April 30, 2019

WordFest 2019 — Brass Tacks, April 16

This monthly series at The Low Beat occurs on the 1st & 3rd Tuesdays of each month, thus conveniently folded into the week of WordFest. Thom Francis, el presidente of AlbanyPoets, the organizers of WordFest served as host. It was a pleasant mix of open mic poets & a visiting featured poet from New Haven, CT.

The open mic started with me, reading poems on poetry, “Anne Sexton,” “Peacocks in the Driveway,” & a poem beginning “This poem is to You…” Shane followed with 2 untitled poems, one set in Nature.

The guest featured poet, Influence is in the Slam style of memorized, emotional/political pieces, often with a moving story in its midst. He said, “this is church” but while taking on the exuberance of a preacher, he wasn’t preachy, talked about the power of poetry, that “the revolution is not a poem.” He could be in-your-face as in the historical piece on how America keeps changing the definition of “nigger” to oppress. He also praised the woman in his life, & talked about his past as a dealer, but is now a “poetry dealer” — perfect for National Poetry Month & WordFest 2019.

Back to the open mic, Alyssa Michelle read a poem on mortality titled “Tomorrow” then “Letter to my Exes.” Thom read a piece about his mother “I Want to Go Home,” then one titled “Tar Walls.”

Olga Tenney said she has been writing in a poetry workshop, then found WordFest through the newspaper & the internet; she read a pantoum (“My Husband”), a villanelle about her cat Pedro, & a sad piece about a granddaughter who died of heroin overdose at 29. Rose was new here as well & was inspired to read a community love poem “The Witness.”

Even when it is not WordFest or National Poetry Month, Brass Tacks is an open mic at The Low Beat, 335 Central Ave., Albany, 7:30PM, each 1st & 3rd Tuesday. Come & sign-up.

WordFest 2019 — Night of Features, April 15

This night of WordFest had 2! competing events, the usual Monday Poetic Vibe at the Troy Kitchen in Troy, & a Night of Features organized by Brian Dorn & Havey Havel at the Hudson River Coffee House in Albany, with Mary Panza as the host. I was late getting to the HRCH & missed the first reader Danielle Pouliot, but got there for the rest. For the record, Danielle had read at last year’s WordFest A Night of Features which you can read about on my Blog.

L-Majesty (Luis Pabon) began with a poem from his new book Strange Fruit, then on to some new pieces, the instructive “Notes to a Young Slam Poet,” “Black Diamonds in the Ice Castles” (black men & meth), “The Greatest Love of All” (that which returns you to yourself), & “Remembering Love.” Always a tender & exuberant reader.

Luis, Danielle, Mary, Avery & Karen
Karen Fabiane had been the finale poet a the Readings Against the End of the World Saturday evening, many of the poems she read then she also read tonight, as well as a poem each from her 1st & 2nd books. Unfortunately I sometimes missed the titles of her poems as she tends to mumble, her voice fading off at the end of sentences or phrases.  Her poems are intricate & hearing them more than once can be helpful.  In response to her asking how much time she had left she was told “do 2 more” then proceeded to read 5 more poems.

Speaking of too much, Avery Stempel gave us an over-dose of preachy, motivational pieces that over-whelmed his more reflective pieces, such as “Sunday After Sunset,” & one about a dream of 1950s cars on the road. His performance of his pieces were energetic, interwoven with song lyrics & sanskrit chants, but it seemed he never met a cliché he wouldn’t repeat. Less is more.

More WordFest events each night this week, taking us up to Saturday morning’s WordFest Book Fair at the Troy Farmer’s Market.

April 29, 2019

WordFest 2019 — 2nd Sunday @ 2, April 14

While the Readings Against the End of the World have ended the WordFest 2019 continues. The genius of this event is to fold in the already ongoing events that fit into this week, filling in the unique events as needed.

Nancy Klepsch & I have have been hosting the 2nd Sunday @ 2: Poetry + Prose Open Mic at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy for 8 (!) years. This day we were the next event on the grand WordFest schedule, 8 readers on the sign-up list. & I was first, so read my new poems from the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, “The Listening Festival” & “The Red Bud” an Oklahoma tree.

Michelle Arthur took us into a completely different direction with an apocalyptic autobiography of a monk who died in 1125. Bob Sharkey always has his poems literally in his pocket, not just in National Poetry Month, read “Made Marvel by Jazz” an erasure from the novel by Michael Ondaatje Coming Through Slaughter, & his cento from lines of poems submitted to the Stephan A. Dibiase Poetry Contest "Jail by the Squeaky Laughter."

My co-host Nancy Klepsch read 2 related pieces, “Onion Soup” was about the death of her cousin’s step-son, a Marine who was among the 3 killed in Afghanistan on April 8, & a piece titled “Home From the War.

Sally Rhoades who had also attended the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival read her Oklahoma poems, “Red Bud” & “We’re All Sitting with You Rilla” responding to Rilla Askew’s reading of an account of her being kidnapped & raped as a young woman. Kate Gillespie ended the afternoon reading from her ongoing series of science poems a work-in-progress “Molecular Molecules.”

The 2nd Sunday @ 2: Poetry + Prose takes place at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy each month (except July & August), & WordFest continued the rest of this week — stay tuned.

April 26, 2019

WordFest 2019 — Readings Against the End of the World, April 12 - 13

The original Readings Against the End of the World began in 1984 as a fund-raiser for the anti-nuke group Albany Peace & Energy Council, & ran until 1993, under the direction & coordination of Albany poet & activist Tom Nattell until 1993.
Three years ago the combined forces of AlbanyPoets & the Albany Writing Center with the coordination of Dr. Jil Hanifan joined to resurrect the event at Husted Hall Cafe on the UAlbany Downtown Campus. Mary Panza, Jil & Sally Rhoades shared hosting duties, with an ebb & flow of students & community poets. I was in & out during the 24 hours & managed to hear, by my count, 37 poets.

The local community poets came out in force for the opening session which started about 5:15PM on Friday night, poets who with varying regularity come out to various open mics & readings through out the year, including Alan Catlin, Nancy Klepsch, Darby Penney, Don Levy, Todd Fabozzi, Tess Lecuyer, L-Majesty, Sue Oringel, Dan Vollweiler, Christopher Burton, Peter Monaco, Matt Galletta, Charlie Rossiter, Anthony Bernini, Mary Panza, Karen Schoemer, R.M. Engelhardt, Greg W., Douglas Holiday, Therese Broderick, Frank Robinson, Julie Lomoe & Robb Smith. There was even a new voice in the mix, Kassandra Milligan.

I had signed up to read at 2AM, but at about 11:30PM there was to be a gap with no readers, & I was still hanging out with Charlie, so Mary asked if I wanted to read then, so I did & thus was able to go home for a somewhat normal night’s sleep. But before I left we caught performances by drama students of a reading of an original short play, & a reading of Samuel Beckett’s short work “Breath” consisting of only stage directions.

The next day the Friends of the Albany Public Library was honoring the writer James Lansdun at their annual Author’s Lunch, so I stopped in at the RAEW to catch a few readers — Cheryl Rice, Wisteria Andrews, & Brian Dorn (“22 Reasons Why Some People Don’t Go to Dorn’s Space” notably not in rhyme).

When I arrived back later in the afternoon Sally Rhoades had volunteered to do intros & I caught Bob Sharkey, Joe Krausman, & 2 Bretts: Axel & Petersen. Also Sean Foley with a long meditative poem titled “To Empty a Rifle.” The mid-afternoon session included a couple of student poets with stunning work; Sarah Zahed included with a poem of her own, poems by Mahmoud Darwish & Yehuda Amichai, & later Annika N. also read translations from the German of Gottfried Benn (1886 - 1956) & Rainer Marie Rilke, as well as her own poems.

Afternoon gaps in the schedule were filled by Jil Hanifan (a Mary Poppins fantasy), Sally Rhoades, & even I got a second chance at the mic to read recent poems inspired by my trip to the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK.

The 24-hours that began with local poets turned out to end with local poets as well, & Karen Fabiane got the honor to be the last. That wasn’t how it was planned. There was supposed to be a group of “celebrities” from New York City to fill the last 2 hours. It didn’t happen. We just did it ourselves.

But this was only the beginning of what was to be 9 days of daily poetry events in the Capital Region. Stay tuned & I’ll take you through it.

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Saturday Morning - Finale, April 6

The Grand Finale of the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival were 3 back-to-back readings in the Estep Auditorium, with time in between to buy those book you’d been thinking about all festival.

When I was here 2 years ago I listened raptly to Ann Howells' poems about the people living on the Chesapeake Bay islands, which have been collected as So Long As We Speak Their Name, to be released soon. She read more of these captivating poems today, such as “In Defense of Southern Towns,” “After the War” about a woman going to a dance looking for a way out, “A Black Ferry,” & others about the many widows of the fishermen. “Breath by Breath" can best be described as an eco-poem about the islands getting smaller as the ocean rises. There were others, including a villanelle “They Call Me Honey.”  Interestingly enough, Ann has a poem in Up The River Issue 7 published by AlbanyPoets.

This was the first time at Scissortail for C.D. Albin who read a short story titled "Four Fine Horses." The story was based in Arkansas at a horse ranch, and sounded close to being a memoir, particularly with all the knowledge the author seemed to have about horses & auctions, a fascinating tale.

This was also the first time here for Julia McConnell whose poems were lightly humorous, full of hearts, longing & determined hope. She began with a captivating anaphoric piece repeating the phrase “The poem I need to write…” There were ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide & by the art of Holly Wilson; another titled “Bugs, Boots & the Blank Page” a library poem inspired by Alicia Ostriker, as well as Valentine poems, a birthday poem & a New Years poem.

As good as all this was, I was most taken by Rob Roensch’s intricate, poetic story “Boxes of Oklahoma City,” told by a 1st person narrator who works as an independent contractor for Amazon delivering packages to homes. It was filled with quirky, obsessive details about the size & weight of the packages, a relationship of some kind with a woman named Jane, a confrontation with ICE, & ultimately being fired & stealing packages then giving the contents away to random people, saving a pillow for Jane, all with wry, minimalist humor.

We all needed a short break, a poetic palate cleanser so to speak, before returning to Estep for 4 more writers.

I’ve enjoyed Hank Jones’ poetry at previous Scissortails, but none more than today. His tale “The Murder of a Chair” had us all in stitches, as did “The Lament of the Composition Instructor.” But he could also be quietly moving as in “Playing Catch Before the Game,” & the wrenching “Digging a Grave.” There were also the meditations on aging “Middle Aged Aubade,” & a look-back to last night’s performance here “Before I Die” (he wants to meet a cellist). “Pot Roast & Poetry” was about shopping for groceries with Scissortail director Ken Hada. He ended with a piece inspired by a trip with students to Japan “In the Buddha’s Belly.” His poems were funny & touching, &, as I overheard some women discussing later, he had the best hair of the festival.

Emily Hull directs the Deep Roots: Oklahoma Authors Oral History Project for the Oklahoma State University Library. She said she was reading new pieces that continued from earlier work. What she read seemed like intertwined stories, mixed with asides & digression, almost like the rambling of oral history. “What Keeps Me Up at Night” was her 3-year old daughter & thoughts of leaving, a theme that came back later in the piece “Stay at Home,” & in a memoir about visiting Cuba with nuns. Somewhere in between she read “I’m In Love With a Poet I Never Met” a line that woke her one morning. She ended with an erasure from an interview she had done.

I’ve seen Andrew Geyer here at Scissortail once previously; he writes “hybrid” stories in collaboration as well as individually authored books. Today he read from “Things Roman” co-authored with Terry Dalrymple, who had read earlier in the festival this year. The story centered on Cecil, who longs for a mate, marries Juno, naming their daughters after Roman goddess, teen age Diana has a baby & Cecil goes golfing. Quirky but entertaining.

Ann Weisman’s reading of her poems were more performance, albeit quiet & meditative than others. “Resistance” was about using her voice, her words against fascism; another poem was set in a sweat lodge with “all my relatives,” a chant/list in the style of Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting…” at the end of which she steps from the mic to bow to the 4 directions. A villanelle for her father, “Into the Light” referenced Dylan Thomas, its repeating lines perfect for musical accompaniment. At the end she paid tribute to her friend the Tulsa poet/artist Alice Price (1928 - 2009) by reading Alice’s “Weathering,” then her own poem about scattering Alice’s ashes “I Can Be Like Water.”

A short break then on to the Grand Finale. An integral part of the Scissortail festival is the awards to the winners & runners-up of the Annual R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest, a state-wide effort for high-school students, with separate fiction & poetry components. The judges are East Central University professors Dr. Mark Walling (for fiction) & Dr. Joshua Grasso (for poetry), both of whom were effusive about the quality of the work submitted. You can read the complete list of winners, their schools & the names their teachers here: http://ecuscissortail.blogspot.com/2019/03/winners-of-15th-annual-r-darryl-fisher.html

The final featured reader of the 2019 Scissortail Creative Writing Festival was Brandon Hobson who read excerpts from his novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, which was a finalist for 2018 National Book Award. The story centers around Sequoia, a teenage Native American in foster care, as well as his sister also in foster care, & Sequoia’s obsession with another foster child Rosemary. A good way to end this festival, held in the middle of “Indian country,” a reminder of our painful heritage & our diverse culture.

As it always is, Scissortail was exhilarating, exhausting, emotional & just plain fun, literary & otherwise. There were more than 50 speakers/readers at the event, with 19 here for the first time. There were 19 separate sessions, some, as I’ve said, competing with each other happening at the same time, & at least 100 books for sale. Of the sessions I attended, by my rough count I listened to about 1000 minutes of poetry & prose, in 2 1/2 days. Highly recommended to anyone who loves good writing, whatever the genre. Did I mention that the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival is free?

Thank you Ken Hada & all the staff, & those unnamed who introduced each author, & the student volunteers at East Central University, who make my visit, & that of all the others who attend, such a pleasure & inspiration. See you again!

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/