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Last Day of National Poetry Month: John Engman

Before his death in 1996, John Engman was my college composition professor. Obviously more happened in the life of this brilliant man than just shepherding me through the basics of writing essays, but I never forgot his classes and his charming classroom presence. He was funny and smart and irreverent. I didn’t even know he wrote poetry when he was my professor; he didn’t know that about me, either, obviously.

If I still wrote poetry, I’d want to write like John Engman. Maybe I did, even, because I won the poetry prize given in his name at Augsburg College, when I was a student there one million years ago. 
*buffs nails for that brag*
If you haven’t bought Temporary Help, then you need to go do so.
While I’ve had “Saturday Bath” hung up in the bathrooms of every place I’ve lived since 1996, that one, as well as two of my other favorites, “Aluminum Folding Chairs” and “A Bird Flies Into The Room and Then Flies Out Again” are sadly not available online. 
So I’ll link to “Work” which is lovely, via Prairie Schooner and “Sobbing Uncontrollably in Public Places” via Tumblr. 
Enjoy.

Poetry Reading Pro Tips

I went to hear my friend Wendy Willis read some poetry Monday night and it was such a good experience. Mostly because of the fact that a) her poems are BEAUTIFUL b) I’d read the poems before, which were almost all from her collection Blood Sisters of the Republic.

But then I did a genius move, which was to bring the book with, and read along quietly while Wendy spoke the poems, too.

This helped on many levels.

One, since I have notoriously poor hearing (mumblers, you are on notice), it helped me gain more clarity for individual words.

Two, I could ‘see’ the internal rhyme while ‘hearing’ it. I dunno if quotes are appropriate there. But you know what I mean.

Three, now when I read the poems, I have the memory of Wendy’s voice guiding me through them.

Anyway, I know this won’t always be possible, but as there are many faculty poetry readings at my grad school residency, it’s a trick I might try again.

Also, the way Wendy set up her poems with anecdotes and context? That is my favorite. I love that. So much more juicy than going straight, un-qualified and cold into a poem.

Also having the reading in the cozy and close-knit space at SubText was also a big plus.

Wendy is also reading tonight at the Blue Ox Coffee Company in Minneapolis at 7 pm. I will share my book with you if you want to get in on my highly sneaky and excellent tip…

Bruce Weigl’s "What Saves Us"

I was sorting through junk on my desk and found a copy of this poem and had to stop and re-read/relive it for a minute.

A truly goopy poetry moment, yeah. But one of my fake people is a boy contemplating joining the military and I was looking for some kind of coming-of-age theme in a poem to guide me. Something I’ve never done normally. I give myself snaps for being so subtextual and literary.

Not that this fake boy is going to quote this poem or even know this poem. He doesn’t like poems, like many boys his age. STILL.

You should go read it. It’s beautiful.

On Poetry

I’m not a big fan of poetry these days. Not because it’s bad. I wouldn’t know enough about the state of Poetry to make that comment. No, it’s not you, Poetry. It’s Me.

Rhyming poems were the first things I wrote. Then I wrote stories that went nowhere and never ended, where I described the fuck out of everything.

Poetry is good if you like describing the fuck out of everything.

My students tend to describe the fuck out of things. I think this is because writing in school works up to the climax of an essay, not a story. Therefore, we must build with adjectives and adverbs, learn to elaborate our point and add supporting examples and blah blah blah. Which is all writing. Not story-telling.

I wrote a lot of poetry in college. Poems – mine and others – took up a lot of space in my head. I read a lot of Pablo Neruda and Robert Bly and Louis Simpson. I had a notebook where I’d copy down poems I liked and this somehow brought them closer to me.

But even then, I was embarrassed when people called me a ‘poet.’ It sounded quaint and wrong, like insisting I was The Great Pretender to the throne or something.  Real ‘poets’ are dead. Real ‘poets’ read literary journals and know what a sestina is. Real ‘poets’ aren’t girls who write slobbery lines about idiot asshole boys who have wronged them.

The first thing I ever published in an actual book was a poem. It was an anthology of women writers and I think they included it because it rounded out all the edgy, lefty stuff. The poem was about the suburbs. I don’t know why I sent it to them; it’s not very good, or even close to my favorite.

The word ‘poem’ for me is one syllable. Why do people make it two: po-em?

I like poetry readings where the poets chatter and tell the backstory and origin of the poem, give you some freebie trivia that rewards you for your diligent attendance. When a poet just reads a poem cold, it’s got the same effect for me as a cock shot sent by a stranger to my cell phone (sometimes, not even that good).

Though my philosophy of life parts ways with Robert Bly in many respects, when he came to my college, I admired how he insisted that the poet who accompanied him on stage re-read one of his poems, so the audience could absorb it better, soak it in deeper.

Sometimes I’ll read a poem in The Atlantic or The New Yorker and like it. But not enough to follow the poet or buy his/her collections. This makes me feel that I can’t say I like that particular poet, because I’ve haven’t listened to the whole album, you know?

My apathy toward poetry isn’t because some poems are inscrutable and make me feel dumb. I mean, those poems? Aren’t fun. But I don’t feel upset or locked out of the club about it.

The chief reason for this droopiness toward poetry is mainly that the problems involved in writing it aren’t very interesting to me. Line, enjambment, all that other stuff I don’t know about. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough, haven’t absorbed enough, so maybe I do not understand or respect these problems properly. But I don’t want to study it or absorb it any more, either. So. We are at an impasse, Me and Poetry.

Perhaps it goes back to describing the fuck out of things. I don’t like to describe the fuck out of things these days. Poems that describe the fuck out of things – a pinecone or a bird’s nest – drive me batshit and make me feel like an ungrateful dick who is so greedy for sensation and stimulation, that a humble meditation on nature isn’t enough. But it isn’t sometimes. Nature writing at best gives me a big fat rash. At worst, it puts me to sleep.

The other reason that I don’t ‘do’ poetry anymore is that I don’t read enough of it. I don’t ‘follow’ it. I tend to stick with the same poets that I’ve read for the last twenty years. I like Billy Collins and Sharon Olds, for example. Someone told me that they are like the Oprah Book Club Selection of poetry. Sigh. Clearly, my palate is muddy and unsophisticated. I might as well put ice cubes in my Chardonnay.

I like Wislawa Symborska.I like the Ta-Dum! meanings in her poems. Her poem “On Death With Exaggeration” soothed me a time when death would never leave my mind. But these are translations. Who the hell knows what they’re really like if you read them in Polish? Somehow this doesn’t count toward my tab.

Long-ass poems aren’t for me. Especially if it’s some retelling of The Odyssey or some such stunt. Sorry, Poet. You’ve got a page, maybe a page and a half, to get it clicking for me.

If I wasn’t obsessed with the problems of fiction, I’d love to be a girl-version of John Engman. It’s awful that he’s dead, since he only published a couple of collections and two of them are hard to find. Temporary Help is one of my favorite collections and I never tire of it. Maybe because Engman was my freshman English professor, and I can easily call up his voice when I read his stuff. From him I stole the idea of not writing on my students’ papers. Engman wrote his comments on a separate sheet of paper, which he attached to your composition, as if he didn’t want to sully your work with his scratchings. I found that gesture very respectful, like he understood that the student’s writing didn’t belong to him, that it was ultimately just a container of some other writer’s problems and solutions.

Such a funny-yet-serious man. I have hung up the same glassed-over copy of Engman’s “Saturday Bath” in every bathroom I’ve lived in – four apartments, four houses – since 1996, an irreverent tribute that fits him well. I can’t find that poem online, so I’ll link my next favorite, “Sobbing Uncontrollably In Public Places” (there are more at the Augsburg College site, where Engman was an alum).

My favorite bit?

Thankfully, I will never be one of those
who expect too much from a poem, who want the poet
to explode before he goes, leaving the rostrum draped
with glitz. Thankfully, I will never kill time by striking
a pose: malcontent who dreams too much, sullen fugitive
beneath the amber lamps, prince from a fallen regime.
And I don’t have to go around sobbing uncontrollably 
in public places to get my point across-that is
for those who want cheap thrills and headaches,
the personal touch. Let them read prose.

Thanks, John. I’ll stick with prose. But I’ll keep sneaking you in, too.

Grudges by Stephen Dunn

Easy for almost anything to occur.

Even if we’ve scraped the sky, we can be rubble.

For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground Zero, is it possible to get lower?

Now we had a new definition of the personal,

knew almost anything could occur.

It just takes a little training, to blur

A motive, lie low while planning the terrible,

Get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn’t harbor

A grudge or secret? So much isn’t erasable;

It follows that almost anything can occur,

Like men ascending into the democracy of air

Without intending to land, the useful veil

Of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something’s over.

Suddenly someone’s missing at the table.

It’s easy (I know it) for anything to occur

When men feel one way, act another.
               from Poetry After 9-11:  An Anthology of New York Poets, 2002.