Message in a Bottle
National Poetry Month Special: Welcome Guest Star Megan Snyder-Camp

The final entry in our special series in honor of National Poetry Month features a guest blogger, poet Megan Snyder-Camp. Her first collection, The Forest of Sure Things (2010), won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award. She lives in Seattle, where she is the chair of First Book-Seattle.

Thanks for tuning in to the series, and don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.



This month I have been thinking about how, exactly, poetry fits into my days, especially since this year I didn’t even consider joining in NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month, where you write a poem a day). I consider myself a practicing writer, but I also have a four-year-old and two-year-old at home, and a new nonprofit chapter that lives under the dining room table. My experience of poetry is often in passing, often borrowed, often shelved. My “office” is the little cabinet that holds the printer. My goal for National Poetry Month was, I thought, feasibly low ball: to read one poem a day. That’s happened maybe twice.

Here’s how the week really went, and where the poetry fit:

Monday: While making dinner, thumbed through the April issue of Poetry. Found this beauty, by Vera Pavlova (tr. Steven Seymour):

Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened.

Tuesday: Volunteered at a large-scale children’s book distribution. Noticed that none of the books were poetry, and thought about how perilous many people’s introduction to poetry is: often in school, sometimes by a teacher who doesn’t much love it. I remember being taught that poetry was orange juice concentrate; prose was the jug. (which would you rather reach for?) Thankfully nowadays that image reminds me of the bright certainties in the poetry & art of Douglas Florian, one of my favorite childrens’ poets. Whom I still haven’t read to my own kids … what am I waiting for? Need to request his honeybee book at the library.

Wednesday: At a light, I looked up and saw what I thought was a seagull—white, high. But it was a long light and the bird never flapped, just spiraled lower until I could see a wide gray tail, thick body: a snowy owl! I’d heard about the irruption a while back but had given up looking. Almost wrecked the car. That night, waiting to meet a friend at a bar, I brought out my library copy of Susan Stewart’s Red Rover and found on page one:


I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line—
released, although it seemed as if a knot

still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,

and yet I knew no god would mind a square
of air so small. And still it moved and still

… and then my friend walked in. Goodbye for now, serendipitous owl. At the table we talked about the donations my friend was helping secure for our nonprofit’s May 19th Read-A-Thon, where Martha Silano and Daemond Arrindell will be among the poets (and other folks) reading aloud the first books they loved as kids. One auction-headed gift: Heather McHugh’s beautiful and scary-looking copy of an old fairy tale, with a long and poetic inscription about falling in love with this book at the age of four.

Thursday: For a freelance gig, I got to research (and discover) Bulgarian poet Nikola Madzirov. Here’s him on translation, in an interview for the California Journal of Poetics:

There are many poems in which we can recognize ourselves without having written them, just as there are cities where we have imagined ourselves much earlier before we travel there. The translator is a silent deconstructor, a night guard of the bridges of difference and understanding.

Wow! Adding the title to my wish list. 

That night, I hosted a poetry reading for the very first time. Thanks to Lacey Jane Henson who runs the celebratory and always-packed Off Hours series, I had the pleasure of inviting three Seattle poets who work has served as a model and inspiration to me: Melinda Mueller, Christine Deavel, and Sarah Steinke. I hadn’t realized what an emotional experience it would be, beginning with my struggle to write intros that would be good enough, that would share some of what it was they’d each taught me and why I return to their work again and again. But finally, intros in pocket, the pure joy of hearing, one after another, those voices rise from the page with powerful new work. It was like a jukebox from heaven. The experience reminded me that I should make more time to let writers know when they move me—send an email, mail a note to the publisher. Or my resolution for 2012 (2013?): write a full-on review! Join the conversation.

Friday: Heard Sierra Nelson read at Open Books from I Take Back the Sponge Cake, her lovely new collaborative choose-your-own adventure poetry book. We got to vote on each page-turning. Awesome.

Saturday: Got a rejection from a long-shot journal; now to find somewhere else to send that batch. Worked on a grant application during kids’ nap. It’s not writing poetry, and not reading it either, but still, what I love about grant applications is how they can cover for prayer in a pinch: the work of having to articulate exactly what you want, what it would look like, why you need it so bad, to research the plane fare and look into museum hours. Fingers crossed.

Sunday: Stole another hour for the grant application. Packed brave & lovely Darcie Dennigan’s new book, Madame X, along for the ride, but still haven’t gotten to sink into it. Waiting. Impatient.

—Megan Snyder-Camp

National Poetry Month Special: If I Can Haiku So Can You

In 1971, director and screenwriter Robert Altman released McCabe & Mrs. Miller, something of an anti-western set in the the Pacific Northwest. It’s a film full of sublime moments—in fact, you could say the whole movie is one long sublime moment—but for me, the most memorable scene is one featuring Warren Beatty in the title role of John McCabe, a gambler and would-be businessman who’s bent on improving the mining hamlet of Presbyterian Church and his bankroll in the bargain. He’s a bit of a confidence man with a puffed-up reputation and a personal style that’s polished only in comparison to the crudeness around him, and he’s in love with Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, a woman of true sophistication who he’s hired to run the town’s main business, a brothel. He’s just smart enough to sense that she’s far more on the ball than he is, and he’s frustrated about the inequalities in their relationship. In a mumbling soliloquy, he says:

I keep trying to tell you in a lot of different ways. If just one time you could be sweet without no money around.

I think I could…

Well, I’ll tell you something. I got poetry in me.

I do. I got poetry in me.

I ain’t going to put it down on paper. I ain’t no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it.

Which is a good summation of my feelings about poetry. I’m a fluent reader who’s generally confident to take on whatever book’s in front of me, but poetry often gives me the impression of being better than I am and unafraid to let me know it. Still captivating, though, like vintage Julie Christie.

It’s not the complexity that throws me, for the most part. The poetry with the strongest appeal for me early on was the knotty kind that requires unpicking before it reveals itself. I was one of those undergrads who thought it was fun to batter my head against John Donne and play spot-the-allusion with T.S. Eliot. It’s the more direct stuff that trips me up. I’m a fast reader, so without twists and turns or obvious obstacles, I slide across the words so quickly that I fall down at the end. I’ve had to train myself to go slow and pay attention even when a poem seems innocuous—there’s black ice on those famous roads that diverge into the woods.

Writing prose is another good way to teach myself to focus on every word that passes. At least, I hope it is. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to start juggling trochees and iambs or worrying about enjambment. That said, I have dallied briefly with Calliope, the muse of poetry. Some time ago, an online literary magazine was conducting a book giveaway in celebration of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 96th birthday. This remarkable figure accomplished too much in his long life to recap here, but he’s most noted for his travel writing, particularly two works that were first published in the 1970s and ’80s, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. These recount a journey he took on foot as a teenager between the world wars, starting from the English Channel and reaching what’s now known as Istanbul. The second book takes us with him only as far as the Romanian border, but he was working away on a third and final volume until his death last year. Paddy, as his friends called him, was of a generation and a social class that was imbued with poetry at school, and to pass the time during his lonely peregrinations, he’d recite Keats, Tennyson, and the like. In that spirit, the magazine asked for haiku submissions in his honor.

For a free book, I was willing to step outside my comfort zone. Characteristically, I couldn’t stop once I got going and sent in a trilogy:

Pages fall like leaves
Ninety-six years or more. They
Will outlive us all.

Type faster, Sir Pat.
I must find out if you reached

Even seventeen
Syllables are hard to write. 
Those travel books? Whew.

It’s also characteristic that I couldn’t keep an entirely straight face about the whole thing, but the judges didn’t mind, and I triumphed over the competition. I am therefore a certified prize-winning poet. Now, my memory is hazy, and I’m not entirely certain whether the contest was decided qualitatively or via random draw, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is I got poetry in me, I do. If I can haiku, so can you. 


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

National Poetry Month Special: Does Anybody Read Poetry?

While searching for a suitable quote to put on our blackboard I came upon this comment by the poet C.D. Wright:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment.
I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too.

Sadly, the use of the pronoun “we” implies that only poets read poetry. That poets toil in a vacuum bag inhabited by the dust of poets past and exist only to be emptied into the receptacle of poets present and future.

I looked further to find the context for her remark. I assumed it was from an interview but it was actually contained in a book of essays called Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. It’s an interesting title choice for a book about the state of American poetry, first because it invokes a term of law that relates to murder (if enough cooling time elapses between the provocation and the killing then the charge may be homicide instead of manslaughter) and second because it suggests through the use of the term “vigil” that American poetry is the victim or is at least on its deathbed.

Here’s the quote in its entirety:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment. I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too. It can be allowed that an industrious quantity of contemporary American poetry is consciously written for a hermetic constituency; the bulk is written for the bourgeoisie, leaving a lean cut for labor. Only the hermetically aimed has a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching its intended ears. One proceeds from this realization. A staggering figure of vibrant, intelligent people can and do live without poetry, especially without the poetry of their time. This figure includes the unemployed, the rank and file, the union brass, banker, scientist, lawyer, doctor, architect, pilot, and priest. It also includes most academics, most of the faculty of the humanities, most allegedly literary editors and most allegedly literary critics. They do so—go forward in their lives, toward their great reward, in an engulfing absence of poetry—without being perceived or perceiving themselves as hobbled or deficient in any significant way. It is nearly true, though I am often reminded of a Tranströmer broadside I saw in a crummy office building in San Francisco:

We got dressed and showed the house
You live well the visitor said
The slum must be inside you.

If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance, and if I thought such an understanding were the basis for a lifelong inquiry, I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words…

So there it is. The idea is not that nobody reads poetry but that a whole lot of people don’t. That a broad swath of the population is “hobbled by an engulfing absence of poetry” without even realizing it—is suffering from a life-threatening “deficiency” of something it has but a mild passing awareness of. That the engulfing absence of poetry could be as silent a killer (metaphorically speaking) as heart disease among women. It’s not poetry that’s the victim—it’s the poetry-less. It’s just the sort of sweeping radical hyperbole that I’m attracted to, but more than that it’s a cultural diagnosis and a call for a cure. If it sounds like a quack diagnosis by a literary charlatan trying to pass poetry off as a miracle potion, the respected physician (and poet) William Carlos Williams made a similar and more dire pronouncement when he wrote:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

Whether or not declaring a “National Poetry Month” comes anywhere near to addressing (dare I call it) Poetry Deficit Disorder or anywhere close to redressing the hobbled and culturally deficient “slum” we may or may not inhabit is up for debate. Detractors, many of them poets, claim that proclaiming a National Poetry Month perpetuates the perceived irrelevance of poetry by stamping its foot and insisting on its relevance and that publishers and institutions use the month to spotlight and traffic in mainstream poetry—to promote and push “accessible” poetry while effectively burying “inaccessible” poetry.

I can sort of see their point but after all is said and done I like the idea of National Poetry Month. The cure for poetrylessness may begin with the awareness of poetry but it might also require an exposure to a less threatening strain—like a vaccine. Do you suppose there are any ribbon colors that are not yet spoken for?


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

I Was a Magnetic Poet

I memorized my first poem when I was ten and obsessed with horses. The poem was called The Untamed Spirit by an unknown author and appeared on my horse calendar. Here it is, directly from my memory:

His stance is proud, his heart is pure, his loyalty unbound
And when he runs, his hoof beats echo thunder’s noble sound.
His swiftness challenges the wind, in untamed majesty.
His spirit ever riderless. His soul forever free.

Much as I loved that poem, I forgot about poetry as a teenager, mostly. Here and there, I’d see a poem I’d like hung on a wall or in a greeting card, enjoy it, and move on. I didn’t think about reading poetry. I just liked the idea of poetry. It had an aura of romance. So I imagined myself a poetry fan, although the truth was I didn’t even know who Sylvia Plath was until I was in my twenties.

The turning point was a gift, and I don’t even remember who gave it to me. A box of magnetic poetry took up residence on the fridge of my first apartment. Suddenly evenings dissolved into a meditation in the kitchen, staring at the refrigerator and looking for the right phrase to follow “Whispering summer sky, you move me.”

All of a sudden I was thinking about poetry every time I scrounged for a snack. My friends would come over and do magnetic poetry with me. It became an obsession. If you want to get someone (a teenager, perhaps?) interested in poetry, trust me, this is the way.

The Norton Anthology of PoetrySoon after, I walked into a college lecture hall for a class titled Poetry and Poetics. The instructor was the renowned Irish poet Eavan Boland, author of ten volumes of poetry and a beloved professor. She guided us through the most magnificent poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry in one short semester. We read everything from Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, to Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck, to Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. There was Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and John Donne. And then there was me, scribbling endless notes in the margin and focusing all my mental energy on figuring out the meaning of each brief and powerful line. I had never thought so hard about such few words.

Reading poetry is not like reading a good novel or a piece of narrative nonfiction. It makes you do the work, the complete opposite experience of having a writer lay everything out for you just like a good waiter at a restaurant. If you want to fully appreciate a poem, you’ll have to catch the fish, skin it, cook and season it, serve the meal, prepare the salad and dessert, and do the dishes. The moral, of course, is that often times the more work you put into something the more you enjoy it in the end.

To finish this ramble, I’ll keep my magnetic poetry masterpieces to myself, and instead offer you one of my favorite poems that seems relevant this time of year:

The Trees by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Happy National Poetry Month!


National Poetry Month Special: Roger’s Roots

Roger's dadPerhaps unexpectedly, poetry has been a pillar of my life. Perhaps even more unexpectedly I trace it back to my father.

My dad (who would be ninety-five if he were alive) was a good man and a caring father, but there was nothing touchy-feely or poetic about him. He was a wrestler in college, and he emerged with a pug nose and a slightly cauliflower ear, and a short, stout, strong body. He had hard hands, loved chopping wood and working outside. He loved his tools and knew how to fix everything. He made me my first skis. He took us hiking, canoeing, and sailing. He was a cheap, tough, self-sufficient man who never whined or talked much about his feelings even through his long final bout of cancer. He was also quite deaf for most of his life so usually conversations were a bit hit and miss and sometimes he just found it easier to go sand the bottom of his boat or fix a chair than follow all the teenage chatter.

Roger and his dadThat’s why it was always so strange when standing around a burning brush pile in the snow he would suddenly spout out something from Sir Walter Raleigh, or Longfellow, or Shakespeare. Some teacher must have gotten to him in elementary school and somehow planted poems in the deep recesses of his mind. They would spill out like pennies and quarters and we kids would stand as stunned as if my dad had actually dropped money on the ground. He’d smile, a little proud, a little embarrassed and then go on as if nothing had happened.

The poetry that we all participated in growing up happened at Christmas. Mostly because we were cheap (but also a little twisted), gifts were not the central focus of Christmas for us. Christmas was about “sentiments.” These were long, ridiculous, witty, cutting, pieces of doggerel that were written on yellow legal pads and taped to presents that were meant to somehow convey what you thought of your siblings’ and parents’ evolving personalities over the past year. These were performance pieces, and the more tortured the rhyme the better you stood in this early family rendition of the poetry slam.

Roger: the young poetWhen I went off to college I had taken on poetry in the serious way that only a college student can. I sat in coffee shops with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, minored in writing poetry, had classes with famous poets. I sat in their living rooms discussing the finer points, published in literary reviews, and wore shabby clothes.

By graduate school I burned outtoo much focus on myself, too much pressure to publish, even for a dreamy youth in the hippie days. For the next fifteen years I focused on working as a teacher, and poetry mostly hibernated…like a sport you once were good at in high school. Warm memories, but I wasn’t going back.

When I came to Island Books, something stirred when I was shelving in the poetry section, handling the old familiar volumes. I began to think I wanted poetry back in my life. So one day I came up with the idea of a Poetry Potluck. This would be a monthly gathering of enthusiasts who would each bring three poems by poets they liked to an evening meeting with plenty of wine and cheese. As with a potluck, all poems would be received with gratitude and appreciation and shared with whomever showed up that night.

Poetry Potluck

I asked a few likely prospects to come, and almost twenty years later we are still meeting. It turned out to be an extraordinary group of poets, characters, readers, and friends. One woman now in her nineties helped found Hugo House, studied with Roethke, and knew or heard just about every important poet in the Northwest in the last fifty years. Another woman reads us poems in Chinese, old Italian, Polish (you should hear her Symborska!) and it seems any other language that comes along. An old gent quotes from ee cummings lectures he went to in the forties, and shows up with a poem from an old New Yorker magazine (ca. 1962) that was “just lying around the house.” There’s a psychiatrist who makes us cry with the sensual, intimate poems he brings, and then there’s the Ogden Nash fans who recite until we roar with laughter. A few of us bring old casseroles (Frost, Dickinson, Blake, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) and others bring the latest poems from far and wide. There is no judging here. Just wine, talk of family and friends, poems, and sharing. Almost twenty years of sharing.

This group is quite a private group at this point but if I could speak for them, I feel sure they would suggest that the most important thing about poetry is not to get it right. It’s to look for it, give it air, and spread it around. Generously.


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

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