Poem-A-Day: Stephanie Pilar

We had some interesting weather in Houston in the wee hours of this morning. A hundreds-of-miles-long squall line of impressive thunderstorms stretching from west of Austin to east of New Orleans tore through the region, the thunder and lightning interrupting our sleep. Even after all the hurricanes I’ve lived through, and there have been some doozies, I admit I still like thunderstorms at night when I’m sleeping and my whole family is home and safe. This morning we awoke to an area-wide internet outage that lasted for many nerve-wracking hours, but others in our city fared far worse by losing all power.

My relationship with the weather is complicated. I was terrified of storms when I was a child; I stopped having anxiety attacks over them literally in ninth grade. I remember the exact moment of it: I was sitting in my French class on the second floor of the school building, facing the windows. The view was normally filtered through the green foliage of the trees in the courtyard below us, but that day was a thunderstorm day, and everything past the window blinds was wet and dark and eerie. I said to myself, You’re in high school now. It’s time to grow up. It’s just rain.

I cannot explain the mechanics of how that miracle occurred.

So now I try not to get worked up about storms, and on the menu of things I could panic about, somehow these have mostly fallen off. I’m not going to question it; I’m just grateful and hope it lasts.

Tonight, I hope you’ll enjoy this poem by Mutabilis Press poet Stephanie Pilar. It touches on some of the bonkers contradictions of Houston’s rich and weird culture.

 

Hurricane Years Are Snow Years

My overgrown oak,
she hides the world from me.
She has sucked up all the hurricane.
Now she houses birds, all the birds.

Winter has hard killed so much of the bayou.

The neighbors say that this is what happens,
a hurricane later brings snow,
and that this was foretold, it has happened before,
hurricane years are snow years.

I never know where science is in all this.
The bayou is filled with magic and superstition
and God and Fox News.

“Have a blessed day,” they say.
I say it right back.

Does it matter what you believe?
Or does it matter what everyone else believes?

Even the most materialistic says,
not just that the hurricane foretold snow
but the solar eclipse may have set things in motion,
or at least been a sign of what had already been set in motion.

The universe shifts gears uncomfortably, we feel the grinding.

Are the gods angry? Or just laughing?

The sky is framed by branches more beautiful
than any sculpture in a museum.

We walk the installation of our streets.

Every tree reveals its nest.

Sea mists and mockingbirds.
Gray and white and silver and still.

So still.

Still.

 

***

Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!

***

Stephanie Pilar first visited Big Bend National Park in 2010 and had the good fortune of moving to Friendswood, Texas, in 2011. Before that, her adventures in Texas included a childhood road-trip from Colorado to Guatemala, during which time she saw her first roadrunner and giant cacti while listening to her stepdad yodel, “I’m A Long Tall Texan,” as he pretended to drive the long, straight roads with his eyes closed. She would always “Remember the Alamo.” And the Riverwalk. And the silence. And all the stars…

Monday Earworm: The Scorpions (again)

Back at the end of August last year, Hurricane Harvey really did a number on the Gulf Coast. And in Houston, where I live, the devastation was widespread and long-lasting; our city got a lot of attention because it’s so big, but many other communities in this region were even more ravaged than we were. And here we are, the next summer, and a lot of people whose homes were flooded have either just started moving back into their renovated houses or are still displaced.

But as Houston has demonstrated time and again, we are nothing if not resilient. We need mind-bogglingly massive updates to our enormous infrastructure and a much, much more competent state government, but until we get those, we at least have our attitude. After Harvey, my Monday Earworm was “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by The Scorpions.

To kick off the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season last week, I’m restarting the Monday Earworm series again with another really excellent Scorpions song. Although the connotation in the song is really different from how I feel about my city, and especially about its ridiculous weather for half the year and its current unreasonable heat wave, dear Houston, there’s no one like you.

 

Poem-A-Day: Vanessa Zimmer-Powell

Many years ago, when the incipient gentrification of Houston’s Montrose area was still rocking the neighborhood boat, my husband and I lived on the top floor of a duplex that had been built in 1936. The house next door to us, a single-story bungalow, had been recently and lovingly restored, and the young couple who rented it often came out and visited with the neighbors on their front stoop, in the shade of a grandfather oak whose canopy shaded their house, our front yard, and most of the wide street in front of us.

One day, the neighbors said they were moving out. They’d been given notice: the owners of their home had sold it to a developer named Ghods. About a month later, in the very early summer of 2001, I sat in my living room window and wrote poetry all day as I watched as a crew of day laborers bring the tree down. The neighbors hadn’t been gone more than a few days, and the house wasn’t slated to be razed for a while, but a city ordinance protecting Houston’s historical trees was about to go into effect, and so the developer wanted to get in there and saw the oak down before he could be prevented from doing so.

It took eleven men, armed with chainsaws and axes and chains and a pickup truck, eleven hours to hack the tree off its stump. They needed all those weapons, too, including the truck. Once they’d finally sawn through the base, they chained the trunk to the back bumper and spun the wheels for half an hour to budge the tree.

When the grandfather oak finally fell, it landed in the street with enough force that it shook my house, shook my chair on the second floor, shook me sitting next to the window writing shaky poetry. The destruction crew cheered that their herculean task was over.

Six adults could stand comfortably together on the tree stump. The next day they came back and chopped the tree into fireplace logs. They stacked the logs in the front yard; the stacks were taller than the abandoned house. All week people drove by, horrified, and left notes and flowers on the tree’s stump. Ghods was informed through these memorials that he had “committed a crime against the neighborhood.”

Less than a week after the logs and chopped canopy had been carted away, Tropical Storm Allison came through and dumped about three feet of water on Houston in a night. Ghods, the now-locally-infamous developer, had a hole-in-the-wall Persian rug shop on the commercial district on the outside of our neighborhood, and once the water drained away, people driving past his shop could see his soggy inventory, its colors running onto the strip center’s tiny parking lot, hanging on ad hoc drying racks in front of the open door. The next week he hung up a banner advertising a 90% off sale on Persian rugs. Schadenfreude-laden whispers of “Karma’s a bitch” might have been heard here and there.

On the lot next to our house, where that small 1930s bungalow had stood, Ghods erected a condo duplex. Three stories, garage underneath, no yard. It was the template for many such milquetoast houses which would come later, before people got creative with the architecture and tried to make the neighborhood artsy again. Ghods’ units were going for $600K apiece, which at that time was a small fortune, especially for the neighborhood. He had to move into one of the units because no one would buy them. And the city still penalized him over his antics: he was required to plant 300 trees, each a minimum of three inches in diameter, around Houston. One of them got planted in our front yard.

Honestly, it wasn’t quite the same.

***

Live Oak

On Flowerdale
the bulldozers were busy last night
taking Mrs. Miller’s house,
her driveway,
the lake,
her neighbor’s car.

This morning I walked into silence,
found a missing block of houses,
a devoured acre of sidewalk.

On this street the developers are hungry;
I feel their breath.
They send my house letters—
woo her in front of me.

She will get a new school,
fancy streets,
the drainage will be better.

I cast my eyes downward,
fear Stepford houses.
Am I strong enough?

Should I tell her that she will die
stripped of her trees and flattened
in just a few hours?

I think to send her a picture
of “Live Oak,”
the new neighborhood
within the neighborhood
whose acres
have only one live tree.

***

Vanessa Zimmer-Powell is a Houston poet and Speech-Language Pathologist. She attended the University of Texas at Austin where she received a bachelor’s degree in English, and a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Poetry honors and awards include first place winner of the 2016 and 2017 Houston Poetry Fest ekphrastic competition, third place winner of the 2017 Friendswood Library ekphrastic poetry competition, Poetry Honors at the 2013 Austin Poetry Fest, and a 2013 Rick Steves haiku award. Her poetry has aired on the radio and has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Austin Poetry Fest anthologies; Avocet; Blue Hole; Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; Chaffey Review; Copperfield Review; Ekphrasis; Historical Feathers; Houston Poetry Fest Anthologies; San Pedro River Review; Texas Poetry Calendars; and Untamable City. In 2018 her poetry has appeared in Weaving the Terrain: 100-word Southwestern Poems and Echoes of the Cordiellera: Attitudes and Lattitudes Along the Great Divide. On the radio, her poetry has aired on KTRU, KPFT, Houston Public Media, and the Rick Steves radio program. Her chapbook, Woman Looks into an Eye, is published by Dancing Girl Press.

Poem-A-Day: Sandi Stromberg

Those of you who know Houston are probably aware of its rich, diverse, thriving poetry scene. We have page poets and slam poets — world champion slam poets, in fact. There’s an academic scene thanks to the Creative Writing Program at University of Houston; there’s an underground-ish (or used to be underground-ish) scene which fosters the likes of Houston Poetry Fest, a major three-day poetry festival held around town every October; there’s a mainstream blending of all of these thanks to Inprint; we have WAT (the annual seven-day Word Around Town Poetry Tour) and Meta-Four and so many others. We have readings all over the place all the time. Poetry oozes from our humid pores and swims in our flood waters. Thanks to Writers in the Schools — whose Houston chapter is decades strong and has been a flagship and model for chapters around the country — young people’s glorious verses hang on banners from our downtown lampposts and grace the marquees of our grocery stores and pop up as art installations in public parks during April.

When it comes to poetry, Houston has got it going on.

When I graduated from University of Houston in 1997, there were half a dozen big publishing houses in the country: the legacy houses, as traditional as publishing gets (which have now been whittled to The Big Five). At that time, there were about 57,000 small presses just in Texas, and many of them focused on poetry. One of the excellent poetry presses based here in Houston, Mutabilis Press, has been around since 2003, and they have published quite a number of truly excellent volumes. I am proud and humbled to be counted among the poets whose work has found a home in their anthologies now and then.

When Sandi Stromberg, a member of the Mutabilis Press board, graciously offered one of her poems this year for this series, I jumped at the chance to feature it.

***

Displaced Person

He wore Russian winters in his eyes,
his mind filled with the smell of borscht
and, pinned to his sleeve, a longing
for the crowded boulevards and language
of his youth. He talked about his days
as a DP, the streets of New York,
his attempts to imitate an American
man’s loose-hipped walk. Professor
in an after-thought Russian department
in a Midwestern town, he lost us
with Slavic sibilants, a maze of words
that dead-ended in our blank stares
and made him shout. Sad progeny
of overstuffed lives, we were disappointments,
unattuned to the subtleties of his mother
tongue or how he survived Siberian
camps and a cancer ward. We couldn’t connect
with his gulag past though we sensed
his misfitness in the way he clutched —
between index finger and yellowed thumb —
unfiltered cigarettes. In a land of waste,
he savored each puff down to the ember,
focused on a distance we could never traverse.

***

Sandi Stromberg co-edited, with Lucy Griffith, Echoes of the Cordillera (ekphrastic poems, Museum of the Big Bend 2018) and Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston (Mutabilis Press, 2015). Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, read on PBS during the April 2017 “Voices and Verses,” and published in many journals and anthologies, including Borderlands, Illya’s Honey, Red River Review, Inprint Houston Annual Report, Texas Poetry Calendars, and three Southwest anthologies from Dos Gatos Press. She has been a juried poet nine times in the Houston Poetry Fest. Her translations of Dutch poetry were published in the U.S. and Luxembourg. You may find more examples of her published work here, here, and here.

Where I’ll Be Reading Next Week

And by that title I mean “reading in public.” I’m actually hoping to be reading something all the time every place next week, but this one particular episode of that should be worth coming to observe.

(And if this announcement is a repeat for you because you graciously follow me on multiple social channels, apologies.)

On Tuesday, March 7th, I will be one of the featured readers at the Poetry Fix Reading Series at FIX Coffee Bar. It’s at 6:30 p.m.; the location is 415 Westheimer, Houston 77006 (in the Montrose area).

The other poet that night is Outspoken Bean, who is excellent. (I’m only slightly intimidated. And by “slightly” I mean utterly quaking in my fabulous high-heeled shoes.)

If you’re in Houston and interested in a poetic night out, please do stop by. It’s always wonderful to see familiar faces in the audience.

For those of you on Facebook, here’s a link to the event page.

Please do feel free to spread the word to other interested parties if you wish.

Thank you!

(P.S. — I’m obliged to let you know also that my books and poetry art cards will be available for sale at the event.)

A Long Time Coming

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for over a week, but sometimes it has felt too overwhelming to sit down and do it. I’ve made a list of things I wanted to say in it, an outline; I’ve composed fragments of it in my head while walking down the street or brushing my teeth. But I haven’t actually written it yet because there’s just too much to say.

So I’m going to try and do this a piece at a time, because I’m coming to understand that right now, a piece at a time is the best way for me to respond to life. Continue reading “A Long Time Coming”

An article I’ve just had published…

Hello there! Today an article I wrote about DFWCon, a writers’ conference I’ve attended the last few years, was published on the WriteSpace blog. Check it out by clicking here.

DFWCon happens next year in late April, but WriteSpace is hosting their own writers’ conference here in Houston in February, and it will be unique because instead of focusing on agents, it will focus on journal and literary magazines. I’m looking forward to it!

Happy Thanksgiving.

12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck, 2014 Edition (Day 1)

Yes, it’s that time of year again. “Houston’s Official Christmas Music Station” — which has been broadcasting Christmas and winter-themed songs since the Friday night before Thanksgiving — has once more conformed to the belief that they must play the same dozen tired crap songs over and over again, with only an occasional good one thrown into the mix.

Thank goodness for my iPod.

Since this series on my blog was such a hit last year (click here to see the first post and then follow the “next post” links to see the rest), I’m doing it again! And while I’ll be sharing a lot of different stuff with you this time around, I’m going to kick things off with what is still one of my all-time favorites, “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. Perhaps there will come a time when my life isn’t insanely busy, and then I won’t be able to relate to this song as well or enjoy it as much, but honestly, I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.

Happy Holidays!

Houston Poetry Fest 2014

Every year in October, poetry is celebrated in style at the weekend-long Houston Poetry Fest. Next weekend is this year’s festival.

I’m pleased to announce that my poem “At the El Felix” is being published in their anthology this year. I’ll also be reading some of my poetry at the opening night soirée. Here are the details in case you’re in town and want to join us:

Friday, October 10, 2014
7:30 pm.
Willow Street Pump Station (downtown)
811 North San Jacinto Street

For more information about the festival and to see lists of the other readers over the weekend, please click the HPFest link here.

I hope to see you there!

Featured Poet: Mike Alexander

Tonight’s featured poet is Mike Alexander. I first came across Mike in the mid-1990s when he was going by M. Alexander and reading regularly on the poetry scene here in Houston. We ended up reading on the same stage more than once, and I became a fan of his work.

Those of you in H-town can catch him reading tomorrow afternoon as well, at the New Book New Poems Reading at 2:00 at the Houston Public Library (500 McKinney 77002). Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. Also sharing their work at this shindig will be Robin Davidson and Peter Hyland. The event will be up on the 4th floor of the main building. Check it out!

You may also find Mike’s book RETROgrade at P & J Poetics.

***

Le Coup de Vent: Mistral Noir

 

This is a drunkard’s dance.

.                                        Courbet’s terrain
distorts a sober regiment of oaks,
into a bacchanal of greens, the strain
apparent in the pressure of brush strokes
& knifework. Boughs, unnaturally skewed,
leaves shaking. Wind-swept canvas, it evokes
the pagan frenzy of a nymph pursued
by satyrs,
.                    Orphic lute,
.                                        ecstatic cries.

The landscape sprawls, unfettered, like a nude
discarding her quotidian disguise,
more sacred now she’s shown herself profane.

Inebriated by a beauty eyes
cannot explain, she drops what veils remain,
& spins,
.                    the painter’s brush
.                                        her weather-vane.