Simple Machines is an SPD Bestseller for July–help me crack the top 10 for August!

Hi! Simple Machines is #15 on the Small Press Distribution July Poetry Bestsellers list.  Woo-hoo!  That was a secret, long-held dream of mine.  Now, help me crack the top ten for August!  There are 23 copies left over at SPD–if you haven’t already bought one, please head over to Small Press Distribution and get one!  Let me know you got one, and I’ll send you a signed bookplate or sign it in person the next time I see you.  And please share!  #SimpleMachinesSellOut


NPM Curated Poem 14: Gregory Pardlo’s “Double Dutch”

Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer last year, so it’s probably not a surprise to you that he’s a good poet to read.  I thought I’d include a poem from his earlier collection, though, to show that his musicality and wide-ranging consciousness were present in the last book, too (from


Double Dutch

The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.

It’s a beautiful image, and the sonic qualities of this poem are equal to its visual interest.  Track the letter “t” through the poem–see how many lines have at least one t.  My favorite lines are “How / the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope / slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.”  I love the consonance of “slaps” and “scoops,” and those verbs are so precise that they conjure the rope turning in air.  I love that the poet makes good on the metaphor in “contraption,” comparing the rope-jumping to the “paddle boat” wheel.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  You have a choice–either choose one moment, one scene, and depict it as beautifully and gracefully as you can.  Nothing needs to “happen” or change, necessarily–inhabit a beautiful moment with surprising description.
Choose your favorite consonant, and write a poem that includes that consonant at least once per line.

NPM Curated Poem 13: Steve Orlen’s “In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas”

The first time I ever cried in class in front of my students was the day I heard Steve Orlen had died.  Orlen had been my teacher at the University of Houston, when he was a visiting professor and I was second-semester MFA student writing absolute crap.  Until Orlen’s class.  He was such a smart reader and calm person–you felt you could write your real thing, your riskiest thing, and he’d honor it, and tell you how to make it into the poem it needed to be.  In his class, I wrote the poem that got me my first major publication, in the Indiana Review.  I still thought I needed permission to write, and he humored me and gave me that.  When I think of my favorite poems of all time, this poem of his is on the list:


In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas
By Steven Orlen

In the house of the voice of Maria Callas
We hear the baby’s cries, and the after-supper
Rattle of silverware, and three clocks ticking
To different tunes, and ripe plums
Sleeping in their chipped bowl, and traffic sounds
Dissecting the avenues outside. We hear, like water
Pouring over time itself, the pure distillate arias
Of the numerous pampered queens who have reigned,
And the working girls who have suffered
The envious knives, and the breathless brides
With their horned helmets who have fallen in love
And gone crazy or fallen in love and died
On the grand stage at their appointed moments—
Who will sing of them now? Maria Callas is dead,
Although the full lips and the slanting eyes
And flared nostrils of her voice resurrect
Dramas we are able to imagine in this parlor
On evenings like this one, adding some color,
Adding some order. Of whom it was said:
She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.


It’s a poem about imagination, so that I often can’t help but read it as a metaphor for poetry–that it’s our job as poets to try to give voice to our imaginings as well as Callas did.  And when I had Orlen as a teacher, I told him how much I love the line, “ripe plums / Sleeping in their chipped bowl,” and he said, “Thank you, thank you, that means a lot to me,” in a way that made me believe he really did take my opinion seriously, and then he asked, “What makes it a good line, do you think?”  At the time, I think I said that the verb surprised me, and so I learned you could pack a metaphor into your verb, you didn’t need to spell it out for people, but also I learned that you could use a line break to set up your surprise.  It was a lesson I should have learned in Latin–the first word and last word of the line are places of emphasis and intention, and you could leave your loaded words there.  Often, Latin sentences have the important words, the verbs, as the first or last words of the sentence.


Now when I read that line, I think it’s the rhythm, too.  Here’s how I scan it: “Ripe plums” is a spondee, “sleeping” is a trochee, “in their” is pyrrhic, and “chipped bowl” is another spondee.  All of these are considered strong feet except “in their,” and it’s the perfect softness to set up the precise sound and strength of the “chipped bowl” spondee.  The way you put your lips together for the p’s in “chipped” is broken by the pursed lips you have to make to read “bowl,” so it feels really good to read it out loud, too.


There’s a great hint of alliteration in the middle, when we get the archetypal opera plot information–“breathless brides,” “horned helmets.”  The longer narrative sentences keep going on their imagination, but also on their music.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write an elegy for an artist you love, as Orlen’s lyric is an elegy for Callas.  Inhabit that person’s art in a way that makes a statement about what work that artist did or has made possible for you.  I’m going to write “In the House of Voice of Steve Orlen,” maybe.

NPM Curated Poem 12: Susan Mitchell’s “The Bear”

One summer I found Susan Mitchell’s The Water Inside the Water (Wesleyan UP, 1983) at a small used bookstore in Sonora, California.  I took it back to my in-laws’ house and read the whole thing on their porch in one sitting, completely enraptured by her music and imagery.  Here’s one of my favorites, from


The Bear

Tonight the bear
comes to the orchard and, balancing
on her hind legs, dances under the apple trees,
hanging onto their boughs,
dragging their branches down to earth.
Look again. It is not the bear
but some afterimage of her
like the car I once saw in the driveway
after the last guest had gone.
Snow pulls the apple boughs to the ground.
Whatever moves in the orchard—
heavy, lumbering—is clear as wind.


The bear is long gone.
Drunk on apples,
she banged over the trash cans that fall night,
then skidded downstream. By now
she must be logged in for the winter.
Unless she is choosy.
I imagine her as very choosy,
sniffing at the huge logs, pawing them, trying
each one on for size,
but always coming out again.


Until tonight.
Tonight sap freezes under her skin.
Her breath leaves white apples in the air.
As she walks she dozes,
listening to the sound of axes chopping wood.
Somewhere she can never catch up to
trees are falling. Chips pile up like snow
When she does find it finally,
the log draws her in as easily as a forest,
and for a while she continues to see,
just ahead of her, the moon
trapped like a salmon in the ice.


I love the way the imagery from earlier in the poem shows up in that last stanza–I love that she becomes like a tree when “sap freezes under her skin,” and her “breath leaves white apples in the air.”  My very, very favorite part of this poem, though, is the last image, “the moon / trapped like a salmon in the ice.”  This figure mirrors why the bear has to hibernate in the first place–the imagery is so beautiful because it comes from the bear’s own point of view, the bear’s own imaginary system.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a stanza of a narrative poem–that is, write a poem that tells a story about a character, and use as much sensory imagery as you can (using all five senses).  Then, write a final stanza that takes that sensory imagery as a metaphor for the main character, or vice versa–as the bear in this poem begins by stretching to reach the apples, she ends by being compared to a tree.  Try that kind of reversal in your poem.  Alternately, you could tell the last stanza from the character’s point of view–how would the character describe this scene in a different way from how you the poet would?

NPM Curated Poem 11: Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Enter the Void””

Hi!  I’m back!  I’ve been sick.  I apologize for my absence!
I was happy to read last week that Juan Felipe Herrera will have a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’s a great poet, and I read his selected poems last summer–here’s one of my faves (from


Enter the Void


I enter the void,
it has the shape of a viola:


Israel, Jenin, West Bank, Nablus—a rubble boy
shifts his scapula as if it was his continent, underground
Gazaground, I want to say—his only bone,


the rubble boy is a girl, I think,
her hair tossed, knotted and torn under
the green shank of fibers, tubes and shells.


She digs for her rubble father, I say rubble
because it is indistinguishable from ice, fire, dust,
clay, flesh, tears, concrete, bread, lungs, pubis, god,
say rubble, say water—


the rubble girl digs for her rubble mother,
occupation—disinheritance—once again,
I had written this somewhere, in a workshop, I think,
yes, it was an afternoon of dark poets with leaves, coffee
and music in the liquor light room.


A rock, perhaps it’s a rock, juts out, two rocks
embrace each other, the shapes come to me easily,
an old poetic reflex—memoria, a nation underground,
that is it, the nation under-ground,
that is why the rocks cover it.


I forget to mention the blasts, so many things flying,
light, existence, the house in tins, a mother in rags.


It is too cold to expose her tiny legs,
the fish-shaped back—you must take these notes for me.


Before you go. See this
the pools of blood.


I ride the night, past the Yukon, past
South Laredo, past Odessa, past the Ukraine,
old Jaffa, Haifa and Istanbul, across clouds,
hesitant and porous, listen—


they are porous so we can glide
into them, this underbelly, this underground:
wound-mothers and sobbing fathers, they


leave, in their ribboned flesh, shores lisp
against nothingness, open—toward you,
they dissolve again into my shoes—


Hear the dust gong:
gendarme passports,


cloned maize men in C-130’s, with tears
bubbling on their hands, pebbles
en route—we are all en route
to the rubblelands.


I want to chant a bliss mantra—
can you hear me?


I want to call for the dragon-slayer omchild.
I am on my knees again.


On the West Bank count
the waves of skull debris—a Hebrew letter
for “love” refuses me,
an Arabic letter for “boundary”
acknowledges me.


Sit on an embankment,
a dust fleece, there is a tidal wave ahead of me.


It will never reach me. I live underground, under the Dead Sea,
under the benevolent rocks and forearms and
mortar shells and slender naked red green
torsos, black,
so much black.
En route:


this could be a train, listen:
it derails into a cloud.


I love the political consciousness of this poem, and how it refuses to not be lyrical even as its politics are completely unapologetic.  I have less and less patience for people who say that poems can’t be political and still be beautiful, because I have less and less patience for people saying that poetry can’t be X, whatever X is.  Poetry can be everything.  That’s why we love it, isn’t it?


And that’s one reason I love that Herrera takes up poetry writing as an explicit trope in this poem.  He grapples with the poetry of witness and how it skirts “expos[ure],” how it seeks “love” but is “acknowledg[ed]” by “boundar[ies].”  The poet admits that the “tidal wave…//…will never reach” him.  Whatever “this” is–the poem, the situation, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–it “could be a train.”  There’s danger–it “derails”–but it does so in a location of imagination and safety:  “a cloud.”


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write about a political conflict that’s troubling you.  Acknowledge, honestly and explicitly, your own subject position in relation to that conflict.  What are you able to say from that position, and how are you able to say it?  Write about it directly.  Try to maintain some of the prosodic elements of Herrera’s poem–the assonance of “tossed, knotted,” for example, or the alliteration of “liquor light.”  I love that line, “liquor light.”  It’s so perfect for a drowsy late afternoon of poetry, that may of may not contain literal liquor….

NPM Curated Poem 10: Dana Levin’s “Letter to GC”

So…..I lost the little steno book in which I’d written all the poets I wanted to talk about this month. I’m sure it will turn up. In the meantime, I’m posting all the poets I can remember from it, and at the top of that list is Dana Levin. I introduced her at a reading, once, because I loved her work and was lucky she was coming to my town. I believe that at that reading, in Salt Lake City in the fall of 2011, she read this poem, which I found at

Letter to GC
Dana Levin

I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Having rowed a little farther away from the cliff

Which is my kind of religion

Adrift in the darkness but readying oars

How can there be too many stars and hands, I ask you

I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me

Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech

Between the coin and the hand it crosses

Mercantilists’ and governors’ and preachers’ alike

The imagination and its products so often rebuff purpose

And some of us don’t like it, and want to make it mean

I would never shoot you, even if you were the only meat around

Anyway, I empathize with your lower division semester (which sounds
kinda Dante, to me)

Snow-bound sounds gorgeous and inconvenient

Like the idea of ending on the internal rhyme of psychics and clients

Though I too privilege the “shiny”

And of course, I want to be approved of, so much

Despite the image I’ve been savoring, the one of the self-stitching wound

Yes, I want to write that self-healing wound poem, the one with
cocoon closed up with thorns

We are getting such lovely flourishes from our poets

Fathomless opportunities for turning literacy into event

It’s the drama of feeling we find such an aesthetic problem,
these days




In his essay “A Few Don’ts,” Ezra Pound says not to “use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol” ( Which is why I love Levin’s line, “Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech,” which I take to the be the room of poetry–it needs to be more dream-like than “public speech,” but still more public than a dream.  I love the reinvention of the metaphor of poetry-as-room, which inheres in our word for a poem’s parts–stanzas, Italian for “stopping place,” or “room.”  Here, the concrete is an imagined concrete–we’re already speaking about an abstract concept, a hypothetical poem, so there’s not much of  “natural object” to take away from–and, if there were, we have a poem right here before us, conveniently, that we can draw from. And isn’t it FUN to mix the abstract with the concrete, anyway?

Of course, the parallel structure is part of what makes this line so good, that contrast of “ceiling” and “floor,” “private” and “public,” and then the pleasantly unexpected and assonant “dream” and “speech.”  That parallelism continues onto the next line, because of the repetition of “between,” but we now have a “mercantilist’s” image–the coin, perhaps the private poem-dream, and the hand that takes it in and “spends” it–perhaps the reader.  I get the sense that I’m the hand, and this poem has been placed in it, this poem that as a letter has a quality of public speech to it.  It seems to be acting the part it claims it wants to act.

And I love that last image the poet has been “savoring”–“the one of the self-stitching wound.”

She’s one of my favorite contemporary poets; her latest book is Sky Burial (Copper Canyon, 2011).  Check it out!


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Read Pounds “A Few Don’ts” (  Then, do all his don’ts.  Or, as many as you can.

Spoiler Alert:  Write a poem that:

  1. Uses superfluous words, particularly adjectives that don’t mean anything.
  2. Uses an expression such as “dim lands of peace,” that is, “adjective plural noun of abstract noun.”  Mix a concrete with an abstract.
  3. Takes a piece of prose and “chops” it into line lengths.
  4. Is “viewy” and descriptive.
  5. Borrows the language of an advertiser of new soap.
  6. Chops its stuff into separate iambs.  End-stops each line, then begins the next with “a heave.”
  7. Defines one sense in terms of another.


NPM Curated Poem 9: Dorianne Laux’s “Balance”

I’ve loved this poem since someone, I think it was Steve Orlen, told me I should read Dorianne Laux’s What We Carry (BOA, 1994).  He was right, and this is one of my favorite poems in the book (from


By Dorianne Laux

I’m remembering again, the day
we stood on the porch and you smoked
while the old man told you
about his basement full of wine,
his bad heart and the doctor’s warning,
how he held the dusty bottle out to you,
glad, he said, to give it away
to someone who appreciated
its value and spirit, the years
it took to settle into its richness
and worth. I’m watching again,
each cell alive, as you reach
for the wine, your forearm exposed
below the rolled sleeve, the fine hairs
that sweep along the muscle, glowing,
lifting a little in the afternoon breeze.
I’m memorizing the shape of the moment:
your hand and the small bones
lengthening beneath the skin
as it tightens in the gripping,
in the receiving of the gift, the exact
texture and color of your skin,
and the old man’s face, reduced
to its essence. That,
and the brief second
when both of you had a hand on the bottle—
the thing not yet given,
not yet taken, but held
between you, stoppered, full.
And my body is flooded again
with an elemental joy,
holding onto it against another day
in the unknowable future when I’m given
terrible news, some dark burden
I’ll be forced to carry. I know
this is useless, and can’t possibly work,
but I’m saving that moment, for balance.

I love the pacing of this poem, those dependent clauses one after the other, but most of all I love the turn–“holding onto it against another day / in the uknowable future when I’m given / terrible news.”  I love that idea, that a perfect memory might, even if it’s “useless,” be kept in the hope of providing a kind of mental and emotional “balance.”  Just lovely.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Isolate one perfect moment in your memory.  Tell the story of that moment, exploded into a longer narrative, rich with description.  Take as long as you possibly can to describe the scene in all its glorious detail.  Then, go somewhere else–what worries or negativities might be associated with, or brought up by, this one wonderful moment?

NPM Curated Poem 8: Melanie Jordan’s “In the Broken Zoo”

Melanie Jordan recently released her debut collection Hallelujah for the Ghosties from Sundress Publications.  I wrote a review that you can read here.  Here’s a short poem, first published in Diagram:



They kept us and now they’ve left us.
My marble eye rides blackwater;
prey I can become. Banging on the far wall.
Soon the umbrage of pit and scale, the fur,
the thumbs. The tarsiers founder on snakes
now, but until spring on air I could survive.
I ride this stale water, I am the heir of abiding:
they shook the earth, my oldest ancestors,
they rumble my cold blood still, though
egg-sucking rats and the endless winter
laid them down like logs to die.
So long as the pool was deep enough,
so long as the need was slender,
we got along. So long as
the glass was strong.

This monologue demonstrates Jordan’s lyricism, unconventional point of view, and intelligence, her scientific know-how and her poetry chops.  I’m on board as soon as I get to that second line–the alliteration of “my marble” is bookended by the internal rhyme of “my” and “eye,” and I love “blackwater” as one word–some chaos has happened, and it’s dangerous below the surface in the aftermath.  I love “the heir of abiding,” a great description of being the result of adaptions that happened longer ago than average–a species, I’m assuming of reptile, that was so well-evolved so long ago that it hasn’t changed much since.  I enjoy the delay in the syntax of “they shook the earth, my oldest ancestors,” maybe because it’s iambic pentameter, maybe because it plays on the etymology of dinosaur names like “seismosaurus.”  Her last line is great, and it demonstrates a rule of thumb I learned from Jackie Osherow–if you know you have to get away with making a big proclamation, you have to prepare for it, sonically.  Jordan does that here with “long,” “long,” “along,” leading into “So long as / the glass was strong.”  The zoo is broken, literally, but has led to an explosion of animal life that is both dangerous and thrilling.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a poem from an animal’s point of view.

NPM Curated Poem 7: francine j. harris’s “enough food and a mom”

francine j. harris is my fellow 2015 NEA Literature Fellow in poetry, and around the time that we found out the names of the other fellows, I’d read one poem of hers in Poetry magazine, “enough food and a mom.”  I can’t get the formatting to work right here, so please go to the link and read the poem there.

I love the fractured syntax of this poem, particularly the way the loaded words “dad,” “mom,” and “ghost” seem to take over and take the place of other nouns, and even other verbs:  “to keep him from going into dad” (the ghost?  or “dad” as a state of being?), “Come on now, dad.  come to ghost,” “the mom with the smell of cracked dad,” “No. says the dad:  lost in ashes,” “They ghost like the bushel of a snowflower,” “At night, I have really long dads” (“dads” instead of dreams?), “We are all sappy dad, aren’t we,” and, of course, that brilliant last line:  “I mom of you.  I mom of you a lot.”  I also love the line the title comes from:  “a good seance starts with enough food / and a mom.”  To me, this poem enacts the disjoint between the material and spiritual worlds by disjointing its language, so that the words “dad,” “mom,” and “ghost” seem to haunt the words we might expect to be in their syntactical place–in that last line, I’d expect “take care,” or “tire,” or “cut the heart out,” not “mom” of you.  But that also feels real, that “mom” is a verb very different from “mother.”


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Play with parts of speech.  Write a poem where nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns, adjectives become nouns (that’s called a “substantive”), etc.  Have that role swap become part of the story of the poem.