Poem-A-Day: Lynn Melnick

I have to admit I’ve been distracted lately. My daughter’s birthday is this week; the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass is turning fourteen. While it’s enough that organizing the festivities (as well as coordinating everything else going on in my life both personal and professional, and wow, there’s a lot of that) has taken up most of my attention, I can’t let go of the scratchy little tickle in the back of my brain that reminds me she’s becoming more and more a young adult every day, and not just because she can raid my closet now and look better in my clothes than I do.

I can’t put the brakes on this train and wouldn’t if I could. We all know adolescence is a time of Figuring Things Out, and that can be a messy process. And I wish there were things I could still protect her from. Not gonna lie, if I could go back in time and not give her a cell phone in middle school, I’d absolutely do it in a heartbeat. If I could pare down the internet to make it less about entertainment and politics and nonsense, I would. But some genies just won’t go back in their bottles. And even the stress of this morass has got me mixing metaphors, so I’ll just get to the poem and then get back to catching up everything else on my “ever-expanding, self-spawning to-do list.” (And thanks to David Jón Fuller for that gloriously apt phrase.)

This poem by Lynn Melnick always makes me think of my daughter. And my mother. And everything else about the water we swim in.

.

Twelve.

When I was your age I went to a banquet.
When I was your age I went to a barroom
.
and bought cigarettes with quarters
lifted from the laundry money. Last night
.
I did all your laundry. I don’t know why
I thought this love could be pure. It’s enough
.
that it’s infinite. I kiss your cheek when you sleep
and wonder if you feel it.
.
It’s the same cheek I’ve kissed from the beginning.
You don’t have to like me.
.
You just have to let me
keep your body yours. It’s mine.
.
When I was your age I went to a banquet
and a man in a tux pinched my cheeks.
.
When I was your age I went to a barroom
and a man in a band shirt pinched my ass.
.
There is so much I don’t know about you.
Last night I skipped a banquet
.
so I could stay home and do your laundry
and drink wine from my grandmother’s glass.
.
When I was your age boys traded quarters
for a claw at my carcass on a pleather bench
.
while I missed the first few seconds of a song
I’d hoped to record on my backseat boombox.
.
When I was your age I enjoyed a hook.
You think I know nothing of metamorphosis
.
but when I was your age I invented a key change.
You don’t have to know what I know.
.

***

Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and

photo credit: Timothy Donnelly

Violence (2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), both with YesYes Books, and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in APR, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and A Public Space, and her essays have appeared in LA Review of Books, ESPN, and the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

.
A former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and previously on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, she currently teaches poetry at Columbia University and the 92Y, and works with saferLIT. Born in Indianapolis, she grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.
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Poem-A-Day 2019: Robin Reagler

In my professional life, I’ve had very few bosses or supervisors who were women, and all of them have been excellent. One of my first female bosses, when I was a writer-in-residence through Writers in the Schools here in Houston back in the 1990s, was Robin Reagler. She modeled for me the best qualities of a leader as someone who guided with good cheer and friendliness on the best days and genuine compassion and humor when I made mistakes. She inspired me to work my best, and when an outstanding professional opportunity came along and I had to leave WITS, she understood and helped make my transition as smooth and seamless as it could be. Robin was someone I knew I would want to emulate when it became my turn to hold a position of authority.

I’ve worked for bosses who gave me nightmares with their ego-driven nonsense and anger management problems. I’ve worked for ones who were a hot mess of disorganization or self-unawareness. I’ve worked for people who didn’t command a shred of respect.

Robin was the antidote to all of that. She’s also a marvelous poet, and I love that she contributes to this series on my blog. Her poem “Crumbs” appears in the Mutabilis Press anthology The Enchantment of the Ordinary, and when I heard her read it at the launch, I knew we needed it for April this year.

 

Crumbs
.
If you transpose this one afternoon
into the open Galveston then
it’s no surprise that future
love begins its slow rumble
.
like a wave. That’s why the seagulls
go wild over a handful of crumbs
hurled high into the air, and a sweet
January breeze takes its time
.
creating a crest of meaning
like a celebrity signature in the sand.
My daughters build tremendous
sand castles protected by moats
.
in concentric circles, a symbolic
safety. Once I understood a lot more
than I do now, before the awesome
tore its way into my heart.
.
***
.
Robin Reagler is the author of TEETH & TEETH, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize selected by Natalie Diaz (Headmistress Press, 2018), and DEAR RED AIRPLANE (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011, 2018), chosen for the ReBound Series and re-issued with a foreword by Laura Mullen. Reagler’s poems have been published in dozens of journals, including Ploughshares, American Letters & Commentary, Pleiades, VOLT, Iowa Review, and Colorado Review. She lives in Houston, Texas, and serves as the Executive Director of Writers in the Schools (WITS). She was recently elected chair of the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Board of Trustees.

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Poem-A-Day 2019: Kabir (India)

I’m sorry I didn’t post a poem last night. My cousin Vali fronts a metal band called Black Market Tragedy, and last night they were playing a rare acoustic show at the House of Blues, and I didn’t get home until much later than anticipated.

The band was awesome. No regrets, none whatsoever.

I’ll give you an extra poem this weekend, when I have a little more time.

A friend of mine from grade school and high school, Nicole, gave me a book last year for my birthday called Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems. It contains fragments of beautiful poetry, sometimes centuries old, that I found just lovely to read and meditate on in the evenings. Here’s one of the poems that resonated with me the most, and continues to do so, especially now, when I’m frankly having a particularly stressful time at work. It would have done wonders for some of my family members back in the day, too.

This meditation is from Kabir of India.

 

If you circumambulated every holy shrine in the world
ten times,
it would not get you to heaven
as quick
as controlling your
anger.

***

Kabir Das (ca. 1440-1518, India) was raised by a Muslim family of weavers, though legend has it that his birth mother may have been a Brahmin widow. Kabir became a disciple of the Hindu bhakti saint Ramananda at an early age, and his name is often interpreted as “Guru’s Grace.” Though a great mystic and contemplative, Kabir never abandoned a worldly life. He sought to bridge the religious cultures yet was denounced by mainstream religious leaders during his lifetime. At Kabir’s death, his body turned to flowers, and his Hindu and Muslim followers each took half to perform last rites. A saint in the bhakti and Sufi tradition, Kabir expressed through his poetry self-surrender, divine love, and inward worship of the beloved with the heart.

Biographical information quoted from Mala of the Heart, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt.

Poem-A-Day 2019: Sandi Stromberg

I have some close friends, Scott and Paula, who live in the northeast now but who are from Texas. Scott’s dad and stepmom have a marvelous goat ranch and bed and breakfast out near Wimberley, Texas, in the Hill Country. When my husband and I and Scott and Paula and a lot of our close friends were all in our twenties we used to go out to the ranch every year to help clear some of the land of unnecessary cedar that was starving the narrow waterways, the streams and creeks and waterfalls. We all had desk or computer jobs, and a weekend of physical landscape labor every January was just what we thought we needed to reset ourselves.

In actuality, what we needed was time in the Hill Country, time spent on a cold, sunny landscape bright with a winter sun in a turquoise sky. We needed a bumpy ride over caliche roads, a truck’s jaunt across a bridge over a narrow tributary of the Blanco, a bonfire in the large fire pit at night while we rocked on the enormous porch and peeked at Milky Way in the freezing black sky. We needed to wander the tall grasses, a weather eye out for coyotes and mountain lions, with the shepherding dogs and each other. We needed to come back near the house to feed and pet the goats and hold their kids, to pick burrs out of our socks, to sit up all night talking books and art and Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang. We needed breakfast casseroles with three types of corn in them and Paula teaching me to make a tartine at night. We needed time to sit, time to nap. I needed time to wander off to a corner with my journal and write while Paula painted my portrait for practice.

Almost twenty years later, when we go back to visit our friends at the ranch, we still wander the land and look at the cedar bough graveyards we built, now brittle bleached by age and the elements, and take a small sliver of pride at the rushing waterfalls and streams and creeks we helped resuscitate. When we aren’t having a drought year, anyway. The Great Pyrenees, those huge shepherding dogs, are used to us now. The goats are still sweet and loud and make us squeal with delight, especially now when we take our our kids to see theirs. And never fear, the cedar just goes on and on.

We need spaces like this, even in our urban lives, our urban inner landscape, just to have a moment to sit in a rocking chair with nothing pressing upon us. It’s the only way, sometimes, we can figure out how to relax.

I love this poem tonight, from the gracious and excellent Sandi Stromberg; it reminds me of faraway friends and a place and people I hope to get back to soon.

Wimberley Winter

Country music two-steps around a worn
leather couch. Flickers of yellow and orange
rise from smoldering logs. And my pen glides
across the lined page, gathering thoughts.
Outside, drizzle fogs the air. Ice crystals
drop from leaf tips onto the redwood deck,
tinkling as clear and harmonious
as a triangle.
.                                     All is so right
with my world, I would stop time in the middle
of this moment, snuggle into an endless
Hill Country winter. But when the flames fall
into their embers, and the ice crystals melt,
my blood rushes on.
                                   I anticipate—
the way the sycamore dreams of spring buds
or the stag, drinking at Cypress Creek, aspires
to more points on his antlers. The way
a mother holds her breath, watching
her child’s life unfold, step by step.

***

Sandi Stromberg is the mother of two sons, whose steps she still anticipates, one a director of motor-yacht development in France, the other a musician/composer in Singapore. She has been an award-winning magazine feature writer, editor, poet, and translator over the past 40 years. Her poem “The English Student” was recently published in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Her poetry has been published in many small journals and anthologies, most recently in the Ekphrastic Review. For 10 years, she served on the board of Mutabilis Press, during which time she edited Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston.

 

Poem-A-Day: Paige Poe

It’s important to feature not only established and mid-career poets in this series every year, but also emerging writers who are just coming onto the scene or who have been published but don’t have a book out — yet. Paige Poe is one of those authors to be watching for.

War Paint

Conceal insecurity
and blot blemishes,
Set with flour dusted
From the hands
of your mother’s mothers.

Take a fistful of soil from the nearest
crossroad and trace
the hollows of your power starved cheeks,
your burdened temples, the contour
Of your family nose.

Stain your lids with glamour,
Paint your lips like blood,
Pack on enough glitter to blind your enemies,
Enough color to distract a predator.

Practice a smile, then a grimace,
a giggle, a growl, a war cry—
Practice saying no
and then practice throwing punches.

***

Paige Poe is a feminist poet, writer, and theatre artist 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 eleven40seven, Texas’ Best Emerging Poets of 2017, and Brave Voices Magazine. Inspired by Mary Oliver and the confessional poetry tradition, she strives to present modern femininity, mental illness, and her rich family history in her artistic endeavors. Currently, Paige is working as a freelance ghostwriter, editor, and research assistant.  You can find her at paigegpoe.com and on instagram as paige_outofmybook.

Poem-A-Day 2019: Martin Elster

At the start of this month, I was posting these Poems-A-Day in the evenings because my days were so busy with school/work that evening was the only time I could sit down and write these blog posts. And now, some days (like Monday through Friday) that’s still true.

But I’ve also found that I genuinely prefer doing these posts in the evenings, and so maybe that will continue. I like settling down after the rest of the household has settled down (enough, anyway) and just resting with these poems, unhurried, reveling in the noble fiction that this is the only thing I have left to do before bedtime.

I earnestly look forward to the time in my life when that noble fiction might be true.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep settling into a poem each evening and sharing it with you.

That quietness, that take-a-breath-and-relax-for-a-moment feeling, is the same kind of settling in I feel when I read this wonderful poem, filled with music, by Martin Elster.

The Pigeons
 
Close by the bridge, they javelin
the frosty blue. Flashing, fading,
dipping, climbing, as if to win
the Bird Olympics, emulating
their wild forebears, forever together,
bonded by the sturdy tether
 
of kinship. The townsfolk dare not bustle
about in gales. They’re all shut in
like rabbits in their huts. The rustle
of remnant leaves and twigs is a thin
and bony xylophone. The flocking
aces wheel round and round the walking
 
man on the bridge, who watches each bird
click with the cloud in euphoric flight.
Strolling alone, for a moment cured
of the whiteness under the frigid light
of sunset, he can’t help but stare
as spirits soar and fade and flare.
 
***
 
Martin Elster is a percussionist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Autumn Sky, Better Than Starbucks, Cahoodaloodaling, Poetry Quaterly, The Flea, The Road Not Taken, and in various anthologies, includingTaking Turns: Sonnets from Eratosphere, The 2012 and 2015 Rhysling Anthologies, New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan, Poems for a Liminal Age, and the Potcake Chapbooks. Honors include co-winner of Rhymezone’s 2016 poetry contest, winner of the Thomas Gray Anniversary Poetry Competition 2014, third place in the SFPA’s 2015 poetry contest, and three Pushcart nominations.

Poem-A-Day: Mike Alexander

I always like to include a poem by Mike Alexander in this annual series. He was heavily involved — possibly even running? I don’t even remember now — the poetry reading series at a bar called The Mausoleum here in Houston back in the late 1990s. I used to read there, and it was a pretty fun venue. A lot of Houston poetry scene regulars were part of that series, and I have fond memories of it.

That bar eventually changed its name to Helios because the owner, a woman named Mariana, wanted to let some metaphorical light into the place. A while later, she changed the name again to AvantGarden, which is what it still is named now. Over the years countless musical acts and even music festivals have performed there, my brother debuted his music video in a party there, and back when I was still bellydancing, I hosted a monthly show there called Eclectic Bellydance. Before us, back when it was The Maus, some friends of mine hosted the Gothic Bellydance show there on Tuesday nights, and plenty of other dance troupes and shows took their turn in the venue as well.

Just across the fence from AvantGarden is a friendly little retail center with, among other things, a coffee shop called FIX. Mike Alexander now runs a poetry reading series there called Poetry FIX, which is in its third year, and which has been one of the places I’ve most enjoyed reading my work over the last couple of years. If you’re ever in Houston on a Tuesday night, see if they’ve got a reading there that week, because it’s really fun. They’ll have two features and an open mic, and I highly recommend it.

This poem of Mike’s was recently published in the Mutabilis Press anthology Enchantment of the Ordinary.

POEM IN WHICH A CHICKEN CROSSES THE ROAD

A block from my suburban home, just off the highway –
a host of emails in my head, a deadline met, a deadline
threatening, my radio a celebration of long-awaited weekend,
already overbooked, the volume absurdly high, it’s true,
on Lady of the Morning, a song I hate by a band I hate,
but at this moment, its syrupy bombast, a delicious irony,
a final crescendo announcing my triumphant return
from another day’s battle at the office, when, just as I pass
the last of so many stop signs, that’s when I see it.
A large white Leghorn, I think, — what do I know
about chickens, right? — tall for a bird,
its prominent breast meat proudly held, steps
deliberately, defiant, with a certain military
precision, like a brigadier general in its dress uniform,
but aesthetic, like a dancer working out a routine
for his next performance of the Nutcracker,
directly into the road. I ease my foot off the gas,
come to a standstill, knowing this is a moment to wonder at.
At the same time, I fight my first impulse, which is to roll down
my window to yell, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
That would be crass. This might be somebody’s prize pet poultry.
Besides, I’m not thinking food, I’m thinking probabilities.
Situational ethics. Zeno’s paradox. I’m thinking
my wife will never believe this, but for some reason,
I don’t pick up my cell phone to snap a picture.
A chicken crosses the road, & a lawn, surreal blessing,
like a poem, into a stand of azalea bushes, & then it’s gone.

***

Mike Alexander came to Houston in 1996.
Everything here is so extraordinary, it’s hard to define the ordinary. Nevertheless, he contemplates the quotidian every day.