Georgia poet David Bottoms wrote "Under the Vulture Tree" during a time of calm in his life while living in East Cobb County. The house and pond there and the life and around them, informed his work during that time.
....said William Carlos Williams, he of the wheelbarrow and chickens and plums and gulls. Objects and images of them can be incredibly evocative as writing prompts. Neruda wrote a whole collection of odes to common things. My favorites tend to be the ones written to ordinary, overlooked, or even hard to love things.
Photographs are also good sources of inspiration. I don't have a smartphone, more for frugality than any other reason. I do, though, understand the appeal of Instagram and documenting one's world visually, making a diary of the eye.
So here are some prompts around objects. After that, some images from my collection, my Slowgrams.
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Title and notes/bullet points from a presentation at a conference of mythical creatures.
An important speech. The speaker stubs their toe intensely right before.
Combine an untimely ailment or bodily function with a momentous occasion.
The architectural firm that designs snowflakes has closed.
You wake up in a painting.
Do you have a landscape/place that can be summoned with a sound or scent? Write us there.
Write about your most worn pair of shoes.
At the end of Naomi Shabib Nye’s “The Only Word a Tree Knows” she says “I was born to answer a tree?” What about you? Answer it.
Take the books by your bed or where you read. Pick, at random, a line from each. Use these to jump-start a poem.
A lock of hair. Is it a trophy? A curse? A love spell? Whose?
Job interview, something embarrassing falls out of your purse/bag/pocket.
Your loved one leaves you something to remember them by but it is not at all charming, or sweet, or sentimental.
The possession you'd protect from a house fire that would be hard for others to value.
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So Bowie's left Earth. Briefly put, he was an artist who was a constant part of my growing up. I think I saw him first as an actor. He was playing the Elephant Man and it must have been shown on PBS. I have never been able to find it since, unfortunately. He was riveting. For much of the play he wore a diaper-like thing and twisted himself into Merrick's character. That's it. No makeup or prosthetics, just his contorted almost-naked body and a voice that sounded like it was pushed through a great deal of flesh.
As an oldest child with little access to college radio or record stores, it was probably not until the "Young Americans" album came out that I heard him again. Once we got the satellite dish and MTV, everything changes. I found Bowie and Grace Jones and the Eurythmics and Kate Bush...all the wondrous, freaky sounds and images I craved. There are so many of his songs and videos to love, but I have a special feeling about "Heroes," specifically his performance during Live Aid. The powder blue suit, the GIRL saxophonist, the mass of people screaming in joy!! (I also remember Mama talking about what pretty hair he had.)
I was 16 on that day and earlier in the summer I had traveled to France, at (unappreciated at the time) expense to my family. For almost two weeks, I saw castles and Parisian streets. I stood in front of Van Gogh paintings trying not to cry. I came back home and worked in the same tomato fields as always, dizzy from heat and culture shock. My teenage brain veered between grandiosity and self-loathing, hope and fear. The world was so big and so beautiful and so troubled. Was this the beginning of the world or the end? Bowie always chose the wise path - not choosing an answer, kissing under gunfire, looking death in the eye, living til the end and then....somehow, impossibly, beyond. Matt posted the Lazarus video the day Bowie died with the statement: "today's lesson: Do your thing. Every day. Until you die." I can think of no better tribute.
The Main Event
I wanted to start writing some reviews of my favorite books from 2014. Here's the first installment.
Render – Collin Kelley
Sibling Rivalry Press, Alexander, Arkansas
Did you ever, early in a friendship or romance, take out a shoebox of old photographs, dump them on the floor, then commence to narrating your life using snapshots and the stories behind, or between them? That is akin to the experience of reading Collin Kelley’s book of poems Render. From the first poem, with its glimpse at an ancestor’s face blacked out, perhaps “the ruin of the family”, the reader is invited into the poet’s life story. In this case the deletions tell as much as the details.
The images that follow will be familiar to any child of the ‘70s; the Bicentennial, Wonder Woman, feathered hair, the Magic 8 Ball. Each pop culture artifact pointing, with archeological specificity, to a particular where and when. But a child of any time will recognize the themes of adolescent longing and loss, the caste system of high school, a family in decline, and the hunger for love.
Kelley artfully builds tension both within the individual poems and throughout the arc of the collection. In “After Adultery” the Mother in the poems “marches down the long driveway, / kicks up dust like the Tasmanian Devil” but instead of cartoon havoc, leaves a “crazed shadow.” While the mother succumbs to paranoia and illness, female nurturance and inspiration are found in Farrah’s hair and Pam Grier’s strength.
The objects of affection or lust, the “you” or “he” of many of the poems receive some of the most poignant lines in the book.
“I become device and vessel….
…would lie to your face
if I ever saw it….
Like those long, sleepover conversations, the stories come. The secrets, the heartbreaks, all of it surrounding each brightly colored or washed out paper image. Render is a raw and beautiful delineation of one poet’s growing up.
Render has received the following acclaim:
*Selected for American Library Association's 2014 Over the Rainbow List
*2013 Best Book of the Year selection by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Split This Rock, The Scrapper Poet and Rattle Readers' Favorites.
This was the homecoming reading at Athens Word of Mouth. My third feature at what I think of as my home church. My heart.
Oh, my accent is something else on this. I hope it's not too chewy to hear around properly. Thanks for putting in the effort if you do. Hope you enjoy it. There's drought sex, Big Bird, Popeye, a talking skull, traded cigarettes, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Eve talking to Cain, a Neverplace, vinyl, a S'Ain't, and a good night from a 3-year-old.
Athens Word of Mouth - Sept. 3, 2014
It is nearing the year mark since the release of Dissecting the Angel. In that time, I've have the great pleasure of reading to folks in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Warren, Arkansas, and a handful of places in north Georgia. There are still some dream dates on my "Slowest Book Tour" bucket list...Austin, TX, Asheville, NC, New Orleans... Maybe for another time, another book.
In the meantime, I get to do a sort of homecoming. Next month on September 3rd, I'll be the featured reader for Athens Word of Mouth. If you are within driving range on any first Wednesday of the month, you should come. Handsome Director calls it a "mix tape of humanity," which is an apt description. Each poem is like a piece of glass in a stained glass window, each a bright small prism into human experience. Individually, beautiful, but taken as a whole, another thing entirely. Themes emerge and thread through the evening. Come play your listening ears with us some night.
There are still some seats available in "The Made Thing" if you'd like to join me and some other brave souls in the class at OCAF. I think of it not as much a class as a workshop and less a workshop in the traditional literary workshop sense and more like a woodworker's shop. A wordworkers shop. Come sling some ink!
Please share with any beginner poets or those who've drifted from poetry writing practice who would like some support and structure to get back elbow-deep in crafting poems.
Day / Dates: Thursdays, September 11 through October 23, 2014 Times: 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Length of Class: 6 Sessions / 2 Hours each Session + Open Reading for final Oct 23 session
Class Fee: OCAF Members - $120.00 Non-members - $130.00
Materials List: Bring your favorite poem to the first class and writing materials / an attitude of curiosity to all classes. This class, for beginning adult writers, is aimed at providing a place to generate poems, gather poem-making tools, and learn how to sharpen one’s work.
“Poem” means, at root, “a made thing.” This class is an introduction into the practice of crafting poetry, using language and the writer’s own experiences of the world. Together we will look at examples of different ways to trigger poems then draft, edit, share and present our “made things.”
Thanks to a generous friend, all registrants will receive a signed copy of Dissecting the Angel and Other Poems.
I was fortunate to get a return engagement in the City of Brotherly Love at the Moonstone Poetry Series at Fergie's pub. It felt very similar, physically, to the Athens Word of Mouth reading at The Globe. Both pubs, both hosting their poetry mid-week in the upstairs room.
Every reading has a personality, a palpable energy. Like music, they have different volumes and tempos. There seems to be archtypal poets that show up no matter what. I'll refrain from naming them in case that seems like parody. I only mean some poets resonate like Major Arcana; they are loaded, symbolic, essential.
The folks at Fergie's listened so hard I mistook it for not-listening it was so quiet at first. But they were hard at work. Try attending, for any length of time, to another's voice and you'll know the effort it takes.
And what a treat to read alongside Grant Clauser and Sean Webb. I hope you'll seek out and support their work. Both wrote with such clarity, wit, and intelligence and covered ground from fatherhood to sobriety to tarot cards and escape artists. I am one grateful gal to have been a part.
I also got to be a bit of a tourist. My fascination with miniatures and books was sated at The Library Company with the "Small Wonders" miniature books exhibit. Some of them were barely bigger than a thumbnail and the craftsmanship was incredible!
The Library Company also had an exhibit called "That's So Gay: Outing Early America."
Between the limericks about girls in breeches and photographs of Civil War era "companions" was a lovely edition of Leaves of Grass and dear Walt's bearded, beautiful face. A trip to the Morris Arboretum completed an entirely inspiring trip. Philly, I hope to see you again soon!
There are more photos on my Facebook page (look for MichelleCastleberryWriter) if you want to see more Philly wonderment.
Back home, the name of a road that crosses a railroad track. Here, a place to keep my verbal play-pretties and whatnot.