“Walking with Your Eyes Shut,” by William Stafford

Poet, Nickole Brown, reading on stage at eights avenue Queer Girl Lit.
Nickole Brown, photo by Kristin Shelly

This week the wonderful poet Nickole Brown was asking folks on social media for short, creative nonfiction pieces about sound for a class she is teaching on defamiliarization. I admit, I missed the acronym, CNF and was, as usual, thinking of poetry.

My mind went straight to a poem by William Stafford and my hands immediately reached for a favorite old paperback on my shelf. This tattered and stained copy of An Oregon Message has traveled with me from a bookstore in Indiana since, I think, about 1989. It was published in 87, and while I don’t know all the poems by heart, I do remember each by title, and I reread them from time to time.

I still vividly recall watching a video in Dr. Mary Brown’s class of Stafford reading his poem “Ask Me,” a piece I do know by heart and have recorded many times (look for the latest, upcoming soon). His poetry helped open my mind to what lines on a page can do, what vistas can be opened with minor alterations to diction and syntax. Cover image of William Stafford's book, An Oregon Message

For instance, in the poem “Ask Me” which begins with the iconic line, “Some time when the river is ice,” the poet says, “Ask me / mistakes I have made.” Not, “Ask me about,” or “ask me what mistakes,” but “Ask me / mistakes.”

That makes a reader stop, not because it’s incomprehensible, but because it varies a bit from the way we would expect the line to go. It slows us down and makes it difficult for our minds to remain on auto-pilot, slightly jostling our presuppositions about where the author is going with this statement.

That tendency of Stafford’s to place everyday language just off-center enough to make the line more vivid, the image fresh and new, was immediately more interesting to me than the deconstruction works I was reading for the first time then.

Rather than shatter the walnut of language into unnumbered pieces, sending meat and shell fragments alike skittering under furniture and into cracks in the floor, as it seemed the postmodernists were apt to do, Stafford chose to just crack the nut a little bit—and not always along the seam. This encouraged and tempted me to pry the rest open for myself. It was a revelation in what just a little non-conventionality in line endings, diction, and syntax could do. It was also a demonstration in the art of “less is more.”

Text of William Stafford's Poem Walking with your eyes shut

So, while it’s not what Nickole was looking for, she was gracious and sent me a “thank you.” Perhaps there is something there she can use. I was happy to be reminded of the poem, in any case.

It’s been a few months since I’ve uploaded any readings to YouTube or SoundCloud, so reading this again inspired me to sit down and record a few favorites, starting with this one.

Requests for Toy Piano by Tony Hoagland

There are so many updates to do. My recent reading in New York City, camping, and hawk watching with my boys—heck I haven’t even told you yet about the poetry conference in Paterson, NJ this summer!

But we’ll get to all of that. At least you know there are things to say, and I know there is more to come. Meanwhile, my youngest son is back at his recording gig, reading poems out loud more frequently than I have been doing lately. In fact, in this post, he has a recording of himself as well as a recording of a young lady at Poetry Out Loud competition reading this particular poem.

I think they are both fine interpretations. I’ve heard others that were too dramatic. Yes, there is such a thing as too dramatic in poetry readings. Generally, I find it best to strike a more even tone. Not monotone by any means. But if you add too many sighs and lilts of voice, too much of anything that isn’t clearly already on the page, you risk limiting the dynamic range of what was written. I realize I am biased, but I think Micah’s reading here is a good example of the less-is-more principle. It expresses just enough emotion to show that it’s human language but allows the poem to do its work without getting in the way by over-presentation.

In this reblogged form, you have to click below where it says “view original post” (or here) to hear Micah’s version.

The Monkey Prodigy

Read this poem by clicking here.

There are several good readings like the one below. A few of them are from the Poetry Out Loud competition which introduced me to this poem.

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Happy Birthday to Mary Oliver

Back in the studio on our birthday.

Oh, yeah, and to me! There’s a poet whose loss I was planning to write about, but then I remembered that I share a birthday with Mary Oliver today. And so instead of thinking about aging and death, I decided that first, it would be a good idea to spend a little time in the studio with some of Mary’s poems today.

Yesterday on Twitter, poet Chen Chen, author of When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities, tweeted that he enjoyed actually writing out or typing other people’s poems. What a cool idea! And so I tweeted back, well, this:

And while I think writing the poems of others would be an equally interesting and enlightening exercise, it’s probably not that much fun for you to watch or listen to me doing it. So for now, I’ve resorted to my old practice of recording poems that I love, partly just because I love them and partly as a way to more fully live within,  and come to know them. As Chen Chen says, “rhythmic inhabiting”

For this September 10th, on which both Mary Oliver and I were born (Honestly, it really was my idea, and she didn’t seem to mind), I pulled her collection Evidence off my shelf and went into my studio; some might call it a bedroom. And here are a few poems of hers that I enjoyed vocalizing. I hope you enjoy them.

And here are a few poems of hers that I enjoyed vocalizing. I hope you enjoy them.

If you liked these poems, as my friend Neil Silberblatt says, please go to your local independent bookstore and they can get you a copy of the book so you can enjoy all of them. If you don’t have a local independent bookstore, stop by your local library.

And, though I am no Mary Oliver, my first chapbook has some similar themes and settings. I suppose I was influenced by her more than I realized. It’s called Moons, Roads, and Rivers, and it is available now for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. You’ll be able to get it from your local bookseller after November 17th, but if you’d like to have a copy anyway, ordering from the publisher by September 22nd helps me out by increasing the final press run and making us best friends. Hey, maybe you could even order a copy for your local library! Just a thought. Thanks for your help, whatever you can do.

To order my chapbook (THANK YOU!)  click here. To read more about it and link to a few sample poems, go here. Thanks for making it a happy birthday. I’ll tell Mary you said hello.

Poetry Month Playlist Wrapup

An old favorite of the whole crew, poets on the ends, guitar players in the middle.

My youngest boy had a lovely idea for Poetry Month; we would agree on a poet for each week of April and each of us would record a poem or more by that poet. It was fun, and I even found a few poems by these favorites that I hadn’t heard before. You can follow back through this blog and his, or to skip the commentary and just go for the audio experience, we’ve put together the whole playlist. As the young man says, it only takes about 9.5 minutes to listen through.

Tuesday Muse: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay

This is the project my son and I are doing: We picked four poets for this Poetry Month and for each week we both record a different poem or poems by the chosen poet of the week. Micah has recorded his Edna St. Vincent Millay poem and has hinted to me that since it’s early in the week, there may be more coming.

It’s no wonder we picked Vincent, as she liked to be called, for our final poet. Looking back, I’ve written about her and recorded her works quite frequently, in over a half a dozen posts, in fact. And she keeps showing up in our Thursday Love Poem feature as well since it is based on her little piece called “Thursday.”

My recording for this week will be coming up in the next day or three, so for now, here’s a flashback to exactly five years ago today, while I was doing my infamous “30 Poets, 30 Days” project, video recording, and writing about a different poet and poem each day that April.

From Day 25:

The lady at the counter looked at me over her glasses when I handed her the book.

She said, “I don’t like her.” I wanted to respond, “I don’t care.”

Read the rest and view the one minute video by clicking on the following: Day 25 – 30 Days, 30 Readings: Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Portrait by a Neighbor”

Kay Ryan and Her Amazing Flying Chickens

Embed from Getty Images

I had a rough start to the week. I had too much caffeine and not enough sleep, and pretty soon those chickens come home to roost. So it’s taken until Wednesday to get to this post. Thanks for waiting. I know you’ve been on the edge of your keyboard.

The Monkey likes a good twist on an old phrase as much as I do, so to keep things thematic, he has a Kay Ryan poem today too, “All Your Horses.” You could say it’s sort of a barnyard theme we’ve got going.

Former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan is our featured poet of the week for National Poetry Month. We had a hard time limiting it to just four poets, but we talk about poets all the time, and even if we did a poet a day, someone would still be disappointed that we didn’t include their favorite.  So, yes, just one poet of the week. If you’ve never heard either of us read your favorite, you could make a request. I think we’d enjoy that. Just nothing like this, okay?

Kay Ryan talked about this poem with Andrea Seabrook on NPR right after she became Poet Laureate in 2008, so you can learn a little background about the poem and hear her own reading of it by listening in.  Her version catches Continue reading “Kay Ryan and Her Amazing Flying Chickens”