Potcake Poet’s Choice: D.A. Prince, ‘Horatio’

Always in shadow, on the edge, the light
falling on someone else. I’m used to it—
fidus Achates, and half-acolyte.
Besides, the sidelines are a safer bet
so I survive—at least, upon the page,
though never in imagination.
The curtain falls: I vanish with the stage.
Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live on
in other times but I—the dutiful
and sober pal, the philosophic friend—
dissolve. I fade. Meanwhile, the beautiful
capture your soul beyond the play’s neat end
where I’m to set, with due fidelity,
the record straight. You won’t remember me.

From: Common Ground, HappenStance Press, 2014.

D.A. Prince writes: “In the middle of a lively debate about which actor had played the definitive Hamlet, I realised I had no memory at all of any actor playing Horatio. There would have been an equal number, obviously. Horatio is on Elsinore’s battlements in the opening scene, questioning the existence of ghosts, and he’s there in the final scene, surrounded by corpses, giving the penultimate speech. In between he hovers in Hamlet’s shadow, necessary but—if I’m a typical theatre-goer—unmemorable. He doesn’t even get to cross the stage in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The world is full of people like Horatio so I thought I would give him a brief
acknowledgement: for turning up, for hanging on, for being there.”

D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first appearances in print were in the weekly competitions in The Spectator and New Statesman (which ceased its competitions in 2016) along with other outlets that hosted light verse. Something closer to ‘proper’ poetry followed, with three pamphlets, followed by a full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, from HappenStance Press in 2008. A second collection, Common Ground, (from the same publisher) followed in 2014 and this won the East Midlands Book Award in 2015. HappenStance published her pamphlet Bookmarks in 2018 and will bring out a further collection in 2022. There’s just the little matter of a title to resolve first.

Illustration: Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jane Blanchard, ‘The Kahler Grand Hotel (near the Mayo Clinic)’

I see the waitress cock her head to try
to figure out what I just said. Across
the booth my husband will not meet my eye
until she leaves to place our order. Sauce
for goose and gander holds that I will get
a turn to laugh (or not) at him. Neither
of us can hide where we are from. I let
him think his accent less than mine—either
of us can drawl a syllable into
a sentence. Fine. Most locals here speak plain
Midwestern as they welcome others who
seek remedies for matters inhumane.
How I may talk does not mean one iota
when visiting Rochester, Minnesota.

Jane Blanchard writes: “The Kahler Grand Hotel appeared in Third Wednesday (Winter 2020) right before COVID-19 changed all of our lives. This sonnet discloses how Jimmy and I tried to cope with a different medical crisis several years earlier. A little humor can go a long way when dealing with a scary situation. To this day we appreciate the many kindnesses shown to us when we were very vulnerable and very far from home.”

A native Virginian, Jane Blanchard lives and writes in Georgia. Her latest collection with Kelsay Books is Never Enough Already (2021).

Review: ‘Extreme Formal Poems – Contemporary Poets’, ed. Beth Houston

Beth Houston has compiled an excellent anthology of formal verse (i.e. poems that use traditional structures of exact rhyme and tightly controlled meter; typically in familiar forms like the sonnet, villanelle, ballade, etc, but sometimes in a nonce form, a form specially created by the poet for that particular poem, and then rigorously maintained for all its stanzas). What is unusual in this day and age is these are all contemporary poets, for the most part American, though with half-a-dozen who at least started out in the UK. (In the interests of disclosure: two of my poems are in this book, and I am one of the non-Americans.)

The poems range in a variety of moods through a whole host of modern topics. With examples from first stanzas only, we have a flippant take on nature:

The female fly is nearly chaste.
She hasn’t any time to waste;
Her life’s a span of weeks, not months,
And so she copulates just once.

– Max Gutmann, The Fly

a rueful look at the military:

You’ve made us proud–the prosperous and free.
It doesn’t matter that a GED
was all the education you could get,
or that you signed up on a drunken bet.

– Barbara Loots, Thank You For Your Service

lighthearted memories:

In sloppy FM waves nostalgia rolls:
I wanna hold! You are the sunshine of!
Each oldie on the golden dial extols
Your soul, your body’s curves, your rockin’ love.

– Chris O’Carroll, Classic Hits

Villon-reflecting reflections on time and mortality:

Where are the flushed and frantic teens,
The hormones’ fevered ebbs and flows?

(Fire buckets, water, verbal screens.)
The girls–good grief!–that parents chose
And others–how the mind’s eye glows!
Who floated inches off the floor?

(Flout censor’s ruling–fish-net hose.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur
– Jerome Betts, Ballade of Inevitable Extinction

pastoral descriptions of nature:

On moorland, on meadow, from dark sky I’m falling,
through peat, into pavement, I’m seeping, I’m sinking.
Above me the crows and the curlews are calling,
and of me the hares and the horses are drinking.

– Tim Taylor, Water of Holme

witty observations flavored with wordplay and interior rhymes:

I’m far from young enough to know it all.
With age my inner sage has paled and died.
My dimmer, dumber cerebellum’s fall
Leaves ever-clever youth alooof and snide.

– Susan Jarvis Bryant, I’m Far From Young Enough

But what you don’t get from the openings to the poems is that most of them pack a punch at the end. There will be a twist to the story, or a summation that recasts everything in a different light, or a straight-out contradiction of what the reader was being led to expect. The poems may be extremely formal. They are also extremely good.

The only regret I have is that some of the very best contemporary formal poets are missing: both the publicity-prominent (e.g. A.E. Stallings, Amit Majmudar, Gerry Cambridge, Wendy Cope) and the more reclusive (Pino Coluccio, Rose Kelleher, Marcus Bales). But happily there are still 37 excellent and prize-winning poets in Beth Houston’s well-selected anthology. So the good news is that a great many superb formalists are writing today, and–believe it or not–this looks like a Golden Age for formal verse. And ‘Extreme Formal Poems‘ is a very good manifestation of it.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘Her Mother’s Face’

Amidst a sere Midwestern winter night 
December 1917, she’s born,
A staunch Germanic woman’s child. Bedight
In dearth and loss, she learns too young to mourn
A mother’s death. She knows a woman must
Prepare the meals, evoke good cheer, and thrust
Her bitter tears inside where no one sees.
She weds a Coast Guard vet and oversees 
His household — bears three girls, subsists on grace.
And steadfast ‘til succumbing to disease,
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Unwanted infant hurtles toward the light
In 1944, her mam too worn
And poor to greet her daughter with delight.
The wealthy gent who claims the babe has sworn
To sate her whims, exchange her doubts for trust.
But Virgin-named, she’s Snake incarnate, trussed
In greed. She flaunts her swindling expertise, 
Yet knows that costly baubles won’t unfreeze
Her heart, or fill an absent mother’s space.
And void, despite full coffers overseas, 
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

She’s born in 1945, clasped tight
Within her mother’s arms. And ne’er forlorn,
This nurtured daughter dreams she’ll wed a knight
Who’ll grant her nuptial bliss, and — fast foresworn 
To loyalty — a doe-eyed child who’ll just
Love her. When falseness renders faith to dust
And pregnant prayers produce no guarantees,
She nonetheless adheres to memories
Of Mother’s happy tales. She weighs her case,
Then smiling, phones adoption agencies.
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.  

From birth, a target of her small town’s spite,  
She sprints through cornfields, fleeing bullies’ scorn,
Hurled stones, and taunts of “freak”! Wisconsinite
In ragtag 1980s garb, she’s borne 
Her share of tyranny. Her heart’s robust
Enough to weather gibes, but grief’s the gust
She can’t withstand. At forty-one, she frees
Herself and downs the sleeping pills that squeeze
Her breath away. Her mother deems her base
Look odd, but with some rouge — an eyebrow tweeze — 
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Abandoned infant left upon a white
Korean orphanage’s stoop, she’s shorn
Of roots upon her trans-Pacific flight
To Heartland serendipity. She’s torn
Between identities, but must adjust: 
Refute all claims of foreignness. Nonplussed,
Her heart aligns to these: Wisconsin cheese
And apple pie. She’d always deemed “Chinese”
A slight, but now she sees each buried trace
Of her within her children’s eyes. And pleased,
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

A steadfast matron, serpent quick to tease,
She’s part Korean, one-eighth Japanese,
Idealist, rebel geek without a place — 
My post-millennial, she’s all of these.
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Mindy Watson writes: “I’m probably most proud of this chant royal titled ‘Her Mother’s Face’ that narratively links the most influential women in my life, ultimately culminating in my daughter’s overall connection to her (mostly unknown) maternal lineage. It was an unconventional topic for me (as my go-to inspirations are normally bugs, science, mythology, etc. and I’ve a hard-wired aversion to delving into my lost cultural roots—Midwestern U.S. white Protestant upbringing and all that), but it just intuitively sprang from the 11-line stanza/repeated refrain/converging envoi-type structure. Humorously, the poem’s impetus was a poet e-friend of mine mentioning that this form (I’d never heard of) was the most difficult he’d ever tried and hadn’t ever conquered—so of course I took that as a dare/challenge, lol… but I ended up unexpectedly enjoying the composition process (and reminiscing about a few souls lost too soon. Also I disagree with my friend—I personally think pantoums are among the most vexing forms…”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch (where ‘Her Mother’s Face’ was first published, April 2018), Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: David Galef, ‘The State of the Art’

Literature, that romantic old bastard,
Is sick again, aslant on his chair
Like a spread-eagled book, already plastered
By noon and mumbling life’s unfair.

He speaks these days, ventriloquizing
In a voice long ruined by social disease,
His brilliant spasms slowed to writhing
And minute gestures that nobody sees.

What can we do for the drunken degenerate?
Tear up his license, make sure he’s not read,
Submit him to lectures, make him aware that
We don’t want him living, we don’t want him dead.

David Galef writes: “The State of the Art reflects our era’s attitude toward literature. It was published in Pivot way back when.”

David Galef has published over two hundred poems in magazines ranging from Light and Measure to The Yale Review. He’s also published two poetry volumes, Flaws and Kanji Poems, as well as two chapbooks, Lists and Apocalypses. In real life, he directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University.
www.davidgalef.com

Photo: “Old Drunk Man” by mocheeks is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Maryann Corbett, ‘The Vanished’

 In the autumn of 2015, the production of paper cards for library catalogs ceased.

No matter how long ago they completed their disappearance,
I still expect them,
perhaps in a sort of narthex just past a pillared entry,
or off to the side
as if in a private chapel, or straight ahead like an altar.
Shrined in the silence,
modest and single, or ranged in ranks and banks and rows,
the gods of Order
lived in their tabernacles of honey and amber maple
or oak like chocolate,
darkened at times from the touch of a hundred thousand fingers.
On every drawer-front
the face of a tiny gargoyle waggled its brazen tongue out.
And so we pulled them.
And the drawers slid waxen-smooth, and the fingers flicked like a weaver’s
through card upon card,
and above the drawers were our faces, our heads all bobbing and davening.
A kind of worship
it was, with an order of service. A physical act of obeisance.
Its cloudy replacement
(perfect in plastic efficiency, answering almost to thought,
near-disembodied)
hurries us past the notion of order itself as a Being
worthy of honor.
So here I am, misplaced as a balky fourth-century pagan
mulling conversion,
but nursing doubts that the powers should be called from the general air,
seeking the numinous
still in its tent of presence, and longing to keep on clutching
the household gods.

Maryann Corbett writes: “This was one of those poems that spent several years stewing at the back of my brain as soon as I read the factoid that actually library catalog cards were no longer being produced. It’s a disappearance not likely to be noticed much by younger people, and I wanted to give it attention. What eventually let my brain’s stew boil over in images of all the card catalogs I’ve known, I can’t say. But it did so in a rush, a rush and roll that took the form of very long lines. I’ve written several other poems in hexameters–lines with six stresses–and I wanted to do something a bit different–and to leave space to breathe!–so I decided to alternate the hexameter lines with much shorter ones: dimeters, or two-stress lines.

 ‘The Vanished‘ appeared first in Alabama Literary Review, was anthologized in The Orison Anthology, Vol. II, and was included in my most recent book, In Code.

Maryann Corbett lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she worked 35 years for the Legislature. Poetry: Breath Control (2012), Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (2013), Mid Evil (2014 Richard Wilbur Award), Street View (2017), and In Code (2020). Past winner, Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Work included in The Best American Poetry 2018, as well as in the Potcake Chapbooks Families and Other Fiascoes and Robots and Rockets.

Photo: “Catalog Cards” by Travelin’ Librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Bible Libel’

If God
is good,
half the Bible
is libel.

Michael R. Burch writes: “This may be the first poem I wrote. I read the Bible from cover to cover at age 11, and it was a traumatic experience. But I can’t remember if I wrote the epigram then, or came up with it later. In any case, it was probably written between age 11 and 13, or thereabouts. It would be kinda cool to be remembered by a poem I wrote at such an early age. Plus, it’s short, so readers would probably finish it!

I have been using Google results to determine which of my poems are the most popular on the Internet. Some of my poems have gone viral, appearing on hundreds or thousands of web pages. That’s a lot of cutting and pasting, and I like to think people must like a poem in order to take the time to replicate it. This epigram, which I wrote around age 11 to 13, at one time returned over 405,000 results for the last two lines, and over 51,000 results for the entire poem. The last time I checked, it still returned over 292,000 results. I was especially pleased to see one of the first poems I wrote, and possibly the first, go viral. If I wrote anything earlier, I don’t remember it.

Michael R. Burch has over 6,000 publications, including poems that have gone viral. His poems have been translated into fourteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, and set to music by seventeen composers. He also edits TheHyperTexts.

Photo: “Bible, Reading Glasses, Notes and Pen” by paul.orear is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem on poetry: ‘Diatribe Against Unversed Poets’

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

“Unversed” means “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable”. Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre/beat/rhythm is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

Rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it almost stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and getting them to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

Photo: “Lost in desert” by Rojs Rozentāls is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.

The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.

In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.

The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.

Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski

Review: ‘Snowman’s Code’ by Midge Goldberg

‘Snowman’s Code’ won the 2015 Richard Wilbur Award. And the first poems are all right, most of them being competent sonnets with a strong final line or couplet – ‘On Getting a Record Player for Christmas’ strongly evoked that era when a high point of childhood was having a couple of albums that you could replay when you wanted, ending with
I memorized not only every word,
But all the scratchy silences I heard.

But gradually the collection goes downhill, into villanelles (a verse form that is exceptionally difficult to make interesting, needing the oratorical power of a Dylan Thomas), and short insights arranged on the page as though they were verse – as in the title poem, with its
Be proud of lumpy hereness,
made by hands that carry
you, scoopful by scoopful,
to this place, at this moment,
patting you into existence.

In short, though there are poems I like in this book, I didn’t find enough to justify it as a prize-winning collection.