NPM Curated Poem 6: Barbara Hamby’s “Ode on Dictionaries”

A vastly underrated poet, in my mind, Barbara Hamby has been writing and publishing linguistically and intellectually dexterous poetry since her 1995 debut, Delirium.  That book won the Vassar Miller prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award, and yes, I’m still telling you she’s underrated.  To me, that’s how good she is, and that’s how influential she’s been on my work–she’s one of my idols.  Here’s a poem that showcases her thinking and her voice (I once again took the text from


Ode on Dictionaries

By Barbara Hamby

A-bomb is how it begins with a big bang on page
        one, a calculator of sorts whose centrifuge
begets bedouin, bamboozle, breakdance, and berserk,
        one of my mother’s favorite words, hard knock
clerk of clichés that she is, at the moment going ape
        the current rave in the fundamentalist landscape
disguised as her brain, a rococo lexicon
        of Deuteronomy, Job, gossip, spritz, and neocon
ephemera all wrapped up in a pop burrito
        of movie star shenanigans, like a stray Cheeto
found in your pocket the day after you finish the bag,
        tastier than any oyster and champagne fueled fugue
gastronomique you have been pursuing in France
        for the past four months. This 82-year-old’s rants
have taken their place with the dictionary I bought
        in the fourth grade, with so many gorgeous words I thought
I’d never plumb its depths. Right the first time, little girl,
        yet here I am still at it, trolling for pearls,
Japanese words vying with Bantu in a goulash
        I eat daily, sometimes gagging, sometimes with relish,
kleptomaniac in the candy store of language,
        slipping words in my pockets like a non-smudge
lipstick that smears with the first kiss. I’m the demented
        lady with sixteen cats. Sure, the house stinks, but those damned
mice have skedaddled, though I kind of miss them, their cute
        little faces, the whiskers, those adorable gray suits.
No, all beasts are welcome in my menagerie, ark
        of inconsolable barks and meows, sharp-toothed shark,
OED of the deep ocean, sweet compendium
        of candy bars—Butterfingers, Mounds, and M&Ms—
packed next to the tripe and gizzards, trim and tackle
        of butchers and bakers, the painter’s brush and spackle,
quarks and black holes of physicists’ theory. I’m building
        my own book as a mason makes a wall or a gelding
runs round the track—brick by brick, step by step, word by word,
        jonquil by gerrymander, syllabub by greensward,
swordplay by snapdragon, a never-ending parade
       with clowns and funambulists in my own mouth, homemade
treasure chest of tongue and teeth, the brain’s roustabout, rough
        unfurler of tents and trapezes, off-the-cuff
unruly troublemaker in the high church museum
        of the world. O mouth—boondoggle, auditorium,
viper, gulag, gumbo pot on a steamy August
        afternoon—what have you not given me? How I must
wear on you, my Samuel Johnson in a frock coat,
        lexicographer of silly thoughts, billy goat,
X-rated pornographic smut factory, scarfer
        of snacks, prissy smirker, late-night barfly,
you are the megaphone by which I bewitch the world
        or don’t as the case may be. O chittering squirrel,
ziplock sandwich bag, sound off, shut up, gather your words
        into bouquets, folios, flocks of black and flaming birds.


I first encountered this poem in Hamby’s great selected poems, On the Street of Divine Love (Pittsburgh, 2014), though it’s in her earlier All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), which I hadn’t gotten around to reading (I’m blaming grad school, my second round).  Hamby uses two established poetic forms here, the ode and the abecedarian.  An ode is “a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present,” to quote the Academy of American Poets website, and it’s often associated with praise of that event, person, or thing.  An abecedarian is a poem whose parts (lines or stanzas) are in alphabetical order.  In this case, it’s a clever choice, because that’s how the dictionary is ordered, too, and the beginning of this poem explicitly calls up the beginning of the dictionary.  I’m also in love with phrases like “rococo lexicon,” which both explains the diversity of her mother’s vocabulary and continues the great prosody here with the consonance of the repeated “co” sound.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write an abecedarian.  Start your first line with A, the next with b, and so on.  I take Hamby’s lines to be so long that they spilled over to the next one, but these could also be separate lines, every other line indented, so that just the left-justified lines are in alphabetical order.  This poem isn’t Hamby’s first experiment in the abecedarian form, either; if you enjoy this poem and exercise, check out her 1999 book The Alphabet of Desire.

NPM Curated Poem 5: Gary Dop’s “Father, Child, Water”

My husband complains sometimes that I don’t read enough male poets.  I figure, everyone else is reading them, so why do they need me?  But I have been trying to diversify my reading list recently, and a good poet who just happens to be male is Gary Dop, so today’s poem is his “Father, Child, Water,” the title poem from his 2015 collection from Red Hen.  I got this poem from

Father, Child, Water

By Gary Dop

I lift your body to the boat
before you drown or choke or slip too far
beneath.  I didn’t think—just jumped, just did
what I did like the physics
that flung you in.  My hands clutch under
year-old arms, between your life
jacket and your bobbing frame, pushing you,
like a fountain cherub, up and out.
I’m fooled by the warmth pulsing from
the gash on my thigh, sliced wide and clean
by an errant screw on the stern.
No pain.  My legs kick out blood below.
My arms strain
against our deaths to hold you up
as I lift you, crying, reaching, to the boat.


I enjoy that this poem begins in media res, as any good epic would, and I love the prosodic elements throughout.  What I mean by “prosody” is how the language sounds when you hear it read aloud, whether actually out loud or in the voice you hear in your head when you read it to yourself.  It’s the artful use of sound and rhythm in the lines.

Here, I’m particularly drawn to the alliteration that begins in the first couplet–“body,” “boat,” “before”–and continues throughout, even when the alliterated consonants start participating in consonant blends (“physics” // “flung,” “screw…stern”), so that the familiar consonant sounds are somehow both repeated (we still hear that “f”), but also changed (it’s “fl,” not “f,” now).  It’s a great figure for what happens as a parent–your child is both like you, and not like you, simultaneously.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a poem that tells a story and uses alliteration.  Don’t use too much!  It’s easy to go overboard (I didn’t originally intend that to be a pun, but whatever).

NPM Curated Poem 4: Natalie Diaz’s “My Brother at 3am”

Today’s poem is a pantoum by Natalie Diaz, who was once a professional basketball player in Europe and a successful NCAA basketball player in her college days.  She’s a great poet, obviously, too.

A pantoum is a Malayan form that’s been brought into French and English—you’ll see the form emerge as you read the poem, which I got from


My Brother at 3 A.M.

By Natalie Diaz

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps

when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.

        O God, he said. O God.

                He wants to kill me, Mom.


When Mom unlocked and opened the front door

at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.

        He wants to kill me, he told her,

                looking over his shoulder.


3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,

What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?

        He looked over his shoulder.

                The devil does. Look at him, over there.


She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.

        The devil, look at him, over there.

                He pointed to the corner house.


The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

        My brother pointed to the corner house.

                His lips flickered with sores.


Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.

        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.

                It’s sticking out from behind the house.


O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.

        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.

                O God, O God, she said.


I love the personification in “[s]tars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives,” which lends them a danger that underscores what her brother has been going through in the middle of the night as he battles his addiction and the attendant hallucinations.  I also love the apposition in “Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother,” meaning that she both sees the brother for what he really is—that is, recognizes his addiction and its severity—and also as the “hellish vision” himself.  I also love that the brother’s “O God” becomes the mother’s “O God,” a movement made possible by the pantoum form.  It’s a great way to create content using form.

This poem is from Diaz’s great debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012), a favorite of my students for many good reasons (humor, “accessibility,” relatability, lyricism–I could go on).

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a pantoum.  You can find the instructions here.  Take the second and fourth lines of your first stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the second stanza.  Then, take the second and fourth lines of that stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the third stanza, and so on.  The repetitions should allow for variation of meaning as they appear in new contexts, as Diaz’s “O God” shifts from the brother’s to the mother’s mouth in the moment of the mother’s recognition of the brother’s situation.

NPM Curated Poem 3: “ANWR,” by Sherwin Bitsui

When people ask me which contemporary poets I’m most excited about, my first answer is usually Sherwin Bitsui, a Diné poet from Arizona.  His images are surreal and lyrical, which I usually respond to in poetry (see my post on Carrie Bennett), and today’s poem gives the lie to the argument that political poetry and lyrical poetry are mutually exclusive (poem from


By Sherwin Bitsui


When we are out of gas,

a headache haloes the roof,

darkening the skin of everyone who has a full tank.


I was told that the nectar of shoelaces,

if squeezed hard enough,

turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.


A glacier nibbled from its center

spiders a story of the Southern Cross,

twin brothers

dancing in the back room lit with cigarettes

break through the drum’s soft skin—

There bone faces atlas

            a grieving century.



Here, I respond to “spider” and “atlas” being used as verbs—the glacier, “nibbled” so it might look diffuse as a spider’s legs, tells “a story,” and on “the drum’s soft skin,” “bone faces” provide a map to “a grieving century,” which I take to mean the century of unprecedented industrial growth that asked for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to be drilled for oil—the twentieth (this poem was published in Bitsui’s book Shapeshift, which appeared in 2003).


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a political poem, but, in the tradition of Bitsui’s “ANWR,” don’t tell your audience what to think about the issue—don’t write your politics in a didactic way.  Instead, approach the political subject from a lyrical place—the kind of place that would provide what I take to be a mocking image for recycling, the “nectar of shoelaces” that “turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.”  And you could do a lot worse than buying Bitsui’s other collection, too—Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).


NPM Curated Poem 2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

If you’re a poet, or a close friend of mine, or a student or former student, you’re probably unimpressed by my inclusion of the quintessential “poet’s poet” and Duffey personal icon Elizabeth Bishop.  But her poem “One Art” is really, truly, one of the best poems ever written in the English language.  Here’s the text, which I took from

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop, 19111979

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I love the way the severity of the losses increases as the poem goes on, and, of course, that wonderful interjection, “Write it!”  The poet could be forcing herself to admit that the loss does indeed “look like…disaster,” but also continues the denial, forces herself to WRITE the denial, that it is “like disaster,” not actually a disaster.  The repetition of “like” mimics the speaker’s thought process in that she might have forgotten her construction after the interjection to herself, but it also reemphasizes the importance of denying that it’s a disaster by asserting it’s only LIKE one, and to be LIKE LIKE one is even one more step removed.  The loss of the “you,” however, inches closer to disaster with every beat.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  This poem is a villanelle, a poetic form derived from Italian and Spanish Renaissance dance-songs and fixed as we know it in the nineteenth century (  A villanelle consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza) in which the first and third lines alternate as the last line of each tercet until they finally appear as the final two lines of the poem.  The middle lines of the tercets must rhyme with each other and with the second line of the quatrain, and first lines of the tercets and quatrain must rhyme with the repeated lines.  Clearer directions can be found at

Write a villanelle!  Good luck.  I’ve never done it.  We’ll see if I can today!

National Poetry Month: 20 Days of Curated Poems

Last year, I tried (unsuccessfully) to write a review a day for National Poetry Month.  That same month, I shared several poems I loved, and many of my non-poet friends and family were much more interested in “being told what poems to read,” in the words of my brother-in-law, than they were in reading reviews of whole poetry books that they didn’t plan to ever buy.  Thus, my goal for this year is to tell you what poems to read (though I hope kindly!), talk a little bit about why I enjoyed each poem, and include a short writing assignment based on the poem.  I’m hoping to get you to then buy these books, particularly those of contemporary writers who are still alive to appreciate the sales, but I realize we don’t all have the money to do that, and I’d definitely rather you read my poems for free than that you didn’t read them because you couldn’t buy them. I assume other writers often feel the same.  I’m going to try to write a blog post every work day of April–thus, 20 curated poems.

The last book of poetry I read is Carrie Bennett’s The Land Is a Painted Thing (The Word Works, 2016), and it’s INCREDIBLE.  The images are surreal and lyrical, and many of my favorites appeared in this poem originally published in the magazine The Destroyer:




I love “[d]ear little song under my wrist”–to me, it’s a perfect kenning for the pulse.  I also love “I tell myself my hands are peppermint leaves I stuff in my mouth,” both for the olfactory and gustatory resonances of peppermint and the emotional implications of the speaker stuffing its/his/her hands in its/his/her mouth.  And, of course, “the pulse [the speaker] was looking for” is “there,” as “[t]he lost throb has fallen from [its/his/her] throat.”  What a surprising verb, to fall, to use for the pulse in the throat, but it feels appropriate to the motion of the pulse, or even to its ceasing.  The assonance of “lost throb” pulses appropriately, too.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Pick a bodily process, such as the pulse, or the breath, or hearing, or anything your body does repeatedly, and write a kenning for it.  A kenning is a poetic circumlocution–a way of naming a process that talks around it, doesn’t name it directly, but does so in a poetic way (  I will admit that they’re usually two-word phrases, often compound words made with hyphens, and this phrase from Bennett’s poem is much longer–if you know of a more appropriate poetic term to use to talk about that sentence, let me know.

Then, write a poem that includes your circumlocution.

Available for preorder: My debut poetry collection, I Might Be Mistaken!

I’m very excited to announce that my debut book of poems, I Might Be Mistaken, will be published in early August!


Jacqueline Osherow called it “…original, witty, charming, honest, affecting, profound.”  Michael Dumanis says, “These poems are as sly and funny as they are arresting, unnerving, and sharp.”

You can now PREORDER my book directly from me!  Ordering directly from me entitles you to SPECIAL BENEFITS–your book will be $2 OFF THE COVER PRICE and SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR (that’s me!).  You can order through PayPal for $16, plus $2.50 shipping & handling and 6% sales tax.

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Economies of Scale: Jeanne Emmons’s The Glove of the World

Jeanne Emmons’s The Glove of the World is a persistent and varied immersion in the natural world–Emmons’s poetry has a deep commitment to ecology on every scale, from internal organs (“It is the moil of the fisting muscle knuckling / and squeezing over and over the blood’s milk,” from “Blood Pressure”) to our earth seen from space (“The great, warm animal of the planet is raked by horizontals, / stroked from side to side by the neap and flood of tides,” from “Texas Coast Beneath Crescent Moon”).  Often, these differences in scale serve as metaphors for each other–that earth is a “great, warm animal” whose pelt the tides “stroke,” and the movement of blood through the body in “Blood Pressure” is “a verve, a wild garden.”  The first poem in the collection, “Mollusks,” compares the speaker’s way of thinking about the world to the way a mollusk takes in water:

Is this only how I dig in and wait,

clamped inside myself, taking in the view

through the narrow flume of my knowing?

It’s a great question, and it showcases Emmons’s method of uniting the various scales of the natural world through metaphor, but I’m not sure that’s what this poet does–I have a hard time describing this sensibility as a “narrow flume of […] knowing.”  Rather, the image at the very end of the book, in “The Web at the Center of Light,” more accurately metaphorizes this kind of poetic consciousness:

But what is too small or formless to be loved


slips even now between these words,

syllables, sounds, synapses, and is not grasped

but pours transparent as water

through the bright open spaces

of the web at the center of light.

Thus, the poet claims what is too “formless to be loved,” but also what has form–the “words,” the “web at the center.”  Whatever she doesn’t capture in the poems themselves has still “slip[ped] in.”  That list–“syllables, sounds, synapses”–in its parallel structure and alliteration equates parts of words to waves in the air more generally to parts of our brains.  Everything is united with everything else through metaphor, and the rest comes along “through the bright open spaces,” so that the poem, Whitman-like, contains everything.

Your assignment:  Write a poem that includes imagery from the natural world.  Choose at least one small thing (something on a small scale–a part of the body, or a small bird, or a small plant, or a bone, or a piece of a bone) and one large thing (on a cosmic scale–a star, a planet, a series of oceans).  Create a surprising metaphor, simile, or metonymy uniting the two scales, and include it in your poem.

What Made Me Use My QR Code Reader App for Only the Second Time Ever?: Collier Nogues’s The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground

One of my dearest friends is an engineer, and about eight years ago he told me about QR codes, and he said, “These are going to be great for poetry.”  I must admit that I had only the vaguest inkling what he might mean, and that inkling didn’t really develop into anything concrete for me until I read Collier Nogues’s very exciting book of erasure poems, The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground (Drunken Boat, 2015).

Nogues erases historical documents about the Pacific War and Okinawa in particular.  Each poem bears a QR code, which, when scanned, takes a reader to an online, interactive version of the poem (which you can also access at  If the reader scrolls her mouse over, or drags her finger across, a line that Nogues erased, that line reappears for the reader, so the erasure poem and its source text can both contribute to the reader’s experience of the poem.

When I write erasure poems, I worry about lineation–do I retain the spacing on the page, whiting out the words I want to erase, a la Mary Ruefle?  Or do I re-lineate as I go?  The beauty (or one of the beauties) of Nogues’s method is that the reader gets both–on the paper-and-ink page, Nogues has relineated the text, but the digital version retains the original spacing so the reader can encounter the original text, and the erasure, in situ.

For example, page six of the digital version of “Editor’s Introduction” consists of only two lines:  “There is no record / of”.  That placement on the page mimics its content–there is literally no record of whatever we’re talking about.  In the paper-and-ink book, the hard copy, the lineation is:

There is no record of the difference we


copyists and clerks, minor employees. (lines 11-13)

Because we’re told what there is no record of, it’s a bit more specific and determined, and while we lose that sense of having literally no record, we gain a sense that we’re going to discuss the “copyists” and “clerks” as they relate to texts and textmaking, a discussion that’s crucial in an erasure project that makes poetic texts in a way that questions our traditional, Romantic ideas of authorship that say a poet’s diction must come from inspiration, or the Muse, or the poet’s emotion recollected in tranquility.  Erasure poems make us confront the philosophy that authorship is a consciousness encountering an already-made world–erasure poems are poems because of the author’s curating of the words we see.  This curator does a particularly thought-provoking job because the digital and paper-and-ink texts create slightly different poems that push against the source material and begin to ask to what extent a poet is a “copyist and clerk” after all.

As “Editor’s Introduction” develops, the erasures begin to be about the process of erasure itself, and about erasure’s status to the documents it erases, and, by extension, to the power structures that created and depend on those documents.  Erasure poetry becomes a kind of subversion of the dominant discourse of empire:


reproducing Empire

in writing

felt like this:

I contained a universe

a pure part of heaven. (31-36)

Please excuse my spacing–there are spaces and alignments that aren’t well-represented here.

On the hard-copy page, those lines are the kind of playful, honest self-reflection that discusses the poem’s own methods openly and thereby attracts readers by transcending the constraints that enabled the poem–it theorizes the process of erasure even as it creates beautiful poetry through erasure.  However, on the digital version, the typography of what happens after “felt like this:” must be seen to be appreciated:

The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground is artistic, creative, experimental, and politically important–the kind of book people will continue to use to discuss erasure poems and the power of digital media to support poetic innovation.

Your assignments:

Nogues’s assignment for you is simply to write an erasure poem.  Find a document.  Erase.  Lineate the result however you wish.

I have two variations on the assignment:

Assignment Option 1:  Write an erasure poem that, like “Editor’s Introduction,” confronts something that has been erased.  Write an erasure poem about erasing, using a document you associate with power.  The history of the document erased in “Editor’s Introduction” is particularly fascinating for this exercise–that document, Robert King Hall’s introduction to Kokutai No Hongi:  Cardinal Principles of the National Entity of Japan, was an Imperial document banned in Japan by the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers after the war (layer upon layer of control exercised through document, or through erasing and suppressing documents).


Assignment Option 2:  Read Nogues’s poem “Dear Grace,” which is multiple erasures of the same document.  Find a document.  Erase the document different ways–put several of the different erasures together into one new poem.