Poem-A-Day: Joe Barnes

About twenty years ago, I took a road trip from Houston to Los Angeles, where I was teaching for part of the year every year. I made this road trip with an old friend from college. This was before cell phones were common among young people. We caravanned across the country, each of us driving alone, and what should have taken 26-28 hours took three ridiculous days. We got detoured by dust storms shortly before leaving New Mexico and ended up deep in Arizona, a paper booklet road atlas and a highlighter in hand, nearly stranded by fatigue (his) on a reservation before finding our way back to I-10. Remind me to tell you the rest of the story sometime; it’s absurd and hilarious and surreal.

About twenty years ago, the woman who was my husband’s girlfriend before me suddenly died. He considered taking off into the west, driving until his car ran out of gas, then setting up in whatever town he’d ended up in and starting over with a new identity. I’m so grateful he didn’t.

Longer than that ago, the year I graduated from college, I realized that I didn’t have a steady full-time job lined up yet, and for the first time in my life, I had the sense that I really could go anywhere and do anything and start my real adult life in any way I wanted to. A friend asked me to move to Vancouver with her. I thought about it. Then I decided not to, and she decided not to, and she moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, and I kept my seasonal teaching job out there for a few years longer until I came home and married my husband.

Somehow it seems like road trips often create this illusion of freedom, but more often than not that sense of freedom is just a vacation from our regular life, and really? Often, that’s enough.

I cannot say why I enjoy this poem so much, but oh my goodness, it’s fun.

***

HAPPINESS

That morning we headed West.
We had nothing better to do.

West was as good as East
Or South or, for that matter, North.

They were all elsewhere
and that morning was one of those days –
the light brisk as a nurse,
the air calf-skin to the touch,
the breeze absently shuffling leaves
like a card sharp between marks –
when elsewhere had to be glorious, too.

Time led us shambling across
a countryside indifferent
to our incompetence with maps.

Farms and small towns
shrugged as we passed.
The big cities didn’t even notice.
Suburbs noticed but pretended not to.
Suburbs can be that way.

We were never lost.
but never found, either,
except by a sun that teased us gently west
on a trail of shadows.

We ran out of gas and fought
over whom we should blame.
We decided on fate.

We got drunk and wrestled alligators.
We lost.

We pulled up at a clapboard church,
its steeple an angle or two shy of perpendicular,
and were baptized in the blood
of the risen Christ.

One of us fell in love
with a waitress at a diner.
Her nails were bitten to the bloody quick.
Her eyes were the color of a Golden Retriever’s.
She was friendly but engaged
to a local plumbing contractor.

Somewhere along the way
our adventure became a life.

We traded clothes, names, pasts,
then traded them back.
After a while we forgot
what belonged to whom.

We climbed a cliff
and listened for time, for space,
for the slow curve of the universe
where space and time meet,
for anything but ourselves
listening on a cliff,
the uncertain earth sliding,
like memory, underfoot.

We listened so hard, so long
we ceased to hear
and drove, deaf-struck by silence,
to our motel
and its mercy of noise.

The mountains neared.
They shimmered. They shone.
They bullied the sky aside
with sharp granite shoulders.

Beyond them, we knew,
lay the beginning of sea
and the end of the West.

We prayed for bad weather:
flash floods to wash away bridges,
freak snowfalls to trap us in our car,
dust storms to blind us
into immobility.

The weather stayed fair.

We grew tender with each other,
like guilty grown-up children do
with bewildered, dying parents,
like adulterers do with spouses
they are poised to deceive.

It was the man that had fallen
in love with the waitress
with the eyes of a Golden Retriever
who saved us.

“Why not North?” he asked,
his voice thick with corn chips.

(He had gained thirty pounds
since he had been spurned
in favor of the plumbing contractor.)

So North we went.

***

Joe Barnes’ poetry has appeared in five anthologies – TimeSlice, The Weight of Addition, Improbable Worlds, Untameable City, and Lineup – and in journals such as Bat City Review, Measure, and Illya’s Honey. Barnes is also a playwright. He lives in Houston, Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

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Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Gross

I love social consciousness in poetry. Even better when satire is involved.

Remember back in December when seven important words were banned from appearing in CDC documents related to their budget?

Talk about insidious and damaging and hateful. Of all the things the current administration has done which are repulsive, this floats near the top of the list. It doesn’t even really matter how the words were banned or for what purposes. Anyone paying attention and thinking with a critical/analytical mind knows what’s going on here, and it has a lot to do with “framing the debate” (also known as “spin” or “controlling perception” or “manipulating the listener”) and with chipping away at civil liberties and human rights.

In response, enter the poet Elizabeth Gross and the sestina form.

If you’re unfamiliar with the sestina, it’s an old French form which operates on the spiral rotation of six words to create a thirty-nine-line poem. They are marvelous and fun writing puzzles. See if you can identify the key words and the rotating form in this poem by Elizabeth Gross, which first appeared in the CDC Poetry Project, edited by Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon.

***

Science-based ethical consciousness seeks same

Hellooo, potential soul-mates! A little about me: ever since I was a fetus
I’ve felt most comfortable underwater—we all start out transgender
mer-folk after all, with gills and tails—suddenly vulnerable
to everyone and everything when we hit the air. Entitlement
begins here, begins early, with a slap. Yet, for some, an evidence-based
approach eventually reveals that others exist, and there is a diversity

of consciousness to color in the lines drawn by our diversity
of physical bodies. I start with my own example as a fetus
but really I’m looking for someone older, awake to the evidence-based
world around them—I mean, the end of the world. A woman, transgender
or non-binary individual because I can’t even with the entitlement
of straight cisgender men. How are they still talking? How invulnerable

to shame? Are they actually convinced that they’re the vulnerable
ones in this society? Digging in their heels so the new “diversity
hire” can’t put on the same bad suits? Whining entitlements
are un-American! Hate-watching RuPaul’s Drag race from a fetal
position, tweeting rage, kept up at night by fantasies of transgender
people using the same bathrooms as their wives. An evidence-based

analysis reveals zero threat to cis straight men, but evidence-based
studies do show our culture slowly changing as the vulnerable
claim more space, more time (shout out to you activist honeys!) Transgender
women of color are still targets of violence but we wear DIVERSITY
IS STRENGTH on tee shirts sometimes, right? Now it’s me in the fetal
position—the world is too much/not enough right now—aren’t we entitled

to feel a little bit okay sometimes? No? Not ever? Am I even entitled
to a we here, in this divided moment? I want an evidence-based
takedown of the language of authority. I want a language-less fetus
culturally speaking, a fresh start. Let’s pretend we’re all vulnerable
here (because we actually are) and also recognize a diversity
of strengths as strength, remake ourselves in the image of a new transgender

god. To recap: I want to find a girlfriend (broadly defined). Transgender
non-binary genderqueer femme tomboy yay! (I know, I know, my entitlement
is showing.) My references will attest to my loyalty and candor. I offer a
.      diversity
of first date suggestions, crowdsourced and vetted—truly an evidence-based
approach to dating. Let’s trade anxiety dreams without touching, get vulnerable
and cry for a while, on the floor, separately, with NPR on, in the fetal

position. Too much? I’ll call you fetus if you call me science. We’re all entitled
to evidence-based pet names that reflect our true diversity—
transgender, cisgender, anygender the heart can hold, make vulnerable again.

***

Elizabeth Gross is a poet/translator/teacher/karaoke enthusiast from New Orleans. She completed her MFA in poetry at Hunter College of the City University of New York and still inhabits New York occasionally in her stress dreams. She co-translated and produced a new adaptation of Euripides’ Bakkhai at the Marigny Opera House in 2015. Her chapbook Dear Escape Artist, a collaboration with artist Sara White, came out from Antenna in 2016. More poems have recently appeared in Okey-PankyTENDERLOINFairy Tale Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. You can find more about her and her work at grosselectricworks.com.

Poem-A-Day: Carolyn Dahl

I heard Carolyn Dahl read this poem of hers at Brazos Bookstore last month, and it struck me — and many in the audience — as both funny and somber. It has to be a sophisticated poem when it can capture a complex tone.

Remember when people used to joke that some one was a ___ nazi? Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? Remember how that kid in your English class who was so good at grammar — so good she couldn’t abide its misuse, who would even, in an effort to stop the grating on her sensibilities, would sometimes politely correct yours in conversation — got called a “grammar nazi”? Remember when all of that was kind of funny?

As I explained to a friend on social media about sixteen months ago, when he posted that he was looking for a spelling nazi to help him edit something, that maybe now that actual nazis have crawled out of their caves and started making trouble again, we should stop using that word lightly. On the other hand, turning something into a joke robs it of some of its power and influence.

It’s a fine line to walk. Not everyone gets it right, but this poem walks a fine line really well.

***

Little Hitler

My mother tears two photos from an album.
        One of her in wartime short skirt and bare legs,
        holding a fat white rooster in her arms.
        The rooster in profile lifts its head high,
        confident, red comb blazing in black and white.

The other photo is of my father, who she calls
.          a sweet looking man, dressed in work clothes,
.          holding the same white rooster. Raising
.          chickens in a newlywed’s yard was his idea
.          of a good, hard-times start. But he never
        expected one to walk up the steps, peck
        at the door, want to be held like a child.

Why does a rooster do that, my mother wants to know.
.          I mean, leave his own kind to live with humans?
        But she missed the farm, needed an animal to hold,
        so she brought him in. Named him Little Hitler
        because he was cocky and demanding. Evenings
        he sat in her lap as she smoothed ruffled feathers,
        rubbed the yellow pads of clawed feet, listened
        to the news of war as he clucked contentedly.

These were his final photos, my mother says, because
        then we had you to hold. They took Little Hitler
        to a farm to live out his days. Her last look saw
        him flapping his wings, crowing in betrayed fury.
.          She didn’t see the farmer wait until the car
        disappeared around the curve, then catch
.          the bird by the neck, wring it for chicken and
        dumplings. Nothing, he later explained,
        with the name of Hitler should be allowed to live.

***

Carolyn Dahl was the Grand Prize winner in the 2015 Public Poetry/MFAH national ekphrastic poetry competition, ARTlines2. Her essays and poems have been published in 25 anthologies including Women On Poetry (McFarland), Goodbye, Mexico (Texas Review Press), Beyond Forgetting (Kent State), and in various literary journals including Copper Nickel, Plainsongs, Camas, Hawaii Review, Colere, and Pirene’s Fountain. She won a finalist award from PEN Texas in nonfiction, is the author of Transforming Fabric (F&W Books) and Natural Impressions (Watson-Guptill Publications), and co-authored The Painted Door Opened, poems and art.

Poem-A-Day: Jeannie Gambill

My children are eleven and about-to-be-thirteen. Sometimes I wonder whether I will ever stop worrying about them. I’m confident the answer is likely no.

Sometimes at school events, I test this. I’ve been teaching at this school for eighteen years. They’ve been attending this school since they were four. They treat the campus — which, after all, is a comparatively safe one most of the time — like they have the run of it. This is not uncommon among faculty children who have grown up within its walls and gates.

But I still worry. Part of me wants to walk them to their building every morning and pick them up from it after school. (I don’t, though, not anymore.) And sometimes when we go to a game, I even let them run off and play — excuse me, “hang out” — with their friends on the other side of the fields, and I plant myself in the bleachers as if it were the only place I wanted to be.

On such occasions I like to tell my friends I’m snapping off a helicopter blade.

At the last reading I gave, several poets were presenting their work, and one of them, Jeannie Gambill, read this one. It resonated, to say the least.

I sometimes think I will start to relax when my kids are past the age of twenty-five. Jeannie assures me this will not be the case.

***

Directive
to a grown daughter

When you ride your motorcycle
wear your helmet.
Not the half helmet.
Wear your full helmet
always.
When you go out on your motorcycle
take only streets
where
there are no cars
no trucks
no buses
no other moving vehicles.
Do not go out in the rain.
Never on the freeways.
When you decide instead
to go on your bicycle
be faithful to all of these
instructions. The routes
you’ve shown us you take to work
through neighborhoods
on your bicycle, there are
cars parked on these narrow
streets. Be careful. It’s hard
to see you.
Your motorcycle surely lost
from view when you are in traffic.
Do not go into the traffic.
Do not go anyplace where
there is danger. Stay
blocks away from any vehicle
in which the driver
is un-focused. Please say
you will do these things.
When you train on the highways
in the hills   when you want
the challenge   need the long
stretch   the cumulative miles
when you bike into the hills

when you take your bicycle
round the curve   slow
on the upward incline
and   down   down   gaining speed
the curve   go round the curve
go round and down the hill’s
curve     not too fast.
When you line it out
the song of you
adhere please
to this
entreaty.

***

Jeannie Gambill’s poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Cenizo, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston, and the Texas Poetry Calendars of 2011 and 2012. She was recipient of the 2011 Dana Award for Poetry, and a winner in the Artlines Competition (2012). She has been a featured poet in Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series and was a finalist in the Ruth G. Hardman/Nimrod Poetry Competition. She lives in Bellaire, Texas.

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.

Poem-A-Day: Bucky Rea

And as promised, I’m still posting a poem today.

Bucky Rea, another staple of Houston’s diverse poetry scene, has shown such commitment to the thriving arts scene in Houston over the years it makes me proud to know him and to be part of this city.

Our fair city has a lot of options for public transportation, but we still have a heavy car culture, too, and the public transport options don’t get nearly enough love. Part of it might be that Houston is just too enormous for public transport to serve everyone in as timely a fashion as we would like. Or maybe we have some Texan need for independence in our DNA. Maybe it’s something else, no idea. But this poem is great.

***

Zen Deep

Riding the bus
in Houston is one Zen
goddamn experience. It means waiting
in a town without wait. Everything
is in progress, going
someplace–and to wait
is to go no place
slowly.
Nothing just is
at the bus stop but is becoming,
there on the curbside of commerce.
Opportunity elbows right past feet.
Fat pockets, metro day-passes
and a pocket full of quarters
slow you down on the hunt.
Black rubbers, inflated with purpose,
roll you down. Velocity and focus
blur the eyes of conquistadors
who ride Broncos and SUVs
first to the kill. This city—
this city eats its pedestrians.
Between a plexiglass kiosk
and the parking garage,
office malls and A/Cs rise
like fortresses against the heat.
From their corner spires, power suits
eyeball the lava flow of customers.
Outside, pavement wraps your ankles,
socks bloat, and your arms stick
to ribs beneath your shirt.
Against the crawl of blue hot sky
you beg a tree for shelter.
But it will not listen
and it brings in the heat
through its leaves.

***

photo credit: Anna Lee, Alternative Houston, https://www.alternativehouston.com

Bucky Rea teaches history, economics, and government in Texas, mostly at cross purposes with the state mandated curriculum. He cohosts “Living Art,” a weekly arts show, on KPFT-90.1FM and is the Founding Penguin of Invisible Lines, a theatrical poetry troupe.

Another Place You Can Get Your Virtual Hands on FINIS. (and Even Read It for Free If You Want To)

I’m going to take one short break this morning from posting poems — DON’T WORRY, THERE WILL BE ANOTHER POEM THIS EVENING — to let you know about something new and interesting that has popped up.

Some of you know that I have a book of fiction out there. It’s a novelette, or essentially a short novella. The title is Finis. (and its blurb is below the main part of this post).

Some call it magic realism; some, urban fantasy. Most people call it unusual, and the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been excellent.

Finis. comes in both print and ebook format at Amazon, and the print edition is illustrated by Houston-based artist Lauren Taylor. The ebook edition isn’t illustrated, but it is widely available everywhere ebooks are sold. AND NOW it’s even available at a new online destination called Myth Machine.

What, you might be asking, is that?

Basically, it’s a new start-up designed to better promote books and connect them to fandoms. They’re interested in building the ultimate book-centric comic-con online 24/7/365.

What makes Myth Machine even more interesting is that you’ll find a bunch of authors here who might ordinarily fly under the radar, writing in a variety of genres.

Why, you might also be asking, would I go there for the ebook edition of Finis. when I can get that basically everywhere else too? Well, you can also read Finis. there — in its entirety — FOR FREE. And at the moment, that’s the only place authorized to offer the entire text (book discussion guide in the back and everything) to the public for free. (The benefit of buying the ebook from them is that you can escape their site’s ads, relatively unobtrusive though they are.)

I’ll be honest, Myth Machine is both a new venture and a new type of venture for me. I’m excited to see where it goes, though, and will be interested in how it grows. Let me know what you think.

***

Read on to learn more about Finis.:

Elsa’s family grows more unkind by the week. Her boss, a seven-foot-tall rage demon, has control of everything but his anger. And her cat wants to eat her. Things could be better.

In a world where one’s Animal Affinity is a sign of maturity and worth, Elsa’s inability to demonstrate hers is becoming more than a disappointing nuisance; it’s becoming a danger. She has no confidence she’ll ever conquer her Plainness by “blossoming.” She also fears both the wolf packs that prowl her neighborhood and being stuck in a life plummeting rapidly from lackluster to perilous. Fortunately, she has a cousin and a co-worker who know her better than she knows herself and can see through to what society won’t.

Finis. is the magic realism of our time, a story of finding one’s way to the end of things, of persevering through the dregs of life to discover something more.

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR FINIS.:

“It’s not often I get that viscerally emotional on behalf of a fictional character. In a setting of overt fantasy, Angélique Jamail has created some of the most real people I’ve encountered via text in a long time.” – Ari Marmell, author of Hot Lead, Cold Iron and The Widdershins Series

“A silver vein of irony runs through Angélique Jamail’s fantastic Finis. It is a witty tale of conformity, prejudice, and transformation, in a world that is disturbing as much for its familiarity as for its strangeness. In a place where everyone is different, Elsa is the wrong kind of different, and that means facing pity, discrimination, danger, and sharp teeth. Dive into this story, readers, and confront them for yourself; it may just change the way you feel about things…” – Marie Marshall, author of The Everywhen Angels and I am not a fish