Author Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

About Robin Helweg-Larsen

Reading, writing and editing poetry. Poetry about traveling, thinking, reading, writing, politics, history, religion, family, strangers...

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Tom Vaughan, ‘Afterwards’

Afterwards, I’ll shake the hand
of total strangers in the street
as though they were my oldest friend
and as and when that friend I’ll meet

we’ll stroll across Green Park towards
Crown Passage’s Il Vicolo
to dip our bread in olive oil
and drink wine till our faces glow

and talk of this and maybe that
as if we had all day to kill
then we’ll argue who should pay, aware
we’ll agree at last to split the bill

and when we say goodbye, we’ll know
how rare and wonderful it was
to be together, even though
neither will say so. Why? Because

why even hint the day might come
when public or private fresh disaster
prevents we two from sitting there
to share a salad and a pasta?

First published in Snakeskin 276, September 2020.

Tom Vaughan writes: “I have a soft spot for Afterwards because I hope it strikes the balance I often try to achieve between light-heartedness and seriousness. Plus it’s pinned in the real world: a London restaurant I very much like. I had submitted it originally The Spectator, which originally rejected it. George Simmers then accepted it for the September 2020 Snakeskin. Shortly thereafter I noticed a very positive restaurant review of Il Vicolo in The Spectator and, apparently quite independently, their poetry editor came back to me saying that on reflection he wanted to publish it, which he then did in October that year (with a suitable acknowledgement to Snakeskin as its first home). Then I learnt that the much-loved owner of Il Vicolo had died a few months previously – although not of Covid – but that his admirable daughters had decided to continue to run the restaurant. So, somewhere underneath the poem, the note of all-too-actual human mortality.”

Tom Vaughan is not the real name of a poet whose previous publications include a novel and two poetry pamphlets (A Sampler, 2010, and Envoy, 2013, both published by HappenStance). His poems have been published in a range of poetry magazines, including several of the Potcake Chapbooks:
Careers and Other Catastrophes
Familes and Other Fiascoes
Strip Down
Houses and Homes Forever
Travels and Travails.
He currently lives and works in London.
https://tomvaughan.website

My own favourites: ‘To Myself In 50 Years Time’

Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

This poem, first published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008 and recently reprinted in the Extreme Formal Poems Contemporary Poets anthology edited by Beth Houston, is symptomatic of my constant concern with mortality. It was also a way to be provocative: under the guise of insulting myself, I got to insult all older generations. And it was also an exercise in poetic structure: each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. Aggressive and effective.

Yes, I wrote it when I was 22. I don’t know if I will be able to concoct a suitably terse and dismissive answer when I’m 72. But it’s a favourite poem of mine, and I owe it a response.

Photo: “Day 005: The child is father to the man.” by JesseMenn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Rob Stuart, ‘Hitchcock Acrostic’

My looming silhouette, obese and bald,
As well as my distinctive semi-slur
Still resonate, and even now I’m called
The cinema’s preeminent auteur,
Epitomising what François Truffaut
Revered: a moviemaker in control
Of everything on screen. I ran the show:
Finessing scripts and casting every role,
Selecting music and the mise-en-scène.
Unwilling as I was to look beyond
Simplistic plots that featured guiltless men
Plus pretty women (preferably blonde)
Entangled in intrigues, they all had doubt,
Not payoffs, situated at their heart:
Set bombs a-ticking, tension builds throughout,
Explode them and you blow it all apart.

Rob Stuart writes: “This poem was previously published in ‘Snakeskin’ although I have revised it since.

“Is this my best poem? Probably not, but it’s certainly the fiddliest I’ve ever written and consequently the most satisfying to have (perhaps) finished. A rhymed acrostic gives one very limited room for manoeuvre as it imposes constraints at both the beginning and end of each line, and this led to all manner of contrived rhymes and clunky word choices in my early drafts, including the version that was originally published a few years ago, and I have literally spent hours poring over lists of verbs beginning with a ‘u’ and synonyms for ‘suspense’ in the search for suitable replacements. I may yet go on to revise the poem further (I’m still not sure that the second to last line quite works), but I think it reads pretty damned well now. It’s a dinky little lesson in film history, too.”

Rob Stuart’s poems and short stories have been published in numerous magazines, newspapers and webzines including Ink Sweat and Tears, Light, Lighten Up Online, M58, Magma, New Statesman, The Oldie, Otoliths, Popshot, The Projectionist’s Playground, Snakeskin, The Spectator and The Washington Post. His work appears in the Potcake Chapbooks ‘Careers and Other Catastrophes‘ and ‘Wordplayful‘. He lives in Surrey, England with his family.

http://www.robstuart.co.uk/

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Tom Vaughan, ‘Happiness’

It’s easy to forget they’d fought a war:
his father drowned, half-brother bayoneted;
her kilted sibling captured at Dunkirk,
locked up for five long years. But yes they met

in uniform, lost half their friends, before
the normal world re-started when they wed:
mortgage; children; grinding office work –
all I suppose they wanted when they set

out as a couple. We must have been a shock:
busting their rulebook; scornful of sacrifice;
mocking their past and their belief in ‘progress’;

too young, too smashed, too angry to unlock
their silence, or to understand the price
they’d paid for what they’d still call happiness.

Tom Vaughan writes: “I chose Happiness it because I hope it gets right not just my own retrospective feelings about my parents, but also something more general about the generational shift between those who went through WW2 in their youth, and their less-tested offspring.

Secondly, because it’s a sonnet (a favourite form of mine), but in what I call a ‘roller’ rhyming (not always full rhymes) pattern, which tries to pull the reader down to the final line with a lurch which I hope is also of the emotions.

It was published in Dream Catcher in 2016, but has been picked up a couple of times elsewhere since then, including in your Families and Other Fiascoes chapbook.”

Tom Vaughan is not the real name of a poet whose previous publications include a novel and two poetry pamphlets (A Sampler, 2010, and Envoy, 2013, both published by HappenStance). His poems have been published in a range of poetry magazines, including several of the Potcake Chapbooks:
Careers and Other Catastrophes
Familes and Other Fiascoes
Strip Down
Houses and Homes Forever
Travels and Travails.
He currently lives and works in London.
https://tomvaughan.website

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘Deep Cover’

Nakedness is the best disguise.
When you discard the final veil,
it always takes them by surprise.

Because men think that compromise
is weak—that if you yield, you fail—
nakedness is the best disguise.

Though you expose your breasts and thighs,
your mind is as opaque as shale.
It always takes them by surprise

to find out that the body lies.
Surrender can conceal betrayal.
Nakedness is best. Disguise,

equivocation, alibis
can be seen through. To lay a trail
that always takes them by surprise,

hide nothing and you’ll blind their eyes.
Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael.
Nakedness is the best disguise.
It always takes them by surprise.

Susan McLean writes: “When I think of which subjects have lasting appeal in poems, I think of the subjects that have never changed and never will, such as human nature, but also of the questions that have no definitive answers, such as the nature of truth.  This poem expresses several paradoxes: that overt shows of openness are the most successful ways to deceive someone; that everyone lies, so telling the truth is always surprising–and is often not believed; that no matter how much truth you tell, there is always much that you don’t say; that when there is a power difference between two people, surrendering can be a tool of resistance. 

“Another thing that I think gives a poem lasting appeal is the use of rhythm and sound to create a music with words.  Though we live in a time in which free verse is dominant and ubiquitous, I don’t think people will ever lose their innate love of the songlike in poetry, a quality that also makes poems easier to remember. One of the most songlike of poetic forms is the villanelle, and it has been one of my favorite forms for many years.  Though I know that many readers find the repeating lines in villanelles to be tedious, small variations in the lines, in their punctuation, and in the surrounding lines can enable the narrative to move forward without losing the appeal of a songlike refrain.” 

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise (winner of the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the 2014 Donald Justice Poetry Prize), and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

‘Deep Cover’ was originally published in Mezzo Cammin, a journal of modern formalist poetry by women. Susan McLean’s ‘Lessons From A Fool’ appears in the Potcake Chapbook Careers and Other Catastrophes.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Martin Elster, ‘The Woolly Bear’

Along a sylvan lane, you spy a critter
creeping with a mission, a woolly bear
fattened on autumn flora. So you crouch,
noting her triple stripes: the middle ginger,
each end as black as space. Her destination
is some unnoticed nook, a sanctuary
to settle in, greet the fangs of frost,
then freeze, wait winter out—lingering, lost
in dreams of summer, milkweed, huckleberry.
Though she’s in danger of obliteration
by wheel or boot, your fingers now unhinge her.
She bends into a ball of steel. No “ouch”
from bristles on your palm as you prepare
to toss her lightly to the forest litter.

She flies in a parabola, and lands
in leaves. Though she has vanished, both your hands
hold myriad tiny hairs, a souvenir
scattered like petals. When this hemisphere
turns warm again, she’ll waken, thaw, and feast
on shrubs and weeds (the bitterer the better)
then, by some wondrous conjuring, be released
from larval life. At length she will appear
a moth with coral wings—they’ll bravely bear
her through a night of bats or headlight glare,
be pulverized like paper in a shredder,
or briefly flare in a world that will forget her.

Martin Elster writes: “In the New England autumn, the leaves aren’t the only colorful feature in the landscape. Caterpillars are on the move, so they are more easily chanced on. A few years ago I lived briefly in a mainly rural and hilly town called New Hartford in the state of Connecticut. On my daily walks, I encountered many kinds of animals, including numerous lepidopterans (moths and butterflies), one species of which inspired this poem, an appropriate poem, I think, for late autumn or early winter.
The Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) in its larval form is called the “banded woolly bear” (or “woolly bear” or “woolly worm”). The most remarkable attribute about the little critter is this (from Wikipedia):
“The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws.”
Covered in thick, fluffy-looking hair, the woolly bear sports bands of black and reddish-brown. There’s an age-old belief that the amount of brown on this critter can predict the severity of the coming winter. The more brown, the milder winter will be.
For the geeks: the rhyme scheme of the first stanza of the poem, similar to the bands on a woolly bear (ABA), is a chiasmus: ABC . . . CBA.

Martin Elster, who never misses a beat, was for many years a percussionist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (now retired). He finds contentment in long woodland walks and writing poetry, often alluding to the creatures and plants he encounters. His honors include Rhymezone’s poetry contest (2016) co-winner, the Thomas Gray Anniversary Poetry Competition (2014) winner, the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s poetry contest (2015) third place, and four Pushcart nominations. A full-length collection, Celestial Euphony, was published by Plum White Press in 2019.
This poem has appeared in The Road Not TakenAutumn Sky Poetry Daily, and The HyperTexts. His work has appeared in the Potcake ChapbooksCareers and Other Catastrophes‘ and ‘Robots and Rockets‘.

“Banded Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth) Caterpillar, Virginia” by Dave Govoni is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brian Gavin, ‘Country Church, Family Visit’

On the funeral road, five miles beyond the farm
it looms still, like a silo, then diminishes
as you get close. Your sound won’t raise alarm
out here. There’s none but you. The wishes
of no one left alive will keep you out,
or let you in. The door is probably locked
anyway, closed upon itself, redoubt
for certainties. Surrounding it the block
foundations — reservoirs of ice and weed —
still cluster, like white holes around the heart.
You will not try the door — where it might lead,
you cannot say. The dead have done their part,
for here you are among them once again,
between the legacies of grief — the snow,
the boxes of white quiet, the leaving, then
the watching it loom larger as you go.

Brian Gavin writes: “I like this piece because the church-image haunted (or taunted!) me for several years before I got around to giving it some context in a poem.  When it finally came to the page it felt like I had paid off a debt — like I had finally given the image a chance to tell its story.  The fact that this story turned out to be no story at all — just a bunch of hints and implications — seemed to fit the image.

Brian Gavin is a retired Distribution Manager who started writing poetry about 7 years ago. His poems have appeared in The Journal of Formal Poetry, Peninsula Poets and Snakeskin Magazine, and in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Careers and Other Catastrophes. He lives in Lakeport, Michigan, USA, with his wife Karen.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Chris O’Carroll, ‘Postcard from the Afterlife’

How cool is Heaven? Where do I begin here?
The nightlife’s hipper than pre-war Berlin here,
Yet wholesome as a cozy country inn here.
I’m suave as Cary Grant or Errol Flynn here.
I’ve got broad shoulders and a dazzling grin here,
Plus perfect hair, flat abs and strong, cleft chin here.
(We all look like some sexy film star’s twin here.)
Nobody hates the color of your skin here.
Yang enjoys perfect harmony with yin here.
The food is rich, yet all of us stay thin here.
Nobody has to lose for me to win here.
We’re all on friendly terms with all our kin here.
No politicians practice crooked spin here.
I never get hung over from the gin here.
None of my favorite vices is a sin here.
Damned if I can tell how I got in here.

Chis O’Carroll writes: “I set out to write a matched pair of afterlife poems, assuming that the message from Hell would be inherently funnier.

The Internet’s top bloggers, your ex-lovers,
Share details of how bad you were in bed.
All books, despite the titles on their covers,
Are Dianetics or The Fountainhead.

That sort of stuff. Eternal bliss struck me as less promising comedy material somehow. But my lack of saintliness is pretty hilarious, and one of my many sins is loving monorhyme way more than I should, so the Paradise poem worked out OK after all. I’m often indebted to my wife or to various poet friends as I polish and fine-tune a poem. In this case, it was my late father who read an early draft and helped me punch the thing up. Naturally, this blog is available in Heaven, so he knows I’m giving him a shout-out.

Chris O’Carroll, author of The Joke’s on Me and Abracadabratude (both from Kelsay Books’ White Violet Press), is a Light magazine featured poet as well as a contributor to the Potcake Chapbooks series (Rogues and Roses, Families and Other Fiascoes, Wordplayful and Murder!) and The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology. His poems appear in An Amaranthine Summer (published in memory of Kim Bridgford), Extreme SonnetsLove Affairs at the Villa Nelle, and New York City Haiku, among other collections. Chris is a member of Actors Equity and has performed widely as a stand-up comedian. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, historian Karen Manners Smith.

Postcard from the Afterlife‘ was originally published in The Spectator.

Sonnet (?): ‘Sleep is Like’

Sleep is like heading to the locker room at halftime
Sleep is like stepping into the wings between acts
Sleep is like going outside for a cigarette.

And then you go back to work
Back to the performance
Back to the game.

The game that may go thirty thousand rounds;
But who you really are is when you’re on break;
The rest is just your job, performance, game, not you.

And when at last it ends, and you go home,
Back to where you came from,
Who are you? and where do you go?

Perhaps you know this while you’re deep
Asleep…

This poem–if it is a poem–on (one of) the mysteries of the universe was just published in Snakeskin. I suppose you could call it a sonnet if you want… it has 14 lines. With four thoughts in four sets of three lines and a concluding sort of rhymed couplet, it has an organised form. Sonnetish. But it’s not elegant, it’s coarse–like life and death, consciousness and sleep.

It has no regular beat, let alone formal metre. And it’s not reasonable to claim that ABC DEF GHI JKL MM is a rhyme scheme. The piece simply doesn’t have the carefully balanced exposition of a sonnet, the flow of rhythm, the inevitability of rhyme.

If I put together a collection of my sonnets, I wouldn’t include it.

Probably.

“Smoking outside London Bar” by macabrephotographer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Exiled Leader’

I’ve few wants on my planet, fewer needs –
I like seas, trees, exploring what I’ve made,
Prospecting for the transgalactic trade,
Composing music while collecting seeds.
I like green islands, but won’t interfere
If eco climate needs a waste of ice
Or rock-filled deserts simply are the price
Of balancing the seas and atmosphere.
I’m rarely lonely, happy to create:
Atonal opera, atoning for
Those antisocial acts that led to war,
Jailed on the planet that I populate.
So I plant trees, make insects, have a swim,
Watch, read, compose… my life’s an endless whim.

This sonnet is one of four I wrote after Maryann Corbett commented on the bleakness of my future visions. I suppose this doesn’t really contradict that comment… we’ll have good news and bad news: the good news is, obnoxious leaders will still (occasionally) be deposed, jailed, or exiled to play golf; the bad news is, transgalactic warfare will be pretty awful. But to me, the future’s not bleak if humans keep on developing, changing, growing, exploring, discovering, creating. I think that’s the most likely scenario, that we move out into the galaxy as transhumans and then as post-humans. Though when I say “we” I don’t mean to suggest that includes me! Neither moon nor Mars excite me. I like woods and gardens by the sea.

This poem was published in Star*Line, the official print journal of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (thanks, Jean-Paul Garnier). Its poetry includes the full range of styles from formal to free. And the SFPA has another, online, journal called Eye To The Telescope. For reasons unknown my poems haven’t found lodging in ETTT yet.

“The Little Prince” by manfred majer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0