Poem of the Week, by Nayyirah Waheed

Zion cairnEver since I moved to a big city after college, I have walked past homeless people. On the sidewalks, in the subway, in doorways, huddled inside cardboard box shelters. My best friend and I used to agonize over it. Yes, I have a quarter, I remember her saying when we were 22 and new to it. But what good is a quarter going to do? Mental illness, overwhelming poverty, addiction. We felt helpless. I still feel helpless. Donations to shelters and mental health alliances, stints volunteering at Habitat, none of it feels tangible.

Last week a homeless woman sat without speaking or moving on the grass between a busy four-lane street and the ocean. She was large. She had only one leg. Her pants were halfway off. A knapsack was next to her. Clumps of tourists and solo villagers like me walked past her. About fifty yards down the boardwalk, torment set in. You have to do something. You have to call 911. You have to call a shelter. No. You have to go back and sit down next to her and talk to her and ask her what you can do to help. So I did. But when I returned, not five minutes later, she was gone.

poem, from Salt
– Nayyirah Waheed

you broke the ocean in
half to be here
only to find nothing that wants you


For more information on Nayyirah Waheed, please click here.​

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Poem of the Week, by Wang Ping

Family weekend, wild thing sleepingThe use of “they” instead of he or she is something I would vote for if it were on a ballot (that thud you just heard is the sound of a whole bunch of my friends dropping to the floor from cardiac arrest after reading that), so I was glad to see that “they,” as in “They and I went to the store,” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, is the official Word of the Year of the American Dialect Society.

I mean, why not? “They” used that way was in common usage until a couple hundred years ago. I’ve never understood (or been able to stomach) why “he” is the default for everyone, regardless of how they identify. (See how I just used “they” in that sentence? It went down easy, at least for me.)

The use of “they” simplifies everything. Abbreviations like LGBTQIA are exhausting, impossible to remember, only get longer with each narrowing of categorization, and change monthly. Using “they” lets everyone identify exactly as they wish, without having to explain or defend. And how many times have I witnessed my students, many of whom were not born in this country, wilt as the magical content of their stories gets lost in a sea of subject- or antecedent-pronoun agreement corrections. Language is mutable, malleable, something that is intuitive and natural and passionate.

What does any of this have to do with poetry? Everything. Poem of the week, by the fearless, funny, fierce, world-changing poet Wang Ping, a woman who learned English by illegally listening to the Voice of America during China’s Cultural Revolution and who is also a fiction writer, memoirist, scholar, professor, champion figure skater, doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, rower, sword fighter, flamenco dancer (I kid you not, she is all of those things and way more) and treasured friend.


She walks to a table
She walk to table

She is walking to a table
She walk table now

What difference does it make
What difference it make

In Nature, no completeness
No sentence really complete thought

Language, like woman
Look best when free, undressed


For more information on Wang Ping, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Charles Bukowski

Min on rocks in sunLast week I was out to dinner with someone in her 20s and someone in his 50s. We were drinking Eastsiders and comparing the relative heat index of the shishito peppers we were eating (each shishito varies widely, from mild to instant tears) when the 50s suddenly turned to the 20s.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “Life is short. Go everywhere you can, have as many adventures as you can, do everything you can while you can, because life, is, short. And that’s the best advice I have for you.”

There was something in his voice, something intense. She knew what he was saying was from the heart, and that he meant it, and that his advice came from experience, and she listened carefully and then nodded. Your life is your life, says the poet below, be on the watch.

The Laughing Heart
– Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.


For more information on Charles Bukowski, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Joyce Sutphen

Arthur Hoag McGheeSee that handsome fellow to the left there? Arthur McGhee, my grandfather. The man knew how to wear a suit and hat. He never left for a restaurant or church or a wedding or any official event without dressing to perfection, and he stood straight and tall and lean. He was calm and patient. He was also devilish – he used to tear off bits of paper napkin and make tiny spitballs out of them, which he stored up beneath the rim of his plate and threw at unsuspecting victims throughout dinner, something which never failed, over many decades, to crack my grandmother up. One of my abiding memories of him is watching him wash up in the back entry after chores, lathering up with a bar of Lava soap. Another abiding memory is of sitting on his lap while he recited poems to me, poems he’d memorized in grade school. He didn’t finish high school, but so what? Sometimes I drive to his and my grandmother’s adjoining graves in upstate New York and I sit there and talk to them. In the middle of the night last week I went searching for Joyce Sutphen poems to read myself back to sleep. She didn’t know my grandfather, but she could have. She knows that the world needs more farmer poets, electrician poets, line cook poets, plumber poets, hardware poets, homemaker poets.  She brings my childhood back to me.

Just For the Record
– Joyce Sutphen

It wasn’t like that.  Don’t imagine
my father in a feed cap, chewing
a stem of alfalfa, spitting occasionally.

No bib-overalls over bare shoulders,
no handkerchief around his neck.
Don’t imagine he didn’t shave every morning.

The buildings on his farm weren’t
weathered gray; the lawns were always mowed.
Don’t imagine a car in the weeds.

I tell you this because you have certain
ideas about me, about farmers
and their daughters.

You imagine him bumbling along, some
hayseed, when really, he wore his dark
suit as gracefully as Cary Grant.

The one thing you’re right about
is that he worked too hard.  You can’t
imagine how early and how late.


For more information about Joyce Sutphen, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Anne Porter

Voyage of Life, every dayThis past November I gave a talk in Connecticut titled “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer.” During the Q&A a woman in the front row (whose hat and scarf I had been secretly admiring the whole time I talked) raised her hand. “I’m 94. Do you think it’s too late to start writing?” The whole room was delighted by this question and the woman herself; she gave off an air of energy and curiosity. She was just so damn cool. I told her it was never too late – what did she have to lose, anyway? The fabulous William Steig didn’t write his first book for children until he was in his 60s (he needed money). The writer William Gay, who wrote like the love child of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, didn’t write his first short story until he was nearly 60 (he put up sheetrock for 40 years to support his family). The beautiful poet Anne Porter, featured here today, first wrote poetry at age seven but then not again until her 90s. She was dead by the time I discovered her, a few years ago, and I went on a search for all the Anne Porter poems I could find. This one is my favorite. It is never too late.

A Short Testament
– Anne Porter

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.


For more information on Anne Porter, please read this article.
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Public radio interview

Poetry hut, flowersFor anyone interested, here is the link to the public radio interview I did this morning. The thoughtful and talented Kerri Miller and I talked about poetry, my poetry hut (pictured to the left there), teaching, writing, the making of Firefly Hollow, the inner lives of children (and grownups), what it means to be a lifelong adventurer, the freedom that comes when you stop caring what others think of you in favor of resting with your own intentions, how the death of someone you loved when you were young affects you then and forever, how a book can momentarily take the poverty and pain out of a child’s life, a novel I feared and hated as a teenager but never forgot, the enormous usefulness of waiting instead of acting, Galway Kinnell, teaching at my beloved Metropolitan State University, school bus bullies, and a whole bunch of other things.

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Firefly Hollow on call-in radio tomorrow morning

Firefly Hollow coverFriends, readers and countrypeople, I’m going to be on MPR tomorrow morning at 10:06 a.m. central time (11 a.m. EST, 8 a.m. PST), talking about Firefly Hollow with Kerri Miller. Feel free to call in with questions.

651.227.6000 or 800.242.2828.

I would love to hear from you!

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Poem of the Week, by Nancy Willard

Pete in first snow, 2011Snow in the city is beautiful for about a day, sometimes two days if it’s a blizzard and no plows or cars can get through the streets. The minute the plows go through, that beauty degenerates into muddy ice, brown clumps flung up on curbs, nearly impassable single-file streets where cars take turns one by one. Snow in upstate New York, where I grew up, is beautiful for months (and months and months) on end, because there’s nothing to interfere with it. White and blue and green and pink, all the colors of snow in the shifting light, turn every field and wood into calm. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the rumble of snowplows sweeping down Route 274, their orange revolving light circling the walls of my room. Someone out there is taking care of us, is what the memory of that sound still feels like to me.


The Snow Arrives After Long Silence
– by Nancy Willard

The snow arrives after long silence
from its high home where nothing leaves
tracks or stains or keeps time.
The sky it fell from, pale as oatmeal,
bears up like sheep before shearing.

The cat at my window watches
amazed. So many feathers and no bird!
All day the snow sets its table
with clean linen, putting its house
in order. The hungry deer walk

on the risen loaves of snow.
You can follow the broken hearts
their hooves punch in its crust.
Night after night the big plows rumble
and bale it like dirty laundry

and haul it to the Hudson.
Now I scan the sky for snow,
and the cool cheek it offers me,
and its body, thinned into petals,
and the still caves where it sleeps.


For more information on Nancy Willard, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by ee cummings

Abel Pann, breathing life into AdamWhen I was a kid I used to read ee cummings’ poems not so much for the words but for the way he put them down on the page, all shoved up against each other, parentheses around some, weird punctuation, missing spaces, and the complete lack of upper case letters, down to the way he spelled his own name. Why why why why does he do it that way, I used to wonder. The strangeness and unconventionality was so fascinating. He was a Famous Person so I knew that all these choices must be intentional, but why why why?

If at first I didn’t care about the poems themselves, now I love them. Mr. Cummings is one of my most beloved poets, in fact. A small white used paperback copy of his 50 Poems that I found at a garage sale sits on a shelf in the living room; this poem felt right for today.

in spite of everything
– e.e. cummings

in spite of everything
which breathes and moves, since Doom
(with white longest hands
neatening each crease)
will smooth entirely our minds

– before leaving my room
i turn, and (stooping
through the morning) kiss
this pillow, dear
where our heads lived and were.


For more about ee cummings, please click here.


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Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers

California, choo choo train cloudsMany years ago I read Innumeracy, a slender, astonishing book by John Allen Paulos, about how the understanding or lack thereof of basic math and statistics affects everything about the way we live our lives. What I learned in that book humbled me and has stayed me with me ever since, especially the singular fact that every breath every one of us takes contains at least three molecules of the air breathed by every human being and creature who has ever lived on this earth. Gandhi. Hitler. Wooly mammoths. Jesus Christ. The prophet Mohammad. Your great grandparents, your great grandchildren. Every, single, breath. This poem makes me think of that all over again, in yet another way. Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers.

– Ellery Akers

I love to feel as if I’m just another body, a breather along with the others:
blackbirds taking sips of air, garter snakes
lapping it up with their split tongues,
and all those plants
that open and close and throw up streamers of oxygen:
maybe that cottonwood that tilts across the creekbed
is the very one that just sucked up carbon dioxide
and let me breathe, maybe I should hang a card around it,
Thank you for the next two minutes of my life,
maybe some of
the air I just swallowed used to be inside the hot larynx of a fox,
or the bill of an ash-throated flycatcher,
maybe it just coursed past
the scales of a lizard–a bluebelly –
as he wrapped himself around his mate,
maybe he took an extra breath and let it out
and that’s the one I got.
Maybe all of us are standing side by side on the earth
our chests moving up and down,
every single one of us, opening a window,
loosening a belt, unzipping a pair of pants to let our bellies swell,
while in the pond a water beetle
clips a bubble of air to its shell and comes back up for another.
You want sanitary? Go to some other planet:
I’m breathing the same air as the drunk Southerner,
the one who rolls cigarettes with stained yellow thumbs
on the bench in the train station,
I’m breathing the same air as the Siamese twins
at the circus, their heads talking to each other,
quarreling about what they want to do with their one pair of hands
and their one heart.
Tires have run over this air,
it’s passed right over the stiff hair of jackrabbits and road kill,
drifted through clouds of algae and cumulus,
passed through airplane propellers, jetprops,
blades of helicopters,
through spiderlings that balloon over the Tetons,
through sudden masses of smoke and sulfur,
the bleared Buick filled with smoke
from the Lucky Strikes my mother lit, one after another.
Though, as a child, I tried my best not to breathe,
I wanted to take only the faintest sips,
just enough to keep the sponges inside,
all the lung sacs, rising and falling.
I have never noticed it enough,
this colorless stuff I can’t see,
circulated by fans, pumped into tires,
sullenly exploding into bubbles of marsh gas,
while the man on the gurney drags it in and out of his lungs
until it leaves his corpse and floats past doorknobs
and gets trapped in an ice cube, dropped into a glass.
After all, we’re just hanging out here in our sneakers
or hooves or talons, gripping a branch, or thudding against the sidewalk:
as I hold onto my lover
and both of us breathe in the smell of wire screens on the windows
and the odor of buckeye.
This isn’t to say I haven’t had trouble breathing, I have:
sometimes I have to pull the car over and roll down the window,
and take in air, I have to remember I’m an animal,
I have to breathe with the other breathers,
even the stars breathe, even the soil,
even the sun is breathing up there,
all that helium and oxygen,
all those gases blowing and shredding into the solar wind.


For more information about Ellery Akers, please click here.

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