voices, and The US Review of Books, among other places. Jonah serves as associate poetry editor with Mud Season Review and associate editor with Thrush Poetry Journal.
Like the sea my body pulses
choppy in wind against its current,
an open sea concealing squid eyes,
phosphorescence and fish that briefly fly.
It is the pulse of sex along my spine
still seeking surcease, sometimes
finding it and love, the sea otter, floats
on its surface, cuddles its young until
they are gone and my sea is empty again,
open sea with choppy waves.
The room was small and dingy
in a small and dingy hotel,
nothing to remember about it,
perhaps an unremarkable print hung on
a probably brown wall, I don’t remember.
Down at the end of the narrow hall
on each of the two floors was a decrepit
shared bathroom. The hotel would have been
forgettable anywhere but there in Greece,
standing alone in bright sunshine
a little down the road from Mycenae,
where Schliemann believed he had found
the mask of Agamemnon, where he stayed
during his excavations, had signed
the guest register that I, too, signed, signed
also by Heinrich Himmler, Charlton Heston,
and others* who must have each enjoyed
the same shared bathroom at the end of the dingy hall.
*The others include:
Hermann Goering Joseph Goebbels
Pedro II of Brazil
Gustav Adolf VI of Sweden
Albert II of Belgium
The Duke of Windsor and the Duchess of Kent
Virginia and Leonard Woolf
The question of god begins with definition
name an attribute and there remains an exception
yes for every one of the ninety-nine names
we are allowed to destroy our home like children in
the name of free what
can you expect I am the deity you know
he is said to have said and even he
is suspect gender need not apply
is everywhere not a person in the way
of peculiar substance and accident combined
my empty hands will be fulfilled does supernatural
mean anything any more
any more than anything
more than anything else
any god imaginary friend invisible
all outside time and space
Bruce Parker holds a BA in History from the University of Maryland Far East Division, Okinawa, Japan; and an MA in Secondary Education from the University of New Mexico. He has worked as an ESL teacher, technical editor, and translator. His work has appeared in The Inflectionist Review, Pif, Blue Unicorn, The Hamilton Stone Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and has a chapbook, Ramadan in Summer, forthcoming January 14, 2022, from Finishing Line Press.
In the winter, I surround myself with pictures of frogs
statues of frogs, books about frogs, because you never see frogs
when it’s 10 below zero, and that’s the time I seem to really miss them.
When I go to the zoo, and I see the little poison frogs in their cages
it’s not the same, because it’s not like seeing a flat-footed toad
sliding down my office window in the middle of a rainstorm
scrabbling against the glass as if trying to get in
or when I go to my mother-in-law’s house
in the dead heat of summer, and find a tree frog
perched on top of her doorbell, or spying over the lip of a flower pot.
It’s not so much that I like frogs, but that I miss seeing them because it’s winter.
It’s not so much that I miss frogs, but I miss the weather associated with them:
the hot summer rains that cause tadpoles to sprout legs and spring free from the water
the way the lawn explodes with tiny brown toads when I start the mower up
the way my daughter used to dance with the frogs she found in the back yard,
around and around, like she was some sort of fairy tale princess
this is why I’m surrounded by motionless surrogates, these harbingers of spring,
always, and especially now.
The wasp climbs out of the hole it’s chewed in the rotten apple
stumbles drunkenly across the grass as if stumbling towards me.
I, too, have been drinking, and I have no desire to fight
am only interested in enjoying the warm sunlight on my face and shoulders
the cool, tiny feet of the occasional butterfly treating my arm like a perch
the soft cushion of grass and purple wildflowers pressing into my back.
I turn my head and watch the passage of the drunk wasp, track it
as it tumbles into a depression in the mud, emerging moments later
shaking its head as though it’s angry or laughing. I prefer to think it’s laughing
and I laugh, too, startling the finches congregating in the branches overhead
a couple of rabbits hiding in the tall grass nearby, even myself, a little bit
so out of place my voice sounds
in this world of buzzing bees and crackling undergrowth.
Cockroaches are one of the only insects that actually like to be touched,
are some of the only non-domesticated creatures
that crave physical attention, aren’t comfortable unless they’re wrapped
in the bodies of their companions, in the palm of your hand
tucked deep in the bottom of a shoe or the folds of a pocket or a hat.
If I had known that when we put the new wallpaper up
I would have left the cockroaches where they crouched, low,
against the wall, covered them carefully with paper and paste
circled the area on the wallpaper so I knew where they were.
I could have made it a routine to carefully stroke those circled spots
every time I went up and down the stairs,
knowing there was a little cockroach under there
contentedly gnawing on dried paste varnish
perhaps slowly tunneling a passage to escape
through the underside of the paper.
Holly Day (hollylday.blogspot.com) has been an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her writing has recently appeared in Hubbub, Grain, and Third Wednesday. Hernewest books are The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), Book of Beasts (Weasel Press), Bound in Ice (Shanti Arts), and Music Composition for Dummies (Wiley).
And the night shifts. Something
Clatters the bamboo.
No one clatters
Along this bamboo but I,
This lonely night.
Night clatters along.
Something lonely shifts
The bamboo reeds.
Lonely reeds shift and
Something in the night clatters
From damp earth
A bright gray smell
Of leaves, of earth again.
No smell of damp.
Leaves soon turn bright and
Fall to earth and mud.
How soon it must turn.
Damp leaves fall bright, then
Mud and earth again.
The leaves, gray. The smell,
gray and earthen. Damp,
mud, the turning earth.
In the frost, listen.
To the water, listen.
The moon cries: listen.
Listen to the frost
Crying at the moon, the water
crying too. Listen.
Ash Ellison is an artist and educator in Tennessee.
Months drop off the calendar.
But the weather.
Dirty mugs still litter the sink.
The neighbor’s dog still barks
At every passerby,
And so we live
Didn’t there used to be snow
This time of year?
I seem to recall a blanket,
A window blank as paper,
Air crisp as ice.
But now it is late
Winter and nothing
But rain streaks the glass.
When building boats, we try
To hold out against the waves.
Some boats are beautiful. Some
Do the job. When you need to cross
Whatever seas need crossing, you
Sometimes need to build a boat.
Though you do not know how
To build or boat. Though you have
No tools or oars. Just
A bedsheet patterned like clouds:
A single sail,
A breath of wind.
All the cool kids
Have children now
And jobs in the city.
Late nights just stories
Told at brunch.
Kate Porter is a full-time bartender and part-time poet. Her work has appeared in The Writing Disorder and Ziggurat.
Because I am not the master,
I have the skin of a slave
who has spent her life
under the lash.
Each whip crack scatters
fragments of my ancestors.
Inside my body, I mourn.
Sorrow conjures up
my bartered children,
an armful of babies, gone.
Only whispers left
of their sweet breath
At night, yellow tears
flare like flames. Grief spills
out the cabin door, flows
through the woods, fills
the ocean and keeps afloat
ships bearing the multitude—
my blood brothers,
my sacred sisters. Snatched
from a far continent,
bound to planks, they roll
in sickness and squalor—
Africans rocking the deep.
Emerging from the belly
of darkness, they shade eyes
against forgotten sun. Broken
feet, circled in iron, stumble
onto the sandy shore.
I meet them there
and prepare to weep forever.
The girl disappeared
from her second-floor room,
picking the lock like a young Houdini.
One slender arm circling
her burgeoning belly, she
slipped through the darkness,
down the stairs.
Maybe he waited for her, perched
on the hood of his blue Chevy,
collar turned against the swirling
snow, cigarette glowing
against his beautiful smile.
Maybe she ran to the corner
where his father’s Buick paralleled
the curb. Did he reach across
the seat, twist the handle, and say,
“Baby, baby, you made it!”?
Maybe they hurried to the alley
where his battered Ford truck idled,
her trembling hand clasped in his.
He gunned the motor, and by morning,
they had crossed the state line.
The other girls believed in maybe,
clinging to the possibility,
until the day finally came
when each forged her own escape,
belly deflated, arms empty.
Kim Zach is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. 1 Worksheets, Genesis, Clementine Poetry Journal, Clementine Unbound, Adanna Literary Journal, and Bone Bouquet. Her poem ‘Weeding My Garden’ was nominated for a Pushcart prize. She is a lifelong resident of the Midwest where she taught high school English and creative writing for 40 years. She currently works as a book coach, giving other writers the support and guidance they need to complete their projects, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. You can read more about her at kimberlyzach.com.
this world has been
suffocating to me, i’ve
tried to carve my way out, my
flesh, my proof, my artist hands
have outlived their use, and i’m
left with a half-painted
canvas, a commission never
paid for in full, abandoned in
favor of another
ill-fated muse, i don’t know
who decides who will keep
their genius and lose
their life, or who will forfeit
their hands, the way that i
did mine, trade them
in for a few extra years, cautious
voices and paper-white walls offer
safe-keeping, a jar to
keep my hands in until the
bleeding has stopped, when i
can stitch them back on
without my fingers
curling with the urge to
leave half-moons in my
palm, sometimes i forget
what it was like to
paint, but when i reattached
my hands, my arms became
hallways, my legs an
open gallery, covered in
dusty sheets, only ripped
away in my own room, when
skin and glass stare back at
each other, and i am
reminded of the art i left, the
talent i lacked, the passion poured
into a bottle and locked in the
medicine cabinet, leaving me to
contemplate the inspiration that
leaked from under the door, only
opening it up and emptying it
into the sink after years of
I don’t want to be an artist.
waves crashing against cliffs
and a shifting, mercurial sculptor
with dreams of
Marble Garden Statues
and bathed in
a stone Aphrodite
soft and smooth and smiling at nothing at all
the chalky bitterness of a diet pill shoved down my throat
the sobs and heaves that dripped sorrowfully into the toilet
the curl of your lips
at the rumbling of my hollow stomach
you didn’t know
that brittle rock could break
and desperate hands dig graves,
so you can drown in your
ocean of intentions
or you can look up at what you have wrought:
a withered stone angel
staring down at an empty plot
the sun draws shapes in the grass, burning
the blades the shadows don’t reach, and i
find myself scorched among them, the trees
above me look oddly like veins, tans and browns
weaving through blue, i have the urge to
cut them down, or at least to trim the
limbs that pierce the edges of my
vision, but i think that urge is
when i close my eyes and open
them again, i see the trees as a
poet, and i reach my arms towards the
sun, my fingers becoming branches, my
veins bleeding into the sky, i have the
urge to pluck one of my ribs from my
side and plant it beside me, so by the
time the dirt sucks the breath from my
lungs, i’ll have joined them, my
fingers intertwined with theirs, my limbs
obscuring the view of the next lonely
soul to lay down in the grass and
look up at the sky
Mikayla Schutte is a Cincinnati-based poet. She is an undergraduate student at Northern Kentucky University, studying Creative Writing. She was named a topical winner for Live Poet’s Society’s High School Poetry Contest in 2019 and her work has appeared in National Poetry Quarterly and Hole in the Head Review.
“Left handed people are more numerous among criminals
and sinister left-sided people among lunatics.”
—Dr. Cesare Lambrosco
My left hand is in rebellion,
my pinkie curling
as if to die
as if to say I’m done
find another fool
to hold onto things you
can’t pay for.
Ignore the ring finger.
A few years ago it did this,
the bands of tendon fierce and
hard across my palm.
So they injected an inhibitor,
a sort of meat tenderizer
approved by the fucking drug
houses in the land of CoPay.
Hurt like hell.
Then the smiling technician
lay my hand on her table to
straighten it out.
There, she said, as fire
licked my hand, my arm,
any hope of good manners.
(Men should not sound like that.)
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
I wish I played a banjo,
claw hammer loud,
so I had a reason for a hand
like this one.
Or was in possession of
the nuclear football;
never let it go, sir.
Instead I am dealt
a weak hand, full of poor genetics.
Only promise I can keep
is take my hand, love.
I can’t ever let you go.
Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. A graduate of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, From the Depths, Miletus, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, K’in Literary Journal, and In Parentheses.
Are a vast algebra of joy.
They make splendid curves
like eye-popping parabolas
and give off a paradisal heat.
They have tropical ingenuity
and the special knowledge
for landing on all the planets.
Plusses and minuses ends wars.
With mathematical projections
we destroy all of our weapons—
speak to each other calmly
after singing heart-felt songs,
and embrace all of our enemies
soon to become our new friends.
Humming is like weaving a gold
and silver thread across the door
of the mind—it’s a fine meditation.
Hum like fisherman and carpenters.
It keeps them company on the job.
Women who love to dance hum while
performing the drudgery of housework.
Humming allows your body to do
whatever it has to do effortlessly.
Hum like a composer listening to a tune
no one else can hear. Hum until the lights
in this dark world begin to glow again
Sometimes he loves you
with flowers and sunshine,
sometimes he hates you
with famine and tsunami—
but when he hates you,
it’s because he loves you
blinded by stars in his eyes.
If you keep your nose clean,
and follow the Golden Rule,
you might keep God smiling
more often than scowling.
His sunlight in our cheeks feels
like he’s nourishing some starved
part of ourselves.
She sings and sways to mesmerize us all—
walking in beauty in harmony with all beings,
always chasing rainbows for an aura of bliss.
The crank and thrust of mere words cannot
explain my enduring passion and intense wild love
for her svelte body, brilliant mind, and creative soul.
I am drowning in my unfathomable adoration of her
and will continue to cherish this woman until the day
I’ll be blowing kisses towards her as they lower me
down into the ground below.
Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 89-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and the New York Times.
The moon doesn’t speak to me like it used to,
Stars silent specks of solitude in the sky,
Rather than wondrous beings that guide me
Home. I used to wish on shooting stars,
Until I realized I was too late because the stars
Were dead. A million years ago I’d be granted my
Wish but now I’m wishing on dead souls. Flashes
Of glitter turn to dust. Ashes. What are you leaving
Behind? A galaxy. Why do you fall? To get away
From the living, to a new beginning. On Earth the moon
Doesn’t speak to you, covered instead by the commotion
Of life, replaced by the rays of the sun. Bright.
But sometimes voices sneak through. And other times hidden,
And wonders become dust. I know a few of the dead.
and when we lost your laugh, the rain
poured as if the sun had passed too.
gray clouds, impending doom. I’m lost without
your love, mourning the loss of you.
don’t cry for the pain, cry only
for the memories, they say,
but who’s to say I don’t cry for both?
a box of ashes stained with
tears, no funeral for the living.
six feet under lies the grief within me
instead of you. shovel soot instead of dirt.
a laugh as light as yours deserves to be
engulfed by the sun, not shoved down below the
surface. shed your colors down on me again. please,
when we meet again, kiss both cheeks
in celebration of life, love, light,
up the room, scream from the heavens,
echo off the balcony and through the gates.
are you watching? guardian angel? do angels
really make rainbows? make mine a double.
and when we think of you, sunlight shines through
the window and everything is silent. I hear laughter
ringing in my ears, a constant sound, never forget,
no. nobody forgets what sunlight looks like,
even after it’s disappeared for a while, and
soon we’ll meet again in the rays of you.
 (Inspired by, and including, the line: “and wonders become dust. I know a few of the dead” from American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes)
(she/her) is an emerging writer from Bangor, Pennsylvania. She graduated from
Susquehanna University with degrees in Creative Writing and Publishing and
Editing, and a Professional and Civic Writing minor. She is a lover of
thrillers, poetry slams, her three dogs, and anything out of the ordinary.
She was a tall, slender girl,
pretty, gamine as a deer.
One day, after gym, she showed
me her twin. A tiny ceramic doe
cradled in cotton,
in a pink paper box.
She’d taken it from a store.
She tenderly moved the wrap,
she’d named it Sweet Thing.
She treasured this stolen thing.
I worried, certain
someone would find us.
But she loved it so.
And she shared it with me.
I never knew that contraband
could be so adored.
That was the first time
I learned that theft
could equal love.
Carry me off to bed,
lay me down gently.
I’ll drift in soft cotton
on a warm night sea
until I slam the bulkhead.
I’ll find myself
in the abandoned house,
the empty store,
the wretched schoolyard.
There’ll be a predator
with a dagger smile,
its breath hot on my throat.
It will turn and fix its eyes
on me. And I’ll run.
Or there’ll be a man I can’t
get rid of. He’ll ford the
windowsill, wade through
the front door.
He’ll demand my bed,
sex, a place at the table.
I’ll know his name.
I’ll half-recognize him.
There’ll be more
I won’t understand.
It will take all night, but
I’ll do the work.
The work that gets
me out of here.
I trace the shape of continents,
marking cities with pins,
seas with fingertips.
And then I’m swimming
in one of the oceans
I’ve recently named.
The water is warm,
the sun is kind.
But I’m afraid
of what lurks just under.
There’s an island nearby
what I’m aiming for.
I pull out the map to chart
a course. But my destination’s
lost in a deep fold
of the ancient paper,
it’s getting wet.
And something’s disturbed
in the water.
Carolyn Adams’ poetry and art appear in Amsterdam Quarterly, Blue Collar Review, and 1870 Poetry, et al. She has authored four chapbooks, and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best of the Net. A staff editor for Mojave River Review, she is also a poetry editor for VoiceCatcher.