Category Archives: Potcake Poet

Max Gutmann, ‘A Letter Home’

One flat fall evening, as an undergrad,
I left the library to mail a letter
and at the mailbox had
a stirring–-I don’t know what else to call it,
but I felt certain, drifting back
on brittle leaves, surrounded by the gray,
this was my life–-a feeling new,
whole, deeply and vibratingly unstrange.

Back at the carrel, where my books still lay,
I sat some time immersed there in that moment:
me, having walked away
from books for some slight, distant human contact,
returning through the coming winter
to my small space. It struck me as both sad
and right; young as I was, I knew
it wasn’t something I would ever change.

*****

Max Gutmann writes: “Though it takes the perspective of an older man looking back, ‘A Letter Home‘ was written shortly after the experience it shares, years before I wrote any other verse (aside from some limericks); the drive to record the experience as a poem had nothing to do with habit. I couldn’t have anticipated that the “distant human contact” in my life would come to include a community of writers with whom I’ve only ever exchanged words on a screen (a community you do a lot to nourish, Robin. Thank you.)”

A Letter Home‘ was first published in the Pulsebeat Poetry Journal.

Max Gutmann has worked as, among other things, a stage manager, a journalist, a teacher, an editor, a clerk, a factory worker, a community service officer, the business manager of an improv troupe, and a performer in a Daffy Duck costume. Occasionally, he has even earned money writing plays and poems.

Photo: “McAllen mailbox” by Drpoulette is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Using form: choice of metre: John Beaton, ‘Request for a Dance’

Step with me, float with me, over the floor;
weave with me, waltz with me, out through the door;
slide to the deck where the crowdedness clears;
glide through the garden and tear off your fears.

Step with me, sneak with me, down to the lake,
onto its waters; the mirror won’t break;
lilt in a ball gown of luminous mist;
twirl till you’re breathless and need to be kissed.

Step with me, skim with me, let yourself go,
dazzling and dizzy, then flowingly slow;
whirl till our swirls make a maelstrom of night;
pass through the portal from here to delight.

Step with me, sway with me, feel yourself swing,
hammocked on rhythms of hearts on the wing;
move to the measures of seasons and years;
sweep to that island where time disappears.

Step with me, slip with me, up to its crypt,
quaff a last laugh from the pleasures we’ve sipped;
curtsey and smile at a parting of hands
joined in this dancing by two wedding bands.

*****

John Beaton writes: “Inspired by Richard Wilbur’s beautiful ‘For C,’ and by my own marriage, I wanted to write a poem about lifelong love. For the beginning, a wedding dance came to mind and that expanded into an extended metaphor. The theme needed a form that danced the reader along.
I adopted a four-line stanza rhymed aabb with the meter of each line being a form of dactylic tetrameter: DA-da-da, DA-da.da, DA-da-da, DA. To kick off each stanza dancingly, I used near-repetition in the first two dactyls. Then a lot of alliteration and internal rhyme help it swirl along.
The poem develops the dance into a shared lifelong experience, one that must end but does so with a sense of fulfilment and beauty. I’ve recited it at weddings.”

John Beaton’s metrical poetry has been widely published and has won numerous awards. He recites from memory as a spoken word performer and is author of Leaving Camustianavaig published by Word Galaxy Press. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, John lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.
https://www.john-beaton.com/

Photo: “Wedding Dance” by DonnaBoley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Using form: villanelle: Melissa Balmain, ‘Villain Elle’

Whenever I wake up and don’t feel well,
I like to read a women’s magazine.
I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle,

Cosmo or Glamour, Self or Mademoiselle,
instead of pills, elixirs or caffeine,
whenever I wake up and don’t feel well.

Page Eight has bathing suits that look just swell
if you’re six foot and live on Lean Cuisine.
I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle.

Page Nine’s a list of “wardrobe musts” that sell
at reasonable prices—for a queen.
Whenever I wake up and don’t feel well,

Page Ten says how to age, yet stay a belle.
The photo? It’s a model of eighteen.
I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle

to make my time in bed such living hell,
I’m out of there in sixty seconds clean.
Whenever I wake up and don’t feel well,
I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle.

*****

Editor: The villanelle is a highly structured poem, its two key lines rhyming and repeating several times. One of its challenges is to make each repetition fresh and interesting, either by developing and deepening the context, or by varying the repeated lines slightly or, as with this one, by having the same words resonate differently. Here “I know that I can count on” gives an initial impression of a favourable attitude to women’s magazines, but at the end the words show total disgust. This ‘Villain Elle‘ is typical of Balmain’s twists and puns and absolute control of form.

Melissa Balmain edits Light, America’s longest-running journal of light verse. Her poems and prose have appeared widely in the US and UK. She’s the author of the full-length poetry collection Walking in on People (Able Muse Press), chosen by X.J. Kennedy for the Able Muse Book Award, and the shorter, illustrated The Witch Demands a Retraction: Fairy-Tale Reboots for Adults (Humorist Books). Her next full-length collection, Satan Talks to His Therapist, is due out in fall 2023.

‘Villain Elle‘ is from Walking in on People © Melissa Balmain, 2014. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.

Photo: “304/365 – 8/8/2011” by GabrielaP93 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Using form: Ballade: Marcus Bales, ‘Scary Home-Life’ (for GTZ)

Get up, get out, and get away–I went
as early as I could to leave one vile
exposure for another. School. It meant
escape from home at least a little while,
not long enough, and trading family guile
for reading sullen peers and teacher spin,
except for you, beside me on the aisle–
I was the girl with the scary home-life and bad skin.

I was first to homeroom every day.
And how did Mr Romo ever know
that half a sausage sandwich was the way
a skinny girl survived. He’d always go
“Good morning,” handing me a half as though
that half were mine and we were somehow kin;
I’d nod my thanks and sit in the back row–
I was the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

And you, who sat beside me, always kind
to me, and always kind of sassy tough
to other kids who other years combined
to make me almost miserable enough
to stay at home, from you I learned to bluff
my inner fear, to fake a cocky grin,
and start to walk as if it wasn’t rough
to be the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

L’envoi
Yeah, it was you and Mr Romo, in the end,
who gave me things that I could not begin
to pay you back for, so even I’d befriend
the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “I have a modest file of poems that have got me unfriended, blocked, or banned by people or publications, for one reason or another. Sometimes, as in this case, the reason is unknown to me. 

“Back in the old days when I was a working salesman at the sort of retail store where it takes an hour or two to walk around the store with your salesperson and discuss wants and needs and preferences, it is often the case that the customer gets comfortable enough to tell things about themselves or their lives that they might hesitate to repeat without canny encouragement. Here, a vivacious and attractive young couple were moving in together and needed furniture and a bed. They were excited, and money was not an issue. It turned out the young woman had been an officer in the Marines or the Army — I forget which at this distance — in one of the rougher, tougher units, and I admired her for having the stuff to lead in that mise en scene. She recounted that she had felt driven to it by a harrowing early family life, complete with the sort of acne that is every teen’s nightmare. A scary home-life and bad skin was her description of it. After the sale was completed I wrote most of this poem in the break room in the back, after climbing on the table to turn off the Muzak speaker so I could think. 

“I discovered she had friended me on Facebook and had written some nice things about me at the store, which was very nice of her. Of course even back then I was posting my poems on Facebook, and posted this one, without her name, but with her initials. All the details are entirely fictional. I made them all up, except for that one line. She blocked me right away.”

Editor’s note: a ballade is a very suitable form for this poem, with iambics for thoughtful mood, claustrophobically restricted rhyme scheme, steady refrain, and final summation addressed to a superior person. From the Wikipedia entry ‘Ballade (forme fixe)‘: “The ballade as a verse form typically consists of three eight-line stanzas, each with a consistent metre and a particular rhyme scheme. The last line in the stanza is a refrain. The stanzas are often followed by a four-line concluding stanza (an envoi) usually addressed to a prince. The rhyme scheme is therefore usually ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC, where the capital C is a refrain.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘Form in Formless Times’).

Photo: “skinny girl” by Villegación is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Using form: sonnet variation: Amit Majmudar, ‘A Pedestrian’

He window shops. He yawns. He checks his watch.
He sips his Starbucks through a spillproof lid.
No one knows who he is or what he did
except a black van loitering down the block.
He buys a pack of gum. Briefly he stops
to crouch and read the headlines of the Times
before continuing up 12th and Vine.
His neck prickles. He slows. The coffee drops

and before it has landed he’s off like a hound at the races
he is hurdling strollers and ducking a chilidog raised
to the mouth checkered taxis grow fists as he cuts
into oncoming traffic our cellular phones snap shut
in amazement look billowing trenchcoats give chase
fleshcolored earpieces dangling a flush to their faces

*****

Amit Majmudar writes: “The actor Alfred Molina recorded ‘A Pedestrian‘ for the Poetry Foundation many years ago: https://www.wnyc.org/story/52133-poetry-off-the-shelf-amit-majmudar/ . It’s an excellent rendition. I remember feeling, when I heard that recording back in 2006 (at the tender age of 27), that I had finally “arrived” as a poet—after all, the guy from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark had spoken my words! I don’t often write sonnets, but ‘A Pedestrian‘, with its metrical shift from walking to running at the volta (dovetailing with the idea of metrical “feet”), was a fun poem to write.”

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. 
      Majmudar’s poetry collections include 0’, 0’ (Northwestern, 2009), shortlisted for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011, Storyline Press), which won the Donald Justice Prize, selected by A. E. Stallings. These volumes were followed by Dothead (Knopf, 2016) and What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poems have won the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and numerous Best American Poetry anthologies as well as journals and magazines across the United States, UK, India, and Australia. Majmudar also edited, at Knopf’s invitation, a political poetry anthology entitled Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. 
      Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His forthcoming collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a forthcoming memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. 
      Majmudar’s work as a novelist includes two works of historical fiction centered around the 1947 Partition of India, Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) and The Map and the Scissors (HarperCollins India, 2022). His first children’s book also focuses on Indian history and is entitled Heroes the Colour of Dust (Puffin India, 2022). Majmudar has also penned a tragicomic, magical realist fable of Indian soldiers during World War I, Soar (Penguin India, 2020). The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), by contrast, is a work of contemporary realism exploring Indian-American life. Majmudar’s long-form fiction has garnered rave reviews from NPR’s All Things Considered, the Wall Street Journal, Good Housekeeping, and The Economist, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist; his short fiction won a 2017 O. Henry Prize.   
      Majmudar’s work in Hindu mythology includes a polyphonic Ramayana retelling, Sitayana (Penguin India, 2019), and The Mahabharata Trilogy (Penguin India, 2023). His work as a translator includes Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).

Photo: “a hot drink” by [ embr ] is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Using form: Couplets: Maryann Corbett, ‘Fugue in October’

Baroque chamber ensemble and homeless encampment, Saint Paul

Perfect: the singers, strings, and keyboards. Perfect
Bruised sky above the tents of the squatters’ district
the little jewel-box church, its bright acoustic
calm in the year’s last mildness, the only music
softened a little in the candles’ lighting,
the mumbling underpass. The wind. No fighting
for this is God’s mind, woven of harmonies
for once. Tonight, for once, no one ODs—
and our souls thread through the flame of the vigil lamp
someone got lucky at the entrance ramp
as we hold, hold to Monteverdi’s line
(panhandling, on this warm day, with a sign)
and stop our breath until the last string dies
and parcels out his manna of salty fries
in the last great chord of his Beatus vir
while sirens wail some sorrow, far from here.

*****

Editor’s comments: “In case it isn’t clear from whatever device you are reading this on, each couplet here is comprised of a line about a musical ensemble in a church followed by a line about a homeless encampment under a highway. You can read it straight through as a soft-voiced line followed by a harsher one; or you can read every other line in one voice and the remaining lines in a different voice; either way, you are blending two very different aspects of city life into a larger, richer picture of community sharing, whether in glamour or squalor. This is an unusual and remarkably effective use of rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter.
The contrast built into the poem, and the skill with which it was done, made it a natural poem for inclusion in the ‘City! Oh City!‘ Potcake chapbook. It first appeared in Measure Review; and is included in the collection In Code.

Maryann Corbett writes: “Events that trigger a poem need not be as simultaneous as the poem makes them seem. The choral concert in this poem took place on a subzero night during the Christmas season; the rise of homeless encampments occurred at a warmer time of year–but both could be happening in my city at any time, and they probably still are.”

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.

Her web page: http://maryanncorbett.com

Photo: “sleeping on the rock of ages” by waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Using form: nonce form; John Beaton, ‘Wolves’

I’m wakened, drawn towards the ice-thin window,
to witness scenes as faint and still as death.
How bleak the moon; how bare the trees and meadows;
sky’s pale maw overhangs
Earth bleached beneath star fangs.
Night’s curled lip sneers on shadows
of mountains set like teeth.

Two bow waves shear the median of the valley,
iced hayfield yields as feral muscles glide–
hoarfrost disturbed by wakes of live torpedoes.
Grey shoulders breach and lope,
implode and telescope,
impelled by ruthless credos
of chilled and vicious pride.

The wolves tear savage furrows down the nightscape;
their eyes are shined with blood, their mission clear.
Grass springs back shocked to green behind their passage–
twin tracks traverse the vales,
cold comets trailing tails
leave scarred in frost their message:
the wolves, the wolves passed here.

*****

John Beaton writes: “This describes a real incident on our acreage when I woke in the middle of a frosty night for no apparent reason and looked out the window. I was struck by the grace, power, and sense of danger the wolves evoked.
“The first three lines are pentameter and the endings alternate—feminine, masculine, feminine. The next four lines contract to trimeter to give a sense of speed and acceleration. Lines two and seven have a masculine rhyme that closes the stanza and ties its parts together. The overall rhyme-scheme is xabccba. My intent was to convey the power and motion of the wolves running and I built in alliteration and internal rhyme to help with this.”

John Beaton’s metrical poetry has been widely published and has won numerous awards. He recites from memory as a spoken word performer and is author of Leaving Camustianavaig published by Word Galaxy Press. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, John lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.
https://www.john-beaton.com/

Photo: “Wolves With Northern Lights (Color Corrected)” by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

George Simmers, ‘Leonard’

Old Leonard said it straight: ‘Let’s not pretend
That death is anything except the end.
You die, you’re done; you’re fed to flames or worms.’
He’d make his point in no uncertain terms,
And Jess recalls the loud and booming laughter
With which he greeted talk of the hereafter.
‘The here and now is all that we have got;
It’s real; the vicar’s fairytales are not.’
She thinks of how he’d neatly phrase a joke;
She clearly hears the forceful way he spoke,
And that ‘Oh but surely…’, with a dying fall
Which clinched an argument once and for all
His words come back to her today as clear
As if the ancient atheist was here.
It’s just as though he’s with her in the room
Though he’s spent years now mouldering in his tomb.

She smiles to think of him, and smiles again
To think how he’s a fixture in her brain.
She even caught herself the other day
Clinching her point in just old Leonard’s way,
With ‘Oh but surely…’ Should she then infer
A trace of him is still alive in her?
Well — a man of such large humour and such drive —
Why be surprised if something should survive?

Now, ten years on, Jess too is dead and gone,
But some things have a way of lingering on.
That ‘Oh but surely…’ with that intonation
Has somehow reached another generation.
Jane, Jess’s daughter, last week floored the board
Of the college with it, and so neatly scored
Her point that they in unison agreed
To fund her project. Phrasing’s what you need,
And Jane knows that, but what she doesn’t know,
Is that trick came from Leonard long ago,
And Leonard learned it many years before
From his Latin teacher. So, how many more
Homes will this little trick of speaking find
As it nips cleverly from mind to mind?

Though death is death, and funerals are for tears,
Some things can oddly echo through the years.

*****

George Simmers has written many poems “about people dealing with what life has given them, for better or for worse.” Fifteen of them are collected in his book ‘Old, Old’. His other recent and more diverse collection is ‘Old and Bookish’.

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Photo: “Danger of Death By Failing” by AlmazUK is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ed Shacklee, ‘I Think Continually Of Men Dressed As Catherine The Great’

I think continually of men dressed as Catherine the Great,
Betty Boop or Greta Garbo, queens of film and state
who hitched their wagons to a star and switched the sex of Fate.

I think of fervid men in furs, the Humphries and the Dannies,
those lads who walked the walk in highest heels and padded fannies
and promenaded on the stage with debutantes and grannies –

the young, the old, the gayly bold who sashayed with panache
through droll burlesque or discotheques and made a spangled splash
in rainbow-hued ensembles that, while loud, would never clash.

They shaved and plucked, then nipped and tucked, ignoring boring foes
whose morals lagged while knuckles dragged around their unclipped toes.
These Joans – both Crawford and of Arc – and Marilyn Monroes

were kicked for kicks and picked upon, but got back up again;
and whether they were women inside men, or simply men
who liked to paint their nails and put on lipstick now and then,

I think continually of those whose vampy, cutting wit
and campy fame enflamed, then tamed, the bigot and the twit,
who were hammered till they stammered by their glamour and their grit
until a world a size too small became the perfect fit.

*****

This poem by Ed Shacklee, with its reference to Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great‘, was published in the current issue of Lighten Up Online.

Ed Shacklee lives on a boat in the Potomac River. His first collection, “The Blind Loon: A Bestiary,” was published by Able Muse Press.

And for those who like odd information and representations of animals, The Blind Loon: A Bestiary Facebook group is worth joining.

Photo: “Men in Drag” by jacki-dee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Marcus Bales, ‘Me and the Moon’

Her presence was the organizing spice
that made the dish; the multivalent pun;
the compliment whose humor takes you twice
as far aback in unexpected fun,
her laughter tinkling like a scoop of ice
cubes thrown on glass bottles in the sun
that heats a summer vacation afternoon.
This morning though it’s only me and the moon.

Me and the distant moon, who’s not as far
away as she and I have now become.
She laughs that laugh while I sit in this bar
and wonder how I could have been so dumb
to leave where all the things I value are
and vanish in this alcoholic slum,
regretting what I’ve kept and what I’ve strewn
this morning when it’s only me and the moon.

And now the moon is pretty far advanced
along its ambit’s arc above this place
where one is propositioned, not romanced,
and conversation lacks both wit and grace.
I shuffle now where once I might have danced
and face the fact that this is what I face,
however jaded or inopportune,
this morning while it’s only me and the moon.

L’envoi
Barman! Bring another tinkling glass
or two, and we will claim that we’re immune
to all this pitiful alas alas
this morning, you, and me, and the goddamned moon.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: ” ‘Me and the Moon’ was prompted by Cleveland singer-songwriter Alex Bevan’s post on Facebook back in the oughties, I think. He posted early in the morning that he was looking out the window at the dark and reflecting on his life, thinking that it was just ‘me and the moon’. He’s happily married, and so am I, but the poignance of the phrase somehow seemed significant, and I instantly absconded with his idea. As I recall, the poem was pretty quickly written because however happy we may now be, we all have regrets or unhappinesses to remember. I’ve never been much into the bar life but at the time my wife and I had discovered a wine bar we liked to hang out at where we knew the bartender, and I was eased into just going to the bar to chill and observe and listen. Of course Western culture is soaked in alcohol, but I had not been. It was interesting to see how the whole thing worked — and didn’t work.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘Form in Formless Times’).

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA 100” by Mikes Camera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.