2014 Festival Stories


A Look at Rafael Campo

Many poets are Jacks—and Jills—of-all-trades, but the argument can be made that Rafael Campo has some of the absolute best time management skills of any poet alive. Campo is the “Physician Poet,” a prolific poet and essayist who is also a practicing physician. He currently teaches at Harvard Medical School, practices internal medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and instructs in the Lesley University Creative Writing MFA program. What drives Campo to pursue each of his drastically different loves?

Reading Campo’s biography, it becomes clear that what drives the Physician Poet to succeed is an innate ability to pursue the best he can, both for himself and for his community. Campo has described himself as a “mutt” in interviews, a unique blend of passions and interests that has led him to where he is today. Campo was born in Dover, New Jersey in 1964, and later pursued both a BA and an MA at Amherst College and then an MD from Harvard Medical School. After his schooling, Campo published The Other Man Was Me: A Voyage to the New World, his first collection of poetry. In 1993, The Other Man Was Me won the National Poetry Series Open Competition.

In both his poetic and medical works, Campo puts his hybrid status as a “mutt” to work. His poems mix narratives of family, history, and illness. He has said that he enjoys employing unfamiliar poetic forms, such as those of the Middle East, to satisfy his own “hybrid” nature. The security of a highly structured form allows Campo to delve deeper into the emotional side of his poetry. In terms of his medical career, Campo’s primary care service focuses on Latino patients, especially those who are also members of the LGBTQ+ community or who are infected with HIV. The range of emotions he experiences in his long hours at work often informs his poetry, giving him subject matter that results in beautiful poems about the experiences of those who suffer, and those who triumph.

Campo has published five books of poetry: The Other Man Was Me, What the Body Told in1996,Diva (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Awards) in 1999, Landscape with Human Figure in 2002, and The Enemy in 2007. He has also contributed to several poetry collections, as well as the author of two prose collections: The Healing Art: A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry and The Poetry of Healing (winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Memoir).

To learn more about Rafael Campo, explore his website. You can also see the Physician Poet at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Get your tickets here for the incredible 2014 experience!

Honors and Awards

  • PEN Center West Literary Award finalist
  • Recipient of the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award
  • Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Echoing Green Foundation

One of His Poems

You say, “I do this to myself.” Outside,
my other patients wait. Maybe snow falls;
we’re all just waiting for our deaths to come,
we’re all just hoping it won’t hurt too much.
You say, “It makes it seem less lonely here.”
I study them, as if the deep red cuts
were only wounds, as if they didn’t hurt
so much. The way you hold your upturned arms,
the cuts seem aimed at your unshaven face.
Outside, my other patients wait their turns.
I run gloved fingertips along their course,
as if I could touch pain itself, as if
by touching pain I might alleviate
my own despair. You say, “It’s snowing, Doc.”
The snow, instead of howling, soundlessly
comes down. I think you think it’s beautiful;
I say, “This isn’t all about the snow,
is it?” The way you hold your upturned arms,
I think about embracing you, but don’t.
I think, “We do this to ourselves.” I think
the falling snow explains itself to us,
blinding, faceless, and so deeply wounding.

 (This poem appears here courtesy of Rafael Campo’s website.)

The Inside Scoop from January O'Neil

In the last month or so there have been few people busier than our own January O’Neil, Executive Director of Massachusetts Poetry Festival, as she has been involved making and solidifying plans for this year’s event. But she took time to answer some questions that give us her unique point-of-view on the May 2 through  4 event in Salem.  As you’ll see from her answers,  she is one of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s most ardent fans!

  1. What kind of feedback have you gotten about past festivals?

This is an event people enjoy coming back to year after year. Needless to say, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Every year, we get a little better at putting on a large-scale festival, and it shows. I’m most surprised at how our reputation is growing outside of New England. Whenever I go to national conferences or other large festivals, people have heard of our little event, which is simply amazing.

What will make this year’s festival special?

Mass Poetry has been fortunate to bring in an amazing group of poets locally and from across the country. Having two poets laureate, Carol Ann Duffy and Phil Levine, is a gift. Music and Poetry with Cornelius Eady. Kim Addonizio, Oliver de la Paz, and Susan Rich bring their poetic sensibilities from the West Coast. And having Rhina Espaillat, David Ferry, and Lucie Brock-Brodio on the same program is icing on the cake!

Name  a workshop you believe experienced poets will love?

Poets and poetry lovers will love all of our events! That being said, I’m looking forward to The State of Poetry with festival cofounder Michael Ansara, Oliver de la Paz, Kim Addonizio, and Don Share from Poetry magazine, hosted by Jennifer Jean. After an afternoon of verse, attendees will appreciate coming together to talk about the poetry landscape. I’m also interested in “Young Poets Address Issues of Identity: The Body, Trauma, Empowerment, and Transformation.” This panel speaks the power of poetry. And, I’m curious about “Five Poetry Prompts That Will Change Your Life.” What are those prompts? I must know!

What should those who are just trying out their wings as writers look for in workshop descriptions?

When the workshop is over, what are the takeaways? Will you have prompts, a basis to revise titles or whole manuscripts? Do you feel you’ll get what you need to start a poem or try a new style?

 Besides the planned events, what will people enjoy about the festival?

I hope everyone will cherish this time with like-minded people talking about poetry. And Salem is a terrific host for this! There are so many restaurants and spaces to gather and share ideas. What I really want is for people to take a few minutes in-between sessions to talk to one another, reflect on what they have experienced, and take it out into the world. The festival will end but that good feeling doesn’t have to.

For poetry lovers who have never made it to a festival, what are they missing?

You will miss the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the best poets writing poetry today—from emerging to established poets, our festival still has a grassroots feel. We don’t stand on pretension. Most important, you’ll miss the opportunity to “fill the well” with words, something much needed after this polar vortex of a winter.

A Look at Susan Rich

Susan Rich is a prolific poet with the energy to pursue both her creative and her humanitarian impulses. But the poetry in Rich’s life, as she explains below in her own words, was almost cut short by professors who advised her to try “something else.” Rich set poetry aside for a time, but, lucky enough for all of us, she returned to her craft after twelve long years away.

Rich was educated at our own University of Massachusetts and Harvard University, as well as the University of Oregon, and now lives in Seattle. In Seattle, she teaches at Highline Community College, as well as running a reading series there, “Highline Listens: Writers Read Their Work.”

Rich’s love of travel is apparent in her poetic works, her humanitarian efforts, and in her choice of Elizabeth Bishop as what Rich calls her “dead mentor.” Rich is the author of four collections of poetry: Cloud PharmacyThe Alchemist’s Kitchen (finalist, Foreward Prize and Washington State Book Award), Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue (winner, PEN USA Award for Poetry and Peace Corps Writers Award). Additionally, Rich has received a number of awards and fellowships and her work has been featured in several reviews. She is one of the editors of The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders and has lived and worked around the world, including working on staff at Amnesty International and living in West Africa as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.

If the interview below isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out Susan’s blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, for more of her insights on poetry, travel, and living the creative writing life. Of course, you’re also more than welcome to come see Rich live and in-person at the 2014 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, this May 2-4!

A Few Questions for Susan Rich

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

I was estranged from poetry when I discovered the beautiful work of Elizabeth Bishop, particularly her poem, “Questions of Travel.” At the time, I had just returned from two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa and felt a great deal of affinity to Ms. Bishop’s life and work. The fact that she had also grown up in Massachusetts, had traveled faraway, and then lived on another continent caught my attention. Her underappreciated humor and cadenced lines infused with irony and heartbreak have kept me a fan for life. Now I live in Seattle and have visited the apartment building (The Brooklyn) where she lived during her time teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s as if I am on a lifelong journey with her. Whenever I travel, Bishop’s Complete Poems accompany me. When I teach, I often encourage my students to choose a “Dead Mentor” so that they, too, can claim a poet for life.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

Poetry was a constant companion since I was very young. At thirteen I wrote a poem filled with teenage angst and showed it to my English teacher, Mr. Katz. From there, he brought the poem to the principal and before I knew what was happening, my poem became our class graduation performance piece. What a strange and wondrous thing!  Still, flash forward another 10 years and I had all but given up on poetry. I had been told by my university professors that I had better try something else. And for 12 years I did; their condemnation shut me down. It was a very painful period. Yet, when I began writing again, began changing my life to put poetry at the center, I knew that poetry had come back to stay.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

New presses popping up in Detroit, Seattle, and lots of other places not traditionally known for publishing houses is one great new thing. Of course these “houses” are often basement sofas, coffee shop offices and pick-up offices. The ability to  record poems and send them over smart phones onto the internet thrills me. I love hearing poets read their own poems.  I love the strangeness of reading my poems into my phone alone in a hotel room or out for a walk and then finding then online in an interview the next day.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

I like new poets Kate Lebo’s Commonplace Book of Pie and Rebecca Hoog’s Self-Storage. I’m also a fan of Kelly Davio’s Burn This House and Erin Malone’s What Sound Does It Make? These are all Washington State based poets and their work deserves to be read beyond state lines. Actually, I hope all poets stay in the state of emerging — that place where experiment and ardor meet.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

I’m really looking forward to listening. The community here takes poetry seriously and knows how to celebrate it. At the Mass Poetry Festival I feel as if I’ve found my tribe. There’s always some serendipitous moment when you hear a new poet or discover a new art installation in a shop window. I look forward to being surprised. And of course I’m hoping for an extra day to wander through all of the Peabody Essex Museum, my absolute favorite Massachusetts museum.

One of Her Poems

Cloud Pharmacy

How many apothecary drawers
could I fill with these deliberations?

The pharmacist’s paper cone
parsing out a quarter cup

of love’s resistant drug,
spoons measuring new prescriptions

for my uncertainty, hipsway, gesture.
Give me cobalt bottles

leftover from aunt iska’s cures,
albastrons of ointments, resins to resolve

the double-helix of desire inside of me.
Where is the votive, the vessel,

the slide rule calculation—
to know how much good love

alchemically speaking is
good enough?

I want spindrift nights on swimmer’s
thighs. I want an Egyptian

elevator inlaid in camphorwood and ivory;
a West African drumbeat, an eggnog, a god.

I want waves and summer all year long.
I want you. And I want more.

(This is the title poem from Susan Rich’s fourth book, Cloud Pharmacy, and appears here courtesy of the poet’s website.)

Oliver de la Paz is the next in our series of featured Festival poets, and we’re thrilled to have him speak at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in May!  He was born in the Philippines and raised in Ontario, Oregon, and he earned both a BA in English and a BS in biology from Loyola Marymount University, followed by an MFA from Arizona State University.  He is the author of four collections of poetry, Names Above Houses (SIU Press 2001), Furious Lullaby(SIU Press 2007), Requiem for the Orchard(U. of Akron Press 2010) and the forthcoming Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014). Requiem for the Orchard was chosen for the Akron Prize by notable award-winning poet Martín Espada.

De la Paz is also the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry.  A founding member, he co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry.  He is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award, and a GAP grant from Artists’ Trust, his work has appeared in journals likeThe Southern ReviewVirginia Quarterly ReviewNorth American Review, and Tin House, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. He teaches at the creative writing MFA program at Western Washington University.

Here, the poet explains his “nerdy” double major, how he came to understand that a lifelong pursuit could become a true vocation, and how excited he is to see old friends, make new ones, and buy a ton of books at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to the Commonwealth May 2-4, 2014!


A Few Questions for de la Paz

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?
I discovered Li-Young Lee’s Rose when I was at a critical transitional point in my life. I had just finished college. I had just broken up with someone. I had a really difficult job as a social worker and I was a shadow for a schizophrenic man. Basically, I checked Rose out of the local library and read the book over and over for a period of two weeks. I finally got around to purchasing my own copy.

The book’s nostalgic tone and its haunted quality profoundly resonated for me and for who I was at that time in my life. I was invested in the high-seriousness of Li-Young Lee’s work, and I can’t tell you how many Li-Young Lee imitations went into the recycling bin while I was trying to shape who I was as a writer.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?
I have always written poems. When I was in junior high, I remember typing poems on an electric typewriter. I loved the carriage return and physically having to move the carriage over with my right hand. Anyway, I didn’t decide that I wanted to pursue poetry until I was actually invited to join a number of MFA programs as a student. For a long time I was of a mindset that I had to do something in the sciences. I have a Bachelors of Science in Biology, and a Bachelors of Arts in English—I was a nerdy double major. Being actually recruited to study poetry was ultimately what made me understand that it was something I could conceivably do as a vocation.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?
I love how easy it’s become to include visual images to accompany the written word. I see a lot more interesting experimentation and hybridization with writers taking risks with the look of their art on the page.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?
There are so many that excite me. So I’m going to name a few Kundiman Fellows who have recently published books and are doing tremendous things in the artistic community: Tarfia Faizullah’s bookSeam was just published by Southern Illinois University Press and it’s getting some noteworthy press. Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental was published last year by Alice James Press and was a Lambda Award Finalist. Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines, also an Alice James Book, won the 2011 Kundiman Prize and is now in its second printing!  Cathy Linh Che’s book, Split, was the 2012 Kundiman Prize winner and has just recently been published. It got a very excellent review inPublishers Weekly. Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium won the Kinereth Gensler and will be published by Alice James Books in May. Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in Fall of 2014. Brynn Saito’s The Palace Contemplating Departure won Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Award and is making great waves. There are a number of other emerging Asian American poets affiliated with Kundiman. Their books and chapbooks are all listed here (online at the Kundiman’s Reading Room).

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?
I’m really looking forward to being a spectator. I want to hear Kim Addonizio play the harmonica. I want to hear Philip Levine, and I hope he reads “They Feed They Lion.” I want to hang out with my friends and meet new ones! I want to buy a lot of books!

One of His Poems

How I Learned Quiet
Begin with slowness—the drag of a candle’s flame
down to the guard, and the pump of blood into the heart
as it sinks in the rib cage. Everything was spectacle.
Mother pinched me for squirming. The timetables lied. The games
were un-winnable. The priest looked down upon me
and lo, I was a fidgeting thing. God was in the desert
feeding me cactus flowers and locusts. I sank
my cheek between my teeth and listened
to the helicopters above us. Someone coughed. Someone
held up their hands and let fabric slide down to his elbows.

(This poem was first published in the poet’s third book Requiem for the Orchard.  It appears here courtesy of Verse Daily.)

Getting to Know Carol Ann Duffy

Maybe you, American, know that Carol Anne Duffy is the first female—and first Scottish—poet laureate of England. Maybe. But did you know she’s a celebrated children’s author? When Duffy comes to read at the Mass Poetry Festival in May, I’ll be picking up one of her twenty-plus poetry collections (I’m thinking of getting The Bees  to see if her interest in Sylvia Plath plays out beyond the one included poem that I know, called “Ariel”). But, I’ll also be choosing from one of her twenty-plus children’s books and anthologies (I’m thinking of getting  101 Poems for Children  so my kids have a good chance of finding lots of poems on butts and boogers…but more on that later.

Regarding poetry for kids, Duffy told an interviewer for the Manchester Evening News : “I know children love poetry… Poems are the original text messages in that they use language in a very concise way and I think they will become more relevant in this century than in the last century. We are reading less now than we did and a lot of young people spend a lot of time in front of a computer on Facebook or tweeting. So the poem is the literary form that is the most accessible simply because of its brevity.” But, wait. Isn’t poetry dead? Maybe Duffy’s been too busy earning the hard won title of “most popular poet—after Shakespeare”  to register the death gasps of po-poetry. When asked if poetry matters, by young Jane Bentham from Young Writer: the Magazine for Children with Something to Say , she said: “…It seems a pretty useless thing to do…[but] perhaps poetry can articulate ordinary people’s feelings and worries and in some small way be a form of consolation or utterance for common humanity… And for me it’s always been a vocation, it’s been a companion in my life and I think I actually would feel physically lonely if I didn’t write poetry.”

Yes—a vocation! Duffy’s efforts to share poetry with kids is a specialized portion of this vocation, or “calling,” and it’s no cakewalk. This became clear to me when I recently (valiantly!) exhausted myself teaching really smart middle-schoolers how to write persona poems for a Mass Poetry Student Day of Poetry. I had fun, the kids were great, and I’d do it again—but, would I do it for hours on end, day after day? Likely, no. I think poets like Duffy  and our own stateside Children’s Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbit, are a different, magic-making, breed; Nesbit has said, “My entire raison d’être is to get kids excited about reading.” Duffy’s “calling” to children’s poetry came after her mother May died seven years ago. As a Scotsman News reporter said: “Poetry for children was as much as she could manage – paddling, as she puts it, but not swimming deeply.”  Still, paddling is work, and when you know how to swim gracefully it takes control not to break out into butterfly laps just because you can.

Well, I decided to check out what my kids thought about Duffy’s poems. I wish I could say I’m being original here, but I got the idea from book reviewer Julie Stoner when I was researching my article on Rhina Espaillat. My kids weren’t as forthcoming as Stoner’s but their opinions were clear. Here’re the poems we looked at:


When I’m scared the Monsters are thrilling me.
When I’m cold the North Wind is chilling me.
When I’m pretty some ribbons are frilling me.
When I’m fibbing my teacher is grilling me.
When I’m sad my salt tears are spilling free.
When I’m brave my courage is willing me.
When I fidget my Grandma is stilling me.
When I’m hungry my Mother is filling me.
When I’m spending the toy shop is billing me.
When I score the referee’s nilling me.
When I’m ill the doctor is pilling me.
When it’s dawn the sparrows are trilling me.
But when I laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh


co-written with Ella Duffy

Goodbye, Courgette,
Insect pet.
You are old and cold.

Goodbye, Courgette,
I won’t forget
How tickly you were to hold.

Goodbye, Courgette,
The best pet.
I love you so, like gold.

Oh, Courgette!


Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite drink Italian wine.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite smell is turpentine.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite jeans by Calvin Klein.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite herb is lemon thyme.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite fruit a Tuscan lime.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite art Venetian mime.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite tree a creeping vine.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite statue free of grime.
Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,
favourite poem has to rhyme
with Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim.


Glad we don’t have to bark.
Glad we don’t have to cock
one leg and wee on a lampost.
Glad we don’t have to cluck
or lay an egg. Glad we don’t
have to moo, neigh, baa, eat grass
or hay, be milked, fleeced, ridden.
Glad we don’t have to hoot, hang
from the thread of a web, sting, slither.
Glad we don’t have to mew, eat mice,
peck, breathe through gills, dwell
in shells or form a chrysalis, hiss,
hum, hover. Glad we don’t
have to kip upside down in the dark, bark.


Me:  So what’d you think?

Luc (age 11): Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim!

Me:  Ok! Ok!  And you, Chloe?

Chloe (age 7):  Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim!

(Several [annoying] minutes pass with the kids gleefully utilizing the rhythm of the “Peggy” poem to make their own rhymes having, mostly to do with butts and boogers.)

Me:  Ok! Ok! What else did you like?

Chloe (age 7):  I like that the dimples kill her! [sticks her index fingers into her cheeks, then “dies” with her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth]

Me:  And you, Luc?

Luc (age 11): I don’t like “Glad.”

Me:  Why not?

Luc (age 11):  It doesn’t have a regular rhyming pattern.

Me:  Poems don’t have to rhyme. [What I’m really thinking is: “But NONE of mommy’s poems rhyme!”] Let me read the poem aloud again…

Luc (age 11): Wait! What does “wee” mean?

Me:  It’s British for “pee.”

Luc (age 11):  Ok. I like it.

A success all around, I’d say! For the rest of the evening they read more of the poems aloud themselves and played more with language, effectively “composing” their own verse. However this pleases me, I think I’d like to end this article on a more adult note—here’s Duffy’s title poem, from her collection The Bees:


Here are my bees,
brazen, blurs on paper,
besotted; buzzwords, dancing
their flawless, airy maps.

Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded, glad, golden, thus—

wise—and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed, busy heart,
and honey is art.

Jennifer Jean’s most recent poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table Publishing, 2013). Other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared in:  Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Poetica, and The Mom Egg Review. Jennifer is Director of the Morning Garden Writers Retreat; she blogs for Amirah—a non-profit advocate for sex-trafficking survivors—and, she teaches writing at Salem State University. For more information, visit:www.fishwifetales.com

A Look at Kim Addonizio

The Poetry Foundation’s web site says that Kim Addonizio’s poetry is “known for its gritty, street-wise narrators and a wicked sense of wit.”  But don’t misunderstand — there is nothing swaggering about the poems. In fact the same article  declares her work to be wise and crafty, and quotes from a Daniela Gioseffi, who contends,  that Addonizio “is most profound when she’s philosophizing about the transient quality of life and its central realization of mortality.”

Here is a wonderful quote from Addonizio herself explaining what poetry means to her: “Writing is an ongoing fascination and challenge, as well as being the only form of spirituality I can consistently practice. I started as a poet and will always return to poetry—both reading and writing it—for that sense of deep discovery and communion I find there. There are only two useful rules I can think of for aspiring writers: learn your craft, and persist. The rest, as Henry James said, is the madness of art.”

Here are three ways you can get a sense of why you should hear this usually west coast writer when she comes to the Mass Poetry Festival. First, a poem that reflects her ability to make a classic into a model of modern psychology, next her answers to our interview questions and, last of all, her official biography.

Echo and Narcissus

Poor love-struck Echo, stuck with repeating
everything he said. He might
have thought he deserved it,
to have a nymph for a girlfriend, who’d confirm

everything he said; he might
have loved how she mirrored him,
a girlfriend who’d say You’re pretty
when he told her she was pretty,

who’d love him more than her mirror.
Not that they had mirrors in those days;
that was the problem. Anyway, she was pretty,
but he wasn’t interested in nymphs.

If only they’d had mirrors in those days
he wouldn’t have drowned in that reflecting pool,
finding it more interesting than nymphs.
But maybe he’d have beat his head against a mirror

and killed himself anyway, pool or no pool.
No free will in those days—it was all the gods.
You could beat your head against your fate, but still,
if you were Narcissus, you’d end up a white flower

stuck in the ground with no will, plucked or trampled by gods,
and someone would say it was deserved,
for beauty to come down to a white flower,
a poor echo, and someone’s love stuck

in the ground, the ground, the ground, the ground.

Originally published in Threepenny Review.


Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

 Every single poet I read had a huge impact. I soaked it all in. It’s the only way to learn, especially when you’re starting—read, read, read. If I were a visual artist I’d be saying to beginners: look, look, look. Come to think of it, that’s also good advice for a writer.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

I just knew, like some people are called to God. I was called to writing. I am addicted.  Thank God it’s socially acceptable.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

Collaboration is terrifically exciting. I love working with musicians (I also play blues harmonica), and doing projects with artists and filmmakers.  Anything that moves poetry toward the ears and hearts of listeners, in any form, is great news.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

My friend (and a member of my band, Nonstop Beautiful Ladies), Peter Kline, just published a collection, Deviants, that marries formal rigor with gender-bending material. I think that’s pretty interesting. In general, I’m interested in emerging poets who are balancing their bag of tricks—whether it’s formal skills, collage, metaphorical pyrotechnics, or whatever—with passion and sensibility. I want poetry to wake me up, not display its cleverness or erudition.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

Being with other poets, and reading for an audience that cares about words. I also wouldn’t mind seeing the Salem toy museum. My inner five-year-old is whining at me right now.


Kim Addonizio has published five collections of poetry, two novels, two books on writing poetry, and a collection of stories, and has co-edited a book of writing on tattoos. Her latest book of poems is Lucifer at the Starlite (W.W. Norton). She has received Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, and been a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2014 she will publish My Black Angel: Blues Poems & Portraits with woodcuts by Charles D. Jones, and The Palace of Illusions, a collection of stories. She volunteers with The Hunger Project, a global organization empowering the most impoverished people in the world to end their own hunger. Visit her web site at www.kimaddonizio.com

A Look at David Ferry

David Ferry, one of this year’s featured poet at the May 2-4 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, is both poet and translator, and in both areas his work is acclaimed as of major importance. As a poet he is praised for his vision, craft, modesty, fly-by urbanity, simplicity, and a dozen other attributes that occur readers when confronted by someone of Ferry’s unassuming brilliance. His translations of Gilgamesh, of Virgil and of Horace are considered standards in giving life to these honored classics.

In 2012, when Ferry won the National Book Award for Bewilderment, the reviews were admiring and ardent. In an essay in The New Yorker, Dan Chaisson said of the book “This is one of the great books of poetry of this young century.” W.S. Merwin described Ferry’s work as having an “assured quiet tone” that communicates “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.”

PBS’s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Ferry for NewsHour after he won the National Book Award. The video clip gives you an opportunity to hear his poems as well as get a sense of the man himself.

A Q&A with David Ferry

In anticipation of this participation in this year’s festival, we asked Ferry some general questions about himself and the current poetry scene. Here are his answers:

Who or what had the most impact on you when you began to write poetry?
Study in the poems of Frost and Stevens when I was at Amherst, where I wrote about Stevens for an honors thesis; writing about Wordsworth’s poems for my PhD;  all the reading of poets, fascinated by the insides of their lines.  I didn’t start writing poems myself till graduate school.  In  high school, though, Whitman.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

I don’t know about “had to be.”  I just started to write poems, lines of poems, and loved the w0rk of doing it.  I still do. I’m having a pretty long career at doing it, so I guess I had to.

What do you think is the most exciting new development in poetry today?

I’m a little di1strustful of the word “development” because it could invite you to think that things have gotten better ‘today’ than they were ‘yesterday.’  I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  But it’s a pretty exciting time, a lot of good writing in it. That’s always been the case.  I do think, though, that the internet, the new journals and blogs, are an exciting  development, lots of good criticism (and lots of bad criticism too, but alive), many good poems, emerging and emerged, and many bad ones too, but alive.   Also, lots of transactions, in translation and discussions, of twentieth and twenty-first century poems in other languages. My eyesight is kind of shot so there are limits to my reading, but I read enough to be excited by the scene.  The new technologies are great for getting the word back and forth.

What emerging poets do you find interesting, and why?

I’m not going to get into this.  There are a number of poems I’ve read recently, by people I may not have read before, some of them “emerging,” some of them decidedly “emerged,” whatever that means.  But I’d be afraid of inadvertently not mentioning somebody whose poems have excited me, and I’d worry about that.  I do want to say, though, that I was to have read with Maxine Kumin at the festival this year, and I’m very sorry not to have had the opportunity to say, in her presence, how much I admire what she has done.  I first got know her work many many years ago, before her strong “emergence.”

Her work was characterized then, as it was forever after that, by the directness and self-knowledge of her lines.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

Reading with my friends and colleagues from Suffolk University, to be sure; seeing old friends; Salem itself.

More on Ferry’s biography

Ferry is Hart Professor of English, Emeritus, at Wellesley College;  since his retirement from Wellesley he has frequently been a Visiting Lecturer in the Boston University Graduate Creative Writing Program; he is currently a “Distinguished Visiting Scholar”at Suffolk University. In addition to the National Book Award Ferry has won the Ruth B Lilly Prize, from the Poetry Foundation, “for lifetime achievement,” 2011; The Golden Rose , “for lifetime achievement,” New England Poetry Club, 2007; D.Litt. (Hon.), Amherst College, 2006; Harold Morton Landon Translation Prize, Academy of American Poets; Academy Award for Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2001; The 2000 Lenore Marshall Prize, Academy of American Poets; the 2000 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize, The Library of Congress;  Fellow, American Academy of  Arts and Sciences, 1998.

His wife, who died in 2006, was Anne Ferry, the distinguished literary scholar and critic.

Getting to Know Rhina Espaillat

When I think of Rhina Espaillat I don’t think immediately about her wonderful writing accomplishments—how she published her first collection, Lapsing to Grace: Poems and Drawings, at age 60; how she’s published ten more collections since; or about her numerous prizes, which include:  a Richard Wilbur Award, a T.S Eliot Prize, two Howard Nemerov Sonnet Awards, three Poetry Society Awards, a Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, a  Robert Frost Foundation—Tree at my Window Award, and a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State University.

No. I think about her warmth. I think about the time I rushed into a sunny room at the Newburyport Public Library, late, and tucked into a large circle of chuckling poets gathered there. These folks turned out to be The Powow River Poets—core “members” of the New Formalist movement. But, what did I know? This was 2004 and I was miles away from my first publication, ignorant about form, yet starving for a poetry community. I shuffled my papers, looked around and saw an elegant and motherly woman speaking. Without force, yet with substantial strength, she’d quieted the crowd. She seemed the epitome of warmth and I liked her immediately. It didn’t hurt that later, when I passed around my free-verse lyric (the sole free-verse in the circle) she was kind with her critique.

Rhina founded the Powows when she and her husband Alfred Moskowitz moved to Newburyport from Long Island.  And, since her arrival, Newburyport’s popular literary festival was revitalized. Poet X.J. Kennedy has rightly called her “a sparkplug” but I’d add to that:  she is one of our strongest poetry advocates and community builders—and we can’t have enough of those!

About her work with form, Rhina has said: “Form came easily to me because I found it in the work of others and responded to it with my body, as children respond naturally to music, dancing, chanting and every other form of sound play. As an adult writer, of course, I soon learned that all of those devices can be used to work with, or pull against, the intellectual or emotional content of what you’re writing. Meter isn’t an ornament, but a tool, both useful and fun to use. And yes, I do especially love the strict forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, ballade and so forth.” In aninterview with Rattle Magazine  she said, “I’m not as secure with free verse as I am with formal verse, because I like dancing inside the box.”

In contrast, I did not grow up with formal poetry. It’s almost exotic! My undergrad and graduate years were steeped in LANGUAGE and Post-modernist poetics since those were the prevailing camps at the colleges that took me in. If there’s anyone else out there like me—a bit deficient in essential formalist vitamins—I think Rhina is a great modern tonic. Take for instance this sonnet from The Powow River Anthology edited by Alfred Nicol :


My mother’s mother, toughened by the farm,
hardened by infants’ burials, used a knife
and swung an axe as if her woman’s arm
wielded a man’s hard will. Inured to life
and death alike, “ What ails you now?” she’d say
ungently to the sick. She fed them too,
roughly but well, and took the blood away—
and washed the dead, if there was that to do.
She told us children how the cows could sense
when their own calves were marked for butchering,
and how they lowed, their wordless eloquence
impossible to still with anything—
sweet clover, or her unremitting care.
She told it simply, but she faltered there.

This is an incredibly vivid rendering of a “hardened” woman! Rhina, whose family fled the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo regime in 1939, had spent much of her childhood in her grandmother’s care. She learned her love of poetry from her father Homero who, she said in aMezzo Cammin interview, “was adamant that the two languages, English and Spanish, remain separate, in order to preserve the integrity of both cultures and uphold his pride in the literature of his own people.” She expresses this sentiment best in the following poem:


My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was–his memory, his name
(su nombre)–with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

Now, I’ve mentioned Rhina’s warmth, yet this is a decidedly dark poem. In her Able Muse reviewof Rhina’s book Her Place in These Designs, Julie Stoner calls some of Rhina’s work “dark and complicated.” Her poem “Bilingual/Bilingue” certainly qualifies! Though, in regards to assimilation,Rhina has said: “I think that those of us who have more than one identity, who have multiple languages and multiple loyalties, are not really divided people; they’re multiplied.” Well, this doesn’t sound dark—only buoyant.

I’ll end with one of my favorites because it’s a little cheeky as well as sensual—again, like Rhina—and it hits home about the writing life:


Look at the state of wild undress you’ve caught
me in, Poem, lying about, with all
the housework still untouched! God knows I’ve fought
you–but how hard? Or did I mean to fall,
and leave my thoughts unclothed, indolent out
of guile, my mind unlocked, so you could slip
right in and find me? That’s what you’re about,
I know: seduction, your insidious lip
pressed to my ear. I ought to sew and cook;
I ought to sweep and wash; I ought to dust.
But you have stirred my dust instead, and look
how duty yields to my peculiar lust,
your silky promise of some further bliss,
and not a thing to cover me but this.

Jennifer Jean’s most recent poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table Publishing, 2013). Other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared in:  Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Poetica, and The Mom Egg Review. Jennifer is Director of the Morning Garden Writers Retreat; she blogs for Amirah—a non-profit advocate for sex-trafficking survivors—and, she teaches writing at Salem State University. For more information, visit:www.fishwifetales.com

A Look at Vivian Shipley

Vivian Shipley, who will be a headliner at the May 2-4 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, has an interesting history.  Though a long-time resident of Connecticut and a winner of many awards from that state and from New England, she nevertheless writes often about her native Kentucky (see the poem later in this article). Another interesting fact: though she has won numerous awards, she didn’t start writing until she was 30, and even then didn’t begin seriously sending her poetry for publication until twenty years after that.

Shipley’s Awards

Nevertheless, what a stunning array of awards she has won, including the Library of Congress’s Connecticut Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Literary Community, the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Prize from the Poetry Society of America, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Prize, the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from the University of Southern California, the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from the William Faulkner Society, the Daniel Varoujan Prize from the New England Poetry Club, the Hart Crane Prize from Kent State, the Connecticut Press Club Prize for Best Creative Writing, and the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. In addition she has twice been a recipient of the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, and two of her books—Gleanings: Old Poems, New Poems and When There Is No Shore—were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Wow! Time to catch our breath after that listing!

Here is what a reviewer says about her latest book: “Not one poem in All of Your Messages Have Been Erased can be ignored and, as a result, we will not be able to erase the messages delivered in this book.  This collection shows Shipley as a master poet, one of our finest. “

Interview questions with Shipley

In order for you to get a sense of where she is coming from, Vivian answered the following questions for us:

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

Joe Bruchac had a great impact on my writing because he gave me confidence in my ability to write poetry and published my first chapbook, Jack Tales and my first full collection, Poems Out of Harlan County. Both collections are about my native state of Kentucky and Joe recognized the significance of poems that detailed Appalachian daily life. Leo Connellan who passed away while he was the 2ndPoet Laureate of Connecticut was also very influential because he helped me to develop a voice, and to revise in order to tighten my poems.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

When I was 31 and about to give birth to my second son, I started having seizures.  Nurses induced labor, Todd was born and doctors discovered I had a brain tumor larger than a baseball in my right frontal lobe. I was in Ohio at the time and the doctors there did not think they could save me and so, I was brought to Yale in New Haven, CT. The tumor was removed and after a lengthy recovery, I began to write poetry. I could not stop writing poetry and I had never written a poem before. In fact, I had a PhD in Victorian literature from Vanderbilt University and in 1969 had been hired an Assistant Professor at Southern Connecticut State University. I never did any more work in Victorian literature and continued to write poetry. I was very grateful that SCSU allowed me to begin teaching poetry writing which I still do today.  So, nothing convinced me I had to be a poet, I just could not stop writing poetry. I often wonder why and suspect it might have been to try and make sense of senseless suffering or at least make something productive come from a terrible experience. As a result of having the brain tumor, one of the major themes in my poetry is giving voice to people who have been silenced for one reason or another.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

I think that on line publishing and various forms of electronic communication are the most exciting developments in poetry. They provide limitless opportunities to share work instantly with anyone anywhere.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

I am not sure what you mean by emerging and hesitate to label a poet as emerging because he/she might feel they are established.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

I am very excited about hearing my MFA poetry students from Southern Connecticut State University present a reading. I am advising three of the students  on their thesis and they will be reading poems we have worked on together. I am also looking forward to attending a panel conducted by Christine Beck who got her MFA from SCSU in 2013 and wrote her thesis with me. It has just been published as a book, Blinding Light.

And here is that poem we promised earlier in this piece:

Shipley’s poem

Digging Up Peonies

Overcoming fear of stalks that are too close,
I remind myself it’s Lexington, that mist

on fields meant rattlesnakes in rows of corn
would be cold, sluggish. Like prying out

potatoes with my fingers, I dig up tubers
as if I could lift my father, seeded with cancer,

if only for a day from gravity, from ground.
My parents know what I know–this is the end.

They will not return to this house my father built.
No refugee in Kosovo, wheelbarrowing

his grandmother to safety, I will bring as much
of Kentucky, of their dirt as I can carry with me

on our flight to Connecticut. A bride, moving
to New Haven over thirty years ago, I have

not taken root. I cannot explain this urge
to go to creekstone fences my father stacked,

dig up box after box of peonies I will bank
into granite piled along my side garden.

My father will see pink, fuchsia, blossoming
from his bed. Is this what revision is, change

of location, spreading, to retell my story
another time, in another soil? Unable to untie

what binds me to Kentucky, to bones of all
those who are in my bones, I will save what

I can of my mother, of my father from this earth,
from the dissolution that binds us after all.

Getting to Know Phil Levine

The Mass Poetry Festival has an abundance of excellent poets coming to read this year in May. I’m honestly very excited! For past festivals, I’ve found it helpful to acquaint myself with a readers’ work prior to their event so that I’m listening to them in context.

To begin—I’m getting to know Philip Levine. I found out that he has published twenty-five poetry collections, including selected compilations, but I did not do an exhaustive reading. When a poet has such a large body of work, and I own few of their books, I take to the net like most folks. I always check out the wonderful resources at The Academy of American Poets site and the Poetry Foundation site, but I make sure I don’t merely peruse (sometimes crowd-pleasing) overly anthologized work. Recent work cannot have been excessively vetted. With it, I can wonder relatively alone:  what keeps the poet vital currently? So, in my search I aimed for Levine’s millennial publications. In the same vein, I like reading poetry collections starting with the last poem first. “The last shall be first…” is straight out of a biblical parable, right? Well, it suits my taste to tear up—at least initially—a constructed-collection so I can more easily see the poems standing on their own.

I started with “A Story” from Levine’s most recent collection News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf), which came out before his first Poet Laureateship in 2011. It is a meta-commentary on narrative by “America’s great narrative poet,” as he was dubbed by Librarian of Congress James Billington. It is both true and invented:


Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.
There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen
must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one
with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling
to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions
This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and the sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,
ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here. You see
the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,
gray and certainly pine, shows through.
Father stood there in the middle of his life
to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof
must surely be listening. When no one answered
you can see where his heel came down again
and again, even though he’d been taught
never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;
they had well water they pumped at first,
a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood
at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly
to where the woods once held the voices
of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs
of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered
one tree at a time after the workmen arrived
with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything? The children tiny enough
to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms
of their own and to abandon them, the father
with his right hand raised against the sky?
If those questions are too personal, then tell us,
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

Levine uses clues to piece together the Truth and to inform his invention: “…where are the woods? They had to have been/ because the continent was clothed in trees./ We all read that in school and knew it to be true.” Though they’re made of echoes thinner than memory, the family depicted is vivid enough. Why quibble over matching these characters with actual people when some like them have suffered. “You think you have a right/ to know everything?” Levine admonishes. Facts/schmacks. His concern is for “the earth we lost.”

His concern is for the downtrodden. In a November 2013 interview with Bill Moyers  he discussed  the Black Friday Protests and his rage at workers’ plights. He admitted to Moyers that he always seeks to maintain his rage. I don’t agree with this sort of maintenance, on a personal level:  recognize and name, yes—maintain, no. But, it’s done wonders for Levine’s poetry. “There is a core of experiences that one transforms in the making of a poem and you need to be free to take it where it can go and be most meaningful,” he told Moyers.

He also said, “You’re always in danger of writing propagandistically.” Issue-oriented poets are often considered anathema to lyricism. However, in poem after poem Levine wields the lyric impulse and pulse masterfully. Case in point is the following poem, first published in The New Yorker in 1978:


Let me begin again as a speck
of dust caught in the night winds
sweeping out to sea. Let me begin
this time knowing the world is
salt water and dark clouds, the world
is grinding and sighing all night, and dawn
comes slowly and changes nothing. Let
me go back to land after a lifetime
of going nowhere. This time lodged
in the feathers of some scavenging gull
white above the black ship that docks
and broods upon the oily waters of
your harbor. This leaking freighter
has brought a hold full of hayforks
from Spain, great jeroboams of dark
Algerian wine, and quill pens that can’t
write English. The sailors have stumbled
off toward the bars of the bright houses.
The captain closes his log and falls asleep.
1/10’28. Tonight I shall enter my life
after being at sea for ages, quietly,
in a hospital named for an automobile.
The one child of millions of children
who has flown alone by the stars
above the black wastes of moonless waters
that stretched forever, who has turned
golden in the full sun of a new day.
A tiny wise child who this time will love
his life because it is like no other.

He told Mona Simpson in his 1988 Paris Review interview: “We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching.”

Levine encountered some of the 20th century’s greatest poetry teachers, including: Don Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. I think his work, early on, resisted categorization. His first full length collection, Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press), released in 1968, was not Confessional, Beat-ish, nor nascent Language poetry—though, attention to striking, economical language is evident. Here’s the book’s axial poem:


It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

This is an incredibly compassionate poem! Compassion like this doesn’t come without investment and hard earned maturity. And, I’m not talking about age here (though, Levine was forty years old when the poem was published). He brings a life of substance to bear in every poem—his factory work in Detroit from a young age, his upbringing by Jewish immigrant parents, and more. He has said, “Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered.”(Full interview in The Paris Review.)

Write because you have to! Wonderful! Well, I’m more than ready now to read Philip Levine’s work from start to finish, and I’m looking forward to a dynamic program at the Mass Poetry Festival in May!

Jennifer Jean’s most recent poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table Publishing, 2013). Other collections include: The ArchivistFishwife, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared in:  Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Poetica, and The Mom Egg Review. Jennifer is Director of the Morning Garden Writers Retreat; she blogs for Amirah—a non-profit advocate for sex-trafficking survivors—and, she teaches writing at Salem State University. For more information, visit:www.fishwifetales.com

A look at Marge Piercy

The Boston Globe  summarizes the artistic importance of the poet and novelist  Marge Piercy, who will be one of the featured poets at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival: “Marge Piercy is not just an author, she’s a cultural touchstone. Few writers in modern memory have sustained her passion and skill. . . .”

That cultural touchstone is a phenomenon you will not want to miss when she appears at the May 2-4 festival in Salem. Piercy is not just a poet with 17 volumes to her credit (see a list of her poetry), she has also published an equal number of novels.

Piercy’s Background

The Poetry Foundation describes Piercy’s family as working class and one hard-hit by the Great Depression. She was the first in her family to attend college. Her background is also described this way: “During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the movement against the war in Vietnam, an engagement which has shaped her work in myriad ways. Perhaps most importantly, though, has been Piercy’s sustained involvement with feminism, Marxism and environmental thought.”

What others are saying about her poetry

Here are a few quotes to tell you what others are saying about her work:

“Like a lightning rod, she brings large energies to ground. . . .” ~Jane Hirshfield

“I always appreciate her unique mixture of common sense with uncommon joyful insight. She’s political and sensual, astute and wild. . . ” ~Joy Harjo

“.. . Marge Piercy proves that modern poetry can be both passionate and perceptive, well-structured and inventive.”

“Piercy has the double vision of the utopian: a view of human possibility – harmony between the sexes, among races and between humankind and nature-that makes the present state of affairs clearly unacceptable by comparison.”
–Margaret Atwood, New York Times Book Review

Interview with Piercy

We asked Piercy a couple of questions for this story. Here are her answers:

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

I began with what turned out to be the origins of American prosody: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.  At fifteen, they both moved me.  The sweep and power of Whitman and the intensity and imagery of Dickinson got to me.  I began reading poetry widely but started with them.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

Desperation and opportunity. For the first time in my life I had a room of my own with a door that shut.  Even though it was unheated, I had privacy.  I turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of my life and deal with my loss and confusion. I had three deaths: my grandmother Hannah who had given me my religious education and unqualified love; my girlfriend, who died of a heroin overdose, and my sweet cat who was poisoned by my boyfriend when we sold our asbestos shack to an African American family. Although the area was predominantly Black, our block was white and his family was furious.  Nothing in my life was the way TV and school told me it was supposed to be. I had witnessed more violence than most kids my age who didn’t grow up in the ghetto.  Our family had little money and less education and iI didn’t seem to fit in anyplace.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

Since so few people read, a return of poetry readings.  I also like the immediacy of on line journals and the opportunity on some sites to hear/see the poet reading a poem or two.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

Elizabeth Bradfield; Tarfia Faizullah; Shana Ritter; Joan Michelson, George Longenecker; and though they are certainly not new at publication, Marilyn Kallet and Maria Gillan, who deserve more attention than they’re receiving. All of these poets write work that moves me and is original and powerful.  Each of them is very different than the others and would probably be surprised to be put into any group together.  

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

Reading to a appreciative audience and hearing other poets, some of whose work I’m not acquainted with.

One of her poems

To give you only the slightest taste of her abundant and powerful poems, here is one of her early poems:

The tao of touch

What magic does touch create
that we crave it so.  That babies
do not thrive without it.  That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet.

Yet the touch of a stranger
the bumping or predatory thrust
in the subway is like a slap.
We long for the familiar, the open
palm of love, its tender fingers.
It is our hands that tamed cats
Into pets, not our food.

The old woman looks in the mirror
thinking, no one will ever touch
me again, never.  Not hold me.
Nor caress the softness of my
breasts, my inner thighs, the swell
of my belly.  Do I still live
if no one knows my body?

We touch each other so many
ways, in curiosity, in anger,
to command attention, to soothe,
to quiet, to rouse, to cure.
Touch is our first language
and often, our last as the breath
ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.

A look at Forest Gander

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is just three months away (May 2-4 in Salem), and today, with a portrait of one of our feature poets, we begin a series to entice you to come. We believe if you have a sense of the poet Forrest Gander, you’ll want to see and hear him in person.

Gander has lived all over; he was born in the Mojave Desert, grew up in Virginia, has lived in San Francisco, Dolores Hildalgo (in Mexico),  Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and currently lives in Rhode Island where he teaches at Brown University. His mind has a wide range, also. Not only has he translated Mexican, Latin American, Spanish and Japanese poets, but he holds a degree in geology as well as English literature.

Toward the end of this piece, we’ll point you to sites where you can read an in-depth biography, hear him reading his own poems, and see a list of the numerous national prizes he has won both as a poet and as a translator. The material on the site also points to a man with a generous spirit. How often do you see a poet’s website with lots of links to, and commendations for, the works  of other poets and writers? When you see the videos with his poems as voice-overs, you’ll be impressed with his pleasing, engaging voice, deep but not too deep, musical but in no way sing-songy. He is an engaging reader. And he reads his own wonderful poems.

But before the links, here are his answers to questions about poetry and being a poet that we asked him:

Mass Poetry: Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?
Forrest Gander:  No single figure. My mother who read real poetry to me when I was a child. Brady Earnhart and Michael Perrow when I was in college. It was their focus and passion for poetry, their more developed aesthetics. Robert Creeley, whose work we all loved and still love. Wallace Stevens for his meditative strangeness and lucidity. Later CD Wright who is an excellent close reader and Frank Stanford who had ideas and energy for twelve people. Lorine Niedecker for the precision of her perception.

MP:  What convinced you that you had to be a poet?
FG:  I’m not a talker, not even comfortable in ordinary conversations. I’ve always had to turn to the page to discover what I wanted to say.

MP:  What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?
FG:  The very fact that in an age of spectacle, the young are still drawn to poetry, the anti-spectacle. The interior is always larger.

MP:  What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?
FG:  A lot of the most talented younger poets that I know are doing a lot more than publishing and promoting their own work. They’re often involved in starting presses, hosting websites, collaborating, translating, and otherwise making company, as Creeley would say. Among the first to come to mind are Matt Henrikson, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Jen Tynes, Susan Scarlata, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Sawako Nakayasu, Lynn Xu, and Joyelle McSweeney. And each is a distinctively exciting writer.

MP: What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?
FG:  Again, that company who keep the word.

And here are the promised links: