Of Grape Gum and Glass Pens: Practicing Gratitude

Aimee N blog OK.jpgGuest post by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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And so we have come to the end of summer, Dear Reader. As Fall starts a slow creep here through Western New York, my stint as a blogger for Ploughshares is at its end. I’m so grateful you’ve checked in on me here from time to time here at Get Behind the Plough. This week was full…of life, I suppose. My husband started the semester and though I am missing being in the classroom and my students, I survived my first days home alone with my new baby all day long. The new “big boy bed” that we ordered for my three year-old finally arrived and he made the switch from crib to bed seamlessly. Five of my poet-pals have pledged to write a poem-a-day during this month with me and I have thankfully been able to keep up with them…about just over half the time, with about fourteen new poems I’m pretty proud of. That’s fourteen poems that otherwise would not have been written if not for the encouragement of my friends from all corners of this country. To top it off, my three-year old suddenly decided he was done with diapers (hallelujah!) and so now we are in the midst of ye olde Potty Training 101. And no, I’m still not getting more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time, but you know what? I wouldn’t trade all of this for anything. For reals.

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I’ve talked before about how I keep writing, even when I am swamped with deadlines, teaching, wife-ing, and being a mother to two young sons. I’ve talked about where the magic happens, so to speak. I’ve talked about finding a writing family. We’ve even covered reading topics like travel writing and reading for inspiration, as well as writing ideas on nature poems and the Japanese poetic form of the haibun. And through it all, you have put up with gratuitous photos of my sons and Rocketship, their goldfish. As a side note, I had no idea so many people were interested in Rocketship. But judging from all the emails I received, perhaps Rocketship will find a way back into the blogosphere in the near future, a poetry mascot of sorts.
Gratitude List #1:

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1. Rainier cherries
2. newborn baby hair that looks like iron filings
3. the first blank page of a notebook
4. turquoise mason jars as vases
5. grape bubble gum
What I wanted to talk about here for my last post was the idea of gratitude in a writer’s life. A French proverb says, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” I would even say that Gratitude is the writer’s memory. Right now, I am knee-deep in edits for Lucky Fish, my third collection of poems from Tupelo Press, due out next year. Perhaps that, coupled with the fact that my two month-old is growing out of the “NB” or “newborn” size of clothing is making me a bit wistful these days. But with edits comes what is my most-dreaded part of the whole process–the round up of the blurbs, those little statements of praise and endorsement on the back of a book. I worry and fret over this because I try to be super-conscientious of not being a time-vacuum on a fellow writer. The thing is, I am more than happy, and in fact deeply honored whenever someone asks me to write a blurb for them. As I type, I am actually putting the finishing edits on blurbs for two wonderful and very different poets. It’s taking me a bit longer than usual because I don’t want to end up sounding over-the-top. My poet-friend, the lovely and talented Kelli Russell Agodon has a great post on her recent experience on gathering blurbs, and I think she covers the elation and fear and self-doubt that can appear in a frothy tornado of emotions during this process.

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Back to School

Aimee N blog OK.jpgGuest post by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Dear Reader,
As I type this, I can see that the usually quiet streets of my small town are now full and crowded by trucks with mattresses tied to the roofs, the various construction vehicles that peppered campus are slowly disappearing, and our big-box store is filled with harried parents and kids waving around school supply lists and bulk boxes of packaged cookies and juice boxes. After weeks of the hottest summer days I can remember here, today, I actually had to dig up a cardigan to wear when I was in the garden this morning.
What does this all mean? Oh, yes: it’s back to school time.

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Now, I love school supplies (I’ve had the joy of buying them all but 3 of the last 30 years of my life–one for the year I waited tables after college, the second for the semester I was on sabbatical, and now this one, where I am on leave this semester). But there is something about this time of year that makes me want to do the listening station shuffle of joy. Maybe it is the newness and promise of a blank page. The freshly sharpened pencils or bouquet of new pens in the blue ball jar on my desk.
Even my college students seem especially eager and ready to learn, dutifully taking notes on just about everything you say those heady and beautiful first weeks of fall semester. Even by the first weeks of spring semester, you can see the malaise and senioritis sink in early on–or is that just me? I confess I even bought a few single-subject spiral notebooks and stocked up on my favorite composition notebooks (my writing notebook of choice. And Sylvia’s, too.)

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The Pie Plate: Serving up a Slice of Travel through the Haibun Poetic Form

Aimee N blog OK.jpgGuest post by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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Dear Reader, I am covered in ice and snow for most of the year. But summers here in Western New York mean a bevy of fresh fruit from any of the local cherry orchards, blueberry fields, or strawberry patches. I live within five miles from several farms that allow me to pick my own fruit. And where there is a bevy of fruit, there must be pies.
I love travel writing and one way to capture a “slice of travel” in a poem can be found in a haibun. The haibun is a Japanese poetic form, but is not a prose poem in itself. The haibun is a slice of a journey or destination, composed of a prose poem and it ends in a whisper of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant looking block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem section. A whole series of them in a manuscript look like neat little signs or flags. A visual delight.

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My favorite baking accoutrement is a red ceramic pie plate made by Williams-Sonoma. It was a housewarming gift from a turtle friend and poet–a guy who has no home himself: he carries all his possessions on his back. Can slip into the sea or sun himself on the beach whenever he pleases. He gave me this red shell–inverted, it’s a drum–the tink-tink-tink of cold ceramic and my spoon like a calling for dinner, and especially, what comes after. I love the promise of buttery crust and scoop of fruit. I love what it smells like: home.
Before I had my second baby, I was often away from home–a mint green rancher with a wild and sprawling lily garden–for various visiting writer gigs or to teach poetry workshops across the country. I found that writing haibun is a way for me to record my travel in a condensed and imagistic light, that is–to record both the beauty, danger, tragedy, adventure, etc., that we sometimes experience when we travel. Many writers of haibun start by keeping a daily journal of haibun, not about travel per se, but to record the previous day’s events. Other writers of haibun use the form to re-imagine fairy tales, or examine persona.

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My Meta Blog

Bridget blog OK.jpgGuest post by Bridget Lowe

I still remember the first blog I ever saw–it must have been 2000 or so, and my friend Adam had created a place online for his hilarious interpretations of interracial buddy films of the 1980s and ’90s. I was completely enthralled and mystified by this external, widely accessible version of my friend. So when my first piece for “Get Behind the Plough” was posted, I excitedly emailed my entire family to check it out.
I had tried blogging once before and found that unfortunately I didn’t seem to have much to say–at least not in that format. Blogging seemed to me at the time a unique mix of journalism and conversation–and indeed the “weblogs” early days were closer to online diaries than anything else. But as a year on the college paper taught me, I wasn’t any good at journalism, preferring to just chat off record with interviewees. And as my diaries from throughout my life constantly remind me, I have trouble sustaining interest in myself in that way.
So while certain blogs were making international waves in politics and inspiring movie deals, I posted snippets my cat Ursula typed by walking on the keyboard, a picture of Rasputin’s alleged penis, preserved like a giant grey pickle in a jar, and a video of myself singing a song I wrote, which I had recorded with my camera so I didn’t forget the chords. And then I abandoned it, like every other journal I’d started.
Ursula, blogger
While talking to my dad a few days after I’d sent this email announcing my inaugural post, I eagerly asked him what he thought. He seemed somewhat ambivalent, and because I have been spoiled by the blind enthusiasm of my parents on behalf of my endeavors large and small since childhood, I was a bit baffled. He then admitted that he didn’t really understand how a blog is connected to a literary magazine. His response was not based on opposition or a purist’s argument–he truly didn’t understand the relationship between an abstraction like a blog and a literary journal one could purchase and hold in one’s hand.

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Look Twice: Announcing Our New Cover Image

(This post was written by Max Kaisler, who just completed a summer editorial internship in the Ploughshares office.)3dfall2010issue.jpg

When you pick up the Jim Shepard issue of Ploughshares this fall, the first thing you’ll see is this image taken by photographer-couple team Bernd and Hilla Becher. At first glance, it doesn’t really spark the imagination. Clearly it’s some sort of industrial building (in fact it’s a water tower), a bulbous, steel mushroom, but nothing about it screams ‘Art.’ Water towers are all over the place. In a given cross-country road trip you pass a dozen without looking twice, let alone stopping for pictures, which would make about as much sense as setting out to photograph your telephone or the fire hydrant on your street. Why photograph a functional object that’s designed purely for its no-frills utility? Or if you’re bent on photographing that fire hydrant, why not dress the shot up with some artsy lighting and a vertiginous camera tilt? Why the straight-on, objective shot that the Bechers have chosen for their water tower? Where’s the art in that?

In the world of photographers you could call Bernd and Hilla Becher the industrial taxonomists. Over four decades they’ve captured and collected hundreds of images of industrial sites, as some people do butterflies. Together they’ve traveled the world compiling these photographs, all identically composed in that plainspoken, straight-on style. Then with these images in hand, they’ve composed their own exhaustive visual encyclopedia–they call them “typologies”–which they organize strictly by type of industrial facility.
The scope of these typologies is staggering. A table of contents to a Becher collection might include “Blasting Furnaces,” “Coal Mines,” “Framework Houses,” “Lime Kilns,” and “Grain Elevators,” to name a few, and when it comes to towers, you’re going to have to get a little more specific because they’ve got “Water Towers,” “Winding Towers,” and “Cooling Towers” (and I’m sure I’m leaving out others). And remember, these are all culled from dozens of sites throughout the world, to which the Bechers have accordingly flown, driven, hiked, and hauled.

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Nicholas Samaras on Language Articulating Silence

“Crashing Slow and Sudden,” the poem by Nicholas Samaras that appears in our Spring 2010 issue, slows down the worried excitement of a car crash into a beautiful reminder of just how precious life is. An excerpt:

Our whole car floated across three highway lanes,
threaded through huge blocks of titan trucks. Smashed
down into the asphalt, we still floated to rest perfectly
in the breakdown lane, facing forward. Whole. No sound.
Here, Samaras remembers the incident and opines on what this poem is actually about:

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My poem “Crashing Slow and Sudden” begins with the qualifier, “What I also didn’t expect…” I’m not talking about the crash, and, to me, this poem isn’t even about the crash. To me, the key phrase signifies the something much more beyond the actual crash itself that stuns me into silence, to this day. I couldn’t explain it then, and I can’t explain it now. As a writer, all I can do is record the event exactly as it happened, and leave it at that. As a writer, I strive to use language to articulate silence, to somehow give voice to the inexpressible or incomprehensible.

It was three p.m. on a Christmas afternoon, and I was simply driving my family on a highway to visit more relatives. After our little children and their vibrant excitement over the morning’s presents, we were completely nonchalant about the drive in our clichéd family minivan. What I did expect was the kingdom of the ordinary, the pleasant drive, the arrival, and the continuing of the day’s festivity.

What I didn’t expect happened in a very long second, the type of second that you swear fits an endless dialogue, a moment of intensity inside its space.
What I also didn’t expect is much harder for me to embody. This poem is the exact record of the event, word for word, person for person, that will eventually outlive me and that I give to my children in their growing lives. There were two old men. Anything beyond them is pure gratitude.

Nicholas Samaras won The Yale Series of Younger Poets Award with his first book. Originally from Patmos, Greece, and Woburn, Massachusetts, he is currently living on borrowed time, the exact details of which are provided, word for word, in this featured poem. In the time left, he resides in West Nyack, New York, where he is hurriedly completing his next book of poetry and a memoir.
Online, you can read his poems “The Balthus Poems” at The Cortland Review and “Easter in the Cancer Ward” at Pulp Theology.

Austin Segrest on Keats and Language’s Sensuality

Austin Segrest’s poem “The Spanish Steps: Keats Departing” imagines the sadness and anger felt by poet John Keats during the final few days of his life, when “he could no longer taste” any of the food prepared for him. The poem appears in our Spring 2010 issue, but here is an excerpt:

All sustenance–even his Chianti’s terroir–
mocked him. And so, after weeks
of this effrontery, he took his dinner tray
and pitched it out the window. Pigeons swarmed.


Here, Segrest shares his interest in Keats and the sensuality of language and food:

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In graduate school I read a biographical work about Keats’s last days called Darkling, I Listen, by John Evangelist Walsh. This work recounts the irritable, dying Keats throwing one of his landlady’s meals out of the window of his famous second-story apartment overlooking the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, where, sadly, the Mediterranean climate could not cure his tuberculosis. When he died, it seems, the landlady burned all the furniture her tenant had used.

A classics major, I had the extreme good fortune to study in Rome for a semester in 2001, and then to visit again with an Italian friend in 2005. Though the museum showing his room was always closed, I had the setting firmly in my mind: peach stucco, dark cobblestones, the wide, steep, smooth gray steps. In 2008, in the midst of a burst of new work, I re-imagined Keats’s anger with his landlady, and with the food that she prepared, in a city where I could never imagine the food actually being bad. I decided that what he, that great sensualist, hated was “that he could no longer taste” all that goodness.

While I come by a sensuousness with words pretty honestly, I struggle with the sensuous detail of plants and food that so many poets before and after Keats seem to put forth like leaves from a tree. I have a huge appetite but not a very delicate one I’m afraid. I don’t really cook; wasn’t allowed in the kitchen as a kid. My first few months eating in Rome produced my first and to-date only stretch marks, but I couldn’t tell you much of what I had, though I do remember sopping countless rosetta rolls, which we called rosetta stones, in salted oil. Funny enough, I sent a first draft of this poem to another contributor in the issue, James Thomas Miller. While I had the basic food groups and rhythm down, he helped tweak the culinary specificity of the first lines. This won’t surprise the reader of his Memphis poem, “Who Can’t Handle Me Is You,” certainly the best textured, if not the best overall poem in the issue.


Austin Segrest was a 2008 Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and winner of Iron Horse’s 2009 Discovered Voices Prize. Former poetry editor of New South, he teaches writing and Latin at Georgia Southern University. His recent work appears in The Yale Review, TriQuarterly, Passages North, and River Styx.
Online, his poems can be found at Blackbird, storySouth, and New England Review.

Faith Shearin on Time and Aging

Faith Shearin’s poem “The Old Boyfriends” can be read on our site. It appears in our Spring 2010 issue, alongside her poems “Not Knowing,” an elegy to a life on the beach slowly disappearing, and “Being Called Ma’am,” excerpted below:

A distance opens between the woman they see and the one
of my imagination and I am not someone they might laugh with
in the library but instead the stern face that appears from
behind the stacks to remind them of their manners.



Here, Shearin discusses how time and its effects shape these poems:



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One of the mysteries of aging (for me) has been how much I feel like my former, younger self. I am continuously surprised by my image in mirrors and in the eyes of younger people. I wrote “Being Called Ma’am” while on a summer road trip with my daughter and husband. The young hikers I met on the trail saw me as someone unlike themselves but, before their distant, formal greeting, I imagined them as peers. I was embarrassed and a little sad to be reminded of my age.

The images in “Not Knowing” are drawn from the island where I grew up. Each season escorts a new row of cottages into the ocean; my mother and her friends take their sketch books after storms and draw pictures of the wreckage: beds in the street, staircases leading nowhere. Living with such beauty and destruction has given me a physical awareness of erosion and change. Our island is disappearing but it is also migrating: this appealed to me as a metaphor.

Is there a proper place for old boyfriends when you are married and middle aged? In “The Old Boyfriends” I look for the spaces they occupy and the places they haunt. Unlike old friends there is a silence around these men I once knew well. In the poem, I wanted to find a place for them: some kind of job or landscape. And I wanted to examine scenes of departure: the way people look when they are leaving or being left behind.


Faith Shearin is the author of two books of poetry: The Owl Question (Utah State University Press, 2004), which won the 2002 May Swenson Award, and The Empty House (Word Press, 2008). She has received awards from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts. Recent work appears in Salamander, Atlanta Review, and North American Review.
You can read her poems “Retriever,” “Fields,” and “What the Dead Don’t Need” online.