Aria Aber
Photograph by Nadine Aber

“Afghan-American relations are really complicated and intense,” the poet Aria Aber said in an interview with Poetry magazine’s editorial staff. “The fact that, politically, there is still so much history and still so many things that are going on that we don’t know about, just seems very fertile to me creatively.”

Born and raised in Germany to Afghan refugee parents, Aber writes in English, her third language, and her debut collection, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Award and was published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

I want to share Aber’s poem, “The Mother of All Balms,” in part because I love the play on words and sounds and slant rhymes she deploys in an otherwise somber poem, which reminds me a bit of how Elizabeth Bishop used similar strategies in a number of her poems on serious subjects.

“The Mother of All Balms” is, of course, a play on the name of the US-made weapon of mass destruction that was dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs,” and which was dropped over the Nangarhar Province of her parents’ native homeland, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

“English being my third language, I often mishear or mispronounce things,” Aber told Poetry, where the poem originally appeared. “And I am very interested in how that source of humiliation can also be a source of creativity.”

Meditating on the proximity of sound in which “bomb” and “balm” reside, Aber was reminded that in many religions and spiritual traditions “creation” and “destruction” often derive from the same source.

“But the balm is not necessarily something that creates,” says Aber. “It only restores and preserves something that is already there but broken.”

Here is Aria Aber’s “The Mother of All Balms”

Morning she comes, mother of all balms.

Only the news reporter says it wrong:

but aren’t you strung: little ping

and doesn’t memory embalm

                           your most-hurt city:

those yellow creeks                                of your rickety holm

where your mater: your salve:

left all her selves behind

so she could surrender to a lifetime

of Septembering: what she members most:

yellow grapes and celeries

and visiting her father’s glove

a balm, to be by absence so enclaved:

your mender

a follower, devoted

to what she cannot see. O air miles,

how can it be real?

How uncertain you should

be             if it existed, if there are no photos left

of her playing

on her childhood lawn—

burned are all the documents, or eaten—

this ink,

like memory,

an ancient unguent,

enshrining what cannot be held

of what went missing—the dog, her hat of hay,

one brother.                              She was in prism,

your mother says—and that’s how you will write her,

atoning her, just in fluorite a figurine caught

to fracture                                  her stolen years,

                                                        her brother,

all her once-upon-a-chimes.

Source: Poetry (September 2019)

Here is Aria Aber reading her poem, “The Mother of All Balms”

You can learn more about Aria Aber on her website: ariaaber.com.

A few years ago, a remarkable thing happened to poet Maggie Smith.

Portrait of Maggie Smith by Devon Albeit Photography
Maggie Smith (Devon Albeit Photography)

As she tells it in a note for the website Women’s Voices for Change, “I tend to labor over poems for weeks, months, even years, revising many, many times, working in different documents and comparing versions.”

This new poem, however, she wrote “in about half an hour in a Starbucks, scrawling it in green ink on a legal pad. I deleted only one word between the first draft and the second (final) draft.”

You’ve likely read this poem—the poem, “Good Bones,” went viral shortly after it was published in Waxwing in June 2016. It appeared the same week of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of MP Jo Cox in the UK, when people were struggling to make sense of what was happening in the world.

When a reader posted a screenshot of the poem on Twitter, it was soon picked up by others, retweeted and reposted, and then celebrities got hold of it and started circulating it to their large groups of followers. In short, the poem went viral.

I’m sharing “Good Bones” here in part because it has something we could all use these days: a desire to “believe in the ultimate goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children,” as a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post.

Now, I know this poem is kind of a signature poem of Ms. Smith’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” (“It’s my ‘Freebird,’” she said in an interview, referring to the ubiquitous Lynyrd Skynyrd song request.)

And she’s probably tired of it being the one Maggie Smith poem so many people know (and she has many others that are fine poems in their own right, so you should check them out: Maggie Smith).

Like “One Art,” however, there’s a reason this poem is so popular: it’s a solid poem that speaks directly to people.

“I wrote the poem in 2015,” Smith says, “and clearly I’d been thinking about what it means to raise children in fraught times: What do we tell them? What do tell ourselves? I continue to grapple with these questions, as a mother and as a poet.”

Maggie Smith is the author of a book of short inspirational prose pieces, Keep Moving (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which originated from her Twitter account @maggiesmithpoet, the eponymous Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), as well as The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005).

Here is Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.


“Good Bones” is from Good Bones, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2017 by Maggie Smith. Used with permission of the author. First published in Waxwing Magazine.

For more on National Poetry Month, go to: poets.org/national-poetry-month

I recently chatted with Andrew Coons of the Good Poetry podcast. I read from my books, Dwelling: an ecopoem and Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances, and talk about poetic mentors and influences, conservation, and a range of interrelated topics.

Give a listen:

Good Poetry.

My Year in Writing: 2019

December 9, 2019

Scott Edward Anderson reading from Dwelling: An ecopoem at Sacramento Poetry Center, March 2019. (photo by Lara Gularte)

Now is the time of year when I take stock of my writing over the past twelve months.

Here is “My Year in Writing: 2019”:

FALLING UP: A Memoir of Second Chances published by Homebound Publications in September 2019; book launch party on 10 November in Brooklyn; included on Book Authority’s Best New Family Books list

DWELLING: an ecotour, including readings in Berkeley, Diamond Springs, and Sacramento, CA, Philadelphia and New Hope, PA, NYC, and at the ASLE Biennial Conference at UC Davis, where I also moderated a panel called “Poetry Can Save the Earth”

-Essay, “Whitman & the Sea,” published in Schuylkill Valley Journal in print and online

-Poem, “Cândido Rondon Remembering Teddy Roosevelt,” published in The Esthetic Apostle

-Revisions to and progress on my #WIP, a research-driven memoir I’m calling THE OTHERS IN ME: A Journey to Discover Ancestry, Identity, and Lost Heritage

-Started a long poem, “Azorean Suite,” a section of which will appear in the upcoming edition of Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal, in my original English and in a Portuguese translation by Azorean poet, José Francisco Costa

-Essay, “My Pessoa,” to appear in Pessoa Plural next June

-Wrote introduction to David Swartz’s English translation of Nuno Júdice’s novella, THE RELIGIOUS MANTLE, which will be published in 2020 by New Meridian Arts

…all in all, not a bad writing year!

Bust of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen from Miradouro Sophia de Mello, Lisboa.
(Photo by SEA)

Today, 25 April, marks the 45th Anniversary of Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution,” when a military coup toppled the fascist, authoritarian government, leading to a period of freedom and democracy after 48 years. 

In addition to ridding the country of the “Estado Novo” regime, the revolution of 25 April 1974, led to the end of Portuguese colonization and its attendant wars in Africa. Decolonization began shortly after the Carnation Revolution and, by the end of 1975, the former colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Mozambique gained independence.

Dubbed the Carnation Revolution because the flowers were offered to military personnel by civilians on the streets of Lisbon as a symbol of the peaceful transition of power, an action initiative by activist Celeste Caeiro. The coup itself was apparently triggered by a Portuguese song featured in the 1974 “Eurovision” song contest—the same contest that launched the Swedish band ABBA, which won that year with “Waterloo.”

Portugal’s entry, a fairly innocuous love-ballad called “E depois do adeus” (“And after the farewell”) by Paulo de Carvalho, was used to signal the rebels, who launched the coup when it was broadcast by a Lisbon radio station at 22:50 on 24 April. A second song, “Grândola Vila Morena” by Zeca Afonso, announced when the coup leaders had seized control. A 2000 film by Maria de Medeiros, Capitães de Abril, dramatizes the story.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is one of the most important Portuguese poets of the 20th century and, in 1999, became the first Portuguese woman to receive the Camões Prize, the most prestigious award in Portuguese literature. 

In 2014, ten years after her death—and on the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution—Andresen’s remains were transferred to the Panteão Nacional, in the Church of Santa Engrácia, only the second Portuguese woman to receive this honor. (The other was fado singer Amália Rodrigues.)

“Poetry is my understanding of the universe,” Andresen once said. “My way of relating to things, my participation in reality, my encounter with voices and images.” 

Her poem, “25 de Abril,” is the most famous poem of the Carnation Revolution, simple and elegant in its observation of the morning when the country emerged from “the night and the silence” of almost fifty years of authoritarian rule.

Here is Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s “25 de Abril” in the original Portuguese and in my English translation:

“25 de Abril”

Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava
O dia inicial inteiro e limpo
Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio
E livres habitamos a substância do tempo

—-

“25th of April”

This is the dawn I expected—

the first day, whole and clean,

where we emerge from the night and the silence.

And free, we inhabit the substance of time

(Translation by Scott Edward Anderson)


I first learned about the work of Camonghne Felix through Brooklyn Poets, where she was “Poet of the Week” in July 2015, and in Poetry Magazine around the same time. I was struck by her ability to weave together pop culture with the political in an illuminating and entertaining way.

Perhaps her most well-known poem, “Tonya Harding’s Fur Coats”—which I wanted to share, but its unusual formatting would be butchered by Gmail and WordPress—is a perfect example of this element of her work: social commentary that reaches beyond its pop-culture references to speak truth to the universal. (“The thing about being poor      is that you spend your days pointing,” is how the poem opens. You can read it here.)

In an interview on the website Empire Coven, Felix explains that for her, “what makes poetry and poets so special is that we create a world with imagination where we introduce new content, new ways of thinking, and new frameworks of thought. I am so curious to know what this world would like if there were a bunch of poets running it.”

Felix works as political strategist—she was most recently communications director for Amara Enyia’s Chicago mayoral campaign—and has an MA in Arts Politics from NYU and an MFA from Bard College. Her first book, Build Yourself a Boat, comes out later this month from Haymarket Books. You can order it here.

She has a favorite quote that stays with her—literally, as she told the interviewer from Empire Coven, as it is tattooed on her thigh—from a poem by the great Gwendolyn Brooks: “Say that the river turns and turn the river.”

As Felix explains, “Brooks spoke a lot about the intrinsic power of black womanhood and black femininity. When she wrote, ‘say that the river turns and turn the river,’ she really wrote it as a love letter to women and girls of color. It was a reminder that the world is not a great place, but we have a natural power and ability to transcend those bad things and make the world a better place.”

For Felix, it’s a reminder “that when I’m frustrated or something seems like its not working out, all I have to do is change something about the way I’m thinking or going through the world. That will change the way that I’m experiencing the world.”

In the poem I want to share today, the speaker of the poem seems to be addressing a lover who has been caught fooling around with another woman and the other woman, who has reached out to her through social media to try to explain herself, as if that would provide some comfort. Or perhaps, she meant to make the speaker uncomfortable.

Anyone who has known betrayal can relate, yet as Felix told me, part of what she’s trying to do “is working through the unique ways that black women experience heartbreak and trying to give black femme heartbreak space to live outside of the overall tragedy of race and gender.”

Here is Camonghne Felix’s poem,

“Aziza Gifts Me a New Pair of Pants and Saves Me from a Kind of Dysmorphia”

you turned me into the enigma of
your sleep and I could no longer

get to you, your dream girl novaed
into soluble wins, a Mustang expensive
and out of reach. I want nothing from

her, no information, no explanation,
yet, in my Facebook inbox, she talks
of chemistry, a perceived lack thereof

how she peppers you with the music
of your fantasies, lets you into
the strobe light, her body a

body of swan songs. I can’t help but
do the comparative math work, really
analyze the friction —

on a scale of one to fuck you I am 
obviously prettier, more compelling
better dressed, better situated for

the fixed follicle of long term care. She knows
the coke life, the nightlife, the way to shake
a man down to his flimsy desires

his petty pull to the things that will
kill him slow, his tongue a rat, a
hangnail at the edge of his mouth.

still, I know that perfection
is a matter of impulse and still
there is no one too perfect to feel

worthless. I cannot be bothered with
the multiple failures of my skin. Aziza says,
but, you are so beautiful

and yet, nothing fits. I am hungry
to return to the monster I know.
In my new room, there are no mirrors —

I am confounded with how ugly I feel
how thirsty I am to be something
ductile and pliable, calling out to the

back hand of the lover I know. We are
a bus ride apart and in the olive glow
of a high midnight, he texts me with

strangled, desperate remorse:

I want off this carousel
I need my girl, my life back
You are my only caboose

The only north star I know
My one way trip to something
Larger than my obnoxious instincts

Something larger than my
complicated, calculated need to be
Bigger than you.

—Camonghne Felix. This poem originally appeared in  PEN Poetry Series from PEN America. Used by permission of the author.

Alice Pettway reading at Sacramento Poetry Center,
18 March 2019. Photo by SEA

Last month, I read with Alice Pettway at the Sacramento Poetry Center. Alice came all the way from Shanghai, where she lives with her husband, and read from her new book, Moth, which has just been published by the fabulous Salmon Poetry of County Clare, Ireland, and from her first book, The Time of Hunger / O Tempo de Chuva.

Pettway and her husband have been on quite a journey, first with the Peace Corps and now with various work situations, that has taken them from Mozambique to Bogotá and now to China.

Perhaps because of this itinerant existence in countries far-flung from her native Texas, Pettway seems to be perpetually longing for home in one way or another. In her work, she seems to be always returning as much as she is leaving, while the “tug of the familiar” and the familial is always calling her.

As she wrote in a 2010 “Letter” from her Peace Corps post in Mozambique, “We are falling in love with our new home, but missing our old one.” (My latest, Dwelling, is also about the longing for home and about how we need to protect this Earth, our island home, so we were a good pairing.)

“When we think of home, we might think of a place, a smell, a tradition,” Pettway wrote to me in an email about her poem, “Burial,” which I share below. “Those memories pull us constantly back toward our past, but they also sometimes force us out into the world to discover different ways of being. When our new and old selves eventually find themselves squeezed into the same space again, an emotional reckoning is unavoidable.”

Her eye for detail and resonant images, along with a deceptively simple, direct language characterizes Pettway’s work. I am delighted to share her work with you here.

Here is “Burial” by Alice Pettway:

Burial

I changed shoes for the burial.
The earth, soft from rain,
was hungry for the black stems
of my funeral heels.
 
It was hungry for you too,
waiting only for lurid turf
to give way to reality,
a hole gouged in a field.
 
The funeral director looked
away; your brothers
pulled black plastic ground,
took up shovels.
 
I grasped a handle too—bent
my woman’s body into pivot
of muscle and dirt until the throb
of earth on wood faded, until soil
landed on soil as softly as snow
on snow, until there was no hole.
The men stood silent. Burial
is no more a man’s task
than birth is.

—Alice Pettway, from Moth (Salmon Press, 2019). Used by permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about Alice Pettway here.

IMG_6576

The iconic 18th Century Portas da Cidade (City Gates) in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. (Photo by Scott Edward Anderson)

Some of you know that I’ve been on a journey the past few years to uncover and explore my familial roots on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and the United States.

Last summer, I had a residency on the island with Disquiet International, named for the enigmatic book of prose written by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The residency in Ponta Delgada took place only 3.7 km from the freguesia (municipal parish) where two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated in 1906.

Through Disquiet, I was also introduced to poet Lara Gularte, herself of Azorean American ancestry. Her relatives were from Faial, Pico, and Flores, three more of the nine islands in the Azores. Gularte was born in California and grew up in what was then an area of fruit farms known as the Santa Clara Valley (now more famously known as Silicon Valley).

Last month, Lara graciously invited me to read in the series she runs in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, near where she now lives. Along with her husband, Brian—and some good local wine—we spent a wonderful evening discussing our Azorean heritage, poetry, and the dilemma of being generations removed from the places of our origins.

Gularte, who worked for many years as a public servant, finally traveled back to the Azores in 2008—the first of her family to return in four generations. “Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction,” Lara told the Portuguese American Journal in June 2018. “I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.”

Her first collection, Kissing the Bee, was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2018. Many of the poems in her book speak to what she found on the Azores and the deepening connection which that brought about with her family roots in California’s fertile central valley.

“I was a resident poet at Footpaths to Creativity Center and Artist/Writer Residency on Flores Island in the Azores where this poem was written,” Lara says. “Flores is the island from where my grandfather was born before he emigrated as a young boy to the U.S. He was a stowaway on a ship and disembarked in New Bedford, Mass. He then worked in the cranberry bogs for a few years before traveling to California where he met my grandmother.”

Here is Lara Gularte’s poem, “Flores Island”:

 

FLORES ISLAND

The place at the beginning       

 

A whale rises up in her mind

turning her thoughts gray.

 

In port, the ferry of return.

She searches for her grandfather

to discover the shape of his emigration

and finds the plank’s gone, rotted.

At the mercy of rough water and high winds,

he rowed, sinews pulling his dory,

pulling his bones to breaking.

 

She scans the distance,

says his name out loud, Antonio Henriques,

waits to hear a voice, see a face.

She searches for all the prisoners

of thick mists, others who look like her,

whose foreign tongues speak music to her soul.

 

Beyond the wake of a rogue wave,

currents and tides ride

on the back of a gray whale.

 

She sees through the vapor

boats whose nets gather the sky and let go.

Fog falls,

bearing dazed souls back to their home place.

She falls with them.

 

—Lara Gularte, from Kissing the Bee (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

 

anderson_dwelling an ecotour_march-june 2019

Here’s my upcoming reading schedule for March through June 2019. If you have a reading series you’d like me to be part of or want me to speak to your class or book group, in person or by Skype, please let me know.

 

Featured Reader
Thursday, 14 March 2019, 7:30 PM

Moe’s Books
2476 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA

Featured Reader
Sunday, 17 March 2019, 1PM

Love Birds Coffee & Tea
1390 Broadway, Placerville, CA

Featured Reader
Monday, 18 March 2019, 7PM
With Alice Pettway
Sacramento Poetry Center
1729 25th Street, Sacramento, CA  

Featured Reader
Wednesday, 3 April 2019, 6:30 PM

Free Library of Philadelphia 
Philadelphia City Institute,
1905 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA

Featured Reader
Tuesday, 14 May 2019, 7PM

#YeahYouWrite Author Series with Rabeah Ghaffari & Tim Tomlinson
Bo’s Kitchen and Bar Room
6 West 24th St, New York, NY

2019 ASLE Conference
26-30 June 2019

Leading panel “Poetry CAN Save the Earth” and reading from Dwelling: an ecopoem
Paradise on Fire: 2019 ASLE Conference
University of California, Davis

 

SEA+2

Scott Edward Anderson reading at Cornelia Street Cafe, October 2018. Photo by Den Petrizzo.

This is the time of year when I look back on my writing life over the past twelve months. I’m grateful for all my readers, editors, and listeners in 2018.

As the Walter Lowenfels’s quote at the top of my blog says, “One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement.” I don’t take any of one of you miracles for granted. Thank you!

January — My craft essay, “Poetry as Practice,” published in Cleaver Magazine. Shanti Arts accepts DWELLING: an ecopoem for release later in year!

February/March — Finish the only poem I complete this year, “Phase Change,” with the help of Alfred Corn, currently on submission. (If you don’t know Alfred’s work, you really should check out his books by following the link above.)

April — My essay on Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” accepted by Schuylkill Valley Journal, published in Spring 2018 issue and online later in the year.

May/June — Write my essay/memoir FALLING UP and submit it to Homebound Publications for their Little Bound Books series. They want it! Will be published in Fall 2019.

July/August — Disquiet Azores residency. Continue research and writing for BELONGING, my “enhanced memoir” of identity, roots, and rediscovering my Azorean-Portuguese heritage.

September — Release of DWELLING: an ecopoem from Shanti Arts.

October — Several readings in support of DWELLING. Present my craft talk, “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” at Boston Book Festival. Appear on “In the Balance” podcast with Susan Lambert.

November — Page proof edits for FALLING UP. Schedule appearances/readings for 2019 in New York, California, and at ASLE 2019. Continue work on BELONGING.

December — Excerpt from “Some Questions of Dwelling,” the prose section of DWELLING: an ecopoem, appears in Still Point Arts Quarterly.

It’s been a good year — thanks everyone for being my miracles!