I began to write poems with some seriousness in my teens. During that time, I consumed as much poetry as I could get my hands on, devouring books like a beast impossible to satiate.
My high school English teachers, Richard Taddeo and Jack Langerak, fed that beast too. They paid attention to what I was reading, asked me questions, and suggested other books and poets in a kind of personal curation that predated Amazon’s algorithm by almost 30 years. (Taddeo also published my first poem to appear in print, a short couplet of little note, in the school literary magazine.)
It was Taddeo who gave me Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves, shortly after it came out in 1978. Hall’s poems in that book spoke to me. As a native New Englander, the landscape was familiar – Hall’s hardscrabble New Hampshire a good match to Frost’s flinty Vermont, where I’d summered as a child.
Donald Hall’s example in Kicking the Leaves – and hearing Elizabeth Bishop read her work later that fall — showed me a different path: I wanted to become a poet. A decade later, after I met Hall at one of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties at the latter’s Sutton Place apartment, we began a correspondence.
I sent him poems. He wrote back, postcards mostly, which I knew from one of his essays were recorded by Dictaphone while watching Red Sox games from his blue chair in the same farmhouse described in Kicking the Leaves. He hated everything I sent him and told me so. This was good. Tough love was just what I needed. He helped me improve, revise, and be hard on my own work.
In the late 90s I gave a craft talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of their Writing Rendezvous conference. In the lecture, which I called “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” I examined many drafts of Hall’s poem “Ox Cart Man,” including the version that appears in Kicking the Leaves, and my own “Black Angus, Winter,” which was part of a group of poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997. You can read it here.
Hall’s book – his 7th book of poems — came out when he was about to turn 50. My book, Fallow Field, came out as I turned 50, and includes “Black Angus, Winter” and several poems that Hall hated in earlier versions, all of which were improved by his terse, meaningful criticism.
You can find Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man” here (permission restrictions prevent me from publishing the poem in its entirety and an excerpt won’t do it justice) or better yet, buy his Selected Poems. And here is a recording of Donald Hall reading “Ox Cart Man.”
For several years our friend, the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming, told us about Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Alison is a long-time summer resident on Grand Manan.
We finally made it up there last summer – and were we glad we did.
To say the island is a special place is a bit of a cliché and certainly doesn’t do the island justice. But then, when is a cliché not mostly true?
Remote and fairly difficult to get to from New York – you drive to the edge of Maine and keep going — Grand Manan sits on the western end of the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and was formed by colliding plates. You can see the fault line where Triassic and Cambrian rock meets.
Here time is marked by arriving and departing ferries, dramatic in-coming and out-going tides, and when the herring is running. The landscape is rugged basalt and a dense forest of birch and conifers, with pockets of wetlands, marshes, and rocky cliffs all formed and deformed by the sea, salt spray, and wind.
One evening before sunset, Alison took us over the top of the island to the other side, to Dark Harbour, a place that seemed somewhat stuck in time. I felt a bit like an intruder, although the place was oddly familiar as well, surrounded by encroaching darkness. There are rumors of pirates or a pirate curse in Dark Harbour.
Dark Harbour is also the dulse capital of the world. Dulse is an edible seaweed harvested by hand at low tide and dried in the sun outside during the summer months. Grand Mananers love their dulse, which seems a healthy substitute for chewing tobacco or potato chips. Dulsers are a special breed, as this video from Great Big Story attests: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/dulser-dark-harbor
Several poems in Alison’s new book of poems, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, feature the people and landscape of Grand Manan. There are echoes in these poems of another Canadian Maritime setting by another poet from New England with Maritime ties, something about the cold and crystal clear water, a quiet observation and an older way of life, the dark forest and the sea.
We’re going back this summer.
Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Dark Harbour”:
Dulse camps teeter on cobbled basalt
where storms have heaped a seawall
topped with tumult of silvered
wharf timbers and weir stakes
enough driftwood scrap to salvage for a shack
paint the battered door dusty blue.
A rusty slatted bed kerosene pooled
in a glass-chimney lamp waiting for a match
dirty teapot on the camp stove
it’s home for a night or two
when tides are right for gathering.
Stone slips wait gray and smooth from wear
where yellow dories are winched and
skidded to motor offshore headed
for the dulsing ground. A man
who works the intertidal shore
says I can smell the tide coming in.
I raise my face to the wind to try to catch
what he knows. Cold and crystal clear
the water laps the rocks and rattles them
as it recedes. The man pulls fistful
of purple weed off tide-bare rocks
a gentle rip sounding with each pull
the ribbons gathered in his basket
dark as iodine deep as hay scythed
and piled in ricks harvest picked by hand
gathered from the transmutation of light
that sways at high tide like hair in the wind
and lies still for combing when the tide recedes
cropland where sea and rock do the tillage.
–Alison Hawthorne Deming
c) 2016 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Used by permission of the author.
Poets who can say much with few words are rare. Writing is hard; concision even harder. When these poets are funny, touching, sad, and poignant all in very few lines, the reader marvels. Catherine Ayres is such a poet.
I met Catherine Ayres through Jo Bell’s “52” poetry group three years ago. 52 was a private group of poets Jo organized from England, but which soon expanded around the globe.
Each week, Jo fed us a poetry prompt and some of us who were insane enough to take up her suggestion and write a poem each week for the entire year. Then we shared our poem with the group and received comments and criticism, parsing and praise.
Some of us stuck with 52 the entire year. Some became and remained friends on Facebook after the year ended. We watched as poem after poem by our 52 mates got published, won awards, and became a part of collections.
One such poem was Catherine Ayres’s “Silence,” which like many of the poems in what became her first collection, Amazon, deals with illness and survival, the body and our perception of our own bodies head-on and with unflinching wisdom, humor, and pathos.
Catherine’s poems impressed me each week. There was something timeless and yet timely about her poems, with their heady mix of myth and “medicalia,” to coin a phrase, Her poems were the real deal. When I heard she was publishing her first book, I ordered it straightaway from the small UK-based publisher, Indigo Dreams. I was not disappointed.
Catherine Ayres is a teacher from Northumberland – Basil Bunting territory – her poem, “Silence,” won the Elbow Room Prize in 2016. Here is Catherine Ayres’s “Silence”:
The last man to touch my breast held a knife.
My lover said nothing;
his eyes told me to wear a vest
Sometimes I spread my hand over the scar
to feel its cage
How does a woman speak
with a closed mouth on her chest?
She unpicks in silence
until the rain comes
like burst stitches on the glass
– Catherine Ayres
Used by permission of the author. You can order Catherine Ayres’s Amazon (and you should) directly from the publisher http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/catherine-ayres/4593286356