Category Archives: poets

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, “The Old Man’s Heaven”

George Simmers

George Simmers

Do those whose taste in music
Is grandly hoity-toity
Think Heaven’s operatic
And ineffably Bayreuth-y?
Do those who go for punky gigs
Think paradise less posh,
Packed hard with spit and violence,
So Heaven’s one long mosh?

Let me describe the paradise
My ageing heart prefers–
A dimly-lit piano bar
And a bottle-blonde chanteuse.
Some broad who’s been around the block,
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

George Simmers writes: “I’ve sent this poem as a favourite because it starts off very definitely as light verse, but then modulates into something else. I like poems like that (and dislike the opposite – the ones that start off sounding deep, but then opt out and end up flippantly).

In the description of the singer and her music, I’m celebrating the kind of music I most enjoy – the torch-songs of the Great American Songbook, mostly from that golden age between 1920 and 1960. As I listen, I enjoy remembering that this is the kind of popular song that in its time was fulminated against by vicars and Leavisites for being popular and shallow (but more deeply perhaps because such folk were made uncomfortable by the Jewish melodies and African rhythms). Great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan made perfect art of it, but I prefer to think of a more imperfect one, a singer in a smallish bar, provincial, earning her rent doing what she loves, and finding in the songs a way of expressing the trials and yearnings of her own imperfect life. The customers drink, and maybe some of them chat. She sings.

Her repertoire is heavy on the music of Harold Arlen, but there is plenty of Rogers and Hart there, too, and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, and Gershwin, of course. And yes, Herman Hupfeld and… you name them.

I’m amazed, when looking into anthologies of twentieth-century American poetry, that they do not include ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘I Wish I were in Love Again’ or ‘Blues in the Night’. These are words that will surely outlast those of the poets academically respectable in their day. My poem is a tribute to those songwriters.”

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.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Review: “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” by W.H. Davies

Hobos

Hobos, US Library of Congress. Unknown date. Likely 1880s – 1930s

W.H. Davies was a poet whose best-known piece begins

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Born in Newport, Wales, in 1871, he was raised by his grandparents. As a boy he fought a lot, and at 13 was the leader of gang, was arrested for stealing handbags, and got twelve strokes of the birch. He read enthusiastically, disliked being apprenticed to a maker of picture frames, and at 21 took passage to America. His years of wandering provide a fascinating view of the US over 100 years ago, with chapters on jails, thieves, cattlemen, race issues in the Mississippi area, and so on. He worked his way back and forth over the Atlantic, lost a leg hopping a train in Canada and thereafter limited himself to England where he began writing his poetry and memoirs in doss houses in between bouts of tramping and begging. Eventually he was noticed, published for his poetry first and then for his autobiography–with a preface by George Bernard Shaw–and became famous.

His autobiography is frank, amusing, informative, insightful and naive all at the same time. A unique book, and a good accompaniment to his poetry (the link is to an 11-slide deck) which is also insightful and naive and oriented to observing life outside, whether in city or countryside. This is from “The Sleepers”:

As I walked down the waterside
This silent morning, wet and dark;
Before the cocks in farmyards crowed,
Before the dogs began to bark;
Before the hour of five was struck
By old Westminster’s mighty clock:

As I walked down the waterside
This morning, in the cold damp air,
I saw a hundred women and men
Huddled in rags and sleeping there:
These people have no work, thought I,
And long before their time they die.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Dervla Ramaswamy, “Woman vs The Virus”

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy writes:

The poem of mine that you will print is my most recent, which contains my thoughts on the Coronavirus epidemic:

WOMAN vs THE VIRUS

the virus is the virus

the old and the debilitated
sadly become victims to its power

the doctors quake
the politicians tremble
but
I am woman

the power of woman confronts
the virus
for males are fifty
percent more likely to expire
due to the virus

such is the fortitude of women
I am the strength of women

yes, for my hips are monstrous
my belly is glorious
my appetites are profound
my cunt terrifies clergymen
power must bend before me

I am woman
I am the strength of all women
I am Marie Curie
I am Marilyn Monroe
I am Viginia McKenna
I am Jiang Qing
I am Winnie Mandela
I am Meghan Markle
I am our NHS
I am woman

Undefeated

Dervla Ramaswamy’s Potcake Poet bio simply states: “Poet. Thinker. Woman.”

She is hard to track down. Through our mutual friend George Simmers, Editor of Snakeskin, I heard she had entered a two-year writing retreat somewhere in the Balkans, with the project of creating a thirteen-line sonnet. “Luckily,” he continued, “the Mother Superior of the convent where she is currently on retreat is an ex-girlfriend of mine.”

This led to Dervla Ramaswamy herself suggesting that Potcake Chapbooks should publish what she describes as “my major work. It is a 4,000 line epic in free verse, describing the grim struggles of a family of Bulgarian potato farmers through seven depressing decades. I think you will enjoy it.”

Perhaps. But there are shorter, more traditional poems of hers which I look forward to including in future Potcake Chapbooks.

 

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, “Poetry”

Michael Burch

Michael R. Burch

Michael R. Burch’s chosen poem Poetry, and the story behind his choice, and are so interwoven that his entire essay Making of a Poet is reproduced here with the poem at the very end:

While I don’t consider “Poetry” to be my best poem—I wrote the first version in my teens—it’s a poem that holds special meaning for me. I call it my ars poetica. Here’s how it came about …

When I was eleven years old, my father, a staff sergeant in the US Air Force, was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. We were forced to live off-base for two years, in a tiny German village where there were no other American children to play with, and no English radio or TV stations. To avoid complete boredom, I began going to the base library, checking out eight books at a time (the limit), reading them in a few days, then continually repeating the process. I quickly exhausted the library’s children’s fare and began devouring its adult novels along with a plethora of books about history, science and nature.

In the fifth grade, I tested at the reading level of a college sophomore and was put in a reading group of one. I was an incredibly fast reader: I flew through books like crazy. I was reading Austen, Dickens, Hardy, et al, while my classmates were reading whatever one normally reads in grade school. My grades shot through the roof and from that day forward I was always the top scholar in my age group, wherever I went.

But being bright and ultra-self-educated does not invariably lead to happiness. I was tall, scrawny, introverted and socially awkward. I had trouble making friends. I began to dabble in poetry around age thirteen, but then we finally were granted base housing and for two years I was able to focus on things like marbles, quarters, comic books, baseball, basketball and football. And, from an incomprehensible distance, girls.

When I was fifteen my father retired from the Air Force and we moved back to his hometown of Nashville. While my parents were looking for a house, we lived with my grandfather and his third wife. They didn’t have air-conditioning and didn’t seem to believe in hot food—even the peas and beans were served cold!—so I was sweaty, hungry, lonely, friendless and miserable. It was at this point that I began to write poetry seriously. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my options were so limited and the world seemed so impossibly grim and unfair.

Writing poetry helped me cope with my loneliness and depression. I had feelings of deep alienation and inadequacy, but suddenly I had found something I could do better than anyone around me. (Perhaps because no one else was doing it at all?)

However, I was a perfectionist and poetry can be very tough on perfectionists. I remember becoming incredibly frustrated and angry with myself. Why wasn’t I writing poetry like Shelley and Keats at age fifteen? I destroyed all my poems in a fit of pique. Fortunately, I was able to reproduce most of the better poems from memory, but two in particular were lost forever and still haunt me.

In the tenth grade, at age sixteen, I had a major breakthrough. My English teacher gave us a poetry assignment. We were instructed to create a poetry booklet with five chapters of our choosing. I still have my booklet, a treasured memento, banged out on a Corona typewriter with cursive script, which gave it a sort of elegance, a cachet. My chosen chapters were: Rock Songs, English Poems, Animal Poems, Biblical Poems, and ta-da, My Poems! Audaciously, alongside the poems of Shakespeare, Burns and Tennyson, I would self-publish my fledgling work! My teacher wrote “This poem is beautiful” beside one my earliest compositions, “Playmates.” Her comment was like rocket fuel to my stellar aspirations. Surely I was next Keats, the next Shelley! Surely immediate and incontrovertible success was now fait accompli, guaranteed!

Of course I had no idea what I was getting into. How many fifteen-year-old poets can compete with the immortal bards? I was in for some very tough sledding because I had good taste in poetry and could tell the difference between merely adequate verse and the real thing. I continued to find poetry vexing. Why the hell wouldn’t it cooperate and anoint me its next Shakespeare, pronto?

Then I had another breakthrough. I remember it vividly. I working at a McDonald’s at age seventeen, salting away money for college because my parents had informed me they didn’t have enough money to pay my tuition. Fortunately, I was able to earn a full academic scholarship, but I still needed to make money for clothes, dating (hah!), etc. I was sitting in the McDonald’s break room when I wrote a poem, “Reckoning” (later re-titled “Observance”), that sorta made me catch my breath. Did I really write that? For the first time, I felt like a “real poet.”

Observance

Here the hills are old, and rolling
casually in their old age;
on the horizon youthful mountains
bathe themselves in windblown fountains . . .

By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
I have traced time’s starts and stops,
and I have known the years to pass
almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops . . .

For here the valleys fill with sunlight
to the brim, then empty again,
and it seems that only I notice
how the years flood out, and in . . .

Another poem, “Infinity,” written around age eighteen, again made me feel like a real poet.

Infinity

Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
that your soul sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?

Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
have dreamed of infinity . . . windswept and blue.

Now, two “real poems” in two years may not seem like a big deal to non-poets. But they were very big deals to me. I would go off to college feeling that I was, really, a real poet, with two real poems under my belt. I felt like someone, at last. I had, at least, potential.

But I was in for another rude shock. Being a good reader of poetry—good enough to know when my own poems were falling far short of the mark—I was absolutely floored when I learned that imposters were controlling Poetry’s fate! These imposters were claiming that meter and rhyme were passé, that honest human sentiment was something to be ridiculed and dismissed, that poetry should be nothing more than concrete imagery, etc.

At first I was devastated, but then I quickly became enraged. I knew the difference between good poetry and bad. I could feel it in my flesh, in my bones. Who were these imposters to say that bad poetry was good, and good was bad? How dare they? I was incensed! I loved Poetry. I saw her as my savior because she had rescued me from depression and feelings of inadequacy. So I made a poetic pledge to save my Savior from the imposters:

Poetry

Poetry, I found you where at last they chained and bound you;
with devices all around you to torture and confound you,
I found you—shivering, bare.

They had shorn your raven hair and taken both your eyes
which, once cerulean as Gogh’s skies, had leapt with dawn to wild surmise
of what was waiting there.

Your back was bent with untold care; there savage brands had left cruel scars
as though the wounds of countless wars; your bones were broken with the force
with which they’d lashed your flesh so fair.

You once were loveliest of all. So many nights you held in thrall
a scrawny lad who heard your call from where dawn’s milling showers fall—
pale meteors through sapphire air.

I learned the eagerness of youth to temper for a lover’s touch;
I felt you, tremulant, reprove each time I fumbled over-much.
Your merest word became my prayer.

You took me gently by the hand and led my steps from boy to man;
now I look back, remember when—you shone, and cannot understand
why here, tonight, you bear their brand.

I will take and cradle you in my arms, remindful of the gentle charms
you showed me once, of yore;
and I will lead you from your cell tonight—back into that incandescent light
which flows out of the core of a sun whose robes you wore.
And I will wash your feet with tears for all those blissful years . . .
my love, whom I adore.

Originally published by The Lyric

Michael R. Burch has been published more than 3,500 times, including in the Potcake Chapbook Families and Other Fiascoes. His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by three composers. He also edits TheHyperTexts–a massive and always-growing anthology of poetry past and present. Whether you want John Donne, or Pablo Neruda, or Ronald Reagan, or poems of the Palestinian resistance, or any of the best current poets, this is a good place to start.
http://www.thehypertexts.com/Michael_R_Burch_Poet_Poetry_Picture_Bio.html

The Greatest Early 21st c. Poet? M.A. Griffiths

M.A. Griffiths

Margaret Ann Griffiths–scanned photo provided by David Adkins

Ruthless, witty, iconoclastic poetry–much of it formal, much of it free–by a lighthearted woman with much to be serious about. Just coming into international prominence as an internet-oriented poet as she turned 60, Margaret Ann Griffiths was dying of an incurable stomach ailment. She posted poems online under her own name and as “Maz” and “Grasshopper” from 2001 until her death in 2009. Her only book, Grasshopper, was assembled posthumously from her writings in print and on line around the globe; it has 352 pages of poems, plus an extensive preface by Alan Wickes.

Probably her best-known poem is the Eratosphere prize-winning Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud:

The smell of mud and brine. I’m six, awash
with grey and beached by winter scenery,
pinched by the Peckham girl who calls me posh,
and boys who pull live crabs apart to see
me cry. And I am lost in that grim place
again, coat buttoned up as tight as grief.
Sea scours my nostrils, strict winds sand my face,
the clouds pile steel on steel with no relief.

Sent there to convalesce – my turnkeys, Sisters
of Rome, stone-faced as Colosseum arches –
I served a month in Stalag Kent, nursed blisters
in beetle shoes on two-by-two mute marches.
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.

She was a brilliant sonneteer (which seems to be a less exalted compliment in the US than in the UK), but also irreverent in light verse as in Clogs which begins:

The Queen Mum’s gorn and popped her clogs;
the telly’s stuffed with Royal progs.
I’ve heard a thousand epilogues
now the old Queen Mum has popped her clogs…

skillful with dialect verse, as in Fer Blossom:

Tha’s not allowed ta bury pigs, tha knows.
I blinks et Blossom’s bulk stratched awt on
a bad of bettercups end pink-tinged deisies,
aye closed es ef ha nipped off en a nep…

skillful with unstructured verse, as in Falling:

In the library,
you fell over me.
You said, So sorry.
I said, Ouch.
Later you fell over me
on the couch…

parody, as in Cutlet, Mince of Denmark, whose Act 1 is:

What fowl noisette’s abroad this night? I walk
the battlements. Porked lightning! Next appears
my father’s goose. O Veni, son, he says. We talk
of offal oxtails – poussin in his ears!

And the rolling, sonorous Sholey, beginning

Sholey brings the summer in a shiny old tin bucket
every year. He walks head high across the mountains
carrying the flowers. In the brim of his wide hat
nestle songbird eggs in pastel clutches…

I find it impossible to quote a full range of her poetry, there is too much, too diverse. But my favourites are her sonnets, circling around her themes of pets and poets, nature and history, war, women and sex… and illness and death.

Born and raised in London, an archaeology student at Cardiff, she lived in Poole on England’s south coast for the last decades of her life. Online she worked with poets around the world; offline she lived alone and unknown, her death not discovered for a month.

Google her, read whatever shows up, and then buy Grasshopper. I would recommend it to anyone who reads or writes poetry, anyone. I dip into it periodically, and read it right through every two or three years.

M.A. Griffiths–Maz–with her technical skill, insight, imagery, empathy and vast range… might just be the early 21st century’s greatest poet.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Ann Drysdale, “Perfect Binding”

Ann Drysdale

Ann Drysdale

The poet addresses an occasional lover
on a brief assignation in a twin-bedded room

Dearest, since we can do no other,
Here on the bed that fate decrees
Let us lie side by side together,
Heads and shoulders, hips and knees
Aligned along a central fissure
Like pages in a paperback;
Conjoined by heat and sticky pressure,
Divided by a constant crack.

And thus, though circumstance divide,
We lie together, if bereft,
Like vellum swelling either side
Of this, our necessary cleft.
So let us live, and let us love,
Proximity is written in
Although we may not always have
The bliss of lying skin to skin.

So let us love, and let us live
As we are simply bound to do;
Our numbers are consecutive,
Our sense and syntax follow through.
If anyone should ever look
We two will be forever found,
Pages in one another’s book;
Not stitched, my love, but perfect bound.

Ann Drysdale writes: “An occasional poem born during a long and lovely relationship. The publishing metaphor pleases me; it grew wings as I crafted the poem which, for once, said everything I wanted to say.”

Ann Drysdale now lives in South Wales and has been a hill farmer, water-gypsy, newspaper columnist and single parent – not necessarily in that order. Her poems have been published in several of the Potcake ChapbooksHer seventh volume of poetry, Vanitas, has recently joined a mixed list of published writing, including memoir, essays and a gonzo guidebook to the City of Newport. 

Annie's Vanitas

http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/anndrysdalepage.html
http://www.shoestring-press.com/2019/03/vanitas/

 

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Max Gutmann, “Onset”

Max Gutmann

Max Gutmann

ONSET

Remember with my sitting parents I
at napkins red with cloth a table high
things struggling out to figure how these thin
(which home I knew at bags came plastic in)
potatoes were, and hamburger my how
to a connection have could any cow.

Twist change and blithely we our world: we light
and pave like soft, good day the earth, the night.
We wonder so that find what easy it
twist well ourselves as to? We still can sit
for desks behind long money hours for bland
and nation hate on any can command.

Hard shapes for make can strange it us our new
recall in shapes the which we born were to.

Max Gutmann writes: “Onset is probably my most unusual poem, and it tends to inspire strong reactions. In an online competition, it was the favorite of the host, a well-published poet I respect, who commented that she could see it becoming widely anthologized, and it came close to being the readers’ top choice. At the same time, it got far and away the greatest number of negative comments, some of them pretty strong. That combination of reactions is something I’ve been proud of ever since.

The host’s anthology prediction hasn’t come to pass, but Onset is, at long last, forthcoming–in Raintown Review.”

Under the pseudonym Noam D. Plum, Max Gutmann has published in The Spectator, The Country Mouse, Light Quarterly, and elsewhere including, of course, in the Potcake Chapbook Wordplayful. Having won two $500 prizes, as well as some smaller ones, Noam is a more successful breadwinner than the man for whom he fronts.

Given the mental gymnastic similarities between Noam’s Preopr Splelnig and Max’s Onset, however, I think it is reasonable to treat the poets as the same writer… You can see more of his work at https://www.maxgutmann.com/