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Until You Make the Shore

by Cameron Conaway

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The Decline of the Decline of American Verse


In a controversial essay for Harper’s titled Poetry Slam, Or, The Decline of American Verse, Mark Edmundson lit into contemporary American poetry. But the greatest part of Edmundson’s long-winded but shortsighted piece isn’t the piece itself – it’s the brilliant responses to it.

Take this gem from poet Seth Abramson in his piece for The Huffington Post titled America, Meet Your Poets:

“How should the more than 20,000 young poets who receive their graduate degrees in poetry each decade receive a review of contemporary poetry that only considers the work of “the gang [of poets] now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond”? Of what relevance is an analysis of Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry when 99.99% of working American poets have no say whatsoever in who’s selected for the honor? If Edmundson knew that the average starting age of a student at one of the nation’s 171 full-residency creative writing MFA programs was 27, would he still have written that “a great deal” of contemporary poetry “imagine[s] TV shows, video games, ads, fashions, the Internet, movies, popular music never existed and don’t make up our collective environment”? If Edmundson had spent much time in any of the nation’s several hundred bohemian and university literary communities, most of which skew violently toward twenty- and thirty-somethings, would he really have said that contemporary poetry “does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture…it gravitates to the ancient”? These comments describe none of the contemporary poetry I review monthly for The Huffington Post, and, more broadly, hardly any of the poetry being written and regularly performed in public by my twenty- and thirty-something poet friends.”

And then there’s Katy Waldman who began her piece for Slate titled Who Are You Calling Opaque? like this:

“You go after Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, even the late James Merrill, all of whom deserve pages and pages of defense (and are likely getting it: I don’t even want to think about the contents of your inbox right now, Mark). Yes, your screed was a passionate piece of writing, dripping with erudition. You quoted great poets down through history: Dante, Milton, Emerson, Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Plath, Lowell. You did exactly what you want today’s poets to do, which is make a sweeping, fervent argument about something that matters. Unfortunately, you are completely out of your mind.”

If this all were a numbers game, it’s clear that poetry is only getting stronger. Nearly every community worth its salt has poetry readings either within them or somewhere nearby and, as Abramson pointed out, thousands of our country’s university-educated students hold advanced graduate degrees in poetry. They took years of their life and dedicated it to studying the craft of poetry.

If we pretend the numbers do not matter then we look at quality. Perhaps at no point in human history has poetry had so many outlets, so many publishers, so much competition to be published in the top literary journals.

If we pretend the competition and the skill it can develop doesn’t matter, then we’re left with the topics that poetry covers. Is contemporary poetry addressing anything of real merit? You bet it is. 9/11, the Trayvon Martin case, Hurricane Katrina, Syria, HIV/AIDS in Africa, child labor in Bangladesh, human trafficking, globalization, divorce, tech’s influence on modern life, pop culture – the list of topics that our country’s greatest poets are addressing is endless, is constantly evolving and is usually not just in lockstep with society but a few paces progressively beyond it. In other words, contemporary poetry is exactly where it should be.

Cameron Conaway is currently seeking publication for his book Malaria: Poems, a full-length book that attempts to tackle the intricacies of one of humanity’s most deadly infectious diseases.


The New York Times Snubs Poetry

In its highly anticipated 100 Notable Books of 2012, The New York Times selected two books of poetry. That wouldn’t be so bad, actually, if the subtitle didn’t read:

The year’s notable fiction, poetry and nonfiction, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Implicit in its focus on the “the big three” should be, well, a focus on the big three. What happened instead was a focus on fiction and nonfiction and then a sprinkling in of two poetry books. The sprinkling enabled “poetry” to fit in the subtitle which enabled the Times to appear literary, cool (yes, mentioning poetry is still cool when it comes to literature) and avoid taking heat for their blatantly ignoring poetry. See, ignoring poetry is fine so long as it’s not too blatant. Blatant would have been having three categories, but they chose two so that they could slip in their sprinklings with the wave of fiction.

Look, I’m the first to admit that poetry readership can barely be compared to that of fiction and nonfiction. I’m not asking for a 33-33-34 equality breakdown and I would not have felt the need to pen an article if they had included, say, five books of contemporary poetry. But two felt like a slap in the face, especially since the recently-deceased Jack Gilbert made the list with his Collected Poems in a move most of us who know poetry would not describe as coincidence or irony. Token feels closer to right.

I’m biased, this is true. But when non-readers, fiction and nonfiction writers alike all made comments about the snubbing of poetry I felt compelled to say a thing or two. Compiling a list of 100 books is noble, especially in 2012. I admire the NYTimes for giving it a whirl. But I can’t shy away from saying that as a fan and loyal reader of NYTimes I felt disappointed, and as a poet and ambassador of the genre I felt beyond disappointment and more like what would be created if disappointment dipped its legs into hurt and embarrassment.

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David Ferry wins 2012 National Book Award for Poetry

David Ferry‘s recent collection of poems titled, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, won one of the most prestigious awards in all of poetry – the National Book Award.

Here is an excerpted interview with Ferry from

Interview by Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson: You have had a long career in poetry and translation. How do you feel about being nominated for Bewilderment?

David Ferry: My answer to this is simple as can be. I’m absolutely delighted and flattered to be a finalist for this very distinguished award.

KP: What distinguishes this book, for you, from your other books?

DF: The main thing, I guess, is that I’m older, you might say even older, than in my previous books, and the fact that this is so shows up in a number of ways in these poems, the self-spooking of old age, sometimes amused at itself, sometimes not, the anxiety about getting it done, the experience of how one’s fate is like that of others and must feel as if it were not. I don’t mean that old age is the prevailing “theme” or “subject.” But the fact of mortality and our consequent vulnerability has always been evident in my poems―as of course the poems of almost everybody else―though perhaps more persistently dwelt on by me. In this book, as in my earlier ones, I notice that there are many poems about people in creaturely distress, in poverty, in derangement, in disarrangement of various kinds, sometimes in the precariousness of happiness, baffled often, and, yes, bewildered. A number of such situations are in this new book, and, towards the end, the fact of an event of bereavement in my own life and that of my children, which gives a new urgency in this book to these questions, in the context of our creaturely mortal vulnerability which has always been the concern of my poems.


David Ferry is the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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A Few Lessons from the Life of Jack Gilbert

Poet Jack Gilbert passed away on November 13, 2012, and with it came a host of literary obituaries and stories about the poet’s life. In the techno-crazed quick twitch of 2012, Jack’s passing made it all the more clear: it’s okay to be an old school writer; there are even benefits to doing so.

Let’s delve into this piece from the The Sydney Morning Herald:

Gilbert was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it. A restless man who travelled a great deal, lived frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself

Wasn’t exactly in it. Today, many poets find themselves pressured to be fully “in it.” We may think otherwise, but American poets are a fairly small group. Being “all in” increases the likelihood of knowing someone who knows someone who blurbs your book or gets your foot in the old creaky door of a contemporary poetry publisher. Part of being a poet is getting published, right? And there certainly seems to be a correlation between publishing and connections. This is nothing new to poetry of course, but thanks to social media “connecting” can feel like it never shuts down. All of a sudden trying to connect can sap hours each day away from a writer who should be/could be focusing on their craft.

…travelled a great deal. Throughout history, writing masters of all genres have talked about the benefits to travel. Traveling is easier than ever these days, but with jobs that tie us down, shortening attention spans and the ability to “see” even the most remote places while holding a remote in hand… it feels as though the longing or appreciation of true rooted travel hasn’t yet matched the ease with which we now can.

…live frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself. Again, many graduating MFA poets are becoming truck drivers, police officers, bankers, teachers, etc. These jobs can certainly add to the body of a poet’s work and, indeed, have. But I’ve also met countless would-be poets who got so caught up in the 10-hour workdays that years passed and then a few more and then more still. There are fiercely talented poets who are in their fifties and have yet to pen the book that’s long been blossoming inside them. The sad part is they likely never will. Jack’s life in a way reflects the “eat to live, don’t live to eat” mentality. He worked to live rather than lived to work, in part because living including poetry and everything necessary to foster it.

The article goes on to say:

Famous for eschewing fame, he did not go to writers’ conferences or cocktail parties, gave readings sporadically and did not publish a great deal, either.

This too is “different.” Many writers today, as alluded to above, are encouraged to “get out there and sell themselves” in order to network and make the connections that could shape their career. And the publishing industry, thanks to the simultaneously rise of self-publishing and e-Books, has poets publishing their own work at perhaps greater speeds than ever before. This isn’t to point out only the negatives, there are plenty of benefits of this, but it’s worth noting that even in the go culture of today, there are alternatives and in those alternatives there are important lessons that even us modern poets can learn from a poet like Jack Gilbert.

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Harvard Business Review: We should not “overlook” poetry.

A few days ago John Coleman, author of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, penned a piece for the Harvard Business Review blog titled The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals, in which he highlighted how a few famous poets, most notably Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, spent a considerable period of their lives with insurance companies and banks, respectively. He then gave a brief defense of why the genre of poetry should not be overlooked and should actually be embraced by business professionals. Some reasons he cited:

- “Poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity.”

- Poetry can help us “…develop a more acute sense of empathy.”

He also discussed how poetry can spark creativity and can help us infuse our lives with beauty and meaning. While all of this is true, I believe few business leaders will heed the advice because the relationship between poetry and business is far more indirect than direct. Artists are known for their ability to inhabit and even embrace this gray area, but business leaders are often more point A to Point B, more pie chart than the spaces between. Spending hours reading W.S. Merwin’s brilliant book Migration will likely not translate directly into more efficient business models or less employee turnover, but, based on many of John Coleman’s ideas, it certainly could help nudge business leaders into being able to think outside the box, into being more empathetic with their employees and from this possibly more aware of the environmental and social impact of their business. If all business owners were steeped in poetry might we have less companies using slave labor? It’s certainly possible.


The intersection of poetry on business has been explored quite a bit this year. In October 2012 the BBC released a video titled Can legal and financial language ever be poetic? in which Jennie Kitching, a poet and legal secretary at Pett, Franklin & Co., answers the question “Are there any similarities between poetry and the professional world?” with:

When anybody wants to express more effectively, you’re forced down the route of poetry. Language means so much.

It’s not often that poetry makes headlines in business magazines, especially one as respected as the Harvard Business Review. And considering the recent snubbing of poetry by the New York Times, this comes as some great news for the genre and for those of us who care deeply about it.

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Book Review: Shadows Chasing Light by Brian Bowers

A debut book of self-published poetry already has two strikes against it. Many first-books contain elements of an amateur within the spacing or in cliche, but if they are backed by a traditional publishing house they tend to be opened and then read with a more elevated status. If a house backs it then there must be something grand about it. A better option for sure is the self-publication from a poet who has been around, been published the traditional way and found acceptance in a host of literary magazines. Going the self-publishing route then, well, is not merely an act of rebellion against the system but it’s an act of rebellion by a poet of proven talent. I can say here then, with honesty, that I was hesitant to open Shadows Chasing Light. I knew of Brian Bowers through social media and I must say that I loved the mission he was on. Then I discovered an article he wrote on The Good Men Project and I liked him even more. I didn’t want to be disappointed. And I’m happy to say, after having spent several hours with the book, I wasn’t at all disappointed. I was actually quite impressed. Onto the brief review:

Shadows Chasing Light has moments of pure dense muscularity, the kind of lines any poet would be proud of. In the opening poem “Half-Thoughts” we have a few of these gems: “wet / where thoughts of you / used to be” and “i live to regret it.” Then, in the poem “Seeing Those” is this line: “Dancing a dance / With faceless smiles, / You, teaching the tango of / Tangled.”

These lines make it clear that Bowers, if he sticks with it and keeps studying the classics and his contemporaries, could have a bright future as a poet. That said, I believe a more seasoned poet, which Bowers will likely someday be, would have felt the pulse of those gems and followed them, unraveled them, built something from within them. Instead, they get lost a bit in the clutter of lines like “Reckless passion and desire” or “open the heart / the mind will follow.”

This work has moments of pure creative genius, and that can’t be said for many other debut poetry books – even those released by renowned presses. For this reason and because it unabashedly embraces all the emotion that is romantic poetry, it’s well worth a read, especially for those new to poetry and needing an introduction into the genre.

About Brian Bowers

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, self-published author and freelance writer Brian Bowers is a graduate of Oberlin College. After studying in Cairo, Egypt, Bowers was drawn to the idea of sustaining and unifying diverse cultures through all forms of creative expression. With a title inspired by a line from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali Bowers’ first published work, Shadows Chasing Light, is a poetic narrative exploring a wide range of emotions and experiences. In addition to writing, the self-proclaimed ‘multi-medium’ artist is also a singer, pianist and amateur photographer. The author currently resides in Houston, but looks forward to exploring the world through art and creativity while broadening his knowledge of spirituality and the human experience.

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Poetry and Science, Method and Malaria

BANGKOK, Thailand

2012 Joint International Tropical Medicine Meeting

December 13, 2012

I opened with a guided meditation where I asked all in attendance to close their eyes and to imagine a woman lying on the floor in an African village. She’s wrapped in blankets, dying. As the room pulsed with silence I read a poem from “Malaria: Poems” that filled in any gaps their imagination may have left. I then delivered the following speech, albeit with some ad-libs. Two additional poems from the forthcoming book concluded the presentation. I hope poets, scientists and those not part of either field can find something useful here.

Mahidol University. Professor Nick Day. Joint International Tropical Medicine Meeting committee members and staff. Those of you in attendance today. Thank you.

I began studying and writing poetry six years ago. Back in 2006, I remember whisperings of how some poets were diving into the hard sciences for material. Of course, history shows that poets have always used whatever knowledge base was available at the time. But now, in light of the deep chasm that existed between art and science, between many artists and scientists, and with the two in constant competition at universities for funding, well, this was a pretty cool new thing, a seemingly unexplored terrain. A gesture of peace even.

Mixing science with poetry was described as “interesting.” In a poem about watching an animal’s last breath, for example, there’d be a glimpse into the physiology of breath itself, or, in a poem about the lives of bees there’d be a passing mention of how the parasitic phorid fly, apocephalus borealis, later termed the “zombie bee parasite,” threatens their hives. It was at once illuminating and alienating. At once grounded in the hard sciences and perched on the elitist ivory tower. If indeed it did open any new doors in the genre of poetry it surely shut just as many in terms of readership. But it was new. And sometimes that’s all it takes to spark a revolution.

In 2009 the NY Times released an article titled “The Poetry of Science” that showcased Kimiko Hahn’s book “Toxic Flora,” a collection of poems all inspired by articles in the Science Times.

Now the blending of science into poetry was becoming more nuanced and complex. Or so I had read. Still only three years into my study of poetry, everything, to me, seemed to be getting more nuanced and more complex.

It did seem, however, that there were more mentions of “science poets” and that these particular poets were garnering all sorts of awards.

In 2008 and 2009, there I was, a poetry graduate student, sitting across the table from my professor, Alison Deming. She was one of these “science poets” raking in major awards. Her poetry books were some of my absolute favorite, books that still stick with me to this day for their ability to use science not just plop it in, their ability to make every poem actually feel more accessible because of the grounding in science.

A somewhat-related side note: There are forever-famous poets like Allen Ginsberg, who I idolize for his mixture of poetic ability and activism, and then there are poets like Alison Deming, who do not have the wild character or the luck of being born into a certain time period or place, but who I believe are the true masters of the page, poets whose poems shine not only as good poems in this time period or that one, but good poems in general. I learned far more about poetry through studying Allen Ginsberg’s life than I did through studying his poetry. If someone asked me if Alison Deming was a better poet than Allen Ginsberg would I answer yes? I sure would. And I’d probably be slapped for it. So you can imagine my thrill when I learned that science has something similar – the best scientists, the true masters, aren’t always the ones we hear the most about.

And then, to close out 2011, The Guardian released a piece titled “The Science of Poetry, the Poetry of Science,” in which they highlighted some poets and beautifully linked some of the parallels – such as the intense observation crucial to both poetic and scientific discovery – between the two fields.

This is all a preface to say that when I moved from the United States to Thailand nearly two years ago for a cultural experience that I had, somewhere within me, an interest in using science with my poetry. As luck would have it, I met Professor Nick Day of MORU (Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit) and soon realized that Thailand was perhaps the world’s best location to study tropical medicine. A few weeks later I knew malaria was it, it was what I had to write about. Here was a global, historical slayer of human beings and here I was an empathetic poet in the perfect location to begin my research.

All the research was fascinating when I first embarked on the book “Malaria: Poems.” Consider that I knew only that mosquitoes gave people malaria, and that it usually happens in Africa. I knew nothing more. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know the history. I was reading huge tropical medicine textbooks and even learning that malaria was the disease most mentioned by Shakespeare. I was visiting shelters and laboratories in Thailand and Bangladesh, and even visited the US to visit Sanaria – the world’s only facility entirely dedicated to creating a malaria vaccine. I watched countless documentaries and, as I’ve not yet been to Africa, I found images of mothers in Africa cradling their dying child and I meditated for hours in an attempt to inhabit her entire range of emotions.

These techniques of hard work and meditation had proved successful in the past for my previous books but, as the months passed, I found myself only with page after page of malaria notes. I simply couldn’t write a poem about it. For starters, I was scared. How do I write about this topic in a way that is informative, that pays homage to the researchers and, especially, to the millions who have died because of it? And how do I do all this is still make it poetry? Do I mention names of researchers? If so, which ones? How do I bring the science of malaria into the work without the work becoming boring or pedantic? These were just a few of the questions that served as barriers. My first few serious attempts to write a poem about malaria were total failures – clouded in fear and lack of knowledge and an inability to find a style suitable for the topic.

I realized that though the science itself was fascinating, the way in which text presented it was a total buzzkill to my creativity. I felt entirely incapable of having fun, of moving organically on the page, of letting my mind make associative leaps and then figuring out which leaps might be worth keeping. Another month passed and I still had nothing except for piles of notes. Then, while rereading “The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men: Inspiration, Vision, and Purpose in the Quest to End Malaria” I stumbled across this little gem:

“Doctors who specialize in tropical medicine went through the same rigors of medical training and accumulated the same amount of medical-school debt as their colleagues who chose pediatrics, oncology, cardiology, or neurology. But when they chose different diseases, they chose different patients.”

In essence, those working in tropical medicine were total outcasts. Many were brilliant doctors who could have made loads more money and achieved far more notoriety had they studied a different field of medicine and worked with different patients. This mattered to me, greatly. I was told during my final year in graduate school that I would be the University of Arizona’s final poet-in-residence. There had been major cuts to the arts all throughout Arizona and they simply couldn’t afford to continue the tradition, no matter how historic and meaningful it was to the community. When I returned home that same day my landlord was celebrating. He was a scientist at the university and had just been awarded a huge grant. I mean huge. Oh yes, he was going to study which brand of baby diapers truly holds the most urine.

So although though I felt in my bones how being a poet in the 21st Century, in this time of instant everythings, was a total act of rebellion, I had never entertained the idea that a scientist may have felt something similar in their own field of study. Right around this realization I came down with the flu and had a relentless fever for a few days. The high of this fever allowed me to meditate deeper on malaria and while doing so I began re-reading some crazy books renowned for their sheer creativity – most notably Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

When the fever subsided I felt fully recovered. Recovered from the illness and recovered from the fear to write. For the next three weeks you could say I wrote “feverishly.” Ideas I’d been kicking around in my head during sleepless nights began to melt onto the page and merge with my notes. I was finally inside the book and from there everything became so much easier. The barriers of not-understanding and of misunderstanding were removed and creativity finally had space to move.

Click here to learn more about “Malaria: Poems.”

Click here to learn more about the 2012 Joint International Tropical Medicine Meeting.

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5 Post-Mayan Apocalypse Poetry Books to Read