“No Orangutan”

I began my public blogging career (brief though it may be) last week with “Start with A”, suggesting that teachers of poetry—who are frequently poets—might want to begin at a more basic level than many of us do. That included beginning with the literal level of a poem, because we’ve all seen bewildered students, or bewildered teachers (or, on occasion, our bewildered selves) trying to comment on a poem before grasping its literal level, and descending to such doleful depths as, “this poem offers a kind of meta-reflection on the shadowy nature of human experience.”

But what about the poetry where the literal level isn’t clear, maybe never become clear?  Let’s slide over the host of iconic Great Names whose difficult virtues no reasonable soul could dispute, and think for a moment about reading and teaching (and maybe writing) poetry that’s just…difficult.  Maybe good, if the reader can get far enough, but presenting so many obstacles that the reader may never be sure.

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Old Poems

Old poems in U-Store-Its.

Old poems in leather-tied journals, on loose-leaf foolscap ripply with weathermarks.

Old poems on public websites.

Old poems in stacks by the printer, in hidden folders on crashed hard drives.

I go back to my old poems with a dry suspicion, a parental eye, poems that have lingered five, ten years and more, lounging about my desk, taking up space, demanding attention,  without ever sprouting a soul or four fit limbs.  There’s an old-time way of speaking, a whiff of mothballs about them, these marvels of taxidermy that look and feel like poems but give no yip.  Their lack of self-consciousness is tragic.  They are the best that I could do.  My old poems that should have but didn’t, that still might but won’t.

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DeWitt Henry interviewed by Night Train

Our next guest editor and co-founder of Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry, was interviewed recently by Rusty Barns for Night Train.  The Summer 2011 issue will celebrate our 40th anniversary as a literary magazine -which wouldn’t have been possible without DeWitt’s contributions.  In the interview (which you can read here), DeWitt talks about Ploughshares, how writing memoirs affects his family, and where he finds inspiration.

On the topic of inspiration, after listing several books he loves to read and reread, he said:

Memoir and biography fascinate me as explorations of what we know, feel, and believe about plot and personality. But life itself, the muddle and challenge of loving, inspire me most. When I find myself at the loss for words; when I can’t explain myself; when I have pent up anger and estrangement; when my best intentions are misunderstood; when I feel ashamed: those are moments that drive me to paper, to words. These, and the sheer beauties of life as well, the clear days when you can see forever.

Be sure to check back for more information about our 40th anniversary and the upcoming issue, guest edited by DeWitt Henry.

What I Reread: Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ray Bradbury, or sci-fi in general (though I respect it plenty—its speculation on the future, its persistent social commentary, its relentless and somehow familiar glandular imagining). But every fall when I pick up Something Wicked This Way Comes, I feel the way I did when I first opened the book at seventeen, the age at which I fell in love with reading all over again after having abandoned it sometime in junior high. In an evangelical community like mine, even one that encouraged reading and supported education, problems with literature begin to rear their ugly heads with the coming of age. I’m guessing that it gets harder and harder for parents to find books that appeal to an older sensibility while not endorsing—or at least representing—the more worldly behaviors. I had a mother who responsibly read everything I did, and after I’d exhausted Madeleine L’Engle, I had no idea where to turn.

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Teaching Poetry: Starting with A

Our third guest blogger, Catherine Carter, is a poet whose poem “Arson in Ladytown” appears in our Spring 2011 edited by Colm Toibin.  Catherine will post on Fridays through August.

Hello, Ploughshares readers—it’s my pleasure and privilege to be blogging here for the first time, and as you might imagine, I was hoping to come up with something really original and striking.  As you might also imagine, that hasn’t happened just yet…so I thought I’d start where I am, which, over the past few weeks, is teaching teachers to teach poetry.  If we love poetry now, very likely we first met it in the public schools, maybe courtesy of a teacher who loved it too.  (Or maybe we were reading Ginsberg under the desk for the dirty bits, while the rest of the class endured Tennyson, but that’s another story.)

My day job is teaching in and directing an English education program, so I see a lot of proto-teachers…but while these are absolutely lovely students, noble idealists who feel privileged to earn poverty wages for seventy-hour work weeks for the pleasure of teaching kids to read literature, that idealism often falters when it comes to poetry.  Here’s some sample dialogue from a purely hypothetical methods class:

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Bid on a meal with author Arthur Golden

The Pine Street Inn, a friend of Ploughshares, is auctioning off a breakfast, lunch, or dinner with Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha. The Pine Street Inn is an organziation fighting to end homelessness in the Boston area by providing permanent supportive housing, emergency and trasitional shelter, food, street outreach, job training, and mental health support and substance abuse treatment.

Every night, over to 7,000 men, women and children in the City of Boston have no home. Founded in 1969, Pine Street Inn serves more than 1,300 homeless individuals daily and 10,000 annually, providing the full spectrum of services to help men and women reach their highest level of independence and get back to a place they can call home.

The Mission Of Pine Street Inn Is:

  • To be a community of respect and hope for each guest it serves;
  • To be a resource through which neighbors and friends can help to meet the basic needs of others; and
  • To serve as a national leader in the fight to end homelessness.

If you’re interested in helping us support a great cause, you can bid here.  Bidding closes on April 26th at 8:00 PM.


Peter Kline, our second guest blogger, will post on Wednesdays through August.  Peter’s poems “Universal Movers” and “Revisionary” appear in our Spring 2011 issue edited by Colm Toibin.

“For the rain it raineth every day.”
-Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Weeks of rain here in San Francisco.  Pissing spritzes and forty-eight-hour hosings.  Orgiastic immersions.  Delicate, misty sheaves that barely bead a cheek.  Sideways, umbrella-busting gusts.  Metronomic afternoons, minimalist symphonies on the metal drainspout.  4 a.m. blitzkriegs in the bedroom, glass-lashings, wind sucking through the ill-fitting windows.  Dawn rain, and a day’s expectation.  Spiteful, teasing rain.

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What I Reread and Why

This week we welcome three new Get Behind the Plough bloggers to Ploughshares. The first is Angela Pneuman, whose fiction story “Occupational Hazard” appears in our Spring 2011 issue edited by Colm Toibin.  Angela will post on Mondays through August.

When I started writing, one thing I never considered was how many other writers I would meet along the way and how many of them would become good friends. Like most friends, we often visit each other in our homes, and despite what often translates to a peripatetic lifestyle, we all lug around our books, shipping, driving, schlepping them from teaching gig to fellowship, from corporate stint to marriage. We set up shelves, we unpack, we categorize, we alphabetize. Then, when we visit each other, we check out each other’s books, comment on the overlaps, and note the differences for future reading.

Even among writers working in one genre, like fiction, we all have different preoccupations. One friend of mine is a Civil War expert and has rows and rows of history texts, historical fiction, bodice rippers—anything that deals even tangentially with that era in this country.  Another has an entire bookshelf of his favorite novels adapted for the screen, right beside their companion DVDs. I have a modest shelf devoted to Shaker living, Mother Ann Lee, and Kentucky authors like Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Berry.

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Ploughshares Joins the Radical Left

Ploughshares has entered the culture wars! In the middle of an attack on people warning that the flooding of Japan’s nuclear plant might be a serious concern, Glenn Beck takes on the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear disarmament group, and what should pop up but an image of our humble magazine, now an honorary member of the radical left.

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Watch the video here:  http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201103140040

Apparently we are funded by billionaire George Soros – that check has yet to arrive, unfortunately – and work to spread nuclear paranoia through Emerging Fiction Writers contests and poetry readings.
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Peace Out and Poetry Dialogue: Matthew Shenoda

Today’s post is my last for the Ploughshares blog and it just happens to coincide with the beginning of Season Five of Friday Night Lights. Good times all around. Big ups to everyone who read my posts. I know they weren’t always directly related to the craft of writing, but it’s all part of the same conversation as far as I’m concerned. To those who commented: your words are much appreciated. I wanted to respond directly to you, but I never figured out how.

Thanks to Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Oliver de la Paz, Lyrae Van Clief-Stephanon, Jake Adam York, and today’s poet, Matthew Shenoda, for participating in these poetry dialogues. In each case, the post could have 3 times as long if we had the time. Lastly, thanks to Diana Filar for her awesome work behind the scenes and to Andrea Drygas for holding it down. We’ll do this again another time in some other space. Again: many, many thanks to everyone for reading.


Matthew Shenoda is a writer and educator whose poems and writings have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs, and anthologies. His debut collection of poems, Somewhere Else, was named one of 2005’s debut books of the year by Poets & Writers Magazine and is the winner of the inaugural Hala Maksoud Award for Emerging Voice, granted by RAWI, as well as a 2006 American Book Award. His latest collection is Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone.

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