Category Archives: Potcake Poet’s Choice

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Richard Fleming, ‘His Room’

It took five minutes, more or less,
to fill, with what he left behind,
a cardboard box and to compress
into its space, his life, unsigned
in much the way some paintings are,
then stash it in the waiting car.

In those five minutes, I remained
there in the small, vacated room,
while the red-faced landlord explained
a small arrears. Would I assume
responsibility and pay?
My conscience made me easy prey.

*****

Richard Fleming writes: “Growing old, I find myself preoccupied with life’s endings: a balancing of accounts, so to speak, and the inevitable feelings of regret and remorse for things done badly or left undone. Deliberations of that sort inspired this piece of verse, as did the lonely, final years of renowned Guernsey-born novelist, G B Edwards, the demise of an old friend in similar straitened circumstances and, of course, Larkin’s famous poem, Mr Bleaney. I think ‘His Room’ manages, despite its brevity, to encapsulate the ‘whimper’ with which some lives end. A simple rhyme scheme seems best suited to the poem’s mundane subject matter.”

Richard Fleming is an Irish-born poet currently living in Guernsey, a small island midway between Britain and France. His work has appeared in various magazines, most recently Snakeskin, Bewildering Stories, Lighten Up Online, the Taj Mahal Review and the latest Potcake Chapbook ‘Lost Love’, and has been broadcast on BBC radio. He has performed at several literary festivals and his latest collection of verse, Stone Witness, features the titular poem commissioned by the BBC for National Poetry Day. He writes in various genres and can be found at www.redhandwriter.blogspot.com or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/richard.fleming.92102564/

Photo: “Emptied cardboard box” by Creativity103 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brooke Clark, ‘At a Child’s Funeral’

Today we give to the earth the body of our little girl,
our little darling; we’ll never watch her twirl
around the house again in her impenetrable games
or listen as she wheedles and whines our names
in that annoying tone we tried to break her of before;
now we’d give anything to hear it once more.
She’ll find whatever waits for all of us when this life ends–
eternal silence or the souls of friends–
while, left behind, we bow our heads to see what prayers can do.
Lie lightly, earth–she stepped so lightly on you.

*****

Brooke Clark writes: “‘At A Child’s Funeral‘ is loosely adapted from one of Martial’s epigrams. This poem interested me because it’s quite a departure from Martial’s usual satirical style. In it, he attempts to convey a genuinely tender emotion, which is well outside his usual register of scorn verging on disgust. That made it a departure for me too, and I struggled to get the tone right — emotional without being mawkish. I hope I succeeded! In terms of form, it’s in rhyme, and uses alternating 7-stress and 5-stress lines in imitation of Martial’s elegiac couplets.”

Brooke Clark is the author of the poetry collection Urbanities, the editor of the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus and the book reviews editor at Able Muse. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark

Photo: “Filipino child funeral” by Ted Abbott is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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

Black waters,
deep and dark and still…
all men have passed this way,
or will.

*****

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original epigram, written in my teens, returns more than 6,000 results. I started writing poetry around age 13 and decided that I wanted to challenge the immortals around age 15. I was always very ambitious about my writing. When I couldn’t out-write Keats and Shelley at age 15, I destroyed everything I had written in a fit of pique. I was able to reconstruct some of the poems from memory, but not all. I still miss a few of the poems that seemed promising which have not cooperated with being resurrected.”

Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two outrageously spoiled puppies. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, epigrams, quotes, puns, jokes and letters have appeared more than 7,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper, and, according to Google’s rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Darfur, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. Burch’s poetry has been taught in high schools and universities, translated into fifteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, set to music by twenty composers, recited or otherwise employed in more than forty YouTube videos, and used to provide book titles to two other authors. To read the best poems of Mike Burch in his own opinion, with his comments, please click here: Michael R. Burch Best Poems.

Photo: “Styx” by wilding.andrew is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘On Johnson’s Creek’

Mid 80’s, late Wisconsin summer day.
You’re male; just one of many crayfish lured
Innately to this shallow, turbid creek.
July’s sweet warmth assures you that you’ll not
Find only sanctuary, but a mate.
And at a human hand-span’s length from tail

To telson, you’re a splendid prospect: tail
Aloft and eyestalks staunch, you greet the day.
With fierce claws brandished, you await your mate
In burrow’s dark. And nothing could have lured
You from your would-be breeding quarters – not
Until a stealthy stick from o’er the creek

Despoils your warren’s sanctity. The creek,
In tacit bounty, spurs your nerve. Your tail
Aflutter, claws outstretched, you’re not
Alarmed – you clamp the twig and seize the day.
But then the surreptitious branch that lured
You wrests you from the stream, reveals its mate

Above – a boy who thwarts your quest for mate.
His form obstructs the sun and dwarfs the creek
Below the wooden pier. It seems he’s lured
You here for idle sport; he grips your tail
And flings you hard against the planks. While day
Retreats, light’s sudden ebb arises not

From cosmic cause. The sneering boy (who’s not
Alone – a girl shrinks near her preening mate)
Uplifts his foot and renders blissful day
Brutality. Impassively, the creek
Laps on. Your once resplendent olive tail
Is tattered, shattered by the boy who lured

You, crushed your stately carapace. Though lured
From neural ruination’s throes, you’re not
Yet blind; you see his female friend turn tail.
And I, the girl that boy deems doting mate,
For whom you’re executed by the creek –
I know what cruel conceit is that day.

From where once lured, you sink, potential mate
Undone. Not waiting, brethren flee the creek,
Tails undulating. Silence veils the day.

*****

Mindy Watson writes: “‘On Johnson’s Creek’ represents not only one of my earliest published poems, but also my first-ever sestina attempt. Even three decades later, the poem’s instigating tragedy—an ill-starred crustacean’s senseless slaughter—so profoundly disturbed me, that I chose the most convoluted, challenging form I’d known (at that point) to narrate from the dwindling victim’s (second person) point of view. Although my own human projections—predicated upon the Northern Wisconsin climate, incident’s time of year, and region’s most statistically plentiful crayfish species—dictated the crayfish’s depicted age, gender, and objectives; the poem’s auxiliary characters’ (the boy=my older step-cousin; the girl=10-year-old me) motivations and ensuing impressions were pointedly accurate. While I’ve since drafted/published two subsequent sestinas, I still believe the form’s almost fanatical repetition, intricate transpositions, and final unifying envoi best suit this tale-in-verse; which aimed to equate a single creature’s unwitting suffering with humanity’s often capricious cruelty. Two end notes: 1) this sestina preceded/inspired ‘The Maligned Majority,’ a pro-arthropod, non-fiction essay that appeared in Willows Wept Review’s Summer 2020 issue; and 2) while I’m told my childhood step-cousin later married (twice) and still resides/works near Johnson Creek…I haven’t directly spoken to him since that fateful day.”

Mindy Watson is a Washington DC-based formal verse poet who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from the John Hopkins University. Her poems have appeared in venues including Autumn Sky Poetry, Eastern Structures, the Poetry Porch, the Potcake Chapbooks, the Quarterday Review, Snakeskin, Star*Line, Think Journal, and many others. Read her work at: https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite

‘On Johnson’s Creek’ originally appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Jan. 30, 2017

Potcake Poet’s Choice: James B. Nicola, ‘Everybody’s Friendly, Just About…’

On my floor there lives a very nice old
man. Foreign. He’s going blind.
I don’t think he was necessarily an act-
or but a vestigial life percolates up from beneath
the lines in his face and accent. Lately, reaching
out to him has become exhausting. He’s too friendly

now and thrusts his face too close. . . . I was friendly
when I moved in the building. I thought old
meant interesting. Besides, singles are always reaching
out somehow, even when we appear blind
to the personalities and plights that lie beneath
the surface of a stranger’s smile, that casual act

on the elevator where everyone’s an act-
or in some way. Alas, I lack the stamina to feel friendly
always. . . . One time I was standing beneath
the shower in the health club, and another old
man poked his head in. The steam must have blind-
ed him to the soapy mess in my hair. He was just reaching

for whomever he could find for help. What’s wrong with reaching
out when you need help? He had been a famous act-
or, probably used to bothering others. I almost blurted, “Are you blind
or what?! I’m showering!” I felt unfriendly—
then hypocritical, for I knew the showers were old.
After I got his to work, I heard him singing beneath

the nozzle and the steam. Tone deaf. Of course beneath
it all, I was just cranky about his not reaching
out to some paid employee instead of me. Was I getting old
all of a sudden? Old and irritable. O, why resent act-
ing friendly simply because you don’t feel particularly friendly? . . .
Sometimes in the elevator, I’ll read. The book or magazine’s a blind,

but is it hypocrisy? I wonder. Then, when a certifiably blind
person gets on—with a walking stick—the person lying beneath
my literary subterfuge looks up, and, actually feeling friendly,
says hello, implying I could provide some assistance in reaching
a floor if so desired. No, this is not an act:
When they don’t ask for help, I don’t feel cranky or old.

When they do, rudely, I fear I’m going blind, reaching
out to souls beneath loud showers, trying too hard to act
friendly always, and turning prematurely old.

James B. Nicola writes: “If anyone cares to perform ‘Everyone’s Friendly, Just about….,’ you can either enhance the repeated end-of-line words (slightly), or try to ‘enjamb’ through them. In this way, you may notice it exploits the sestina form to serve as a bridge between the ‘poetic/special/heightened’ and the ‘conversational/ quotidien/ casual.’ The balance, or tension, between the two is a concern we have in the theater as well, with the actor’s craft. More than once have I coached an actor with: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone catch you acting!” The poem is the first sestina of mine ever published. It is from my first poetry collection, Manhattan Plaza.”

James B. Nicola has authored six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. Decades of theater work culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. Residence: New York City; born: Worcester, Massachusetts.
https://sites.google.com/view/james-b-nicola

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Cody Walker, ‘Mad System Down’

He thought he saw a Herd of Cattle
Grazing on his lawn:
He looked again, and found it was
A Phaser set to “On.”
“We’re seeing more and more of this,
With Sarah Brady gone.”

He thought he saw a One-Eyed Jack
Go grizzling through the night:
He looked again, and found it was
His Dream of Being Right.
“It turns out not to mean a thing,”
He texted Barry White.

He thought he saw a High-school Hoodlum
Trash his Neighbor’s Yard:
He looked again, and found it was—
Just say it, man. “It’s hard.
I saw my life, reviewed by God.
He had it single-starred.”

He thought he saw Roberta Vinci
Execute a volley:
He looked again, and found it was
A randy Shepherd (prolly).
“I’d live with him, and be his love—
But no, I’ve read my Raleigh.”

He thought he saw his Country’s Fortunes
Crumble—wait a minute:
He looked again, and found there was
Another way to spin it.
“In eighty years we’ll be cadavers.
Kinda funny, innit?”

He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck:
He looked again, and found it was
Umm . . . nothing. Wait a sec.
He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck.

Cody Walker writes: “I’ve been writing in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza form for a couple of decades. The form ferries me to some of my favorite destinations: the Land of Rhyme, the Land of Associative Logic. Though I don’t think I’ll ever outdo Carroll in terms of quality (the start of his final stanza—’He thought he saw an Argument / That proved he was the Pope: / He looked again, and found it was / A Bar of Mottled Soap’—strikes me as unimprovable), I have outdone him in terms of quantity (he wrote nine stanzas; I’ve written about 375). I’ve also, more and more, tried to shake the form free from its light-verse origins. Can a form as seemingly weightless as the ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza take on cancer, Alzheimer’s, school shootings, and (see above) debilitating anxiety? I think it can. But I may need another couple of decades to fully test the hypothesis.

“I’ve read ‘Mad System Down’ for the University of Michigan’s Poetry Blast series, and I’ve written about the form for Poetry Northwest and the Kenyon Review’s blog. Four of the six stanzas in ‘Mad System Down’ originally appeared on the KR blog. The poem’s penultimate stanza first appeared in Light.”

Cody Walker is the author of three poetry collections, including ‘The Self-Styled No-Child’ (Waywiser, 2016). His work appears in The New York Times Magazine, Light, Parnassus, The Best American Poetry and the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. He directs the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Northern Michigan. Website: codywalker.net

Illustration: A Harry Furniss illustration for ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’ from the Lewis Carroll novel Sylvie and Bruno.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Vadim Kagan, ‘You Are Changing’

You are changing from day to day
And from night to night
You are changing before I say
Let there be light
You are changing your smile, your hair
And even your eyes
You are changing what isn’t there
Making truth of lies

You are changing the coins you bet
And the games you win
You are changing what has been set
Outside and in
You are changing from old to new
And again to old
You are changing all that we knew
But were never told

You are changing along the way
And across the sea
You are changing the things that may
Be the last we see
You are changing your blood to sweat
And yourself to me
So keep changing but don’t forget
How it used to be

Vadim Kagan writes: “Life is all about changes. People change, countries change, the world changes. Are we walking in circles or are we ascending (or descending) some universal helix? Opinions differ but as I got older I realized that to me it matters less where we are going than where we came from. This poem was written during a tumultuous time in my life, when I realized that, no matter how well I try to plan,  tomorrow will be different from what I imagined. The poem was, in a way, a kind of therapy – and is probably even more relevant than several years ago. It is also more musical than many of my poems, and made a great (if little known) song.”

Vadim Kagan writes poetry and prose in English, Russian and, occasionally, a combination of both languages. He runs an AI company in Bethesda, MD and is a member of the DC Poetry Collective. His poems have been published in The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, Founder’s Favorites, DC Poetry Collective Inkblots anthologies and the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. He often posts on Facebook (@vadimkagan) and Instagram (@wines_and_rhymes.)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: N.S. Thompson, ‘The Women in Delft’

Johannes Van Der Meer, (Vermeer), 17th Century

We look at them expectantly: a room
With balance held, a string of pearls, a hand
Placed on the virginal, or there a letter
Clutched to the breast; these women keep
The gentle art of looking artfully
Revealed, yet hidden in the art of space.

They seem absorbed in it and yet leave space
For eyes to linger on them in that room
And wonder what the painter artfully
Kept in or out, things under hand
Or underhand? The surfaces still keep
Us guessing. What could be in that one’s letter

Or that one’s balance? And why does he let her
Appear to weigh up in that pregnant space
Such a wealth of meaning only to keep
It from us in that sunlit room?
Are we – the viewers – meant to have a hand
In them and come to see what artfully

Has been concealed? That View of Delft is artfully
Conceived yet not depicted to the letter
But deftly rearranged, the painter’s hand
Adding the unknown of space,
A brooding sky providing all the room
To rise above the secrets buildings keep…

Or take elsewhere that crenellated keep
Of brick (its outside walls so artfully
Salt-leached) allowing us again the room
To wonder if they hold that letter
Or else the string of pearls in all that space
Held in The Little Street. Whose was the hand

That let the children out of doors or hand
That pressed the collars, urging them to keep
The clothes clean, as she hurriedly made space
To meet the lover artfully
Returned from sea or merchant whose last letter
Had news that left her trembling in that room?

How artfully he let us have a hand
In them and keep us guessing in the space
Between a letter and a sunlit room.

N.S. Thompson writes: “I have always admired the sestina and for years thought about writing one before I finally did. What intrigued me was the way the six words at the ends of lines could be worked into a sensible whole; indeed, made into a resonant whole while yet showing the variety of meanings those words could take. It seemed the perfect vehicle for exhibiting, as it were, a gallery of pictures as we see in Vermeer’s several depictions of women going about their everyday activities, each different but forming a whole. A view of life that was both evident to the observer and yet at the same time hidden. What were those women thinking as they went about their business? What was fascinating was the mystery he created in the representation of everyday life.
The nearest analogy I can think of in visual terms to reading a sestina is the way a kaleidoscope works, even if there the succession of patterns there is endless, but the variation is surprising and pleasurable. It is also playful. There are little touches in the poem of such playfulness, as in “deftly” in the fourth stanza which is an anagram of Vermeer’s home town of Delft “adding the unknown”, which is the “y” (as in algebra).
And it took a long time to get right. I first produced a version after watching a television programme about Vermeer. I jotted down my six end words and quickly filled out the six stanzas, then the three last lines incorporating the six words again, hopefully with yet another semantic turn on them. I felt very pleased with myself until I read the result the next day. It then took several years of careful homing, plus several changes of end words until it finally seemed to be a natural expression that did not call attention to itself as a deliberate construct. This seems to me the necessary requirement of a sestina. Other repetitive forms can flaunt their patterns overtly, but for me the sestina has to be more subtle and almost disguise itself until the reader finally notices the form.”

N.S. Thompson lives near Oxford, UK. A poet, critic and translator, he is also the non-fiction editor for Able Muse. Two recent pamphlets are After War (New Walk Editions) and Ghost Hands (Melos Press), and he has a poem in the imminently available latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. ‘The Women in Delft’ is published in the poet’s collection Mr Larkin on Photography and Other Poems (Red Squirrel Press, 2016).

Photo: “Vermeer” by pom’. is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Helena Nelson, ‘On Gloom and Proper Respect’

He doesn’t exactly blame her for it. No,
it’s not her fault. She is the way she is—
incorrigibly optimistic. But
the strain of her unbridled cheerfulness

must tell. His gloom requires due diligence.
It’s there to serve a need, and needs a slow
and proper processing. That’s it—a proper pro-
cessing. To this he must commit, and hence

his necessary isolation. No,
he is not depressed. He’s just process-
ing. Some ‘thing’ is passing through. It will go
eventually, but it must run its course.

The weight of doom would be a minor stress
if she would just dispense with cheerfulness.

Helena Nelson writes: “This poem is part of a book-length sequence telling the story of an ordinary, conventional marriage (albeit a second marriage for each partner). It’s about love that struggles to survive the difficulties of aging, loss and illness. The husband, Mr Philpott, has always suffered from anxiety but he has bouts of depression too, when he withdraws into himself. In fact, he might fairly be described as a ‘difficult’ man, though he can’t help it. Here the sonnet form reflects his need for tight control, repressing his anxiety about depression, which gets squeezed uncomfortably across the line breaks. There’s humour here, too. Because how absurd it is, surely, to wish your wife were less cheerful? And yet he does. He certainly does.” 

Helena Nelson runs HappenStance Press and sometimes writes poems, one of which appears in the soon-to-be-released latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. She has been writing the story of Mr and Mrs Philpott for over twenty years, and it can finally be found in its complete form as Pearls (The Complete Mr and Mrs Philpott Poems)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jerome Betts, ‘Morning Calls’

Though buds, light-headed, arrow to the sun,
Wood-pigeons cautiously descend to drink
As through the roof the first faint cheepings run
From half-fledged nestlings in some straw-warm chink,
While welling far and near − to float and sink
Like spidery fibre silvered on the lawn −
Mercurial lark song trails out link by link,
Rocking serrated-throated crows have drawn
Their broad indelible raw weals across the dawn.

Jerome Betts writes: “Have only tried the intricate patterning of the ‘Spenserian stanza‘ a couple of times. On the first occasion it seemed to suit a comment on the design of a 4th century Roman mosaic floor and on the second, in ‘Morning Calls’, appearing in Snakeskin, a memory of the rich dawn chorus in rural Herefordshire many years ago. The point of particular interest for me is the phrase ‘rocking serrated-throated crows’ in Line 8, unchanged from one jotted at the time. The words fitted a rocking or bobbing movement, but why ‘serrated-throated’?  This is appropriate for ravens with their ‘shaggy throat feathers’  (RSPB Handbook 2014) but not, I thought, crows. The words resisted attempts at tweaking and the stanza stalled. Some weeks later I saw a crow standing on top of a Devon street light rhythmically calling and rocking . . . and as it did so its neck feathers briefly parted on the upstroke of the movement. The line had preserved an exact observation made when young and then forgotten.”

Jerome Betts edits the quarterly verse webzine Lighten Up Online in Devon. His work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Pennine Platform, Light, The Rotary Dial, and Snakeskin, other American, British and Canadian publications and two Iron Press anthologies.
www.lightenup-online.co.uk

Photo: “A Crow calling – gardenDSCN9711” by ianpreston is marked with CC BY 2.0.