April 22, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Friday Evening, April 5

The evening reading & recognition of Undergraduate Writers was held in Estep auditorium. Alan Berecka had served as judge of the multi-genre contest. In response to what he had read he read his own funny poem titled “Hard Drive” about an old college notebook he found that was full of, as he put it, “whiney poetry.”

Rilla Askew, who is a welcome perennial read here, read what she described as a piece of “creative non-fiction,” titled “Dear Tulsa.” It was a tale set in the early 1970s, a memoir of going to music clubs with her sister, then hitchhiking at Thanksgiving time to Shawnee with a friend, a trip that turns brutal, the driver, who pulls a gun, rapes her, drives around back to Tulsa, then she manages to escape. A chilling story, all too-contemporary, made more direct by Rilla's crisp writing.

The other piece tonight was a stunning collaboration between poet Alan Berecka & cellist Susan Sturman, who had approached Alan about writing poetry to accompany three short studies for solo cello, “The Fall of the Leaf,” by British composer Imogen Holst (1907 - 1984) (yes, the daughter of Gustav Holst). The music was not something I was not familiar with, but was quickly drawn into, while Alan’s poems were so much of what I love about his work — intelligently conversational, yet spiritual, with a pinch of humor. Alan’s poems were published in a crisp letterpress edition, The Fall of the Leaf Suite, by poet Clarence Wolfshohl (El Grito del Lobo Press, 2017), which I am grateful to have now because of the Scissortail book sales.

From there we gathered at The Grandview on Ada’s Main St., a spacious, open community center, with jazz music, beer, wine, snacks, a student open mic & more conversation with poets. I was pleased to have some time to talk with Susan Sturman about Imogen Holst & the classical music biz in general. Returning to my hotel room I realized I was so over-whelmed by these 2 days of incredible poetry, prose, even music, that I couldn’t bring myself to read, even from the stack of books I’d purchased, not even my own poems.

There was one more morning of Scissortail left.

April 21, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Friday Afternoon, April 5

Lunch was expanding tables at the Blue Moon with lively conversations crossing over each other & the best fried green tomatoes I've had, a chance to talk to some of the poets I'd missed earlier. Then back to the ECU campus for one last test of our abilities to make choices, North Lounge or Estep.

At North Lounge Tom Murphy read a piece from American History (Slough Press, 2017) “A Waltz with Death” set in San Francisco during the 1970s AIDS crises, detailed descriptions of the scene & the characters there. His second piece was titled “Pearl” & was also set in California, this in Berwin Park, a 1960s memoir/portrait of a next-door neighbor.

This was Molly Sizer’s first time at Scissortail. Most of the poems she read were about/addressed to her parents, including “Sam & Louie” in which they (Sam is her father) call down a curse on a whites-only church “You Tricked Us,” & the prose poem “Care-Giving.” She ended with a piece about wild turkeys, cicadas & a coyote, whose title sounds like a good practice for poets “Be Still & Listen.”

Roy Beckemeyer read poems from his latest book Stage Whispers (Meadowlark Books, 2018), the poems introduced with epigraphs about acting, including “Above the Rocky Run” (for his wife Pat & the rivers they shared), “Jack 1941-1959” for a high school friend, “The Couple Who Once Lived on this Farm” imagining the tenants of an abandoned farm, & “Bird Song.” He brought out his copy of Moby Dick to quote lines from for his poem “Reading Moby Dick,” & ended with a poem on death & living in the now “Breathe.”

This also was Wayne Lee Gay’s first time at Scissortail & he a read short story that although sounded like a memoir he said was “not autobiographical,” & is “set in a fictional place not far from here.” Titled “Hustler Remembers Stanley” the character, Hustler, is a high-school football player & bully who sustains a head injury in a game, later another concussion while serving in Desert Storm; the un-named narrator locates him later on Facebook & they have an awkward meeting in a bar, during which Hustler can’t remember high school, or his military experience, but does remember Stanley, a nuanced ending raising more questions.

Then back to Estep for an un-conflicted session of 4 readers. Ron Wallace was first up, another of my favorites here, his latest book is The Last Blue Sky. He read poems about Geronimo’s last buffalo hunt, his father & grandfather, one titled “I Am Not a Cowboy Poet” (because rhyme & meter “eludes” him, but he does write poems about cowboys). The poem “New Boots” was after a heart attack. “Doc” was a memoir piece about his father’s horse, sold during the Depression, his father in his old age can’t remember the name of his step-father, but does remember the name of the horse. He ended with a poem about mortality “Comes Winter to the Night.”

Carol Coffee Reposa is also a poet whose work I’ve enjoyed hearing over the years here. She began with what she described as a love poem for Oklahoma, how the native people survive in nature & in the names of places. The rest of her poems were tributes to big events, bad & good, in her life, including the Vietnam War (“New Fridge”), the mass shooting in Austin, Texas by Charles Whitman in 1966 (she was there), on 9/11 (“Villanelle from the World Trade Center”) & “Song for New Orleans.” She ended with a tribute poem to Willie Nelson.

Brady Peterson, another regular here, read poems on a series of topics, ranging from death, to memoirs (“Grey Morning”), love poems, a political poem (“Passing”), a number of dream poems (one titled “Some Dream of Shoes” which he said means death), even a poem he admitted he doesn’t know what it means “Only the Rain.” But all good, as usual.

Simon Han was the only one of the 4 I hadn’t heard before. He read from the beginning of his novel, The Sleepwalkers, forthcoming from Riverhead Books, about about a boy who lived with his grandparents in China, then is sent to America where his parents were living, his thought on the airplane, then in an English class in Texas. It sounded autobiographical, but then someone once said, “all writing is autobiographical…”

All that was left of this day was the evening reading & performance & a party. Check back soon for that.

April 18, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Friday Morning, April 5

Back for another day of readings at this “Listening Festival,” as Sally Rhoades has christened it, in the Estep Auditorium.

Michael Dooley (who is also known as “Woodstock Farley”) got us off to an uproarious start with a tale set in West Texas “Picasso Hanging at the Water Stop Saloon” filled with a cast of characters, drunks, con-men, & general ne’er-do-wells, & a dart contest to see will own a Picasso painting salvaged from a train wreck. Folks here from Texas said that he got it just right.

Dorothy Alexander is one of my favorite writers (& characters) here at Scissortail. She is also the publisher of Village Books Press in Cheyenne, OK, as well as an activist attorney. Her reading today mixed the personal with the cosmic. She began with a memoir/meditation set in the 1940s “Night Sky Epiphany,” then an amusing piece about a junk yard couple “Creation Day.” The poem “When We Invented Time” quoted scientists, philosophers & ancient texts, while “Closing Time” was a tender autobiographical tale of taking care of a young girl & a horse. Somewhere along the line she mentioned the red bud tree, an unofficial running theme these last 2 days.

Chris Murphy read a series of short fiction pieces about Tahlequah, OK, beginning with a grim tale of an angry confrontation on a golf course “Incident at Hole 2.” “At the Trail of Tears Memorial” was about a visit from his parents, as was another story that included a rescue dog with a series of names. I never heard of Tahlequah before, but now I have.

The rest of the morning was another exercise in choices, between Estep & North Lounge readings. The first choice was made easier by my admiration for the work of Jason Poudrier. His 2012 book from Mongrel Empire Press Red Fields: Poems from Iraq ranks among the best literature about military experience, dare I say with such poets as Yusef Komunyakaa. His new poems seem to be infused with that same depth of feeling & insight. He began with a couple poems inspired by the artist Douglas Shaw Elder, who is also an Army veteran, the poems titled “Winter Wheat” & “Subterranean Black.” His poem “But A Shadow in Front of the Sun” was inspired by his young daughter’s question “who created God?” spiraling out from there considering the nature of “creating” & places & things. He continued with poems inspired by is daughter, & when he read “Daughter, Daughter,” with images of her in the stories on immigrants, as child soldiers, the tears flowed from my eyes. Jason is a good & important poet among us.

Continuing on the parent/daughter theme Heather Levy read a moving personal essay titled “The Twenty Year Lie” in which she describes her first time having sex & her conversation about her daughter about it.

Fortunately for my emotions, Alan Gann took a different direction with a series of nature poems illustrated with photos of birds, frogs, his meditations springing from his descriptions. His Haibun “First” was about birding with his father & seeing his first eagle, another poem took on the healing power of nature for those with mental health issues. He ended with a tribute poem to the late Mary Oliver, “One Possible Answer” in which he tries “to inhabit her voice.”

For the 2nd half of the morning I went to North Lounge. Don Stinson read some poems from his book Flatline Horizon (Mongrel Empire Press, 2018), including one about hearing of a truck bombing in Berlin around the same time as the shooting in San Bernardino, then a couple poems from Paris, including one dedicated to Jim Morrison of the Doors “Lizard King.” He also read from a new manuscript tentatively titled “Black Dog” which is a metaphor for depression; also, poems of spiritual exploration “Trinity” & “Download” (in which the Holy Spirit is a megabyte).

I fondly remember the reading Terri L. Cummings did here 2 years ago. Today she read entirely from her new book from Village Books Press, When Distant Hours Call; the copy I got is a “temporary” saddle-stapled one before the ultimate version is ready — same poems, different binding. A couple poems touched on her early time on an archeological dig in Israel, there were love poems to her husband & to chocolate pie, poems about her mother & her family, & tender poems dealing with the death of a son (“Moving On,” “The Long Road,” & “Rescue Dog.”

I had also seen Richard Dixon read the last time I was here. Today’s poems were a chronological series of autobiographical pieces, beginning with his absent father, his mother’s addictions (& other problems), then on to pieces about his sister, going into foster homes, & a stay in a juvenile detention center. The poems “Trial by Fire” & “Unreadable” were about the profound cruelty of his foster father. He ended with a tale of a Country & Western music ballroom in the 1960s “Honky Tonk on a Saturday Night.”

Like I’ve said a couple times, at Scissortail there are always poets I miss because I’m listening to poets someplace else. But fortunately there are events, like lunch, where I did get a chance to talk to some of the poets whose readings I missed. & there was more to come in the afternoon & evening.

April 16, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Thursday Evening, April 4

The evening reading was held in the Ataloa Theatre in the Hallie Brown Ford Arts Center on the East Central University campus & was by the United States Poet Laureate for 2017 - 2019 Tracy K. Smith.

Ken Hada introduced for the venerable Dr. Darryl Fisher for the opening remarks; the annual writing contest for Oklahoma high school students is named after Dr. Fisher. Then it was fitting that Jennifer Dorsey, who coordinates the undergraduate writing program at ECU, introduced student Taylor Johnson who read an excerpt from her novel.

Steve Benton, Director of the University Honors Program, gave the introduction to Laureate Smith’s reading, an introduction that was based on a close, sensitive reading of her books, not just the glowing, admiring generalizations that often infect such introductions.

In the past I have not always been happy with the choices of the US Poet Laureate, but I was thrilled with the selection of Juan Felipe Herrera & was blown away by the couple of times I saw him in person, at Skidmore College & at the Library of Congress. I described him to to someone as my “Mexican uncle.” I was not familiar with the work of Tracy K. Smith but her reading here at Scissortail made me a fan; she ranks up there with Herrera, perhaps a “black niece I hadn’t met before.” She did not shy away from themes of social justice, such as the poem “It and Company” about America & playing on the word “it.” She read mostly from her latest book Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018), including “Declaration” which is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, also a found poem from letters of slave-holding families “The Greatest Personal Privation,” “The United States Welcomes You,” & the title poem. There was also the tender poem about her willful daughter “4 1/2.” Smith has also worked with the Chinese feminist poet Yi Lei, who sadly died last year; a translation of Yi Lei’s work is forthcoming from Graywolf Press, a collaboration between Smith & Chantai Bi. Her poem “Eternity” is about a visit to China & thinking about past lives. She ended her reading with the last poem in Wade in the Water “Old Story” about how we need new myths.

As the best readings do, this evening opened my eyes to new work I hadn’t been familiar with, as well as a poet, Yi Lei, that I’m looking forward to reading.

April 14, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Thursday Afternoon, April 4

The afternoon sessions were an exercise in making a choice — 2 time slots, each with 2 sessions each, one in North Lounge, the other in Estep. For example, I read at 2:00PM in North Lounge, while my traveling companion Sally Rhoades read at the same time in Estep Auditorium. So you were always going to miss someone.

I was the first reader at 2:00 in North Lounge & read my series of 5 baseball poems, for which A.P.D. (Albany’s Poetic Disorder) published a brief chapbook, Baseball Poems, which you can still get when you see me at readings, or by mail (email me for information).

The next reader up, Sarah Webb, is from Burnet, Texas, & I recall seeing her read at previous Scissortails. Her poems were about the spiritual journey of following the imagination, as in her opening poem “Directions from Those That Follow the Thread" (i.e., that “leads to Jerusalem”). The poems “Obedient” & “Through Rain & Fog” (what she termed “a whiney one”) were more personal introspection. Others dealt with poetry, such as in “To Borges’ Dream Tigers” & “Why I Carry a Notebook.” And sometimes you have to make the magic happen, as she described in “Sweeping the Rooms” & “How to Catch a God.”

Bill Endres described himself as “a medievalist" who has worked digitizing the 8th century illuminated manuscript St. Chad Gospels, but he recently returned to poetry when he taught an Intro to Poetry course in the fall of 2018. He read a variety of poems, many with a touch of humor & irony. His first piece was a prose poem titled “Of All Things” in which he imagined a perfect job & included angels. Some of his poems were on things: a water bottle, a bowl, a pair of Levi’s; others were about animals: a hummingbird, a chocolate Labrador puppy. His poem “Super Blood Wolf Poem” expressed his disappointment at the actual experience while the name of the Moon was so spectacular.

Lyman Grant was filling-in for the writer on the printed schedule; he said he was reading from a published book of poems, from one to be published later this year, & from recent poems. From Old Men on Tuesday Morning (Alamo Bay Press, 2017) he read about an experience in a cafe “Open Carry.” From his forth-coming book 2018: Found Poems and Weather Reports he read “July 24.” His recent manuscript “Shards” is a collection of short golden shovels, using a range of poets for the lines: William Carlos Williams, Rossetti, Mathew Arnold, Etheridge Knight.

Back across the way to Estep Auditorium for the final afternoon session of the day for 4 more writers.

Paul Austin has become a friend over the years; now living in Oklahoma, he was a New Yorker for a good part of his life. He has a new book out, Notes on Hard Times (Village Books Press, 2019), from which he read a generous selection. He read the grim “Warsaw Ghetto, 1942;” a couple of portraits, “The Jazz Lover” & one for Richard Ray Whitman; poems responding to Samuel Beckett & Delmore Schwartz; & a litany beginning with a quote from Joy Harjo “If They Ask.”

One can always expect Michelle Hartman to be in-your-face, even when she is being humorous, or talking about death, like a poem titled “A Reason for Everything” from a series about folks’ 1st night dead. Most of her reading was from her recent book, Wanton Disarray (Hungry Buzzard Press, 2019), including the poems “Weddings & Death,” “Hope Has No Conscience,” “Behavior Waves” (a love poem), “The First Time” (i.e., a woman undresses a man), & “She Asked What You Are Like.” I bought the book so I could take a little bit of Michelle home with me.

Randy Prus & Cullen Whisenhunt  gave us a rare tandem reading, playing “poem tag” from a year-long collaborative project, much of it political, responding to media coverage, such as one piece titled “This is Now, for Tom Paine & Gil-Scott Heron.” There was also a section on dead dogs, & even a mention of the red bud tree, a sub-theme of the day it seems.

The second of the day’s fill-ins was Jeff Alfier who began with a couple of poems set in Louisiana. He described his poems as “semi-autobiographical at best,” though many were in the (apparent) voice of a persona, often in a work setting, like flash fiction stories of the working class, even a poem titled “Lap Dancer, for Holly who Danced the Longest.”

I love how the folks creating this festival pair up us writers, our themes, images, styles bumping up against each other, as on a crowded dance floor, different styles, over-lapping themes, but always about the human character, our own or that of others.

We broke for dinner, with the reading by US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith set for the evening.

April 10, 2019

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Thursday Morning, April 4

Back in Ada, Oklahoma at East Central University for the annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, to which I manage to get to every-other-year. I flew down from Albany with poet Sally Rhoades to the Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City & drove the 90 miles or so to Ada on Wednesday. We joined about 20 or so other writers at Polo’s Mexican Restaurant to greet old friends, make new ones, eat, drink, & talk, talk, talk.

The Director of the Festival is Dr. Ken Hada, assisted by other faculty & an army of student volunteers. Ken is a big, warm, teddybear of a man, who came East a few years ago to read at Caffe Lena & at McGeary’s in Albany & is a friend to poets not only to Oklahoma & regional writers but to writers everywhere.

The next morning at ECU there were more old friends gathered around as the book sale table(s) were set up. It’s been 2 years since I was last here so it felt like a family reunion rather than a literary conference. The morning readings were held in the Estep Auditorium, while in the afternoon there were split, competing sessions in Estep & across the way in the North Lounge.

The first reader was Benjamin Myers, a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, whose book Lapse Americana (New York Quarterly Books, 2013) is a particular favorite of mine. He read exclusively from his new book, Black Sunday (Lamar University Press, 2019), a story of the dust bowl told in sonnets by & about the Burns family & other characters in their town. He poems in the persona of Lilly Burns, her daughter Louise, & Lilly’s husband Will, as well as Henry, the town drunk, & The Reverend. The poems were vivid accounts of life during that most difficult time in the history of Oklahoma & country, not to mention the hard-working people who had to try to live through it.

Joey Brown is a poet & prose writer living currently in Missouri whose work I remember fondly from past years here. She read mostly from the manuscript of her new collection of poems titled "Content Subject Change," but began with a moving anaphoric piece repeating “because…” titled “Lanie Thinks About the Reasons for Leaving.” The poems in the new collection are based on memories of old family photographs, without going back to view them. Other poems were “Tattoos” (she keeps a jar of red dirt wherever she is living), “Ways I Am Like a Tumbleweed” (for her husband), & the humorous “Explaining Here to My In-laws.” Sally & I ended up spending some light-hearted time hanging out with Joey throughout the festival.

I’ve also seen Gary Worth Moody here at past festivals. His poems were more directly concerned with nature, in the form of animals, than the previous readers, beginning with a poem incorporating terms from falconry; other animals included a deer & a palomino, & a touching poem “In the Animal Hospital Killing Room.” But to show that the killing is not always human-driven his poem “Through Orphan Dark” was about coyotes & pumas hunting prey.

The second morning session began with the venerable Larry Thomas, former Texas Poet Laureate, affectionately know a “Buffalo,” a warm & imposing presence here each year whose drawl is as capacious as his hugs. His latest collection is from Blue Horse Press, Boiling it Down: The Electronic Poetry Chapbooks of Larry D. Thomas from which he read only one piece, “Placido,” about a deaf, self-taught Mexican artist, during which Larry interjected personal asides, as if we were sitting around talking poetry & life over beers.

Julie Chappell was new to me & I was instantly captivated by her poems from her manuscript “Scorpion Dreams” & her zeal in dealing with the pests. Interestingly enough there was an theme of violence running through the poems she read, including “Execution” of a snake & a turkey, “Black & Blues” & a poem responding to violence in a song.  “The Lottery” was set in 1973, followed by “Bone Fragments,” & another poem about a young man killed in Viet Nam. When I got home & was writing up these notes I saw that she had had a poem published in a collection titled Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapalooza ’94 (Manic D Press, 1995) in which Albany poet Mary Panza also has a poem — we poets are all connected in an intricate web.

Another writer new to me was Chris Ellery who read from his recent poetry collection Canticles of the Body. The work combined images from Christian liturgy with references to the 7 Chakras, as well as other traditions, notably Buddhism. He illustrated his reading with projected images. The poem titled “The Great Vigil of Easter” focused on the heart Chakra. Then he read “The Good Shepherd” a moving piece about Fr. Frans van der Lugt, a Christian missionary who was killed in Syria; despite the fact that the Estep Auditorium is carpeted you could, as they say, hear a pin drop.

I’ve heard Walter Bargen at previous Scissortail festivals & have his book Days Like This are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (BkMk Press, 2009). His poems were always seasoned with humor, like his poem “Bucket Music” about catching snakes, even a poem about cattle mutilation, “Udderly Gone,” which expanded into a story about a teacher who was teaching the poem who had contacted him about it. He also read from his new book My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes about an all-too-common theme among today's poets, his mother’s dementia.

At this point, when we broke for lunch, I was already feeling like the long trip here was well worth it. My reading was yet to come in the afternoon.

More information about the festival can be found here: http://ecuscissortail.blogspot.com/

April 2, 2019

Troy Poetry Mission, March 27

The Winter has been tough on this monthly series with storms tending toward mid-week, but with astrological Spring here I was bold enough to venture out to Troy, to Elixir16Troy for what was billed as “2 Poets 1 Night” hosted by R.M. Engelhardt & James H. Duncan. But then it turned out to be 1 poet & 1 host & a bare handful of open mic poets, even without a snowstorm.

R.M. Engelhardt started us off with an invocation, a poem in Robert Service rhyme & meter “Don Quixote.” I followed with 2 short poems reacting to reading the poetry of Paul Pines then “Reading Mary Oliver while Masturbating” appropriating lines from her poems. Gloria Manthos, whom I usually see at Caffè Lena, began with a poem reminiscent of one by Lawrence Ferlinghetti “The Anxiety of Waiting” with its recurring line “I am waiting for…” then a poem about her ancestry, her family, what she termed “a border poem,” “Bloodlines.”

Carol Durant read new stuff, a poem with a bit of neighborhood humor “Tick Tock,” then one titled “Revealed.” Rob was back to read John Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” then a piece on the ones we have lost “A Conversation: Friends & Angels.”

The one present featured poet, Suzanne S. Rancourt, read from her forthcoming book Murmurs at the Gate a long poem titled “The Blue Curl: When Angels Fall” filled with images of blue, the military, death, PSTD, as well as the magical. In “The Woman” she celebrated her own strength & power. “The Execution” was a meditation on the media & what’s real & was inspired by the famous photo from 1968 of the summary execution of Viet Cong General Nguyen Van Lem. Other poems using military images & references (Suzanne served in both the US Army & the Marines) were “The Hunt,” “Re-enlistment: the Global War on Terror,” “On My Way Home,” & “Iron Sight.” Her poem “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” about dealing with family grief & testing the family tree, while Mediterranean Blue” pondered the nature of humanity; there were others as well. As I said, there had been a second featured poet scheduled who could not make it at the last minute, but Suzanne’s reading was a long as 2 features, so the lack of a second feature, & with only 4 open mic readers the night did not seem so long.

The Troy Poetry Mission happens on the last Wednesday of the month at Elixir16Troy, 45 2nd Street, Troy, NY, listed as 7:30PM in the publicity but doesn’t get going until about 8:00PM, adult beverages are available, but no elevator for those of you who are challenged by stairs.