National Poetry Month: Saba Husain

Dear reader, it has been such a joy to share so many poems with you this year for National Poetry Month. I’d intended to include more different types of posts this year — prompts and poetry-adjacent things and such — but ultimately I just had such a wealth of people’s poems to share that I bent to that impulse as the month wore on.

Today I’m pleased to feature a poem by Saba Husain to round out our poetry celebration. I hope you’ll enjoy it, as I hope you’ve enjoyed this whole month’s series.

The Missing Planet

Oblivious to the red blood moon
we strung the universe on a wire hanger
in order of distance from the sun:

Neptune’s swing entangled
Saturn’s rings, and sent Jupiter
spinning towards Mars.

While the lunar jaw dropper was witnessed
from Sri Lanka to California,
I counted generations on my fingertips,
and imagined faces I’d never met
turned towards the sky.

In another time and age I’d be
on my knees at the spectacle,
having dallied enough nights on my driveway
to know a Texas sky.

Grandson, hold on to the blue green
sphere you plucked from your mobile,
tuck the Earth under your pillow,
let the moon orbit your eyes.

***

Saba Z Husain’s work has appeared in Sequestrum, Bangalore Review, Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Texas Review, Bellevue Review, Houston Chronicle, Aleph Review, Synkroniciti, Equinox, and the anthologies of Mutabilis Press, Ankelbiters Press, Lamar University Press, Southern Poetry Vol. VIII: Texas, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the 2021 and 2020 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, and semifinalist for the 2020 Philip Levine Poetry Prize. Saba serves on the board of Mutabilis Press.

National Poetry Month: Autumn Hayes

I only recently first encountered Autumn Hayes’ poetry at this month’s Mutable Hour reading, and wow! Powerhouse.

Sonnet #1

What’s that thorny thing you clutch so close
Pricking the blood to your palm’s numb palm? A rose
Wild-born, lightning-crooked bush? A ball
Of pig iron painted black? A dying sun with spiked rays?

What tether have you fashioned to control
Its swing and land? A synthetic cord? A bow
Of metal marrying metal? How heavy does it hang
Welded to the weight of the wait? Does it ripple your gut

To hear it hum through the anxious air? Where
Does it cling to your body? At elbow? At knee? For me
It’s my right. Elbow, that is. Swift shrug, shoulder flick
And the air at least has been stabbed. A fuzzy brown cuff

Holds it in place. Where do you keep the tool that can sever
The tether? Behind your back? Like it’s the weapon?

***

Autumn Hayes is a freelance writer and poet; her work has appeared in Xavier Review, Storm Cellar, The Washington Spectator, 3:AM, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and the micro-fiction anthology 140 and Counting¸among other places. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she has taught reading, writing, public speaking, math, drama, and vocational welding in Los Angeles, Houston, and the Mississippi Delta. She holds an MFA in poetry and teaches English in her hometown. Find out more at autumnhayes.com.

National Poetry Month: BJ Buckley

I first encountered B.J. Buckley’s work one of the times when I was a judge for the Poetry Super Highway annual contest. I love this poem “Butter” and am pleased to feature it this year on my blog. 

Do you have any childhood memories connected to food? Does anyone not? Bread and butter are intimately linked to my memories of childhood happiness, specifically watching the homemade pita loaves puff up in the oven as they finished baking, and then spreading butter on them so soon it melted while the knife was still spreading it. That smell is still, to me, the scent of joy.

Butter

The cats are on the table licking butter
from my supper of stale discount bread,
whole grain loaf passed over in this whitebread
town. It’s nearly Christmas, and this memory
from childhood – December and real butter
in defiance of the lack of cheese or meat.
My father never shook the dust of Ellis Island
from his shoes. Year’s end he pinched
so on the Holy Morning we’d have oranges
in the toes of our stockings and nuts in their shells,
almonds and walnuts and filberts, Brazil nuts
and pecans, and ribbon candy made by the Cockney
man who had a tiny grocery, Greek cookies from
Mrs. Panopoulous whose first son had ended his own
life years before my sister and I were ever born.

My father drank his coffee half milk and so much
sugar that even we with our Irish sweet tooths
could barely get it down. I know from letters he wrote
to Bridie, sister left behind and never married,
that he longed for fish from the Shannon where it met
the sea, for Kerry butter, which you find now
in every market as if it were nothing special.
Those December dinners of whole wheat
thick spread with yellow are what I most remember,
more than the scrimped-for ham and sweet potatoes,
black olives and cranberry sauce in cut glass dishes,
the good silver hidden all year under my parents’ bed,
next to the string-tied shoebox with the captured
leprechaun from the Old Country and the suitcase
of graying photographs, the loved and lost
whose names were faded as their faces.

The cats are licking delicately their soft paws,
their pretty whiskers, cleaning their foreheads
and their ears. They smell of kibble-fish
and Kerry butter, of milk and wheat, a scent like
the hands of my father, making us our suppers
in the solstice dark, and then his thin clear tenor
that sang us off to sleep.

                                          at Yuletide, 2019

***

B.J. Buckley is a Montana poet and writer who has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities programs throughout the West and Midwest for over 45 years in schools, libraries, hospitals, senior centers and homeless shelters. Her work has appeared in Whitefish Review, ellipsis, Sugar House Review, December, Sequestrum, About Place Journal, The Comstock Poetry Review, and many others. Her book Corvidae, Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, with woodcut illustrations by Dawn Senior-Trask, came out from Lummox Press 2014. Her most recent work, the chapbook In January, the Geese, won the 35th Anniversary Comstock Review Chapbook Prize. Visit her website here.

National Poetry Month: KB Brookins

I’ve been a fan of KB Brookins’ work ever since we shared a stage at Malvern Books a few years ago. Rather than belabor that point, I’ll share what other people are saying about their work. First, here’s the blurb for their newly released collection How To Identify Yourself with a Wound:

“In How To Identify Yourself With a Wound, KB chronicles their experiences — of Blackness, queerness, transness, class — and the spaces between. There is no doubt that due to various forms of inequity and colonialism, society views certain identities as ‘wounds,’ but what does it mean to define yourself outside of the pain of being marginalized? In this book, KB recognizes inequity and subverts it. In this book, the main speaker tells their own stories, and they don’t shy away from the complexities of harm and the mess that it leaves.”

And here are some blurbs for it from other authors:

“The poems in How to Identify Yourself with a Wound pull no punches. Raw honesty paired with concise language inhabit and fully embody a life shaped by the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and gender. This is my favorite kind of poetry, necessary and urgent, revealing and saving and healing and re-creating both poet and reader.”
— ire’ne laura silva, author of CUICACALLI/House of Song, 2020 Saguaro Poetry Prize judge

“As KB navigates burning issues of love, identity, race, and enforced gender, bearing witness to how intimacy can be a battleground, a declared truce, or an Eden, How to Identify Yourself with a Wound is never less than compelling and absorbing: ‘Let me tell you the story of a tenderness the world refused to call / beautiful but it lives.’ The powerful lines, the no-holds-barred voice, and risk-taking candor of these dynamic debut poems make the reader hungry for a whole volume.”
—Cyrus Cassells, 2021 Poet Laureate of Texas 

How to Identify Yourself with A Wound makes good on its promise to go directly to the source of pain, to explore & commune with it. As KB reminds us, ‘Slipping between genders sometimes causes a fall, after all.’ These poems also tend to the wound caused by the fall, excavating sharp memories, naming the trauma for what it is, and making room for a love without limits. Read this book when you need a good cry, or a knowing look across the room: when you need to be reminded of what tethers you to yourself.”
—Ariana Brown, author of We Are Owed.

“Our identities are more than formal structures that can be easily cut and pasted into headline categories like race or gender or sexuality. They are a collection of moments and events that drive us, head first, into the only names left for what we are. KB’s How to Identify Yourself with a Wound is a fresh and energetic examination of the transformative process known as self-inquiry. Without hesitation, KB digs into what is often left unsaid about the internal querying process that leads one to the identity of nonbinary. Readers can expect to witness the origins of an audacious and empowered advocate whose lyric and inquisitiveness bodes well for the future of poetry.”
—Faylita Hicks, author of HOODWITCH

Without further ado, here is the powerful title poem from that collection.

How To Identify Yourself With a Wound (circa 2017)

To the black spot on the vein of my left arm for the weekly plasma donations
To the brown scar under my chin from running too fast on a freshly mopped floor
To the altar I called my dorm bed to K who fought her sanity to sleep next to me in To the poems I’ve started
& stopped for femmes with dyed fades & nails plunged in bubblegum pink
To dollar tree black nail polish for always being there
To the top coat for staining my favorite jacket
To the scars blotched all over my legs from scratching mosquito bumps
To being a “tomboy” in elementary & middle school
To the manuscripts I didn’t finish to the fragments that choked them out
To the stretch marks on my stomach & forearms & shoulders
To S for being able to wear tampons to Matt for introducing me to clowns
To the animals of past lovers I miss more than the lovers
To D & B & all the other what if’s minimized to a timeline
To my people that have transitioned to another celestial plane
To you, the witness of what happiness does to the brain
To the body for housing a trauma that is timid
To T for loving me though he didn’t know how
To the holes in my jeans to wide hips to my hips & wounds for always being uncontainable—

*a version of this was published by Pidgeonholes in 2020.

***

KB Brookins is a Black/queer/transmasculine poet, essayist, and cultural worker from Texas. Their writing is published in Academy of American Poets, Huffington Post, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. KB is the author of How To Identify Yourself with a Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022) and Freedom House (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2023). They have earned fellowships from PEN America, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and Lambda Literary among others. Currently, KB is a board member with Ground Floor Theatre and Texas PRIDE Health, MFA candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, and freelance artist/consultant. Follow them online at @earthtokb. 

National Poetry Month: Carla Hagen

I’m pleased to feature Carla Hagen on the blog tonight and her poem “Pilgrimage.”

This is the time of year when everything I do feels like a pilgrimage to some obligation or another: frantically plowing through my immense stacks of grading to finish the semester; hosting a reading of my students and their original work and celebrating the launch of their literary magazine (tomorrow night); attending a writing conference (Writefest!!) this weekend even though it’s not convenient timing with the school year because at some point I have to make some acknowledgement of my own writing career; even curating this poetry series on my blog every year. Again, not great timing — which is why these posts so often go up late at night — but oh so important in the grander scheme of things. Life cannot only be about obligations and chores and tasks. Sometimes art keeps us alive. I am on a personal pilgrimage to remember that. Busy, busy April is the cruelest month, but these moments of poetry hold me together.

Pilgrimage

Piedras was soft when we drove in,
faded pink and blue, dust rising,
roasted corn and chilies, roosters.

We’d crossed Texas for this:
true border, pure corridos, 
Los Pingüinos del Norte, black and white,

In the market, among onions, piñatas, watermelon,
tall Hilario, chest massive, guitar to match,
Ruben, red button accordion tuned just off key.

The cantina that night served up shrimp soup, salted peanuts.
Nearly empty — just the Pingüinos and us.
Reel-to-reel, rented mike — praying they’d play.

At least one tune. They sing in the kitchen
I pick so many oranges, I’ll turn orange.
Me voy a anaranjar if I pick one more.

Migrant tales follow the tracks of the north-bound train,
Adiós, Estado de Tejas, con toda tu plantación,
I’ll never pick cotton again. Ya no pisco algodón.

Everything’s different now, drug lords the only royalty.
Corridos float in my mind as I cross the ravaged Valley, 
no more Chulas Fronteras, beautiful borderlands,

that country gone.

***

Carla Hagen’s debut novel, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane, won the 2012 Midwest Independent Publishers Awards for literary fiction and historical fiction. Her second novel, Muskeg, will be published in August 2022. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Voices for the Land and When Last on the Mountain, as well as in journals like Talking Stick, Saint Paul Almanac, Border Senses, and Sing, Heavenly Muse! The Minnesota-Canadian border and Latin America, especially Mexico, inform her work.

We Briefly Interrupt This National Poetry Month…

…to bring you a quick update on my family’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society campaign and to tell you about an amazing new children’s book you just might love. (Keep reading.)

First things first: if you don’t know what campaign I’m referring to, you can click here for the full story. But briefly, my cousin Meredith has been nominated for LLS’ Woman of the Year, and I’m on her team to help her raise half a million dollars to help fund innovative new treatments and the hopeful eradication of a bunch of different types of cancers. We’re doing it this year because it’s the 35th anniversary of her brother Chuck’s death at age 12 from Acute Monocytic Leukemia. Chuck lived for only 48 hours after his diagnosis, and this tragedy has left a profound impact on our family. My hope is that by raising money to help prevent other families from experiencing this horror, I can finally lay my own grief to rest.

My personal goal is to raise $5,000 before the start of June. Dear reader, I am almost halfway there!!! Thank you so much to everyone who has already contributed! It means the world to me and to my family.

And now, to make things even more fun and interesting, I’m holding a raffle! For everyone who contributes at least $25 to my fundraising efforts before the end of the day on May 4th, I’ll be adding your name to a raffle to win a personalized and signed copy of the gorgeous new children’s book Still Mine by Jayne Pillemer.

You’ll get one chance to win for every $25 you donate! (I’ve included in the raffle previous donors at the $25 level and above to show my gratitude for their jumping into our campaign right away.)

Jayne Pillemer’s new book, Still Mine, is an absolute treasure. I wish I’d had a copy of it when I was young. Here’s a sample of the extraordinary artwork on the inside by illustrator Sheryl Murray.

And here’s the blurb from publisher HarperCollins:

Our hands around a cup of hot chocolate, sweet and warm. Our boots splashing in puddles. The song you sing to me when the sun comes up. This is how we say “I love you” every day.

But what happens when the person you love is gone? Your heart hurts and you miss them, but even though your eyes can’t see them anymore and your arms can’t hug them, they are still there, still yours to love . . . just in a different way. 

Jayne Pillemer’s lyrical story and Sheryl Murray’s sweet illustrations offer gentle comfort and reassurance to anyone who has experienced loss that you still carry those you love with you in the smallest things—and in your heart—forever. 

STILL MINE is a timely and evocative picture book that provides comfort for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one. Targeted for ages 4 -8, STILL MINE is a gentle way to approach the difficult topics of illness and death with children and offer them a sense of hope and peace. 

Here’s a review from Kirkus, which calls the book “tender and touching.”

Believe me when I tell you Jayne’s book healed my inner child, just a little bit. Her book gives us a perfect way to approach the subjects of loss and grief with young people in a way that is both clear and uplifting, which allows for sadness as a natural human emotion but helps us to understand that the sadness, and even the loss, aren’t the end of the story.

So join our fight to eradicate cancer and be entered to win a personalized and signed copy of Jayne’s book! You can donate at this link. And thank you, thank you, so very much.

 

National Poetry Month: Tova Hinda Siegel

I received the gift of Tova Hinda Siegel’s Uncertain Resident in the mail during this year’s PoetrySuperHighway Great Poetry Exchange, and Siegel has graciously agreed to let me feature some of her work on my blog during National Poetry Month.

As for her poem “Dishes of Life,” all I can say is that the humor and poignancy blend perfectly, and I totally feel seen.

 

Dishes of Life

The kitchen is now clean.
I gird myself for the inevitable battle
that I do constantly
with my husband and my children.
How many times have I explained the importance –
no –
the virtue of placing the bowls
in the back left of the dishwasher first?
Then and only then,
any overflow will go into the front left.
Unless of course the surplus of plates
has to go there
when the front right side is filled.
Plates must be lined up,
one per slot, barely needing a rinse
because of my foresight
in buying a dishwasher which rinses first.
But it may still have the odor of old food,
so I insist on the door closed.
The glasses must be placed
between the pegs, not on them.
Again, efficiency in mind
and use of space maximized.
I’ve repeated this important lesson so many times
but it goes unheeded.
The deep bowls are perfectly suited
for the back right
where the slots are much wider.
They do not go on the top shelf
which is where
not only glasses go
but also anything plastic
because you know the plastic will melt
if placed on the bottom near the heating coil.

But you don’t know
And I’m always moving the stuff around
because you’ve all refused
to take that extra minute
to keep it organized and moving smoothly.
So I do.
And then I feel accomplished
as if I have just completed a
vital task which will keep
me and my family
in shape
for at least another day, maybe two
because there’s never enough dishes
to run the dishwasher every day.
But they never learn the lesson
no matter how often I teach it.
And the dishes lay at odds with each other
in total disarray, disharmony and disgust
and I am the only one who cares about
the order of life.

***

Tova Hinda Siegel, a writer/poet, is a midwife, cellist, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother of many children living around the world. After earning a BA from Antioch and an MS from USC, she began writing and has studied with Jack Grapes, Tresha Faye Haefner, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, among others. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, I’ll Take Wednesdays, On The Bus, MacQueens’s Quinterly, Gyroscope Review, PoetrySuperHighway, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Better than Starbucks, and several anthologies. Her first collection, Uncertain Resident, was published recently. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

National Poetry Month: Shakespeare Challenge and Taylor Byas

Hello! In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday and death anniversary this weekend, I’m issuing a fun challenge to you. (And since I didn’t have a chance to post here yesterday, today’s is a double.)

Remember when I shared a Book Spine Poem with you a while ago and invited you to make BSPs of your own and send them to me to be posted here on the blog? (Thanks to those of you who have done it already, by the way! I’m planning a post at the end of the month for those, so there’s still time to get yours in if you want to.) Well, a BSP is a type of found poem, or a poem which consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. (Adding in a few words here or there for connective tissue is commonly done.) These found poems can take many forms besides BSPs, including erasure poetry and centos.

I invite you to make a found poem out of the titles or memorable phrases — idioms we have adopted as colloquialisms — from Shakespeare’s texts. You’ve got literally hundreds of titles and memorable snippets to work with. Feel free to email them to me at forest [dot] of [dot] diamonds [at] gmail [dot] com with “Shakespeare found poem” (or something similar) in the subject line (so it’s easy for me to find), and I’ll feature it on my blog. Or just leave it here in the comments if you like. I’m excited to see what you create!

As for today’s poem, I’m honored to feature Taylor Byas once again here on the blog. She has two chapbooks out, Bloodwarm and Shutter. I’ve read the first and LOVED it. I’m saving the second (which just came out a minute ago) as a treat for myself when I finish grading finals in a month. Today’s featured poem is “Elegy for Spring,” which originally appeared in Eunoia Review.

Elegy for Spring

I.

You said it was like being unwound—
a tiny fist cranking you back
into a music box—when the dawn chorus
began each spring morning, an ellipsis
of robins on the sill. You were your truest
self before the covers were thrown
to the foot of the bed, before the sound
of you brushing your teeth scuffed
against the shower water
still drawing heat from the pipes. Still wrapped
in dream-warmth, you said Good morning
with our mouths nearly touching.
When I tried to squirm away, twittering
with the birds, you held me to you,
smoothed me like a shirt
that needed ironing. Your usual joke—
two morning breaths cancel
each other out. 

II.

In my earliest years, there was
no front lawn. Only plates of concrete,
cracked and shouldering for space.
The first day of spring was never x-ed out
on the calendar, but marked when the ground
was warm enough to grill the fillets
of my bare feet. When we moved to a house
with a lawn, spring came earlier for
us, meant wet grass that dried
by noon. Golf-course green,
my father called it when he still held the power
to name things for me.
Our very own golf-course green.

III.

You and I took turns parking in the single-
car garage when we moved in together. Fairness
was what you thought I needed. But really, I envied
the mornings when your car sponged up the sun
in the driveway, I wished for the warm
that waited for you. You never knew this,
but I stomached this small rage with coffee
until it bent me over. Soured me.
In the winters, you asked, What have I done?
I couldn’t explain the importance
of the spring morning, how I remembered
my father’s gentleness most clearly
in its simmering.

IV.

Winter took everything from me
as a child—the brittle bark that scabbed
my hands after I climbed the tree in the front yard,
the grass’s neon coat, my watchful father
on the front porch. With no fireplace,
he found other paths to heat—the refuge
of his bed, my mother’s body,
the spill-spread of a beer hitting
his center. And it’s true, there is something genetic
about craving. How was I to know
that spring would become like a shot
of whiskey, relenting
what hardened in the colder months?

V.

I was never honest with you,
never admitted why I changed
with the seasons. You’re so damn hot
and cold, as you packed the last
of your things. Of course you left
when frost still tongued the driveway,
when snow was White-Out
on the roofs. For months
I remember the last time you gifted me
warmth—the slow lap
of your headlights across my thighs
as I watched you from the doorway.
Oh, how you reminded me
of my father then.

***

Taylor Byas is a Black poet and essayist. Originally from Chicago, she moved to Alabama for six years, where she received both her Bachelor’s degree in English and her Master’s degree in English (Creative Writing concentration) from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Taylor currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is PhD candidate and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati studying poetry. She is also an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She has received five Pushcart and six Best of the Net nominations, and has won a Best Microfiction Award. She is also the 1st Place Winner of the 2020 Poetry Super Highway Contest, the 2020 Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets, the 2021 Adrienne Rich Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2020 Frontier OPEN Prize, and an Honorable Mention for the 2021 Ninth Letter Literary Award in Poetry. Her chapbook, Bloodwarm, is out now from Variant Lit (2021). Her second chapbook, Shutter, is out now from Madhouse Press (2022). Her debut full-length poetry collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in the Spring of 2023. See more at her website.

National Poetry Month: Paige Poe

Paige Poe is another poet whose work I always like to feature on the blog. It’s possible I should have posted this poem last weekend, but ah well. Hindsight.

I especially like the way Poe hints at the deeper truths about the nature of human struggle through the more apparent narrative rooted in childhood memory. When I tell my students that poetry is often grounded in visceral experience, that we find the universal in the particular, this is what I’m talking about.

 

The Blackberry Bush In my Childhood Backyard

between the rosemary 
and sage, it grappled 
for a patch of earth and sun,
climbing up the fence,
tenaciously reaching
for the blue ceiling.

it pushed plants aside, 
desperate for more space,
more air, more life. 
my mother planted it 
with dreams of purple cobbler,
forgetting that thorns and vines
do not befriend gentler greens.

as the heat softened into fall,
after the last juicy fruit
disappeared into a thief’s hungry beak, 
my father armed himself with shears
and did battle with the bush
until his scythe reduced 
the bramble to a stump.

but in the spring, 
it rose again, messiah-like, 
unraveling green, thorny tendrils, 
opening its white, lacy blooms. 
never before had berries tasted sweeter,
a summer pleasure
we devoured with purple mouths.

still, every fall my father cut it down,
and every spring it rose from the dead. 

watching this cycle, i promised myself
to grow skyward, and bear fruit
even as the world chops me down.
i will consume my struggle. 

***

Paige Poe is a queer poet, wordsmith, and movement teacher based out of Houston. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 2018 with a degree in theatre and English, and her work has been published in Vamp Cat Magazineeleven40sevenTexas’ Best Emerging Poets of 2017, and Brave Voices Magazine. You can find her online at paigegpoe.com and on Instagram as paige_outofmybook.

National Poetry Month: Gabrielle Langley

Tonight’s poem comes to us from Gabrielle Langley, who wrote it in honor of her father’s 80th birthday. I really like the way Langley weaves formulae into her verses, two types of eloquence and elegance working together to create a whole, the experience of the poem entire.

This poem first appeared in Carmina Magazine, Fall Issue, 2021.

***

photo credit Chris Gillett

Gabrielle Langley’s first book of poetry, Azaleas on Fire, was released in 2019. She has won the Lorene Pouncey Award, Houston Poetry Fest’s Jury Prize, and the Vivian Nellis Memorial Prize. With work appearing in a variety of literary journals, and three Pushcart prize nominations, Ms. Langley was also a spearhead and co-editor for the anthology Red Sky: Poetry on the global epidemic of violence against women (Sable Books – 2016). Additional information about this poet can be found at www.gabriellelangley.com.