September 7, 2023

Emily Montgomery


for Chris

I wanted to save something beautiful for you.
The last three jewels of glistening pomegranate
balanced in the palm of my hand before I ate them.
The morning birdsong in the lemon tree after you left for work,
the memory of last night’s rain still written on the lawn.
Or earlier, the haunting roundness of the moon
over the canyon just before dawn when I couldn’t sleep,
standing at the window, looking back at you, your body
floating in the watery moonlight of our sheets.
I mean something really beautiful, my love.
The stillness in the house after the washing machine
ceased to hum. The last line from a slender book of poems,
a hardback from the library barely worn, repeated aloud for you,
its bitter sweetness still lingering on my tongue.
Or the way the baby slept so deeply while I read,
burying himself in the secret scent of his favorite blanket.
One arm thrown across that woolen teddy my mother gave us
in those final weeks of waiting before his birth.
The other hand open wide, fingers outstretched in a dancer’s
graceful, expectant pose. I wanted to save all of this for you.
But I couldn’t. It didn’t last. It never does.
That brief moment of grace when the ordinary shines so exquisitely.
At the end of the day you will return to us, as you always do,
and we will both be tired, empty, distracted, spent.
Everything more chaotic, more fragile, than when you left.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems


Emily Montgomery died of cancer December 3rd, 2012, at the age of 34. She is deeply missed by her husband Chris Wakeham; her son, Miles; her daughter, Eloise, born eleven weeks early due to Emily’s illness; her mother; and her many, many friends. A romantic at heart, Emily captured the fleeting beauty and poignancy of daily life in her poetry.

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December 4, 2022

Andrew Posner


Blank sheets of white paper were a symbol of defiance over the weekend as Chinese protesters braved likely prosecution to openly oppose the government’s policy of zero tolerance for COVID and public dissent.

I stare blankly at the page, wanting to fill
it with meaning. In Xinjiang, 7,000 miles
away, a morning sun, reflecting off the
glasses of early risers, the windshields
of commuters, is so bright as to redact
last night’s graffiti: Down with Xi. The
people, smiling the wry smile of the
long-aggrieved, hold up blank pages
and say nothing, while everywhere censors,
police, apparatchiks, always listening, watching,
fill page after page with names, addresses, offenses:
Zhāng Wěi disrespected the Party, Lǐ Nà seeks to
sabotage the social order. In Los Angeles, I am
busy besmirching the page, smearing it with ink
as though covering the purest snow in de-icing salt.
The snow melts down to mud. Poetry reduces to
a mush of guttural sounds, incomprehensible
to the moment. Heaving a sigh, I make a double
espresso, add a splash of cream and sugar, savor
each peaceful sip. Outside, a hawk, saying nothing,
carries off a rabbit in its talons. Is this the natural
order of things? For once I hear the tearing of flesh,
see the sky turn blood-red. No one will apprehend me
here, cup in hand, crumpled paper on the floor, blank
visage belying the seeds of treason. But were they to try,
which treason would I admit? And which would I deny?

from Poets Respond
December 4, 2022


Andrew Posner: “I’m watching the ‘Blank-Paper Protests’ in China from the comfort of my home, wondering how I would react were I living under such an authoritarian regime. Then again, the authoritarian streak in America is ever-looming; so perhaps the question of my response to such circumstances is not so moot.” (web)

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December 20, 2013

Doug Holder

(1917 – 2013)

I’ve written more than a few poems for my friend Ed Galing, after getting the many letters he has sent me over the years. Ed’s letters are probably as good as his poems. They are alive and spirited, like the scrappy street urchin that Ed was in his early years. Ed can be needy, infuriating, and hilarious, but most of all loveable. And that’s the way I characterize his poetry. Like Ed, it shoots from the hip, giving it straight with no chaser. I find that, in contrast, a lot of the poetry I read today has a calculated ironic distance, almost as if the poet is afraid to display some honest sentiment or emotion. Ed Galing, at 89, is a poet who knows his allotted time is too short for posturing, for cool detachment, or obtuse and inaccessible verse. After long years of writing and submitting his work, Galing has joined the ranks of the major small press poets that includes: A.D. Winans, Hugh Fox, Lyn Lifshin, Alan Catlin, Lynne Savitt, and others. Like the poets just mentioned Galing’s poetry, stories, and essays have appeared in the most obscure and the most well-known journals across the country. Whenever I pick up a little magazine like the Chiron Review, Rattle, Lummox Journal, Poesy, Brevities, The Small Press Review, Pegasus and hundreds of others, I am not surprised to find Ed Galing’s name there.

I first encountered Ed Galing’s poetry in a defunct magazine founded by the late Ralph Haselmann Jr., Lucid Moon. Ed Galing was described as the “harmonica-playing poet-laureate of Hatboro, PA” (his hometown). I later found out that Galing’s work was liberally spread out over a wide swath of small press magazines, journals, newspapers, and the whole spectrum of publications. What came through in Ed’s poetry was his no-bullshit, call a spade-a-spade style. He reminded me a lot of my wisecracking Jewish uncles from boyhood, always busting chops and spinning stories. He is what they would call a mensch. A Yiddish word, it means someone of consequence, someone to emulate. That’s Ed.

In a number of interviews that I conducted with Ed, I became aware of his hardscrabble life, as it was reflected in his poetry. Ed told me that he started to write poetry as a young person during the Depression era. Galing’s family was on general relief, and they lived in very Spartan conditions on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the gone-to-seed environs of South Philadelphia.

Galing remembered his high school English teacher, Dr. Ginsberg, who was supportive of his work and pushed him to read the classics. Galing told me he took to poetry early on. As to why, he related: “Poetry could say something in a few words that prose could only do in the thousands. Poetry allowed me to pour out my heart and soul …” Later Galing mined his early years as fodder for his large body of work. In his most recent collection, Buying a Suit on Essex Street (Iniquity Press), Galing writes about his boyhood urban retreat—the fires cape on his tenement building over the bustling immigrant-filled streets of the Lower East Side.

Fire Escape

Mine was on the
fifth floor
A small iron
Outside the front
Looking down on
Essex Street
Lower East Side:
Down below I
could see pushcarts:
Crowded streets,
people pushing and
Screams and mutterings:
shouts of despair:
Up here, when I sat
outside the window
in my fire escape
I was six years old:
and already I knew
what it felt like
To be caged in
some wild animal.

Ed remembers vividly the cornucopia of sights and sounds the Lower east Side had to offer: “There were the cries of the merchants and the hundred of people pushing and shoving. There was a flavor to those streets I won’t forget. I think it shaped my life. There were the rooftops, the wash on the lines, the garbage on the streets, and the gang fights.”

Galing also felt the bitter taste of in-your-face antisemitism. He learned from the predominately Christian world that the Jews killed Christ, and that Santa Claus wanted no part of him. All this left an indelible impression on the man.

Galing has written many poems concerning antisemitism, as he experienced it. As an occupation solider in Europe shortly after World War II, he was a witness to the death camps at Dachau. Galing told me: “All of these events shaped my sensibility and my poetry. I found antisemitism everywhere … the Army, the Navy.” Galing saw the horrific ovens of the camps, and was enraged at the denial of the atrocities by many Germans he encountered. Galing, through the Lucid Moon Press, published a small book of his war time experiences, complete with photos. In spite of these experiences he did not become misanthropic. Galing told me, “This affected me as a man. I wanted to use my words to benefit mankind. I wanted to show that love is important to life.”

To this day Ed Galing visits Jack’s Deli in his old stomping grounds of South Phillie and entertains the patrons with his harmonica. Now that his wife is a resident in a nursing home, he visits her daily, and shares his poetry and music with the other residents, as well. Ed makes no concessions to the computer age and still corresponds with fellow poets by hand-written letter. He types his poems out on an old typewriter. Ed and I talk on the phone regularly, and he expresses his frustration with the infirmities of old age, his wife’s declining health, the capriciousness of editors, you name it. Yet, overall, Galing keeps a positive attitude, and still has eagle eye out for the next poem.

Galing has experienced a lot, but like many of his rapidly diminishing peers he is able to separate what is important from what is not. Ed has no time to worry about the latest trend, engage in navel gazing, or morbid introspection. What matters to Galing are the people in his life that he touched and who touched him. Ed reflected: “I have two grandsons, three grandchildren, and I am married to a wonderful woman. What is there to know about Ed Galing? Just a simple man, trying to write poetry, and perhaps trying to hear a good word about my work.”

Day’s Work

if my father taught
me anything,
it was how to exist
where existence
was hard to do.
and where every
breath of air
in our lower
east side building
was filled with
the acrid order
of rotten vegetables
that most of us
tenants ate, when
we could afford
to buy the left-
overs, from the
pushcarts on orchard
oh, the rabble, oh
the stench
oh, the jostling
and pushing of
so many of us
as we walked along
pavements so crowded
that we had to almost
walk out into the middle
of the street …
my father made life
as endurable as possible,
by wearing the same clothes
all year round, and when they
his needle and thread would mend them,
he ate little, mostly potatoes,
which gave him that round little
belly, and portly gait,
and he busied himself around
the apartment we had,
my mother in the kitchen,
making food on the coal stove,
learning how to squeeze beets
to make borscht,
and me in my six year old wisdom,
learning how to steal an
occasional apple from the
pushcart outside …
all in a day’s work in
those days.

And, just like his old man before him, Ed keeps working at his craft, a craft which has been his life.

from Rattle #26, Winter 2006
Tribute to the Greatest Generation

Editors Note: Ed Galing died December 18, 2013, at his home in Hatboro, PA. He was 96.


Doug Holder was born in Manhattan, N.Y. on July 5, 1955. A small press activist, he founded the Ibbetson Street Press in the winter of 1998 in Somerville, Mass. He has published over 40 books of poetry of local and national poets and over 20 issues of the literary journal Ibbetson Street, which published Galing in every issue. He also created a blog for Galing years ago: (

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June 12, 2013

Rattle Young Poets Anthology


Children Poets - Rattle #9

There’s not a bad poet in first grade. None of them are anything but fresh and original … they don’t know how to avoid being original.
—Sharon Olds, from Rattle #17

When most people think of Children’s Poetry, they think of poems written by adults for kids. They don’t think of children themselves as poets, and it’s very difficult to find any anthologies of poems written the other way—by children for adults, as well as those their own age. But the early years of language development are magical. No other time in life is full of such wonder, such imagination, and such linguistic experimentation. Young poets don’t write out of habit; they haven’t even learned yet how to be cliche. They write with a natural spontaneity that adults can only hope to achieve.

Poetry is never more fun than when you’re young, and young poets should be encouraged as much as possible.

Way back in 1998, Rattle published an issue featuring poems written by children. Unfortunately it is now out of print. Starting in 2013, we would like to extend that idea, and place a submissions call for an annual anthology of young poets. The books will be available both in print and as ebooks, and all of the poems will appear as daily content on this website throughout the year. Every poet contributing will receive two free copies.

Please keep in mind that we will not be able to publish every poem, or even a majority of the poems submitted. Our goal is to make this anthology something that’s genuinely worth reading for both children and adults alike.

Anthologies from previous sales are available for sale, and a new anthology will release every December. We’re also happy to send class sets to teachers and schools at our cost to print and ship, while supplies last—email Timothy Green for more information.




2016 | 2015 | 2014

December 3, 2013


Santa Cruz, California, December 26th, 2012

Ellen Bass has published several poetry collections, including Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002), a Lambda Literary Award winner; and The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She coedited with Florence Howe one of the first anthologies to highlight feminist poetry, the groundbreaking No More Masks! Her nonfiction books include the best-selling The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth. She has published poems in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Sun, Ploughshares, and of course, Rattle. Among her many awards is a Pushcart Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. Bass teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. Her new collection of poetry, Like a Beggar, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in early 2014. (


FOX: Daveen and I just had dinner with a very good mutual friend, Jack Kornfield—

BASS: I haven’t met Jack, but I’d like to.

FOX: You don’t know Jack? Well, he loves your poetry!

BASS: He’s made such an impact with his work and I admire it very much. Someone told me recently that he read one of my poems at a talk or a workshop and I was pleased and flattered.

FOX: Oh, absolutely, you should meet him. Well, we’re with Ellen Bass on the day after Christmas. What I’ll do—we’ll talk and then I’ll have the entire talk transcribed, typed up. I will smooth it out, but I want it to be a conversation.

BASS: I like that; that’s a good word, conversation.

FOX: Yeah, that’s the way I think of it. I studied psychology hoping to get more intimate with people, but the people who are most intimate are poets, period, because your job is to observe keenly and report articulately and accurately, and I find that most compelling. I notice you’ve done workshops since 1974 and, recently, on truth and beauty? What turns you on about teaching?

BASS: I like to make an opportunity for people to accomplish something meaningful, to practice something they’re passionate about. With a safe environment and support and some tools of the craft that students may not have been exposed to before, they can start to work, and I’m always amazed at how hard my students work. Often when people come to my workshops, they love poetry, but don’t really have an idea of how to work at it. Then they start to pay attention to the craft and begin to see how much there is to learn. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. Sometimes they come into class discouraged, saying, “Oh, I used to love to write and it was so easy. Now it’s hard.” And I say, “Okay, that’s good! Now you’ve passed from just spilling words onto the page and you’re aware of what you’re trying to do. You can see what’s possible and you’re trying to achieve that.” Maybe it’s a little like a relationship when you fall in love, but you don’t know that person very well yet.

FOX: Yes.

BASS: And then you see more of who this person is and what it’s like to be together—you’re not naïve anymore. You begin to see what’s really going to be asked of you, that it will be challenging, it won’t all be easy—and you love them anyway. You love them more deeply. My students often go through that process with poetry. Some of them become quite accomplished. The last few years have been especially exciting for me as a teacher, because I’ve got students who are just taking off and writing fine poems and seeing them published in wonderful journals—including Rattle. One of my students, Catherine Freeling, was nominated for the Rattle Poetry Prize this year.

There’s no end to learning more about how to teach. People often come to study with me during times in their life where there’s a big transition or there’s something challenging. That often is what brings us to poetry—on the one hand, poetry is, as you know, not popular. Right? I mean most people would rather go to a movie or read a novel …

FOX: Yes.

BASS: But as we have all observed, in times of crisis, what do people turn to? Poetry. So there’s a paradox—do we love poetry as a culture, or don’t we? After 9/11, what did you see everywhere? Poems, poems, poems. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’ve got to read this novel” or, “Oh, you’ve got to see this movie.” No, it was, “Read this poem.” Somebody dies and we want a poem. When the most dire things happen, people turn to poetry, and then the rest of the time—except for those of us who love poetry all the time!—the majority of people don’t think so much about it. But my students all think a lot about poetry. And they all become great readers.

FOX: Ah!

BASS: And what is better than sitting around with a bunch of people who want to look at a poem in detail and discover together what’s going on in that poem, and how did the poet do it, and how does it work—like taking apart a machine, you know, what’s happening there? So that’s one of my favorite parts, being with people who are going to get excited about syntax—you know, not the whole world does!

FOX: Absolutely.

BASS: Sometimes we’re just so passionate in there, and I’ll look up at everybody and we’ll just all be so happy to be with our tribe, excited about poetry. I have one student now who is dealing with a life-threatening illness. She started writing poetry when she was first diagnosed, about six years ago. At that time she joined a group with Sharon Bray who leads writing workshops for people with cancer. And Sharon emailed me and said, “I’ve got one for you. She’s a real poet.” Her name is Ann Emerson and she had never written before. Ann is a remarkable person. She said, “I’m glad that I got cancer, because I’m a lazy person and I never would have done anything otherwise.”

FOX: Wow.

BASS: What a thing to be able to say. And she just started working really hard. Several of her poems were published in American Poetry Review, and they are incredible. She is incredible. She’s just trying to live to get a few more poems—you know, just poem by poem. And I’ve worked with other people who were dying, and very often what they say is not “I want to live to see some more sunsets” or even “I want to live to be with my loved ones longer.” But “I want to live to write more poems. I still have some more poems inside; I want to be able to write them.” And that just gives me chills, that I get to participate with them in that process of doing this thing that so much of the world doesn’t care about, but that we care about immensely. Although we know that in other countries, poetry is revered.

FOX: Yes. I think in the United States, like your observation, when we learn poetry, it’s kind of the junior high teacher who is the expert, and she knows what it is and nobody else can really understand it. And then also I think people have the idea that, if I read a book of poems—I used to have the idea that I should like every poem; if I don’t, then I don’t like poetry. Well, normally in a book I like three or four poems. But I don’t think we’re exposed to it in a way that really invites us in.

BASS: I think many teachers are intimidated by poetry themselves. And it’s difficult, if you are not familiar with contemporary poets, to find the ones who speak to you. If you’re looking for a good novel and you walk into a bookstore, you could look around, scan the back covers, read around a little bit, and you’d have good odds of finding a novel you’d enjoy. It’s harder to do that with poetry. There’s so much poetry that is admired by other poets, but doesn’t interest the general population. That’s why I think it’s great if poets and people who are knowledgeable about poetry give their less-informed friends the gift of poetry, like, “Here is a book I think you would like.”

FOX: Yes.

BASS: When I give someone a book of poetry that I think they will resonate with, people almost always love it. Or I’ll call somebody up and say, “Listen to this; I’m going to read you this poem.” I just did an interview with Frank Gaspar about his new book Late Rapturous. My wife has become very sophisticated about poetry over the years even though she’s not a writer and I read her one of the new poems. Are you familiar with Frank’s poetry?

FOX: No, I’m not.

BASS: It’s really dense on the page. It almost looks like a block of prose. It’s rich and gorgeous and human and vulnerable, but you can’t just skim it, you have to take your time. And I said to Janet, “Just sit there and I’m going to read this to you.” I began to read and she closed her eyes. By the end she was just about in tears. I called up another friend and said, “Let me read this to you.” And I said, “But do you have time?”—you know, “Sit down, don’t be doing the dishes while I’m reading it to you.” She said, “Okay, I’m sitting.” And the same thing. She could hardly breathe. But they would not have found that book on their own.

How did I get on this subject? I’m not sure … oh, the way it’s taught in school. I was very, very fortunate in that in college one of my teachers was Florence Howe. Are you familiar with The Feminist Press?

FOX: No.

BASS: The Feminist Press is the oldest women’s press in the country. Florence co-founded the press in 1970. They started out by rescuing “lost” works by writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and went on to bring out women’s writing from around the world. Florence was my teacher back in college and she started a pilot project where college students taught poetry to students in vocational high school. So we had to look for poems we thought these kids would relate to. We taught Gwendolyn Brooks—“We Real Cool,” and Karl Shapiro’s “Buick.” That was my first experience of, “Okay, you have to select so that your reader is going to be able to relate to this.” Later, Florence invited me to co-edit No More Masks with her, which was one of the first anthologies of women’s poetry. Doubleday published it in 1973. This was the first time a lot of us had access to women’s poetry. And at that time it was actually possible to read just about every poem published by a woman in the 20th century in the U.S.—and I did.

FOX: Whoa.

BASS: I lived in Cambridge and I’d go to the Radcliffe Library. I’d take big cardboard boxes and I’d just fill them up. I’d go home and read and put bookmarks at the poems I thought we should consider further and then I’d take them to Kinko’s and photocopy all those poems—Xerox had just been invented. In fact, the first Kinko’s was in Cambridge, and the guy who started Kinko’s worked there—he was the one who photocopied. [Fox laughs] That was how we had no typos. It was Florence’s idea—you know, “If you don’t type, you can’t get typos.” [laughs] So I just collected from all these books then we would go through and go through and go through the poems together. That was kind of my in-depth education. I was in heaven. Florence was my first teacher who taught me how to teach in a way that made it possible for students to have agency and for the classroom or the workshop to be a conversation.

FOX: It sounds like she was empowering students.

BASS: Oh, incredibly. I am so fortunate to have had her as my mentor.

FOX: Well, Wikipedia says you also studied with Anne Sexton.

BASS: I did.

FOX: What was that like?

BASS: A dream come true. Anne Sexton was a wonderful teacher. I am very fortunate to have been her student. You know that she was so flamboyant, so self-centered in many ways, but as a teacher, she was thoughtful, respectful, insightful. She was a great teacher and all her drama was gone in the classroom. We got to have an experience of her that perhaps was not so available in other contexts. I was in the—then it was called MA in creative writing or MA in poetry, what now is called an MFA at Boston University. And the first semester was kind of a disaster for me. My work was not very good, but what my teachers did with it just made it worse. [laughs] All they seemed to know how to do was chop—chop chop chop. I was discouraged and maybe I would have just given up. It seemed so unlikely I could learn anything, but the second semester I was in Anne Sexton’s class and she said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, don’t do these kind of cramped little things; write more, write longer, spread out, say what you have to say.” And it wasn’t that I was getting to be any good, but she gave me a sense of hope: “You do have a voice, you can try to discover it, and you don’t have to constrict yourself in this way that’s just going to strangle you.” She gave me enough confidence to be able to keep going.

FOX: You’re known for your metaphor—when I read your poetry I look at the metaphor and say, “Yes!” Often I will say with other poems by other authors, “Yeah, okay, I can figure it out,” or, “That’s real close, it’s okay,” but yours seem to be just right on. How does that happen?

BASS: Thank you. Well, I know that I think in metaphor as well as write in it. That’s the first thing my mind is always doing, and even if I’m in a conversation, especially if I’m trying to convince somebody of something, I’m always saying, “Well it’s like …” And metaphor is very convincing if you can get it right. It can even convince you of things you don’t really think. Also, for me, part of it came from this intense desire to be understood and then in later years a desire to understand. Finally, you give up on being understood and you realize—speaking for myself—that no one will ever really understand you or anyone else, and that if you can even understand anything yourself, that’s going to be great.

Metaphor is an aspect of poetry that is, I think, spiritual. Our society has become very sophisticated in its ability to discriminate. We can discern differences more and more finely. In metaphor you are doing what might be the opposite; you’re looking for what is similar in disparate things, and when you find it there’s a kind of oneness, a recognition that everything is a part of everything else. In science, we are also discovering how this is like that. I don’t understand much—I love to read science but I’m not smart in that way so I struggle through it because there’s so much in science and in poetry that is similar.

FOX: Really? Say more.

BASS: Well, it’s that awe of reality. When I was college, when I was in school, I thought, “Why would anyone want to study physics?” And now I think, “Oh God, if only I could understand these things better,” because this is the actual world we live in, and that’s what poetry tries to do in its way, to say, “This is the world we live in. This is the world; this is what it is; this is the experience of being on the earth.” And that’s what science tries to do, too, to describe the world. And the Buddhist teachings or meditations say something similar too—you’re trying to have a direct experience with reality. While we’re here for this brief visit to this planet, we want to see what it is that’s going on: “What’s here?”

FOX: Yes.

BASS: And to actually take a look. Maybe we can see this thing, whatever it is, better, if we try to describe it. And one way to describe it is through metaphor. I think it’s Ed Hirsch who said poetry is the most intimate form of communication. When I read that, I thought, well, oh, that’s why I like it so much, because I am an intimacy junkie.

FOX: Yes. Well, Jack Kornfield feels he knows you. So you know, here we are. [all laugh]

BASS: And in a way he does!

FOX: Yes, exactly.

BASS: In a way he knows me better than a lot of people who know me. It is intimate to read or to write a poem, and when a poem is read—even across the centuries, across the continents—the poet and the reader have met. And metaphor is a part of that. I think metaphor is also like a joke, in that you either get it or you don’t get it. If you get it, you respond in a way that’s very immediate. You laugh. You don’t just intellectually appreciate that the joke is a good joke. And with a metaphor you don’t just appreciate—“Oh okay, I see that they’ve put that together and there’s some sense in that”—it does something to you on a more visceral emotional level that you can’t resist.

FOX: There you go using metaphor to explain metaphor! [Bass laughs] That’s good, I like it.

BASS: I love that about metaphor, that it’s so physical and emotional and revealing. Sometimes people will ask, “Well, don’t you feel exposed writing about your life?” But once it’s made into a poem, it’s a thing on its own, and it’s not about me anymore. If it succeeds, it’s about all of us. The poem lives or dies according to how well it describes something that the reader recognizes as part of his or her own experience, the human experience. Also, what am I exposing really? Everything I write about is so common—it’s not a big surprise that people love and get angry and have sex and worry about their children, have joy from their children, do stupid things and feel regret. But what does feel exposed is how my mind works. That’s where I think the risk is. And maybe that’s why people often feel so scared when they share their poetry—because you’re exposing what it’s like to be in your mind. That’s intimate. I think that’s the intimacy of poetry.

FOX: Would it feel different to make your journals public?

BASS: Very! I’d never do that. Also they’re not very interesting. [laughs] I mean, some people write journals that are art in themselves. But mine are just raw materials. It’d be as if somebody had to listen to your thoughts and your fretting all day long, like reality TV.

FOX: Sometimes we get a submission—I often read the bios, because we do bios differently, and a few times I’ve said, “Take the bio. That’s a great poem.” The poem is okay, but the bio is terrific.

BASS: Wow. What fun.

FOX: Absolutely. As we’re talking, I’m remembering, I have one firm rule: If I read a poem and I either laugh or I have tears at the end, it’s in.

BASS: Take it!

FOX: Absolutely.

BASS: I’ve been thinking recently that one way for me to judge a poem is if it stays with me, if I read it and a day later, a week, a month later if it keeps coming back to me. Even if the poem is flawed, if there’s even a line or an image in that poem that I keep thinking about, then that poem has succeeded.

DAVEEN: How often do you find that happens to you, that it sticks that way?

BASS: Well, it happens fairly often because I try to spend time reading poets that I love. But as teachers, many of us get out of whack, out of balance, because we’re just reading so much student poetry, worthy as it may be, and we don’t have enough time to sink deeply into the poetry that inspires us.

FOX: Well, think of poor Tim and Megan Green, they read—we have 70,000 poems submitted a year.

BASS: Oh my God. Exactly.

FOX: At this point in your life, what’s your truest truth?

BASS: Well, that’s a big question! I think the thing I’m most aware of now is how briefly we’re here. Janet’s mother lives near us in Santa Cruz and she’s 91, and I’m watching the process of being in old, old age, and thinking about how briefly we’re here, how much there is to notice in every minute that I don’t notice, and then being so grateful for the bits that I can catch, that I don’t miss, and how much gets wasted, just sleepwalking. That connects to poetry for me, because poetry is a way for me to wake up and not let it just flow by so fast or with such inattention that I’m missing it. I’m 65, and I’m thinking, if I’m fortunate, I’ll have ten or fifteen years where I can still write poetry—maybe longer, you never know. There are people who go full-strength into their eighties, but you can’t count on it. You can’t count on even tomorrow, of course.

FOX: Well, that depends partly on genetics. My father, who I will drive back to Los Angeles with today, is 98 years old. He is the finest brass instrument teacher in the world bar none. I took him to the University of Arizona a few months ago and he spent twelve hours teaching.

BASS: Oh my God.

FOX: The guy is absurd.

BASS: You made my day! [laughs]

FOX: So don’t …

BASS: So don’t worry, you never know!

FOX: I was thinking as you were talking, “This woman’s a really great poet,” in terms of your outlook. A woman I love very much who committed suicide in 1971 wrote to me and said, “Suppose they gave a life and nobody came.” That I remember. And to me that’s what you’re talking about.

BASS: The older you get, the more you’re aware that we really are mortal. I think about it a lot—time; that we live in time. So that’s a big truth, just plain old mortality. And another big truth is of course the state of the planet. I was reading an article by Charles Mann in Orion this week about the fact that we’re such a successful species, and that all species, if they’re successful enough, up until now, have done themselves in, because that’s the nature of overachievement, of success. Bacteria in a Petri dish will multiply on a curve that goes up up up until it hits the place where it has to collapse. The article went on to say that humans also have more brain plasticity than any other species, and that is where the hope lies: Is it possible that we have enough brain plasticity that we could actually confront this and consciously change our behavior? Mann used some examples of our plasticity that I thought were interesting—the change in the status of women, the change in our thinking about slavery, the overall decrease in violence from the beginning of history.

FOX: Yes, there was a very good book out recently on that.

BASS: If we, as a species, could undergo change of that order, might we also have the capacity to recognize what we must do in order to not kill off all humans and bring down most of the other mammals and animals with us? So that’s another huge question for all of us, poets or not: How will we change to sustain life on the planet.

FOX: I’ve thought for a long time that whether it’s ten years from now or a hundred years from now or ten million years from now, I don’t think human beings will exist. But you’ve got to do it anyway.

BASS: Yes. We’re here. I recently read Orham Pamuk’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1996 and he says that writers are doing the most important work on the planet. I would not have the audacity to say that myself, but I love that he did. He said in order to make changes we first must be able to conceive them.

FOX: Yes. Well, if you took away everything you’ve ever read, who would we be? I agree with you; I feel very strongly we have an absolute obligation to help each other, period, in whatever way we can. I’m 72 and I have been writing a book for twenty years—I finished it last week.

BASS: Congratulations!

FOX: I feel a sense of … for some reason I say I’m 72, and I’ve got twenty good years—

BASS: Well, we’re on the same wavelength!

FOX: And I need to write now. Now, not ten years from now. Now.

BASS: Wonderful. That’s great.

FOX: When we talked early on, you started talking about insecurity—tell me about that.

BASS: Well, writing is difficult for me. It does not come easily. I think that’s part of what has made me a good teacher. I have to write so many bad poems for every good one; I have to struggle for each one. A few come easily, but most I have to work at. It helps me as a teacher, but I never feel real confidence. I never sit down to write a poem and think, “Oh wow, I can do this.” When I teach, I feel competent. Sometimes I joke with my students that I have to teach or I would have nowhere in my life where I feel competent. [Fox laughs] I never feel confident as a poet. I do feel competent as a non-fiction writer—it takes a long time, takes a lot of work, but I know that if I put in an eight hour day at writing what I call “functional non-fiction,” I will get eight hours worth of writing. Creative non-fiction of course is not straightforward like that either. And as a poet, no. I just know that if I stick with it, eventually I am likely to get another poem. In his book, Walking Light, Stephen Dunn wrote about playing basketball with great ball players and said it’s similar with poets: “The poets who keep writing do so in the face of such greatness; if they were reasonable, they’d stop.” Or as Joe Millar says, “We’re always writing in the shadow of the greats.” So how could I ever feel secure?

FOX: How do you know when a poem is finished?

BASS: Well, I know when a poem is finished, but I don’t always know when a poem is good. [Fox laughs] It’s finished when I’ve made it as good as it can be, and sometimes that’s good enough and sometimes it’s not, but there’s just no more I can do. But many of my better poems are written on the backs of the poems that didn’t do so well. And when I look back I see, “Oh, here’s half a dozen poems that, in hindsight, were trying to do this in some way, were trying to grapple with this in some way, and none of those ever quite came together, but I was working up to this.” Maybe it’s like an artist making sketches toward a painting, only the artist is aware she’s making preliminary sketches and I’m not. Each time I think I’m writing the poem, or I hope I’m writing the poem, but I can see in retrospect that I was working my way up to it.

FOX: I often find that in submissions, sometimes an eight stanza poem has two really good lines, but the rest of it just doesn’t make it, and sometimes we’ll suggest to the poet to kind of build on those. But you need somebody else …

BASS: Yes. And I was very lucky—the amazing poet, Dorianne Laux, has been my mentor for many years. You know her poetry—it’s stunning, stellar. And I was very, very fortunate to find her at a time when I was returning to poetry after a long hiatus. I had been working in the field of trauma and healing for a long time. I had written The Courage toHeal and was working with survivors of child sexual abuse for ten, twelve years, and not writing poetry at all. I wanted—and needed—to return to poetry, but I was just writing in circles. I didn’t know how to work; I didn’t know how to learn. Some people intuitively can teach themselves; they read great poetry, they can see what’s happening, but I couldn’t. I was just hopelessly and horribly stuck. And I wanted to do this more than anything but I didn’t know how. And I was very persistent and persuasive with Dorianne and she finally agreed to mentor me. She worked with me intensively for a few years and it’s one of those “without whom …” There’s no way I would have been able to learn what she taught me on my own. I think a lot about the nature of the teaching relationship—both from the perspective of a teacher and the perspective of a student who so desperately needed a teacher, and the right teacher. When Dorianne first started working with me she would say, “Do this,” or, “Do that,” and I’d think to myself, “Well, how do I know that’s true?” you know, “How do I know that’s what I should do?” But very soon I saw that it really didn’t matter. And that’s what I tell students, if you’re working with a teacher whose poetry you admire, just take their advice. If at the end of a year you’re writing poems you couldn’t have been writing a year ago, that means she’s a good teacher for you. And so very quickly I stopped questioning, and I just did everything she told me to do. Really, she’s taught me everything I know.

FOX: Isn’t that unusual for a well-known poet to take a student on intensively?

BASS: Yes. It was like a tale of going up the mountain to the guru. I sent her a manuscript of poems and she said she’d be willing to work with me but she was too busy, and if I could wait then she’d be glad to read it. So I waited three months and I called her again and she said, “Yes, it’s at the top of the pile, but …” you know, “I’m getting married, and I’m moving,” and all these things. [Fox and Daveen laugh] So I waited three more months. You go up the mountain the third time—it’s mythic, it’s wonderful—now it’s nine months, and I called her up. And this is a little insight into me: I thought about what is the best time of the week to call someone. And I decided it was Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. because you’ve begun the week but you’re not too far into it. It’s morning but it’s not too early. I decided that would be my best bet. I said, “Dorianne, I’m a grown-up, and I can wait as long as need be. All I need to hear from you is ‘A time will come’ and if you tell me ‘A time will come,’ then I’m happy.” And she cracked up of course and said, “Hang up and I’ll start reading, and call me back in half an hour and we’ll just talk about whatever I could read in half an hour.” So I called her back and we talked for a long time. We may have talked for an hour or two hours about what she read in that half hour. And I was a pig in mud. I knew this was what I needed. And we had to hang up eventually, and she said, “Okay call me back next Tuesday at ten.”

FOX: Whoa.

BASS: And so I called her back next Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. And of course I had said, “I want to pay you,” you know, “your time is valuable,” etc., etc. So I was trying—I would’ve done anything. I would’ve flown up to Oregon and mopped her floors and cleaned her closets if she wanted me to, because I was hopeless, and I knew what I needed. I had known her a bit before. She had come many years earlier to a weekend workshop that I had facilitated for survivors of child sexual abuse. This was before she had published much, and Laura Davis and I, when we were putting together The Courage to Heal, recognized that she was a terrific poet, and we asked her if we could use some poems, so we had some connection. But in truth I didn’t remember her from that workshop and it was so many years before, but we did have this knowledge of each other. So then I called her back the next week at ten and she said, “I haven’t had a chance to read anything; hang up and call me back in half an hour.” So for probably the first six months I’d call her at 10:00 and we’d hang up and then I’d call her back at 10:30. [all laugh] And it worked great. Eventually it got a little looser, but I talked to her almost every week for a year or two. And then I asked her to come down and teach a workshop for my students and that was the first time I had seen her since way back but her voice was so familiar to me and there she was sitting in the room and all day long I’m looking at her and looking away—I’ve never had this experience with anyone, where the voice was so familiar, I knew the voice so well, and the visual, the physicality, was so foreign. And to get the voice and the person’s visage, to put them together, took all day of back and forth, back and forth. By the next day, it came together: “Okay, this is the same person, they’re integrated now in my mind.” And then over the years we became very good friends and started teaching together, and then I also became good friends with her husband, the wonderful poet Joe Millar, and they became good friends with my wife, Janet.

FOX: Daveen, do you have anything you’d like to inquire of your new favorite poet?

DAVEEN: [laughs] Yeah … I was taking notes, not checking email, just so you know. Sometimes I’ll do that during the interview; I’ll generally take notes for questions, but I found that I was also taking notes for me for later, which I hadn’t done before. The word “resonates” keeps coming back and I think it’s cliché-ish but that is what keeps coming up to my heart when you speak or when your words speak as it were. But a couple technical things: When you were learning poetry when you were growing up and you talked about that for a minute, was that

rhyming poetry?

BASS: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I just loved all poetry, rhyming poetry, too—I think it was something in the magic of it. “Blessings on thee, little man,/ Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan! … Ah! that thou coudst know thy joy,/ Ere it passes, barefoot boy!” John Greenleaf Whittier. It sounds so archaic. What did I find so compelling? But I think I was getting something that was vibrating below the literal meaning of these poems. Because I loved all of the poems; there wasn’t anything I didn’t love. Because there’s something deeper in poetry—poetry is magic. Originally, poets were the priests. The word mattered. Even today in Judaism when the person reading the Torah portion reads aloud, someone stands next to him looking at the text so if he makes an error they correct it, because it can’t go into the air with a mistake, because the sound of the words changes the world. It has an actual impact. And so if the person makes an error—it’s like a spell over a cauldron—the spell won’t work unless it’s correct.

And then you think, “in the beginning was the word”—why the word? Isn’t that wild? Why wasn’t it, “In the beginning was water,” or “In the beginning was …” something more physical, more elemental, but evidently the word was the most powerful to the writers of the Old Testament, and I think whatever that was was what got to me.

When I was a kid, my brother taught me to type so that I could type his papers. [Fox laughs] He was in college. So I had his old typewriter;I would type out lines of poetry that I loved on index cards—Kahlil Gibran: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/ Moves on: no rall thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” And I look back and think, what in my eleven-year-old experience did this speak to? I had a pretty good childhood. What did I know of regret? Was I prescient? Or was it something deeper than the literal meaning of the words that made me want to type these lines out, to have them, to bring them into my body and know them in my heart?

DAVEEN: Did you talk about it with anybody, a teacher or a friend or …?

BASS: Very little. But I was soon writing poems and I’d send them to my brother who was away at college, so he was my first reader. And he was wonderful. He would give me feedback. He’d write “trite” or “cliché” and I’d go into the dictionary, “What does ‘trite’ mean?” I didn’t even know. And I’d think, “Oh, okay,” and then I’d try to improve that line or image. But no matter what he wrote he would always say, “I just want you to know that whatever I’m criticizing, I could never even do this, so this is great …” He always built me up, telling me he was impressed that I was even writing poems and that he was humbly offering what he could from his somewhat greater years.

DAVEEN: That sounds like it leads into my next question, because several times one of the things that I’ve heard through the session is that you talk about working hard with your writing and your students working hard. But is that depth, is that changing words, is that looking things up in the dictionary—what is working hard for you?

BASS: It’s all of it. It’s on the level of just hammer and nails and saw. Working hard for the metaphor—like I say to my students, “Okay, you’ve got a metaphor there. Maybe it’s not your best metaphor. Why don’t you make a list of twenty metaphors that might describe this.” If I say to myself, “Okay, I need a metaphor here and it’s got to be the exact right metaphor,” I feel like I might as well kill myself. But if I brainstorm 20 metaphors or 40 metaphors that don’t have to be good, I may loosen up my mind enough and then I can look at that list and the right one might be in there. That’s one way of learning how to work. Or rewriting a line over and over until you get the cadence right, until the syntax feels natural. Even ordinary sentences are hard to write gracefully.

DAVEEN: Alan says often that when you read a work it’s a finished product; you can’t expect your first try or maybe even your tenth to be comparable …

BASS: That’s right. And to be willing to sit down and start from that embryonic place of not-knowing each time. Because you get sophisticated enough to be aware that your first lines may not be any good—I see this in my students too after a while—in the beginning you’re writing and you just think it’s so great. [Fox and Daveen laugh] “It sounds so good!” But now I sit down, I start to write and I’m hyper-aware of how bad it sounds, and how do I keep going anyway?

DAVEEN: Several times you’ve said “sounds.” Do you read your work out loud?

BASS: I do. I can also hear it—even if I’m not actually saying it out loud, I’m hearing what it sounds like, and I’m hearing how clumsy and tired it sounds; I’m hearing how the language is not catching. There’s a certain point sometimes where you feel like it catches, and you’re in language in a different way. So part of the challenge for me always is to keep going, to keep going even though it isn’t going so well, to keep going even though it hasn’t caught. I keep thinking of the word catch; it’s almost like sometimes there’s this little catch where—

DAVEEN: It hooks you in.

BASS: Yes, exactly … You start writing and if you’re lucky, you come to a point where the poem starts talking back to you. I have to write a lot when it’s not talking back to me, and for me that’s part of the hard work. And then there is the emotional part—what is the essential truth of this experience? Because there’s so much you could write that is the easier-to-get-to truth. That’s another thing that I try to teach my students. For example, I had a difficult marriage. I was married to somebody who was a difficult person. He was meshugenah, and anyone, even his neighbors, would agree with that. So if I write a poem about how crazy my ex-husband was, that’s like shooting ducks in the bathtub. It’s just too easy. Okay, fine, but where is the story underneath that story?

FOX: Yes.

BASS: Where is the harder story? Where is my complicity? Why did I marry that guy? Why did I stay with him? I already know he’s crazy and so does everybody else who’s ever met him. There’s no poem there; there’s no discovery. And so it’s the hard work of trying to find the discovery. If you write a poem and from beginning to end and it’s what you already knew before you sat down to write, you’re still on the diving board; you haven’t jumped off. And so that’s what I’m always pushing for with my students, and what I’m trying to do for myself. What is the discovery? And sometimes it’s an intellectual or emotional discovery, something I didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s a more subtle discovery in the language itself, how you see it or how you say it. But I’m constantly asking myself and asking my students, “What do you still not understand about this experience? What do you still struggle with?”

Part of the work is emotional. People talk about writing as healing and of course I believe that—I’ve taught that; I’ve championed that. But writing is not only healing. I think you also pay a price to go to that place, and you have to be willing to do that. Some poems just about kill you in the process. But ultimately I do think it’s healing for me, or maybe simply necessary. Gregory Orr writes about it in Poetry as Survival, taking the chaos of our experience and trying to make order of it. Poetry allows us to survive the suffering by shaping it. We become makers, not just victims who are acted upon. And that is part of what makes it bearable. Writing … it’s like the two faces of comedy and tragedy. We write to notice and praise the moments of our lives—that’s prayer. And then we write to make the pain bearable, to be able to hold it as bearable. And what makes it bearable I think is that it’s part of the human condition. There’s a time in suffering where I say to myself, “I don’t want this to be happening to me.” Right? “I don’t want this.”Right?

DAVEEN: Of course.

BASS: But if I can make a poem, then I can see, “Well, of course this is happening; this is part of the human experience,” and although my regular self says, “I don’t want this,” the poet self says, “I am willing to be a human being living a human experience.”

FOX: I glommed on very early to my favorite quote which I live by, which is from Hamlet: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To me that’s true. That’s what you’re talking about—you’re using yourself, your experience in service of your communication.

BASS: It’s a willingness to go further than my regular self wants to go. There’s a Buddhist prayer that says, “I am a human being and anything that can happen to human beings can happen to me today and I accept that.” Well, I don’t. [Fox laughs] I recognize that this is true, but I’m not so evolved that I say, “That’s okay.” But it’s this acceptance that is what I try to open to in poetry—in poetry I try to accept whatever has happened in some way. And even if I am railing against it, I accept that railing as part of it.

DAVEEN: Well there’s a difference with past tense as it were—you know, happened, has happened …

BASS: Or what’s happening. I try to accept what’s happening in poetry.

DAVEEN: Right. But I don’t want to accept that I might be hit by a truck today. If it happens then I’ll deal with it—I’m not looking for it.

BASS: No, we’re definitely not looking for it, and if I’m hit by a truck today, I am definitely not evolved enough to say, “Okay, I accept that this happened.” I’m going to fight it; I’m going to suffer; I’m going to resist. It would take me a long time to accept that “what is, is.” But I think that’s what I’m struggling to do in poetry—to accept it all. And if I can make a poem that does that, then it works on me. I made the poem but then the poem works on me and helps me to accept it.

from Rattle #40, Summer 2013

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April 5, 2012

Review by Alexa MergenDirt Songs: A Plains Duet

by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom

The Backwaters Press
3502 N. 52nd Street
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 978-1-935218-24-1
2011, 147 pp., $16.00

Birds, friends, plants, events from the newspaper, walks, labor and family populate the poems in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. The two poets, Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom, compose harmonizing melodies. Mostly free verse, the poems flow sequentially and can also be dipped into at random.

The poets know the places they write of: Nebraska for Hansen in Part One, South Dakota for Hasselstrom in Part Two. The collection starts with Hansen’s “Morning Fog” pointing out that, amidst pollution ad sprawl, “we’re all here now, in early fall walking/over Salt Creek, breathing the collective air, right under our noses.” Hansen and Hasselstrom ask the reader to pay attention, to bluestem, red cedar, opossum, swallow, and old friends. Their poems are simply titled, naming the subject they address, as in “Lettuce,” “Egg,” and “Autumn” or summarizing the poem’s event: “Lost in the City Again,” “Visiting the Nursing Home,” and “Ice Skating on the Dam.” The apparent simplicity defies the depth of feeling achieved. When Hansen writes that “all day the house as if holding its breath” in “My Granddaughter Sick” the reader feels the apprehension surrounding the feverish child while “the moon, a heavy saucer, reclines/pale and cumbersome above the treeline,/this chilled horizon brittle with bare limbs.” In Hasselstrom’s “Making the Best of It,” loss pervades a widow’s move. “In this village where/no one speaks my language,” she writes, “I live in a single room.” Throughout her section of Dirt Song, Hasselstrom addresses the making of a poet’s life. This poem concludes

I watch and write
compact words that seem
to form themselves in lines.
Paragraphs scale the walls.
On the tawny cliff before me,
I witness each day live and die,
and never calculate its whole.

In Hasselstrom’s “I Ain’t Blind and This is What I Think I See,” the speaker is driving the Interstate to a poetry teaching gig. She notices roadkill and trash, the hawk among it, and remembers images, words her father said, and The New Yorker who told her she couldn’t be a poet. Her poems take the reader deep into the past. “Valentine for My Mother” alternates between a Safeway shopping trip and a mother’s last days. Time waves, dropping linearity.

Tomorrow all the blooms
that do not sell will pucker
in the dumpster
brown as the roses whipped
by the cemetery wind
the day after my mother’s burial.
Cut flowers don’t last
I muttered to the mound
above her heart.

In “Finding Mother’s Jewelry,” the speaker wonders about the onyx, opal, rhinestone and coral she finds in a tin while the woman who once wore the pieces is “lain beneath the only stone she owns,/where her name is carved in granite.” The speaker decides to take the “hoard” of jewelry to Goodwill.

Hasselstrom’s poems snag time by pinpointing lives among the passing news. In “On This Day,” a “ragged little dog” dies on December 20th and the speaker notes historical events that occurred the same day: Gershwin’s birthday, a coal mine explosion, a ship’s explosion. “Faces flicker through my mind,” the poet writes, “all the people I have loved/who are dead on this day–/millions I have never known,/lovers, husbands, parents, children,/all dead and remembered or forgotten.”

“When a Poet Dies” showcases the best of the time travel and reflection on writing; the speaker swings between a “lesser” poet passing time and the death of William Stafford, a poet she admires. The refrain “when a poet dies” beats like a heart through the poem.

When a poet dies, no one lowers a flag,
or beats a muffled drum to the cadence
of the poet’s best-known elegy.
When a poet dies, no one leads a riderless horse
down the avenue, spurred boots turned backward.
No one shoots the poet’s typewriter beside the open grave,
tells the bees, frames the family photograph in crape,
hangs a black wreath on the door. Somewhere,
a publisher may nod and think Collected Works.

She brings to the poem’s end a “a mule deer doe stepping off a shelf of ice.”

Read in order, Hansen’s elegies in Part One set the reader up for “When a Poet Dies,” in Part Two. Hansen’s “Work” recalls a time when “we took care of the land; the land took care of us” and reminds that “all honeybees need is pollen and nectar, an unspoiled spring-/fed creek, the occasional gentle hand to encourage them on.” In “Early Walk, Late October,” Hansen’s speaker finds a doe, “its rear legs wrenched beneath” as “the string of traffic swerves, does not slow down.” The poem continues

Pawing her front legs, she struggles to lift the sack
of her body out of harm’s way, her brown eyes
huge in the oncoming headlights. Nobody’s fault.

How many times before, I think, she must have
chanced this clash of nature and development,
survived by the sheer luck of numbers. Late

October, and soon enough, the night will swell
with witches and brooms, clowns and monsters,
the chatter of youth, chill of the unknown.

There’s nothing I can do: crush of tires,
her 200 pounds. I turn and run. Trailing me,
a human-like sound crying out from the wind.

How little and how much a poet can do to gentle the world–that’s what the poems in Dirt Songs show. Poets, the lesser and the great, look at each day and address it. We write of deer, dogs, grandmothers, fathers, lovers, wars, news and breakfast. Like Hansen’s child protagonist in “Small,” every poet is, in a sense, a “small fry in a small town, making small/talk about small-time lives into the small hours.” The poems in Dirt Songs are mugs of drip coffee shared over a scratched table; they are not not tiny cups of cappuccino in a wi-fi cafe. They ask you to roll up your sleeves, stay awake, pay attention, and grab a pen.


Alexa Mergen’s poems appear most recently in The Packinghouse Review, Quill & Parchment, and Verbatim. She lives in Sacramento and works with people locally and long-distance as a writing guide and creativity coach. Her website is:

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September 9, 2012


[Note: The following is excerpted from a 25-page interview, which appears in full in Rattle #36.]

FOX: So, why did you go to poetry?

LIEBLER: Well, I went to poetry not accidentally but not knowing. My story is different probably than many of the people you’ve talked to. Here’s what I remember. When I was seven I would scribble things down in my school books, on the big lined paper. And I don’t want to give the impression that I was a child prodigy and this was genius stuff. I had no idea. I come from a working class family, and education in a working class family is respected and it’s a good thing, but it’s not the top priority. The top priority for old school working class is that you grow up and get a job and provide for your family. So that’s kind of the aesthetic I was raised in, and it doesn’t necessarily put a lot of emphasis on academic or intellectual stuff. For example, in our house my grandmother—I was raised by my grandparents—my grandmother and grandfather never read poetry. I didn’t ever think to even ask them that, but they probably couldn’t tell you a poet, not even Whitman. However, my grandmother—who was actually, in hindsight, pretty young for a grandmother, meaning she was like 41—really liked Elvis Presley. So I was listening to Elvis Presley at the age of four on a regular basis. And she bought me Elvis’s Gold Hits record and I played it and played it, and Grandma loved it. We’d go to the movies and see the Elvis movies. So that kind of culture was big—other than “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights, too, and of course Ed Sullivan. When I’m in the second grade, I start scribbling stuff. It’s—you guys know, being poets and writers—it’s in there; you can’t do anything about it. But I had no idea, and I would get in trouble for it. They would call my grandmother and say, “He scribbles, and we don’t know what it is, but he’s scribbling again, so you pay for the book.”

FOX: [laughs] So you were scribbling in the books.

LIEBLER: In books, and on anything. But having no clue—I know this sounds bizarre, but it’s the truth. When I got to the fifth grade I was doing this all the time, scribbling on paper and notebooks and so on. I remember having a big textbook, an English textbook that had a pelican on a post in the ocean, and when I opened that book I noticed that it had things in it that had a lot of white space around them. When I saw that, I thought, “That’s kind of what I’m scribbling. What I’m scribbling in a sense is, it has a lot of white space around it.” So at that point, that’s when I was first able to say, “Oh, it’s a poem.” Maybe I saw “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe in that book, and I thought, “Well, that must be what I’m doing, so it’s a poem. Now, what’s that? I don’t know what that is.” I didn’t read poems. In fact, you guys probably say “poh-um”; in Detroit we say “pomes.” [Fox laughs] Maybe you already noticed that. So, at that point I knew that’s what I was doing, so at least I had a reference, and I kept doing that. And remember, too, this was the beginning of the shift in our culture, because Kennedy’s assassinated. And I’m already a music devotee, but early Elvis was really exciting to me. Then when they kind of wanted to soften Elvis’s image, that’s when the Bobby Rydells and the Fabians came out. That was kind of boring to me. I did like Dion’s “Ruby Baby.” But most of it, “Hey Paula” and stuff like that—that was goofy. I have a story about this I wrote later, but I was really wanting something different, and right at that moment, here come the Beatles. So that was really an eye-opener too. Now Grandma wasn’t necessarily a Beatles devotee initially; She didn’t care one way or the other, but this opened my eyes to a lot of things. When we watched them on the Ed Sullivan show, which everybody here but Tim—and probably you didn’t; did you see them?

DAVEEN: Of course.

LIEBLER: Okay, I thought you were too young.

FOX: She looks younger than she is.

DAVEEN: Five years older than you, I believe.

LIEBLER: Really?

DAVEEN: From what I just figured out.

LIEBLER: Okay. So, when I saw them—this is true, again; now it all sounds like a fairytale I guess—I saw them on the black and white television screen, and remember when they first came on, people didn’t know who was who. What everybody did remember was there was a guy named Ringo, because that was so unusual. In fact, I tell my students—because I teach the Beatles now—I tell my students that back in those early days Ringo was the most popular Beatle, and they’re kind of like, “Really?!” And it was probably because he looked a little different and his name was Ringo. And when I saw the guy on the right side of the screen, I looked at him and I was really digging it, and I said, “I don’t know who that guy is, but whoever he is, I want some of that. I want to understand that.” And it turned out, it was John Lennon.

FOX: Whoa.

LIEBLER: And then they said “John Lennon” and remember “Sorry girls, he’s married” and that little thing on the Ed Sullivan show. Somehow he just stuck out to me even in those initial few minutes of seeing them, because that was the first time we saw them, actually. So, at any rate, now I know I’m doing poetry; I’m into the Beatles heavy; I’m into the whole British invasion thing; and the two things are running parallel for me. So now I’m getting my education essentially from the Beatles. As they move through different phases and they mention and reference different things in their songs and their songs become more sophisticated I’m kind of studying that. I’m not really a bookworm kind of guy, but I was studying that stuff. As time went on, they would even, later, mention Chairman Mao—I’m at the library: “What’s that?” They would mention communism or something: “What’s that?” “Back in the USSR”: “What’s the USSR, what’s that?” So I was really kind of growing intellectually along with that, and knowing I was writing poetry. So by the time I get into junior high school I know that’s what I’m doing, and again, it’s not good, but I’m reflecting in some kind of primitive poetry. And I saved everything—I’ve never looked at it; I put it in boxes and duct taped it, and I don’t want to see it, especially now. But I saved everything, never threw anything out. I tell my students that: “Never throw anything out.” So, I was probably—I know I was—was writing about kind of popular cultural things: music; civil rights was on my radar…not being working class because whatever you are, you don’t necessarily think that’s what you are; you don’t know what you are until later in hindsight. I knew at the time—where we lived in St. Clair Shores, at the time we moved there, was mostly a white collar community. I know most dads look like Fred MacMurray going to work, or Ozzie Nelson. [Fox laughs] They all had ties, which was very unusual. My grandfather got in an old beat up jalopy and drove to the plant early in the morning with a lunch bucket. I remember that. And I have a newer poem about that, as a matter of fact, and it’s going to be the title of the next book. So I’m starting to write about this, and now in December of 1965, two doors down, the neighbor boy who was a high school student and our newspaper boy—and this is hindsight, but his dad was a Marine, so as soon as he graduated high school, he signed up for the Marines. Well, he was killed in Vietnam. December 10th, I think, of ‘65. And everybody knew the kid, and it was like, “Wow, what’s that, and what’s Vietnam? What is that?” And I was very close to my grandmother, and his mother never really recovered from that, and I observed that. And then she died a couple of years later, and the word in the neighborhood was that she died of a broken heart. That just stayed with me. So, now I know I’m investigating Vietnam and of course it’s escalating and the culture’s changing and the music’s changing and all that stuff. And I know I’m writing more as I move toward the latter part of my junior high experience. I’m moving toward writing politically charged poetry and I’m becoming very political as a young kid. I become very interested in politics, especially the counter-cultural stuff—like the Students for a Democratic Society, this is making sense to me, and I did go to protests against the war in Vietnam. There happened to be, in our neck of the woods, a tank arsenal, and there were always protests there that were being led by the SDS and other groups like that, and I actually would go to them. I couldn’t really get my high school friends to go. They thought I was kind of crazy. And I thought, “We’re all kind of into this culture; we’re listening to this music, we’re participating in so many levels of it. Why don’t you get at part of it too?” In fact, I remember one of those guys at the time called me a “radical bunny rabbit.” I’m not sure what that meant. But I would always say, “Come on, come on, they’re having a…”—a war moratorium in ‘69—“Come on, we gotta wear these bands!” And then it would be like I did and nobody else did, and then the teachers are like, “What’s wrong with you?” Some of them I’m still friends with. One guy was a young teacher then and he became very interested and would talk to me quite a bit. He would prod me—he was a young teacher; at that time he was probably 24 or something, and he would taunt me a little bit by questioning my mind about these issues of the Vietnam War and civil rights and the moratorium. It was good for me, and he was a good teacher. So I’m writing these poems, I’m still doing that, and now I know I’m a poet. Whatever that is, I know that’s what I’m doing. I also then get interested in—probably in a subtle way in my mind, making the transition, I start writing for the school newspaper. And I start doing the rock and roll column and I do political opinions stuff—for the times; Well, the John Birch Society, which was around then—now we call them the Tea Party—and you can keep that in the interview—the Tea Party is the John Birch Society. Well, one kid in my class, his mother and dad were part of the John Birch Society and he must have gone home with the newspaper and showed it to them and so they were making—“Our schools are supporting the decadence of Open City; sex, drugs. And this guy is at the center of it because he wrote this editorial”—

FOX: Meaning you.

LIEBLER: Me. So I started getting these threats at home, because back in those days our phone numbers were listed—mine ain’t anymore but back in those days everybody was. We even had party lines, as you can probably remember. At any rate, I would get these calls: “Stop writing that stuff!” [hang up noise] “We’re gonna get you!” [hang up noise] And then they started making hay in the public school system–and I just referenced the guy last night at the performance, Gordon Dressel because he was on the city council. Any way, Dressel came to my support, as did this older priest—I wasn’t Catholic then; I’ve since converted to Catholicism, (but not because of this)—anyway, this older, respected Catholic priest in St. Clair Shores and Dressel both spoke out on my behalf. And after it became a news article and then these two went public with it, it just kind of petered out and went away. For my high school Spring Break, while most kids in the Midwest go to Florida I went to New York. And that was a real eye-opening experience. I was 17. We get in New York; we’re there a couple of weeks. I got to go to the Film Noirs which was a dream, and see all of this cultural stuff. And I was writing about it, and I was a poet, and I knew that. So I still continued running a parallel with poetry and politics. So as soon as I turned 18—that was the first year 18-year-olds could vote—I ran for precinct delegate.

Actually that was another weird story. They came through the community college and passed out a survey and it was various things like “Who do you want for President?” “Who would you support?” I put “Abbie Hoffman, Vice President – Jerry Rubin,” [Fox laughs] whatever. And so the people who did these surveys from the Student Democratic Council or something like that, they immediately called me and said, “You gotta run for precinct delegate.” Remember, I’m kind of anti-establishment just by nature so running for democratic precinct delegate—I mean, that would be like giving in to the man. But I wait it out and they talk me into it. I was supporting McGovern. And we did a clever thing where we disguised it; we said I was “uncommitted” but I was really committed to McGovern. Somebody else was committed to Wallace. So they were out. And I won by default by this large number of votes. So then I became involved in party politics at that time and continued that road going to the conventions and things like that. I took of course the loss of McGovern, his presidency, very hard, very hard.

A couple of years after that—again, now, from this working class family—I’m working at Sears and Roebuck as a janitor and we decide to organize, to bring a union into Sears. In hindsight, this is insane [Fox laughs], but at the time, it seemed like, “Yeah, we can do this!” But we weren’t kowtowing to the union and we had some fights with them. But anyway, the election was set and we got the ballots signed and the company, of course, they were pushing, pushing, pushing on the people who worked there not to vote for the union. In the end it was something like 300 employees voted against it and like six for it. It was really bad. I took that really hard. That was a time, too, though, my grandfather understood, because he was part of the 1937 sit-down strike at Dodge Main. I remember my grandmother saying—I should also mention this: my grandmother always thought that if I could get a job at Sears, which she loved and thought was the greatest store in the world, I’d be set. I don’t think they even knew what college was. I was going to it and they knew it, but I don’t think they understood what that was. But Sears? And also they would always throw Uncle Andy into the equation, and Uncle Andy had worked his way up from being a garbage slinger to like the crew chief in Detroit—the garbage men. So they said, “If you can end up like Uncle Andy, you’re gonna be set up for life.” Sears? Even better; that’s a step up the class ladder. Well, I worked at Sears, so my grandmother was like, “Oh, I don’t know if you should jeopardize that job at Sears!” My grandfather—I distinctly remember him saying, “This is serious business!” That was the first time—because he was really not an activist or anything. He was part of the ‘37 sit down but only because he believed that was right. He wasn’t the leader of it; he was just there with 10,000 other men, participating in that. So I just started college at this point. I knew I was going to be a poet and I’m writing a lot of poetry. I get into a creative writing class because someone said that’s what I needed to do. And I met with this professor who ended up becoming my mentor. And the first thing he said—we had little meetings at the beginning of the semester—and he said, “What poets do you read?” And I said, “Read? I don’t read poets. I’m a poet! I write!” [Fox laughs] He goes, “You’re an idiot!” I go, “Well, what do you mean? I’m writing poetry!” He goes, “You can’t write anything until you start reading.” So he drew up a list of things. And I really hadn’t read books before that much. I’d read, as I still tell my students, two and a half books that I remember in my school years. One was called Yellow Eyes and it was about a mountain lion. The other one was The Day Lincoln Was Shot; it was part of a reading. And I read half of The Mysterious Island before I got bored. So that was it until I ran into this guy and he says, “Who are you reading?” I was listening to Bob Dylan over and over and over, and the Beatles, but I couldn’t really name poets. I never really read or studied Shakespeare or anything. So he drew up a list and I had to start reading. My book collection started growing at that point. Now it’s like probably all of yours; it’s insane.

FOX: Yep.

LIEBLER: My wife knows that. Now I just kind of pitch ‘em in a box and take them to the used bookstore and say, “I don’t want any money; just give them a humane death,” because there’s too many. But at that time—I remember this little library, this little shelf in my room that my grandfather had put up there and it was maybe three feet long with two shelves and it was starting to fill up with these books. That was my entire collection at that point. And they were Shakespeare plays and some of Dylan Thomas and some of the stuff that he had written that was essential to start to read. Well, he was right, of course. My poetry did start to get more dimensional. And this was at a community college, and that’s why I have such great respect for community colleges, because the one I went to was the greatest. I’ll show you how great it was. A guy we used to go to the protests with, a professor in political science, was always getting his head knocked in and arrested with the rest of us. He was the head of the SDS when he was in college and so forth. He’s that community college’s president now.

FOX: Whoa.

LIEBLER: And we put poetry events on together nowadays. We do big poetry festivals. So that’s another little story, but he always had an army sack hanging over his shoulder and a green army coat for the protests and now he’s the freaking president of this college. But we had this wonderful English department and staff. We had two major artists in residence, a great local poet heading creative writing. And the poetry people in the English department were friends with a lot of the counterculture artists. So we had readings at the time—we didn’t quite understand it, but Allen Ginsberg read there, Ed Sanders read there. Bukowski used to come all the time.

FOX: Oh really?

LIEBLER: Yeah, he had a good friend in Detroit, and this is before most people had heard of him—now he’s a big cult hero, but then nobody had really heard of him much. But we were into him because these teachers had turned us on to his stuff. And he would come to this college at that time for a plane ticket, a place to stay and all the booze he could drink. [Fox laughs] That’s all he wanted. Forget the honorarium. And he came a few times, and he would do these readings—you guys probably have seen him too. He did these readings that were just so intense. And here we are, 18, going “Holy crap, man. Wow.” I remember one poem I’ll always remember, and I thought, “Whatever that moment is in the poetry, I want to get to that in my own writing.” And he just looked up at everybody and he goes [gravelly voice], “You want to know what love is, kids? It’s sleeping with a woman after you pissed the bed.” [Fox laughs] And I thought, “Wow. Wow. I don’t know if I want to do that, but wow.” [all laugh] And there was something deep in there. It was like, “Whoa.” Then he read some poem about that, written out here in L.A. which I could have never imagined ever seeing in my lifetime. So that was part of it too: “Wow, what’s that like? This guy lives in the post office, and all the things he writes about.” But we were able to get that kind of experience at our community college-unbelievable…

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011

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