Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kenyon Review Award to Margaret Atwood

Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood was just announced as the 2007 winner of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. More details later.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Insisting on Complexity: Ellen Bryant Voigt -- and Upcoming Reading With Voigt and Michael Collier, St. J. Athenaeum, August 1

Ellen Bryant Voigt gave the room of Advanced Placement teachers an extra heartbeat of time to take action: to dig into the poem she'd just read to her and reply to her question about what they had heard. And when nobody rose to speak, she rose instead and urged them to never allow their students to be passive in the face of poetry.

Drawing them fiercely toward her, she gave these top teachers -- the ones who gather at St. Johnsbury Academy each summer for fresh teaching strategies to apply in the most openly competitive American classrooms -- an object lesson in how to light up their classrooms from a blazing torch.

"You guys are the teachers, and I figure if each one of you can go away from here and get one kid to love poetry, then we can make a difference in how people see poetry," she reminded them. And she urged them to energize their students around the poems: "A poem is like an onion. But if there's nothing that engages you in the outside layer, you will never reach the inside."

Opening with readings from her varied dramatic sonnets in KYRIE (1995), Voigt explained the three great structures or strategies of writing put forth by Aristotle: (1) dramatic structure, in which two forces compete against one another, in action; (2) narrative structure, a equence of events that occur in time and that have consequence; and (3) lyric structure, which for Aristotle was exemplified by the early (and not at that point plentiful) poems sung to a single strum of the lyre -- and now for Voigt is the structure that's about feeling: "It sits at the center of complex emotional dilemma and sings out of the single strum of the lyre." She added, "Most of what we now think of as poetry is really lyric, because the other two don't do as well with complexity of feeling."

Voigt demonstrated with work like her KYRIE piece that begins, "Oh yes I used to pray. I prayed for the baby, / I prayed for my mortal soul as it contracted, / I prayed a gun would happen into my hand. / I prayed the way our nearest neighbors prayed, / head down, hands wrung, knees on the hard floor."

Why the sonnet form, with its familiar iambic pentameter and frame of fourteen lines that KYRIE wrestles with in varied twists and angles? "The sonnet is a lyric form that was developed in order to provide compression," Voigt noted. "One of the things it can accomplish is to hold the reader in that moment and not let the reader move."

She contrasted the compressed moment with the lengthy passages that unfold into narrative in her collection THE SHADOW OF HEAVEN, illustrating the way narrative outlines the familiar movie in the mind that American readers/students recognize more easily: "Movies, TV, all of that, took over narrative structure, so we're used to that, and we worry less about -- Am I getting it?"

Voigt has spoken of her work as hovering along the edge that connects lyric and narrative, and she carried the listeners through "Largesse," from the same collection, to exhbit the lyric purpose of driving deep into the center of a moment so that its emotion can resonate. Her 2007 collection MESSENGER: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1976-2006 provides this and much more of her focused work.

She'll be reading on Wednesday August 1 at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum at 7:30 p.m. And so will Michael Collier.

Collier, a powerful editor of poetry and collections, as well as author of three of his own books, has been director of the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference since 1995. He is also co-director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland English Department. Here's a poem from Collier -- whose work with form and with allusions to the classic may be an excellent partner for the evening reading, played against Voigt's. Be sure to arrive early, as seating is limited, and dress for the heat.

Brave Sparrow

whose home is in the straw
and bailing twine threaded
in the slots of a roof vent

who guards a tiny ledge
against the starlings
that cruise the neighborhood

whose heart is smaller
than a heart should be,
whose feathers stiffen

like an arrow fret to quicken
the hydraulics of its wings,
stay there on the metal

ledge, widen your alarming
beak, but do not flee as others have
to the black walnut vaulting

overhead. Do not move outside
the world you've made
from bailing twine and straw.

The isolated starling fears
the crows, the crows gang up
to rout a hawk. The hawk

is cold. And cold is what
a larger heart maintains.
The owl at dusk and dawn,

far off, unseen, but audible,
repeats its syncopated intervals,
a song that's not a cry

but a whisper rising from concentric
rings of water spreading out across
the surface of a catchment pond.

It asks, "Who are you? Who
are you?" but no one knows.
Stay where you are, nervous, jittery.

Move your small head a hundred
ways, a hundred times, keep
paying attention to the terrifying

world. And if you see the Robins
in their dirty orange vests
patrolling the yard like thugs,

forget about the worm. Starve
yourself, or from the air inhale
the water you may need, digest

the dust. And what the promiscuous
cat and jaybirds do, let them
do it, let them dart and snipe,

let them sound like others.
They sleep when the owl sends
out its encircling question.

Stay where you are, you lit fuse,
you dull spark of saltpeter and sulfur.

Poets Gladding and Budbill Read Tonight, St. J.

At 7:30 tonight (Wednesday) at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, poets Joday Gladding and David Budbill read from their work. Expect edgu, experimental work, perhaps flavored with jazz. Gladding's new work with forms has included writing on fireplace logs and split stones, although she may be a bit more paper-oriented this summer -- she's the 2007 Resident Poet at the Frost Place, which offers this summary:

Jody Gladding is a translator as well as poet. Her translations from French to English include Sylviane Agacinski’s Time Passing (2003, Columbia University Press), Michel Pastoureau’s The Devil’s Cloth (2001, Columbia University Press), and Pierre Moinot’s As Night Follows Day (2001, Welcome Rain). Her translation of Jean Giono’s The Serpent of Stars (Archipelago, 2004) was a finalist for the 2004 French–American Translation Prize. She is the author of Stone Crop, which was the 1993 Yale Younger Poets award winner, and she has also received a Whiting Writers Award in poetry. In 2000, Gladding was selected by then Vermont State Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt to participate in a Readers Digest Foundation-funded program called “The Poet Next Door,” working directly with Vermont high school students in person and through an interactive television network. Gladding also teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. Her most recent book is The Moon Rose (Chester Creek Press, 2006), with accompanying woodcuts by Susan Walp.

David Budbill long ago achieved a compelling meld of three forces: his New York City jazz roots and musician friends; his back-to-land life on a mountainside outside Hardwick, Vermont; and a fierce attachment to the Zen poets. Sometimes he works a bit of music into his performances (and sometimes a lot!). His web site is worth repeated explorations (

The reading takes place in the gallery of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, on Main Street at the top of Eastern Avenue. Seating is limited, so arrive early -- and prepare for heat and humidity, the room is not air-conditioned. Light refreshments and book signing follow.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Calendar Alert: Vermont State Poet Ruth Stone

A public ceremony honoring Ruth Stone, Vermont’s new State Poet (NOT poet laureate -- if you're curious about the distinction, see our web site,, will be held on Thursday, July 26 at 4 pm in the House Chamber of the Vermont State House (115 State Street) in Montpelier. The ceremony will be attended by Governor Douglas and former Vermont State Poets Galway Kinnell, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Grace Paley. A reception for Ruth Stone will be held in the Cedar Creek Room immediately following the ceremony.

For more info: (802) 828-3293 Event Phone

Teaching the Teachers to Teach Poetry: Baron Wormser & Teacher Karma

When poet and ardent professor Baron Wormser greeted a room full of Advanced Placement teachers last week at St. Johnsbury Academy, he admitted, "I have a lot of teacher karma" -- his mother, uncle, and daughter all teach, and he has worked in classrooms from kindergarten through college, particularly at the University of Maine at Farmington and the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, which he directs. He also developed a workshop at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, where high school teachers connect directly with poets for four days. He wants the teachers to know that to a poet, "A poem is not ABOUT someting -- it IS something."

Wormser's own text, TEACHING THE ART OF POETRY (written with his colleague David Cappella), opens with the words, "Poetry frightens." He sees his calling as making sure teachers and students lose that fear, and he leads them toward the deep end of the pool through a focus on words. "I teach poetry as an art and the kids respond to it because it's an art ... A poem is a series of very careful word choices.

Using Donald Hall's poem "The Names of Horses," Wormser demonstrated the process he's developed: reading the poem aloud and insisting that students write it, as dictated, so they become familiar with the word choices, the punctuation, the line breaks -- all of which they will later question and test. During this, he asks his listeners to keep in mind some word from the poem that surprises them. When those words emerge in discussion, he builds fresh awareness of how physical the nouns, verbs, even adjectives and adverbs are within the poem. From here, he urges expansion from the poem to the world of the listeners/readers.

The desire of the naive teacher, Wormser proposes, is "to reduce the poem to a nugget; you get it as small as possible and then it's gone." Instead, he suggests teaching the poem as a pebble landing in water, with ripples that extend outward infinitely. "Art is expansive."

Wormser scaffolds his training with multiple texts, including his work of creative nonfiction, A SURGE OF LANGUAGE (also co-written with Cappella), a teacher's journal through a year of classroom work with poetry. Next year he also brings out THE POETRY LIFE, where fictionalized narrators in varied walks of life describe their encounters with poems that proved significant to them. (Next year he also brings out his own "New and Selected" collection, a great gift to those looking for his increasingly scarce early work.)

Transplanted this summer from his Down East life (he was Maine's second poet laureate) to a small town in Vermont, Wormser tours heavily and can be contacted through his web site, -- and here's one of his poems, borrowed from that site:

Homage to Montale

This morning
The hummingbird’s
Pure zigzag
Surprises you—
Its indifference to
The long steps
Of your mood.

The bellflowers hold
Open their careful mouths,
The wind booms softly,
Stone breathes in and out,

In various media
The Leader smiles as if
His teeth
Were a balm of sorts.
He repeats words
As if lecturing
A class of children
Who pretend to be listening.

Aieee! Your head
Is full of human hurt.

Phrases will never
Anneal one
Scattered kiss of rain.
You must walk
In the patrician light.

You raise your hands
Above your head
And birds stream
Through your cautious love.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tonight at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum: Ellen Dudley & F. D. Reeve, Poets of Global Adventure

Fasten something -- a shoe, a pierced disk, a large bead -- to the end of a piece of string or light rope. Raise your arm above your head and start to swing the string in a circle. The weighted end flies outward, pulling against you. And you are the center.

Ellen Dudley and F. D. Reeve, reading tonight at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum at 7:30 p.m., craft narrative poetry that yearns outward in just this way. Dudley's THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE, a lusty and exulting collection reviewed here in March, stretches to Sarajevo, to the American West, to Hawai'i. She braids "wild woman" notions like driving bare-breasted through the dark summer night and seducing foreign strangers with an equally strong sense of commitment to herself and the people she loves. And that's the pull of the string back toward the center. Her homes are in Vermont in the summer, Hawai'i in the winter. She's the founding editor of The Marlboro Review.

Reeve has been likewise a founding editor -- of Poetry Review -- and learned while young to extend his reach globally. After early experiences in drama, farm labor, and work on the docks of the Hudson River, he applied himself to the Russian language and literature and spent a year in Moscow and Leningrad as an exchange professor. This key experience would later inform his trip with Robert Frost to Russia; his translations of Russian poetry; his exploration of cultures and imagery; and his own poems, short stories, and novels. Some thirty years ago he chose Vermont as his home, first building a house, then settling into an old farmhouse in Wilmington.

His first book of poems was IN THE SILENT STONES; he's whimsically used voices in and around cats in three books of poems, starting with THE BLUE CAT; amd his lyrical collection THE TOY SOLDIER should be available soon. His novels show varied influences from Russian literature as well as fully engaged "American life" -- the most recent one, MY SISTER LIFE, draws its title from Pasternak's poem;

My sister life still pouring down today
is everywhere battered like a spring rain,
but people with watch chains and bracelets complain
and civilly sting like snakes in the hay.

In addition, his translations and editorial work have brought much Russian work into closer touch with those who read only English, starting with a volume of Turgenev's short novels, later an anthology of plays, at least two volumes of Russian poetry, and most recently an unabridged version of "Leonid Andreyev's heartbreaking study of terrorist idealistm. A STORY ABOUT SEVEN WHO WERE HANGED" (Reeve's words).

Here's one of his poems from THE RETURN OF THE BLUE CAT:


He was urged to prepare for success: "You never can tell,

he was told over and over; "others have made it;

one dare not presume to predict. You never can tell.

Who’s Who in America lists the order of cats

in hunting, fishing, bird-watching, farming,

domestic service--the dictionary order of cats

who have made it. Those not in the book are beyond the pale.

Not to succeed in you chosen profession is unthinkable.

Either you make it or--you’re beyond the pale.

Do you understand?"

"No," he shakes his head.

"Are you ready to forage for freedom?"

"No," he adds,

"I mean, why is a cat always shaking his head?

Because he’s thinking: who am I? I am not

only one-ninth of myself. I always am

all of the selves I have been and will be but am not."

"The normal cat," I tell him, "soon adjusts

to others and to changing circumstances;

he makes his way the way he soon adjusts."

"I can’t," he says, "perhaps because I’m blue,

big-footed, lop-eared, socially awkward, impotent,

and I drink too much, whether because I’m blue

or because I like it, who knows. I want to escape

at five o’clock into an untouchable world

where the top is the bottom and everyone wants to escape

from the middle, everyone, every day. I mean,

I have visions of two green eyes rising

out of the ocean, blinking, knowing what I mean."

"Never mind the picture, repeat after me

the self’s creed. What he tells you you

tells me and I repeats. Now, after me:

I love myself, I wish I would live well.

Your gift of love breaks through my self-defeat.

All prizes are blue. No cat admits defeat.

The next time that he lives he will live well."

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum (802-748-8291; is on Main Street in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, at the top of Eastern Avenue, and is a fully accessible (and gorgeous) historic landmark. Come early for the 7:30 poetry event; the gallery space is compact and sometimes all the seats are filled. Dress in layers, as the room can get quite warm. And plan to purchase the poetry of these two adventurers after the reading.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

From Poet to Mystery: The Short Distance of Love

Yesterday's festive celebration of the poets of Alice James Press featured readings from Nancy Lagomarsino and Lesle Lewis (prose poets), Amy Dryansky (sharp narrative poems), and Ellen Doré Watson (provocative wrestling with life, love, lust, loss). What energy and what voices! If you weren't there, gosh, I'm sorry...

The poets (sans Nancy, who needed to get home) and AJB publisher April Ossmann joined us at Kingdom Books afterward, to raid the poetry room, share good food (April's an awesome baker), and work on what's next. Looks like Kingdom Books will present an annual AJB salute. The draw of this persistent poetry press has always been the hands-on involvement that it offers to its poets, who take turns serving on the editorial review board that explores some 1,200 manuscripts each year.

Of course, in spite of the recent run of poetry news and reviews here, Kingdom Books is a bicameral shop: poetry/fine press, and mysteries. So we also got into talking about the tradition of British mysteries, and then poet Lesle Lewis (you might not have run into her work yet, but the way her poems stand shoulder to shoulder with those of prose poets like Peter Gizzi, James Tate, and Russell Edson will eventually have a lot of us saying "oh, THE Lesle Lewis!") teased, "I bet you don't have the mysteries written by my brother!"

Hey, give Dave a challenge in the world of mysteries and he's on it. He demanded to know Lesle's brother's name, and when he heard "Stephen Paul Cohen," he grinned in triumph. Not only does he have two of Cohen's mysteries - he has them in his own personal collection, resolutely Not For Sale.

Which only goes to show: Mysteries and Poetry DO belong together, just as close as sister and brother. Matter of fact, as I dug into some reviews of Cohen's mysteries -- Heartless (1986), Island of Steel (1988), and Night Launch (1989) -- I found they had been seen as experimental, edgy, and -- brace for it -- "poetic" in the richness of language and imagery.

I'll be darned.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Working Class, Blue Collar, Immigrant -- and the Poet Blossoms: Peggy Sapphire

[Woody Guthrie]

Poet Philip Levine's gritty portraits of Detroit and other cities have come to epitomize the lives of working-class men. In his autobiography THE BREAD OF TIME, Levine declares that his brothers allowed themselves to be trapped by their middle-class upbringing. Levine's twin had not meant to take this path: "At age fourteen my twin and I vowed we would never participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved. For me the answer was quite simple to formulate: I became working class." His witty mother used to joke that he had botched the socal experiment, by being born in the middle class, migrating to the lower middle class, and as an adult entering the working class -- "he got it backward," she said.

Yet this is parallel to what the ballad poets like Woody Guthrie, then Bob Dyland, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, urged the Boomer generation to pursue. Forsake the money machine; embrace the land and the people.

When I left college in 1972, the subsequent wave was already arriving there: the students who actually liked the idea of business and wanted MBA degrees. I recall shock and disgust at observing that choice. More recently, I've seen brilliant young people surf the wave of computers, gaming, and the Internet, with many of them straighforwardly declaring they'd pursue available riches through the risky businesses, of design, entrepreneurship, and climbing corporate ladders in sharp new firms where message-bearing T-shirts and chinos with sandals could be the inside-the-shop outfits of upper management. Money is power. What I hear many of them say is, "I'll take the power, too -- I need it to be able to mark out my own territory of revolution."

Peggy Sapphire, Craftsbury (Vermont) resident and former editor of the Connecticut River Review (the poetry journal), sends hungry roots into the composted experience of the 1940s and 1950s working class in which she grew up -- and the struggling existence of a woman who'd married "the wrong man" and borne children with him. Her retreat to Vermont brought her relief, grace, and the joy of fresh love.

Her 2006 collection A POSSIBLE EXPLANATION paints mostly the portraits of her upbringing. When she writes of sitting with her father to eat his omelets, accompanied by rye bread spread with potently fragrant Liederkranz cheese, she opens her father's mouth to tell stories:

Talk began. The politics of war and money, union organizing,
Franco, Jew haters, the KKK, and dead friends.
"Now I can tell you why I ran," he said. "I ran for my life,
my workingman's life, my immigrant life, my
learning English life, my 'brother-can-you-spare-a-dime' life,
my loving Paul Robeson life, my Free The Rosenbergs life.
Now I can tell you how I sang the anthems of
Pete Seeger, The Weavers and Josh White."

Sapphire paints Red Menace, blacklists, the threats of American existence for those who refused to fit smoothly into the American system in the mid 1900s. As a child, she knew frequent moves, intense moments around the radio, warnings about bigots and danger. So she writes vividly of workingmen, of Ruby Dee, and of her Aunt Alice, a Holocaust survivor. Each poem holds a life under a light, and under a microphone, listening to the sounds and the language.

The strongest moments in many of Sapphire's poems are when she lets these voices erupt, quirky, diverse, often embedded in italics within the poems' lines.

I heard Uncle Caleb's a bastid, a stinking rich
malted millionaire

Sapphire's views of her parents' marriage brush lightly against her own struggles. Small windows open into each -- pressing close to them is alluring, to be able to peer around the edges of each frame.

The loose lines and meters of the poems don't always take this work into the fierce power and insistence that lurks underneath the narratives; perhaps they are in some ways so powerful that Sapphire pulls back a bit, protective and kind. I sometimes seek more edge, sensing it just beyond reach in the longer poems. Here, from "Lessons," are short lines that drive incisively and pull me toward the heart of this generous writer:

I remind her
we're all born crying
that once even she
inhaled mightily
shrieked for life
that first time

I remind her
she'll sleep better
after she cries.

I want more of this poet, and I hope she'll continue to take risks, exhuming the past, inhaling the present, entwining both with vivid language. Vermont is fortunate to be her home now, and she'll capture the dangers now in our lives and the ones to come, as she does in the opening of "Eve of Zero":

September and it's raining ice
and our parsley has lost its green
what do they call it when seasons
lose their meaning?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Poet Jane Shore Announces....

Jane Shore offered poems from her newest collection to the Advanced Placement Institute teachers in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, yesterday -- she does this annually as part of her summer stay in Vermont and is always a big hit with the high school teachers, as she invites them into her process and decisions. This time she opened with big news: Houghton Mifflin is publishing the collection in March 2008. Hurrah! Her working title is THE YES-OR-NO ANSWER but she acknowledges that the title is still under discussion with volume editor Michael Collier.

Shore's reading included discussion of mother-daughter imagery in her poems, particularly related to her own (Jewish) mother. Reinforcing for the teachers the level of revision she likes to include -- as much as hundreds of versions of a poem -- she noted, "I think revising is like keeping your hand busy while your mind is going deeper."

Clearly the favorite poem of the afternoon, and one that could well become an AP favorite for future classrooom discussions and exams, was this one, admittedly about Shore and husband Howard Norman's daughter at age 12.


Because she wanted it so much, because
she'd campaigned all spring and half the summer,
because she was twelve and old enough,
because she would be responsible and pay for it herself,
because it was her mantra, breakfast, lunch and dinner,
because she would do it even if we said no --

her father and I argued until we finally said
okay, just a little one in the front
and don't ask for any more, and, also,
no double pierces in teh future, is that a deal?

She couldn't wait, we drove straight to town,
not to our regular beauty parlor, but the freaky one --
half halfway house, half community center --
where they showed her the sample card of swatches,
each silky hank a flame-tipped paintbrush dipped in dye.

I said no to Deadly Nightshade. No to Purple Haze.
No to Atomic Turquoise. To Green Envy. To Electric Lava
that glows neon orange under black light.
No to Fuschsia Shock. To Black-and-blue.
To Pomegranate Punk. I vetoed Virgin Snow.
And so she pulled a five out of her wallet, plus the tax,
and chose the bottle of dye she carried carefully
all the ride home, like a little glass vial
of blood drawn warm from her arm.

Oh she was hurrying me! Darting up the stairs,
double-locking the bathroom door,
opening it an hour later, sidling up to me, saying, "Well?"
For a second, I thought she'd somehow
gashed her scalp. But it was only her streack, Vampire Red.

Later, brushing my teeth, I saw her mess --
the splotches where dye splashed
and stained the porcelain, and in the waste bin,
Kleenex wadded up like bloodied sanitary napkins.
I saw my girl -- Persephone carried off to Hell,
who left behind a mash of petals on trampled soil.

[The color names are mostly real; Shore researched them with ManicPanic, which provides the dye. Here's a ManicPanic photo to go with the tale.]

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Quiet Voice of Beauty: Philip Booth

Poet Philip Booth, born in New Hampshire, utterly committed to his home in Maine, died last week. Here is the "hometown" obituary from the Bangor Daily News:

Poet Philip Booth dies at 81
By Alicia Anstead
Tuesday, July 03, 2007 - Bangor Daily News

Philip Booth, a poet who studied with Robert Frost and belonged to an elite literary circle in Castine, died Monday in Hanover, N.H. He was 81.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Margaret.

Booth’s poetry explored New England themes with a native son’s understanding of the landscape and coastline. The winds, fields, working people and tidal cycles are his subjects. His style is sparse and elegant, a combination of Down East economy and naturalistic rhythms.

"After work, splitting birch by the light outside his back door, a man in Maine thinks what his father told him, splitting outside this same back door," he wrote in the poem "A Man in Maine."

Although many of Booth’s poems reflected his love of the Northeast and he has been called "Maine’s clearest poetic voice," he was not exclusively thought of as a Maine poet. The genius of his work, said Paul Gray, a retired professor who grew up in Castine, is that it "makes the local place nationally available."

Booth was born on Oct. 8, 1925, in Hanover, N.H., where his father was an English professor at Dartmouth College and his mother, a native of Castine, was a housewife. The family, including one sister, Lee, spent summers in Castine, where Booth developed an early aptitude for sailing, and had a boat that, even as a young boy, he was permitted to sail alone. He was also a skilled skier.

While serving in the Air Force in World War II, he met his wife, a music student from Macon, Ga., and the two married in 1946. Booth pursued his love of poetry at Dartmouth, where he studied with Frost, and then at Columbia University, where he completed a master’s degree in English.

He and Margaret raised three daughters while he taught at Dartmouth, and then at Wellesley College in the 1950s, when his first book of poetry was published. In the 1960s, Booth joined the faculty at Syracuse University, where he founded a graduate program in creative writing.

Stephen Dunn, one of his star students at Syracuse, went on to win the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

"He was a major influence first as a teacher and then as a friend who continued to be a teacher," said Dunn, from his home in Frostburg, Md. "I know I would not have been as exacting and precise as I wished to be had it not been for him. His poetry was the outgrowth of a lived life that, in his Puritan way, constantly took stock. When his poems were good, which they were often, they resonated into all of our lives."

During Booth’s long career, he wrote a dozen books, and received Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His work appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The American Poetry Review. He was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Poets.

In the 1980s, the Booths moved to Maine and became year-round residents at his ancestral home where five generations of his family — the Hookes — lived and where he spent summers as a boy.

Booth worked in an upstairs room with a view of Main Street and of the home of his next-door neighbor and good friend, the writer Mary McCarthy. The quartet of Booth, McCarthy, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, as well as their heady summer visitors, established a literary reputation for the village.

But of the four, only Booth wrote regularly about the area and its people. His poem "Eaton’s Boatyard," which is set in Castine, is well known by summer visitors and locals alike.

Although Booth was not born in Maine, an important distinction in some circles, his ancestry and friendly personality won him an indelible place in the hearts of community members.

"Phil is really a native son, but more importantly, the breadth of his work comes from here. It so perfectly reflects Castine, but also the region. It’s what we see around us, or what he taught us to see about this place and what we do here," said Dixie Gray, a member of the Castine Historical Society and curator of the town’s summer exhibition "Turning the Page: Writing Castine 1956-2006." Booth is featured in the show.

In 2002, three years after Booth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he and Margaret moved into an assisted living community in Hanover, where his family was with him when he died on Monday.

"Castine was the only home that I think he ever felt was his natural place," said Margaret Booth on Monday. "He always wanted to be there. He loved the straightforwardness of the people and their affection toward him."

Booth is survived by his wife, Margaret, their three daughters, Margot, of Austin, Texas; Carol, of Amherst, Mass.; and Robin of Rowe, Mass., as well as his sister, Lee, of Hartland, Vt.


I'd like to invite discussion of Booth's work here; I'll return to it myself in a few weeks, after our July 14 Alice James Books "Four Poets and a Publisher" celebration. Meanwhile, here is one of Booth's poems from a 1988 issue of POETRY:

by Philip Booth

Coastal rain, an iron sky.
Granite mainland, granite island.
It's too cold, I'm too cold,

to row across to the mainland.
The pickup needs an inspection;
I ought to row over across and

drive her to Gray for a sticker.
Let it wait. There's still time.
There's time this morning to

read the whole day, to read
the cold rain, the old sky, the who-
do-I-think-I-am. Between five

and seven, the crown of the day
no matter what weather, who can afford
less wonder. Or bear any more?

I'm in the kitchen, belonging
with what doesn't know me, so far
as I know: pots and pans that

heat up and cool, belonging by how
I feel about them, not how they
maybe feel about me. Beings who

differently breathe, we humans
contract—in and out—to expand
all our lives. Who in hell would I be

if I couldn't imagine, imagine
the range of this moment in
the spun flight, the spun life

of the planet? It's here, when
anyone pays due attention:
here now, there then in the now

where anyone opens to feel it.
Now, shaving, I long to pay back
what I owe, however much, in

the mirror, I find myself
wanting. Wanting in all
directions, across distance

measured in minutes as well
as degrees. Now, outdoors,
out under ospreys wheeling over

a tidestream, searching the shallows
for alewives, I look up with
my own hunger. Hunger. how

can I mean it, given
lives starving? I want to mean
how-can-I-not, to have

their lives at heart, stretching
not reaching as their lives
contract, while my life

is weighed with alternatives.
How can I possibly mean,
give what to whom, given

this glassy sea I cannot
see much beyond, this island
that embraces my waking: this spruce,

deermoss, this lichen, and you
in time I want far from here
to touch, the you in far different light

who is differently focused, more
or less caring or careless, while
I move under the high pitched birds

and—by long inclination—lift
myself over a dark march of ants
crossing the bedrock granite.

Copyright © Philip Booth

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Painter, Poet, Publisher: The Magical Top-of-the-World Book Art of Ken Leslie

He's a painter first and foremost, and his journals, themselves handmade books, are crammed with watercolor renditions of the landscape of Svalbard. But for Ken Leslie, a professor at Johnson State College, Johnson, Vermont, the movement from images and flat renditions is swift toward a sense of the round earth itself. So it's no surprise that the biggest constructions at his exhibit at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium are in circles.

One lines the encircling balcony in the Victorian-era building's gallery. It has been about 10 years since Leslie tackled the project, which consists of one painting per day of the sky over Hardwick, Vermont, all linked together to form a year of sky. But he joked that the project had been meant all along for the museum -- the weather program called "An Eye on the Sky" transmits from the museum, and that, said Leslie, is just what he had for an entire year: "I had my eye on the sky!"

Most of the exhibit focuses not on Hardwick, though, but on Svalbard, which at 78 degrees north is actually closer to the North Pole than to the Arctic Circle. He visited once in the summer when the sun never sets, and once in the winter when it never rises. "It takes time to see the light in the dark."

At 27 degrees Fahrenheit his paint would freeze as he was painting, forming the feathery fern patterns we know from winter windows. They remained in the finished work, branding it as unquestionably Arctic. At lower temperatures, Leslie relied on his "perfect pitch" of color memory, gazing at his surroundings, then running inside to portray them.

"Long before I made a book (from this work) I started painting circles," he explained, "because ninety-nine percent of printing is on rectangles and you're carrying an enormous weight of history on your shoulders" if you use rectangle forms. Painting on circles freed him of that weight. Plus, things fall to the center of circles, instead of to the bottom of a page. As Leslie worked, he became increainglu interested in the perimeter of each circle, finally removing their centers entirely to form "donuts." Then, one night, he realized he could fold these toroid shapes into "books" -- and the result was his creation SPACE + TIME.

He began to take photos and paint from life, to test his sense of reality. With this, he developed landscapes that moved through time. At Svalbard, he said, "I felt very intrigued by experiencing a sun that doesn't set or that doesn't rise."

For the Fairbanks exhibit, which runs through January of 2008 (, the museum's creative staff developed a wall mount that turns one of the "books," and a floor-mounted donut-shaped table to offer a flat basae to another. I like the poem from the floor-mounted piece, which begins before dawn and ends in the dark heart of the night:

I chose a place to measure a day.
I found plates full, and promises kept.
Somewhere else, differences explode.
Anger triumphs. Hope is trashed.
But here, this day, this place
is a good place.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Publisher of the Year: Adastra Press

[above, cover from an Adastra Press title]

The Contemporary Poetry Review just announced its choice for (poetry) publisher of the year -- offered here in its entirety as taken from :

The CPR Awards: 2006

The Best Books of 2006

Publisher of the Year: Adastra Press

With no web presence and almost no publicity, Adastra Press of Easthampton, Massachusetts has quietly built a solid reputation for itself as a publisher of short-run, handcrafted limited editions. Gary Metras continues the ancient and virtually lost practice of hand setting type and hand-sewing the gatherings. Independent-minded, they represent the best in small press poetry publishing. Without bluster, grand mission statements, or corporate backing, they continue the slow, serious work of publishing in a world swiftly adapting to strictly digital means of textual reproduction. The last book that we received from Adastra ended with this note: "Production lasted from September to November 2006 as an unusually mild autumn kept trout actively feeding on the printer's favorite dry flies." Simply gorgeous work.

Runner-up: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A quick scan of our list this year will confirm that Farrar, Straus and Giroux still rules the roost. Under the stewardship of editor Jonathan Galassi, who must have the finest eye and ear (and rolodex) of any poetry publisher in the country, FSG deserves to rack up a second win for consistent quality and vision but our heart belongs to letterpress work this year."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ruth Stone: New Vermont State Poet

At age 92, Goshen resident Ruth Stone was today named the new Vermont State Poet. Long-time widowed parent of three daughters (Marcia, Phoebe, and Abigail), often recognized but never wealthy, wandering from one college or university to the next until finally she settled for more than 15 years at SUNY-Binghamton, Stone's struggles have seemed only to sharpen her writing. Now visually handicapped, she often delivers a poem from memory -- especially her mich-loved poem MANTRA:


When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird's clack.
Then I want no thing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me sad.

When I forget to weep,
I hear the peeping tree toads
creeping up the bark.
Love lies asleep
and dreams that everything
is in its golden net;
and I am caught there, too,
when I forget.

Stone's nine collections include, most recently, IN THE DARK; her eighth, IN THE NEXT GALAXY, won the National Book Award in poetry. Here's a slice of biography written by Jan Freeman:

At the age of nineteen, Stone moved to Illinois with her first husband, a chemist. While living in Illinois, she met and later married the poet and novelist Walter Stone. In 1952, she moved with her husband and three daughters, Marcia, Phoebe, and Abigail, to Vassar College, where Walter Stone was offered a teaching position in the English department. At Vassar, Stone composed the poems for her first book, In an Iridescent Time (1959). During this period, she won Poetry's Bess Hokin prize and the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Poetry. With the prize money from the Kenyon Review, Stone traveled alone to Vermont and bought a house where she could write and her family could spend the summers. Stone's life changed dramatically when, in 1959, on sabbatical from Vassar, Walter Stone moved with Ruth Stone and their young daughters to England. In England, Walter Stone committed suicide. For the next decade, Ruth Stone moved in and out of periods of deep depression and despair, and Walter Stone's life and death became a nearly constant presence in the poetry of Ruth Stone.

In 1963, Stone was awarded a two-year Radcliffe Institute fellowship, and from 1963 to 1965, she worked on poems for her second collection, Topography and Other Poems (1971), and developed close ties to other Radcliffe fellows, such as Maxine Kumin and Tillie Olsen. After the Radcliffe Institute, Stone taught creative writing at many universities throughout the United States, including Indiana University at Bloomington; the University of California, Davis; New York University; and Old Dominion University. Currently she is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Between teaching engagements, Stone has lived in the Vermont house she purchased with the Kenyon Review Fellowship money in 1957. Known as the "mother poet" to many contemporary women writers, she is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award (1964), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1971 and 1975), the Delmore Schwartz Award (1983), the Whiting Writer's Award (1986), and the Paterson Poetry Prize (1988). Returning over and over to the themes of loss and death, Ruth Stone's poems are ultimately emblems of survival. Combining lyricism with a poignant mix of humor and tragedy, she manipulates the emotions of her audience by opening them with laughter, then shocking them with sorrow. Stone is a feminist poet who uses poetry to boldly address the world of women and family, as well as issues such as aging, homelessness, and poverty. Interspersing astronomy, biology, physics, and botany into her poems, she calls attention to the largest and the smallest spheres, expressing the beauty of the natural world as she highlights the pathos of the human condition, and especially the female condition within the patriarchal world. In addition to Cheap (1975), Second-Hand Coat (1987), and Who Is the Widow's Muse (1991), she has published several chapbooks, including American Milk (1986), The Solution (1989), and Nursery Rhymes from Mother Stone (1992).

[From Jan Freeman, in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.]

Governor Douglas will formally appoint Stone as Vermont State Poet on July 26; we'll publish details of time and place as soon as available.