A Review, a Poem, a Couple of Fan Notes

Frost in the Low Areas got a nice mention over at Literary Mama in the “Now Reading: July 2015” column:

Literary Reflections Editor Libby Maxey shares, “I’ve recently finished Karen Skolfield’s Frost in the Low Areas, an award-winning collection of poems that’s readable, memorable, and truly likable. Skolfield’s voice is strongly pronounced, realistic with a comfortable familiarity about it that makes room for a good deal of humor. (Her titles tend to be funny even when the poems aren’t.) There’s no pretentiousness here, however cosmic the reach of her musings; she asks many questions and leaves the door open for mystery, but she grounds her poems with defined characters and concrete experiences, in both the natural and the social world. Those characters and experiences tend to be familial, so there is much here that will speak to the mother reader. The title selection is a plain and poignant vignette in which the speaker and her husband make pesto on the eve of an early frost while joking about the gap between their life expectancies. In ‘Last of a Species,’ the speaker remembers the newspaper photograph of a nearly-extinct bird that her father had cut out and put away in a buffet drawer, a gesture utterly unlike him. In ‘The Sound Under the Car Can’t Be Good,’ she is haunted by a relentless automotive thwacking reminiscent of children clamoring for attention, ‘a reminder of a woman trying not to hear.’ My very favorite of all might be ‘After Making a Wrong Turn I Become Stubborn and Pretend to Know These Barns.’ It captures perfectly how we—in life and in poetry—insist on identification, how we manifest our faith in whatever we come from by claiming that it defines the world beyond our particular sphere. Skolfield’s poetry is for those of us who don’t mind owning a bit of that stubbornness, who, like the cows banging their heads through mended fences, ‘live in a state of unlost, hoping / for the rare moments of meander.'”

…and you can read the whole “Now Reading” column here:
http://www.literarymama.com/blog/archives/2015/07/now-reading-july-2015.html

I also have a poem up at Oddball Magazine, a kind of goofy fun little thing I wrote, so isn’t Oddball the perfect home for it? My apologies… ahem… to people living in Delaware. See, I grew up there, and… (hangs head in shame). Here’s the link:
http://oddballmagazine.com/2015/06/17/poem-by-karen-skolfield/

Look at that – the page has a rating system. People of Delaware, feel free to give it one out of five stars. I get it.

And finally: I’m writing some fan notes this afternoon, because who doesn’t love getting a fan note? First to fiction writer Vincent Scarpa: his short story “Best Behavior” in the summer 2015 Indiana Review was knockout (and, pssst, I had a poem in this issue, which was a great reason to tuck into the whole journal). Second fan note goes to Robin Coste Lewis for her incredible poem “Summer,” which you can read here thanks to the Academy of American Poets. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/summer-3

Happy August!

Persephone Magazine’s Reading Challenge

Did I say I was publishing twice today? Well, then this is the bonus third. Check out Persephone Magazine’s reading challenge which involves reading many categories / styles of books: it includes challenges of books to read such as “A book with a one-word title,” “A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.),” “A book in translation,” “A graphic novel,” etc. There are 20 book challenges; writer Sara Habein records the results of taking on this challenge. At #17, “A book of poetry,” she’s read my book. Here’s what she had to say:

“I let this collection of poetry languish unread in my collection for far too long. It wasn’t for any particular reason; I just kept forgetting to pick it up. Finally, I’ve read it, and it’s magnificent and feels personal and is exactly what I’m looking for when I want a book of poetry, somewhat in the same way I love Tracy K. Smith’s work.”

…which is pretty sweet to say.

Click here for the reading challenge, and get reading.

‘Writers Who Read’ Interview

And here’s the second of two interviews posted on the same day. This one was especially fun: G.G. Andrew asks me questions about books I love. It’s occurred to me that I like this a lot more than the usual construction of “Which writers do you admire / emulate / hold up as gods” etc., the question that always makes me falter and go dry-mouthed. Which is silly. What’s the difference?

I’ll keep pondering this, and in the meantime, click here for the interview.

Here’s an excerpt, in answer to Andrew asking me about my book weaknesses:

“I’m not often into bestsellers, and I am discouraged on every level when the ‘must-read’ author lists of The New York Times and NPR are blindingly white. As readers, as makers of these lists, who are we if we can’t diversify our reading? I don’t want to read only books by people who occupy the very tiny niche I live in. Books by people who are not my exact demographic continue to make me a better person, a more compassionate and thoughtful person; they challenge me in great ways.”

Here’s to more challenges and great books to be read and re-read.

‘Balancing the Tide’ Interview

Oh, look. I’m not even a month behind posting. First up is #1 of two interviews that went live the same day: this one is via Molly Sutton Kiefer’s blog “Balancing the Tide,” which focuses on mothering and art. Click here for the interview.

And here’s an excerpt. Kiefer asks me about the process of writing and how it’s changed since having kids; I answer:

“…being aware of a good line/idea as it enters my head is the difference between writing a poem or not on any given day. My kids are my primary obligation, and thankfully they’re of the age – 8 & 10 – that I really can go ‘Hold on, kids, gotta write this note to myself’ without worrying about them wandering into traffic or sticking rocks up their noses. At the same time, I don’t have the ability to drop their needs and go write the entire poem. I’ve learned to make peace with putting that one line on paper. My kids always seem to be hungry. Well, it’s snack time somewhere in the world, I guess.”

Check out the other interviews on the site with Alicia Ostriker, Rachel Zucker, Annie Finch, Julianna Baggott, and more.

Review of Sarah Marcus’s Backcountry (Finishing Line Press)

Sarah Marcus, Backcountry

My review of Sarah Marcus’s chapbook, Backcountry, was published today by As It Ought To Be. Marcus’s poems are wonderful and rich: read my review here.

This is my first-ever review, and I’m ridiculously happy about it and also incredibly grateful at how engaging the chapbook was. I don’t think I could write a review that seriously dinged a book, so I’m glad I didn’t ever have to consider that.

How To Write an Acceptance Speech

“How To Write an Acceptance Speech” – I actually googled this because, tomorrow, I have to give one. And what do poets know about such things? I’m sure there was good advice in the sites that popped up, but I’ll never know, because I started writing the poem “How To Write an Acceptance Speech” instead, which was full of not-very-useful advice on a lot of things not related to speechifying, like the correct color of a roux for your gumbo (chocolate-milk color, y’know).

Maybe there are poets who like to give speeches. I’m not one of them, but New England Public Radio is giving me their Arts & Humanities Award tomorrow, so I had to shape up. Over the past few weeks I briefly considered a call-and-response acceptance speech (nixed), then a poem acceptance speech in which the words “new” “england” “public” “radio” were part of a sestina’s end words (nixed), and I dreamed I had to sing my acceptance speech (woke in cold sweat). I’ve gone through all the grief-stages associated with loss as part of my need to write an acceptance speech, and here I am, 36 hours out, finally at acceptance. I’m even excited (which I’m sure is not part of the grief-stages).

NEPR has been fabulous – they even made a broadside of one of my poems to give out to everyone at the event tomorrow. If they let me put it online, I’ll do that in an upcoming post.

Hopefully I’ll see some of your shiny, happy faces tomorrow. I promise I won’t sing.

Karen Skolfield: On Ekphrasis

If you want to get the attention of 4th graders, show them a painting of a man made out of produce. I click to the PowerPoint slide of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s The Emperor.

The Emperor, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.

The Emperor, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.

“It’s a guy!” “But there’s fruit!” “I see grapes!” “What is THAT?” one student says, and points, I think, to the artichoke shoulder, or maybe it’s the fig-ear.

“You’re right, he’s made out of fruits and vegetables. Crazy!” I say, and shake my head. “Do you think this is a recent painting or one that was made a long time ago?”

The kids have fun answering. We’ve just looked at Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, part of a series in which Wiley re-sees famous poses and scenes using black models. So they’re feeling pretty confident that the Arcimboldo painting is the same: an old theme made new, given fresh meaning.

They’re not disappointed when I tell them The Emperor is 425 years old. In fact, they seem delighted – maybe they hadn’t realized humans were making art then, so sure are they that the world prior to their births consisted of amphibians crawling from the ooze. “We need to write about this guy,” I say, and they gamely grab their poetry journals.

I’m visiting a class in Fort River Elementary in Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst is in western Massachusetts, closer to New York and Connecticut than Boston. A 2-D “tree” in the Fort River lobby, made of construction paper handprints, shows the many skin tones in the first grade; more than half of the students are people of color, with some thanks to the five colleges in the area that attract international grad students and professors. Nearly 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, slightly above the state average, which seems at odds for a town of just 38,000 with more cultural and arts events per capita than many major cities.

The fourth graders in front of me have their poetry journals open. Some don’t want to hear my prompts and have started writing and really, who am I to stop them. But most like the Q&A poetry form. I remind them: “I’m going to ask you a few questions about Arcimboldo’s The Emperor, and your answers are the poem.” After each question, which I say aloud, I wait a few minutes as they write. They have a handout to look at if they wish, with the questions on them – a good strategy for kids who have trouble attending to auditory instruction, or for kids who want to leap ahead.

After each painting and poem, I ask if anyone wants to share: it’s mostly boys volunteering by 4th grade, and though I’ve never counted, I have the sense that more white hands go up than non-white. I even this out as best I can by calling on kids who haven’t raised hands. This teacher’s done a good job; almost everyone is willing, even eager, to read, even the shy ones, even the ones for whom English is their newest language.

Radiante, Olga Albizu, 1967.

Radiante, Olga Albizu, 1967.

This is not my first time using ekphrastic poetry prompts in elementary schools, so I’ve learned to keep it simple, keep the poems short, talk about the artwork before we write about it. I’ve learned not to give them choices about multiple pieces of artwork to write about – the act of choosing can be stress-inducing to students who have attention or anxiety issues (I made a 3rd grader cry once by asking him to choose between two pieces of art). I’ve learned that whichever girl sits closest to me is often unwilling to speak up, so I take a couple of minutes after the class so she can read without the whole class listening. I’ve learned, most importantly, that they love writing and poetry at this age, with few exceptions and very little eye rolling. I don’t know what these teachers today are doing, but it’s making my work easy.

*****

When my kids started kindergarten, I – and all the parents – got some pressure to volunteer. The new class needs a room parent! The new class needs math helpers! Soccer coach, PGO president, savings account director, book fair assistant, fantasy-area overseer, costume designer, nut-free snack scheduler, really, the list of things I did not want to do went on and on.

So with no small amount of guilt, I dodged most of the heavy volunteering but baked heartily for all school events. Then my oldest son brought home his first poems. Oh hey. I perked up and sent an email to his teacher: “Want me to visit?” She replied, I think, before I hit SEND.

I’ve written very few ekphrastic poems – maybe three. But as I considered what to do with two classes of 3rd graders, I decided this would be a way into writing that could be both inward and outward looking – and any chance to bring more art into their lives seemed a great bonus. I’m no art history major, though, so Googling and hive-mind questions on Facebook have been great sources for background and for artists I’d never encountered.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

The classes last about an hour. I begin with a brief explanation of ekphrastic poetry, and I tell the kids they now know a word that their parents probably don’t know. The kids love this. Occasionally a teacher will pipe up and say s/he didn’t know the word, and the kids love that, too. Then I show a slide, talk about the painting or sculpture by asking open-ended questions to the kids, and read the ekphrastic poem aloud. Some of the art and poem pairings I’ve used include Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and John Stone’s “Three for the Mona Lisa;” Pieter Brueghel’s Two Monkeys and Wislawa Szymborska’s “Two Monkeys by Brueghel;” Georg Baselitz’s Die Mühle brennt (“The mill burns”) and the poem of the same (German) name by Richard Matthews; a selection of Degas paintings and Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942;” and more. It’s helpful if I know a little about their art classes – if they’ve been studying or imitating some abstract artists, I’ll throw in an abstract painting by Olga Albizu or Georgia O’Keeffe. I love sculpture: Xu Bing’s found-material phoenixes are always a hit, or Alberto Giacometti’s tall figures; go playful with sculptures from Hung Yi’s “Fancy Animal Carnival” series or abstract with Joan Miro’s Moonbird. Or throw in a sculpture built from Legos. The kids will go nuts.

After I read a poem, we’ll talk. I’m continuously amazed by what they see and hear and puzzle through. Take the boats in Edvard Munch’s The Scream – have you noticed those boats? Trust me, if you ask some 3rd graders about the painting, one will spot the boats and come up with some dynamic ideas about what those boats are doing and contrast the cool and calm in the distance with the worry and foreboding in the foreground. Okay, the kids probably won’t use the words “foreboding” and “foreground,” but if you use those words a few times, the kids will eventually use them, too. Ask them about the vines growing out of the woman in Frida Kahlo’s Roots – their answers will range from wonderfully creepy sci-fi to some inkling of how emotionally complex the lives of 5thgraders can be. Tell them about Kahlo’s self portraits and how this is probably one – give them her medical background – and they will make all the connections you’d hoped for, and more.

Then students write poems while the adults in the room help out kids who need extra attention. For Arcimboldo’s The Emperor, here are the prompts/questions I use:

  • Let’s assume that this changed skin is new, and that the emperor can’t see himself. Help him out and tell him what he looks like.
  • The emperor is shocked at your description of him! Try to think of a way to make him feel better about himself. What can you say to him to make him happier, maybe even proud?
  • You know, but haven’t yet told the emperor, what happens to fruits and vegetables and flowers that are left on the counter for a few days. What do you think will happen to the emperor now? Your answer to this question is the ending of the poem.

It’s good, as you prepare a class for elementary kids, to consider their needs and maturity level. Make your prompts as racially and gender diverse as possible; ditto for the poets. Leave out images that are violent or contain nudity, even for the older kids; their teachers will never forgive you if you get that wrong. Leave out poems that are too complex or too long or touch on mature subjects.

Roots, Frida Kahlo, 1943.

Roots, Frida Kahlo, 1943.

Think like a kid growing up in America: for the Wiley painting, I (luckily) asked kids to come up with three POSITIVE words to say about the subject, a black man astride a horse. Even though the subject in Wiley’s painting has much the same expression as Napoleon does in the famous Jacques-Louis David painting it’s modeled after, the words the kids first came up with were all negative: “scary” especially stood out to me, in a class in which half the kids are people of color. We’d already prepped by talking about how Napoleon had let his people starve to fund his war effort and how this new leader envisioned by Wiley was going to do better, and still they came up with “scary” for the black man. Yikes. But by saying “nope, I want POSITIVE words for him,” they eventually got off the scary thread and found kinder words.

(Of course, as I write this, I think: Is it okay for leaders to look scary? Is that a positive attribute? The students didn’t use that word for Napoleon, but could I have turned this into a moment in which a black man is leading his soldiers into battle in a way that makes the “scare” factor work?)

I taught that particular class two months ago, and here I am, still thinking about it. I’m scheduled to teach another class on ekphrastic poetry, with a new set of kids, in two weeks. After that, another school. And another. Each time, I’ll learn something different, come home jazzed by student poems and ideas.

Let’s face it: I’m not really Room Parent material. But if poetry’s involved, sign me up.

*****

This post originally appeared on E. Kristin Anderson’s blog Write All the Words! on April 28, 2015. My thanks to her for prompting me to write this post and for hosting it on her wonderful website. She asks poets and teachers to write articles or interviews about poetry and posts one each day in April, which is National Poetry Month.

Poetry Society of America’s 2015 Robert H. Winner award

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Well, here’s a nice bit of news to get while traveling! I just got word that I’ve won the Poetry Society of America’s 2015 Robert H. Winner award. Congratulations, too, to finalists J.C. Todd and Jonathan Weinert. The award “acknowledges original work being done in mid-career by a poet who has not had substantial recognition, and is open to poets over forty who have published no more than one book.” So: look! Recognition, AND a reminder that I’m over 40! Poetry giveth, and poetry taketh away…

Here’s the link to the announcement.

And here’s the fabulous write up by judge Alan Shapiro:

“These poems are distinguished by their sonic and semantic flexibility and range. They take on important subjects—racism, domestic, political and natural disasters, mortality and time, the contingencies of love, the vulnerabilities of flesh (“the soft parts of us…the first thing we give away,”)—in language that feels both improvised and exquisitely controlled, highly cadenced even when it looks like prose. Their tone is nothing if not companionable, good humored, fiercely clear sighted, full of passion and heart wrenching wisdom. From poem to poem, and even sometimes within the same poem, they shift from mode to mode, descriptively precise and essayistic, realistic and surreal, conversational and song-like. Simplicity of means, complexity of effect–that’s how I’d characterize the marvelous achievement these poems embody in every line of every piece.”

If you’ve read this far, it’s because you’re curious where I went on vacation. California: the coast (harbor seals, whales) and the desert – Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley (no seals or whales). We’re warmed all the way through.

‘First Books’ Article in Berkshire Eagle

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers kicks off tomorrow (March 1) with our panel: “From Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Known,” 11 a.m., Miss Hall’s School, 492 Holmes Road, Pittsfield.

Kate Abbott from the Berkshire Eagle wrote a fabulous article about the first week of the BFWW, especially about our panel. Read it here!

With Amy Dryansky, Susan Kan, Sarah Sousa, and Michelle Valois. Cheers!