Poetry by the Sea People Are Making Headlines

Poetry by the Sea People

We have some amazing Poetry by the Sea people! Last year they said a world-class conference couldn’t be put together in just six months, and we proved them wrong, because finding amazing people has proven to be one of Founder & Director Kim Bridgford’s greatest talents. With the advantage of a full twelve months to plan, this year’s expectations were even higher. But guess what? Poetry by the Sea people are being recognized on a weekly basis for their outstanding contributions to the world of poetry.

Robin Coste Lewis Wins National Book Award

The NBA shortlist was decided only a few weeks after Kim secured the spotlight readers for the conference, and we were blown away when we realized two of our readers (Patrick Phillips was also nominated for Elegy for a Broken Machine) were finalists. I immediately put Voyage of the Sable Venus on my Xmas list! Then, of course, we were beyond thrilled when Robin won! Here’s an interview with Robin about the book, but personally I can’t wait to hear her read from it on Friday May 27 (and sign my copy!).

Richie Hofmann Makes Top Ten Debut Poets List

Poetry by the Sea PeopleRichie Hofmann (Second Empire) is on the first of our two New Books panels, which kicks off the conference on the afternoon of Tuesday May 24th, so I suggest you plan to arrive early. It should be a stellar panel, hosted by John Foy and also including Ned Balbo (Upcycling Paumanok), Tara Betts (7×7: Kwansabas), and Quincy R. Lehr (The Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar). By the way, Jenna Le (A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora) is on the second New Books panel on the morning of Friday May 27th, and is also making headlines.

Micheal O’Siadhail’s Latest Collection Receives Rave Reviews

Poetry by the Sea PeopleMicheal O’Siadhail, a workshop leader at the inaugural conference, is making a guest appearance this May on the Saturday morning to read from his newest collection, One Crimson Thread,  a book that Thomas McCarthy of the Irish Times calls “one of the most elegant pictures of faithfulness that I have ever encountered.” Greg Pardlo, last April’s surprise winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Digest) will also be chairing a panel on Saturday morning, in addition to reading with Robin on Friday. So that’s it then! I’ve just given you reasons both to arrive for the beginning of the conference and to stay until the end!

But here’s the thing: although we can single out the people above because they have made recent headlines, the truth is that all Poetry by the Sea people are pretty special. Obviously we have venerable workshop/seminar leaders like Dick Davis, Joshua Mehigan, Steven Schneider, and A.E. Stallings (a top candidate for the Oxford Professorship in Poetry earlier this year), and panels chaired by luminaries like Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, and Willard Spiegelman. (I can’t name everyone! But the aim is to have the full schedule online early in the New Year.) Still, what really makes the conference work is the community of Poetry by the Sea people who come to participate, who listen, ask questions, and then read their own poems in the participant readings, who breathe in the fresh air and restoring atmosphere of Mercy by the Sea with us.

I just can’t wait to join the amazing Poetry by the Sea people next May!

Note: All Amazon links are Associate links.

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of VerlaineIt’s been just over a year since I published Selected Poems of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, and it’s actually not been a bad little seller. Of course, it doesn’t sell as many copies as Quincy Lehr’s Heimat or Heidi Czerwiec’s Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, but every now and then, someone randomly buys it, which is probably because, as far as I know, it is the only book-length publication containing English verse translations of 18 of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore poems.

I probably haven’t done enough to support or publicize this brave and scholarly little book, partly out of modesty and partly out of an ineptitude with social media which was somewhat rectified by Don Lafferty’s workshop at the recent Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop.

To promote the book, of course, is also to promote awareness of the poet herself outside of her native France, where she has long been revered, and it is for that additional reason that I thought I would publish here on my blog the essay on Desbordes-Valmore included as part of my introduction to the poems (in my own translation) which was originally written by Paul Verlaine and included in his landmark book Les Poètes Maudits (French Edition).

(The footnotes are included, but some of them refer to my own complete verse translations which appear in the book. If you’re curious, well, you will just have to buy it, won’t you?)

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

In spite of the effect of a few articles, one very detailed by the marvelous Sainte-Beuve[i], the other perhaps, dare we say it? a little too short by Baudelaire, even in spite of a kind of good public opinion which does not compare her totally with the distant Louise Collet, Amable Tastu, Anais Segalas and other unimportant blue stockings, (we are forgetting Loisa Puget, in addition, it would seem she can be amusing, for those who like that sort of thing), Marceline Desbordes-Valmore has deserved, through her seeming yet absolute obscurity, to be placed among our Accursed Poets, and from henceforth it seems to us to be essential to speak of her in as much length and detail as possible.

In the past, M. Barbey d’Aurevilly[ii] has brought her out of the ranks and pointed out, with that strange skill he possesses, her own strangeness, and the genuine, if feminine, ability that she had.

As for us, notwithstanding our interest in good or beautiful poetry, we were ignorant of her, contenting ourselves with the word of the masters, when Arthur Rimbaud, to be precise, got to know us and practically forced us to read everything that we believed to be a jumble with some beauty within.

Our vast astonishment needs some time to explain.

First of all Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was actually from the North and not from the South of France, a distinction one was not aware of. What is believed to be from the North is usually thought well of (The sunny South of France is even better, but this kind of better can above all be the enemy of the genuine,)—and this pleases us because we are believed to be from the North too, in the end!

Next, she is no pedant and has a good enough use of language, along with expending enough effort so that she does not show herself up as a mere businesswoman. Quotations will provide evidence of this self-asserted wisdom.

While we are waiting for them, can we revisit this total absence of the South of France in this relatively large body of work? And besides that, understand as passionately as possible her Spanish North, (but doesn’t Spain have a composure, an arrogance, even colder than Britain’s?) Her North

Où vinrent s’asseoir les ferventes Espagnes.[iii]

Yes, none of that grandiloquence, none of that fakeness, none of that bad faith which one must disparage among the most obvious work from across the Loire. And nevertheless it’s all so warm—these romances of her youth, these memories of womanhood, these maternal fears! And gentle, and sincere, and everything! What landscapes, what love of landscapes!! And though this love is chaste and discreet, it is nevertheless fierce and moving!

We have said that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s language was good enough, it has to be said that it is very much good enough; only we ourselves are such purists, such pedants, that we must add, before someone calls us decadent, (an insult to take on the chin, between parentheses, during a picturesque sunset in fall) that a certain naïveté without any stylistic ingenuity could occasionally awaken our literary prejudices which aim at perfection. The truth of our reassessment will be brought to light in the course of the quotations we are going to produce.

Still the chaste yet fierce passion that we have pointed out, the almost excessive emotion that we have praised, mean it needs to be said, without overstatement, no! after a somber reading of our first paragraphs from the necessity of being conscientious, that we support their opinion of her.

And here is the proof:

Une Lettre de Femme[iv]


Les femmes, je le sais, ne doivent pas écrire ;

J’écris pourtant,

Afin que dans mon coeur au loin tu puisses lire

Comme en partant.


Je ne tracerai rien qui ne soit dans toi-même

Beaucoup plus beau :

Mais le mot cent fois dit, venant de ce qu’on aime,

Semble nouveau.


Qu’il te porte au bonheur ! Moi, je reste à l’attendre,

Bien que, là-bas,

Je sens que je m’en vais, pour voir et pour entendre

Errer tes pas.


Ne te détourne point s’il passe une hirondelle

Par le chemin,

Car je crois que c’est moi qui passerai, fidèle,

Toucher ta main.


Tu t’en vas, tout s’en va ! Tout se met en voyage,

Lumière et fleurs,

Le bel été te suit, me laissant à l’orage,

Lourde de pleurs.


Mais si l’on ne vit plus que d’espoir et d’alarmes,

Cessant de voir,

Partageons pour le mieux : moi, je retiens les larmes,

Garde l’espoir.


Non, je ne voudrais pas, tant je te suis unie,

Te voir souffrir :

Souhaiter la douleur à sa moitié bénie,

C’est se haïr.


Isn’t this divine? But wait!

Jour d’Orient [v]


Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !


C’était un jour de charité divine

Où dans l’air bleu l’éternité chemine ;

Où dérobée à son poids étouffant

La terre joue et redevient enfant ;

C’était partout comme un baiser de mère,

Long rêve errant dans une heure éphémère ;

Heure d’oiseaux, de parfums, de soleil,

D’oubli de tout… hors du bien sans pareil.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !


We must restrain ourselves, and keep our quotations for a different purpose.

And, before moving onto to the strictest test of sublimity, if it is allowed to speak thus of a part of the work of this adorable sweet woman, let us, literally with tears in our eyes, recite this from her pen:

Renoncement [vi]

Pardonnez-moi, Seigneur, mon visage attristé,

Vous qui l’aviez formé de sourire et de charmes ;

Mais sous le front joyeux vous aviez mis les larmes,

Et de vos dons, Seigneur, ce don seul m’est resté.


C’est le mois envié, c’est le meilleur peut-être :

Je n’ai plus à mourir à mes liens de fleurs ;

Ils vous sont tous rendus, cher auteur de mon être,

Et je n’ai plus à moi que le sel de mes pleurs.


Les fleurs sont pour l’enfant ; le sel est pour la femme ;

Faites-en l’innocence et trempez-y mes jours.

Seigneur ! quand tout ce sel aura lavé mon âme,

Vous me rendrez un coeur pour vous aimer toujours !


Tous mes étonnements sont finis sur la terre,

Tous mes adieux sont faits, l’âme est prête à jaillir,

Pour atteindre à ses fruits protégés de mystère

Que la pudique mort a seule osé cueillir,


O Sauveur ! soyez tendre au moins à d’autres mères,

Par amour pour la vôtre et par pitié pour nous !

Baptisez leurs enfants de nos larmes amères,

Et relevez les miens tombés à vos genoux !


How this sadness transcends that of Olympio[vii] and “To Olympio,”[viii] however beautiful (especially the last) these two overly proud poems may be! But, dear readers, forgive us, on the threshold of other sanctuaries within this church of a hundred chapels, for chanting with you after us:

Que mon nom ne soit rien qu’une ombre douce et vaine,

Qu’il ne cause jamais ni l’effroi ni la peine !

Qu’un indigent l’emporte après m’avoir parlé

Et le garde longtemps dans son coeur consolé !


Have you forgiven us?


And now, let us turn to the mother, the daughter, the young daughter, and the troubled but deeply devout Christian that was the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.



We have said that we shall try to speak of the poet in all her aspects.

Let us proceed in order, and, we are sure you will be pleased with this, using as many examples as possible. Therefore here to begin with are some abusively long specimens by the young romantic girl from 1820, like a better Parny[ix], in a form scarcely different, yet nevertheless developing in an entirely different manner.


Qu’est-ce donc qui me trouble, et qu’est-ce que j’attends ?

Je suis triste à la ville, et m’ennuie au village ;

Les plaisirs de mon âge

Ne peuvent me sauver de la longueur du temps.


Autrefois l’amitié, les charmes de l’étude

Remplissaient sans effort mes paisibles loisirs.

Oh ! quel est donc l’objet de mes vagues désirs ?

Je l’ignore, et le cherche avec inquiétude.

Si pour moi le bonheur n’était pas la gaîté,

Je ne le trouve plus dans ma mélancolie ;

Mais, si je crains les pleurs autant que la folie,

Où trouver la félicité ?

.           .           .           .           .           .           .


Next she addresses her “Reason”, commanding and renouncing it at the same time, very gently! Above the rest, we admire for our part this monologue in the manner of Corneille[xi] which seems more tender than Racine but dignified and proud in the style of both great poets though with a whole other angle.

Among a thousand sweetnesses occasionally soppy, but never dull and always astonishing, we beg you during this rapid examination to look at several isolated lines with the aim of tempting you to read the entire thing.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cache-moi ton regard plein d’âme et de tristesse[xii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

On ressemble au plaisir sous un chapeau de fleurs[xiii]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Inexplicable cœur, énigme pour toi-même[xiv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Dans ma sécurité tu ne vois qu’un delire[xv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

.                 .                 . Trop faible esclave, écoute,

Ecoute et ma raison te pardonne et t’absout.

Rends-lui du moins les pleurs! Tu vas céder sans doute?

Hélas non! toujours non! O mon cœur, prends donc tout![xvi]


As for “The Lost Prayer,” the poem from which these last few lines are taken, we are making honorable amends for just a moment on account of the word “sweet” which we have over-used. With Marceline Desbordes-Valmore one hardly knows what one should say or not say, this genius troubles you so deliciously, enchanting even the sorcerer himself!

If anything about passion has been as well-expressed as by the best elegies, it’s indeed this, or we don’t want to know anything more about it.

And of the pure friendships and at the same time chaste loves of this tender and haughty woman, how can one describe them well enough except to offer the advice to read her complete work? Listen once again to these two short excerpts:

Les Deux Amours[xvii]


C’était l’amour plus folâtre que tender;

D’un trait sans force il effleura mon cœur;

Il fut léger comme un riant mensonge.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Il offrit le plaisir sans parler de Bonheur.[xviii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

C’est dans tes yeux que je vis l’autre amour[xix]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cet entier oubli de soi-même,

Ce besoin d’aimer pour aimer

Et que le mot aimer semble a peine exprimer

Ton cœur seul le renferme et le mien le devine.

Je sens à tes transports, à ma fidélité,

Qu’il veut dire a la fois Bonheur, éternité,

Et que sa puissance est divine.[xx]
Les deux amitiés[xxi]


Il est deux Amitiés comme il est deux Amours.

L’une ressemble à l’imprudence ;

C’est une enfant qui rit toujours.
And in charming manner it describes divinely the friendship of two little girls. Then,

L’autre Amitié, plus grave, plus austère,

Se donne avec lenteur, choisit avec mystère ;[xxii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle écarte les fleurs, de peur de s’y blesser.[xxiii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle voit par ses yeux et marche sur ses pas :

Elle attend, et ne prévient pas.[xxiv]


Here is the serious note.




Alas, how discontented we will be, once we have finished this study. What pleasant and local marvels! What scenery of Arras and Douai![xxv] What banks of the Scarpe! How sweet and somewhat odd (we hear ourselves and you understand us) these young Albertines, these Ines, these Ondines, this Laly Galine,[xxvi] these exquisite “my beautiful country, my fresh birthplace, pure air of my green homeland, be well, sweet center of the universe.”

However we must keep our poor examination of a truly great poet within the fair (or unfair) limits that cold logic imposes on the desired size of our little book. But—but! What a shame to confine ourselves to only quoting fragments like these, written well before Lamartine[xxvii] burst forth and which are, we insist on it, like a chaste and peaceful Parny!

Dieu! qu’il est tard! quelle surprise!

Le temps a fui comme un éclair;

Douze fois l’heure a frappé l’air.

Et près de toi je suis encore assise ;

Et, loin de pressentir le moment du sommeil.

Je croyais voir encore un rayon de soleil !


Se peut-il que déjà l’oiseau dorme au bocage?

Ah ! pour dormir il fait si beau !

.               .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Garde-toi d’éveiller notre chien endormi ;

Il méconnaîtrait son ami,

Et de mon imprudence il instruirait ma mère.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Écoute la raison, va-t’en. Laisse ma main !

Il est minuit…[xxviii]


Is it pure, this “let go of my hand,” is it romantic, this “it is midnight,” after this ray of light that she thinks she still sees!


Let us, even as we sigh, leave the young girl. We saw the woman at the start of this, what a woman! Such a friend! The poem on the death of Madame de Girardin![xxix]


La mort vient de fermer les plus beaux yeux du monde.[xxx]


The mother!


Quand j’ai gronde mon fils je me cache et je pleure.[xxxi]


And when this son goes to college, it requires an agonized scream, doesn’t it?

Candeur de mon enfant, comme on va vous detruire[xxxii]

The least ignored works by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore are her adorable fables, unluckily for her, which are after the manner of bitter old La Fontaine[xxxiii] and the nicer Florian[xxxiv]:

Un tout petit enfant s’en allait a l’école;

On avait dit: allez! Il tachait d’obéir.[xxxv]


And “The Little Fraidy Cat” and “The Little Liar!”


Oh we beg you, stop with these dull and affected niceties!


Si mon enfant m’aime,[xxxvi]


sings “The Sleeper,” which we want to call here “The Lullaby,” since this would be a much better title.


Dieu dira lui-même:

J’aime cet enfant qui dort.

Qu’on lui porte un rêve d’or.[xxxvii]


But, noting that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore—the first poet of her age to do so—used to great effect uncommon rhythms such as eleven syllable lines, among others, and that she was a great artist without being too self-conscious and so much the better for that, let us resume our admiration with this fantastic poem.


[Verlaine here quotes the entire French text of “Les Sanglots” (“The Tears”), which can be found in full and with translation starting on page 55.]


Here we let our pen fall and delightful tears dampen our spidery scrawl. We find ourselves powerless to dissect such an angel any longer!


And, pedantically, because it is our pitiful role, we announce in a loud and clear voice that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is, quite simply—along with George Sand[xxxviii], so different, long-lasting, though not without charming self-indulgencies, of serious common sense, of pride, and one might as well add attractive to men—the only woman of genius and talent from this century and from all the centuries in the company perhaps of Sappho, and of Saint Therese.

[i] Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) who wrote the introduction to the 1860 posthumous Poésies

[ii] Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808-1889), French novelist, short story writer and critic

[iii] “Where fervent Spaniards came to settle themselves.” This line is from “Rêve intermittent d’une nuit triste” (“Intermittent Dream During a Sad Night”).

[iv] See translation on page 25. (Also available on my website)

[v] See translation on page 17 (Also published online at Kin Journal)

[vi] See translation on page 53

[vii] “Tristesse d’Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[viii] “To Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[ix] Evariste de Parny (1753-1814)

[x] Translation on page 23 (Also published online by String Poet)

[xi] Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

[xii] “Hide from me your soulful saddened look” from “Le Regard” (“The Look”).

[xiii] “We look like we’re happy beneath a flowered hat” from “Le Chien D’Olivier” (“Oliver’s Dog”).

[xiv] The next few quotations are all from “La prière perdue” (The Lost Prayer”). “Unexplainable heart, an enigma even to yourself”

[xv] ” When I am safe you’re just looking for thrills”

[xvi] “Listen, too weak slave, Listen! And my reason will forgive and absolve you: At least give it tears! There’s no doubt you’ll give in? Alas no! Always no! O my heart, take it all!”

[xvii] “The Two Loves.” It was a love more playful than tender; With a soft stroke it brushed my heart; It was light as a false laugh.”

[xviii] “It offered pleasure without speaking of luck.”

[xix] “It was in your eyes that I saw the other love.”

[xx] “This complete loss of self, this need to love for love’s sake, and that the word love scarcely seems adequate, your heart alone confirms and my heart guesses. I feel from your delights and from my faithfulness that it needs to say at the same time good luck, eternity and that its power is divine.”

[xxi] Verlaine has omitted line 3 without signaling the omission: “Faite pour l’âge heureux dont elle a l’ignorance.” The entire excerpt can be translated: “Two Friendships. There are two friendships like there are two loves. One looks like imprudence; made for the age of innocence, it’s a child that’s always laughing.”

[xxii] “The other friendship, more serious and severe, gives itself slowly, chooses mysteriously.”

[xxiii] “It moves flowers aside out of fear of hurting them.”

[xxiv] Verlaine has omitted the penultimate line of the poem without signaling the omission: ” Son abord est craintif, son regard est timide ;” The final 3 lines of the poem can be translated “It sees with [reason’s] eyes and walks in his footsteps; its aspect is fearful, its look timid. It waits, and does not anticipate.”

[xxv] Marceline was born in Douai, which is located on the River Scarpe about 25 km from the town of Arras, close to France’s Northern border

[xxvi] Names of Marceline’s childhood friends and sister

[xxvii] Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), French writer, poet and politician.

[xxviii] This excerpt comes from “L’Adieu du soir” (“Farewell to Evening.”) See translation on page 19

[xxix] Delphine de Girardin (1804-1855), French author. The poem is “Madame Emile de Girardin”

[xxx] “Death has just closed the most beautiful eyes in the world.”

[xxxi] ” When I’ve rebuked my son, I hide and cry.” From “Hippolyte,” full translation on page 47

[xxxii] “Innocence of my child, how you will be destroyed.” The poem is “A mon fils,” (“To My Son.”)

[xxxiii] Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), French poet and fabulist

[xxxiv] Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794), French Poet and romance writer

[xxxv] “A very small child set off toward school; They had told him to go, and he tried to obey.” From “L’ecolier”, (“The Schoolboy.”)

[xxxvi] “If my child loves me.”

[xxxvii] “God will say to himself: I love this sleeping child. Let him be send a golden dream.”

[xxxviii] George Sand, pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), French novelist and memoirist.

Female Historical Persona and Character Poems

When I decided to write the historical persona poems in women’s voices that make up Sisters & Courtesans, I resolved not to use the voices of anyone famous. The closest I came was a couple of sonnets in which the narrator is a bit part player in another famous woman’s story, such as “My Life as Joan of Arc’s Maidservant.” This choice is one of the most important ones facing the would-be writer of historical character poems, along with a consideration of the dramatic moment of the poem, and, especially for female characters, the extent to which a male partner/spouse signifies in the poem.

Most poets writing in this genre choose instead to make their subject a famous woman, perhaps because it is easier to research an individual than to research an entire historical era. The problem with this is that the usual suspects have a tendency to feature frequently. Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the wandering Ulysses, serves as a prime example, appearing in works by poets from Louise Glück to Margaret Atwood. Jehanne Dubrow even has an entire book of poems, Stateside, framed with a Penelope feel. However, my favorite of these Penelope poems is “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles” by A.E. Stallings, because it gives the classic tale a twist and Penelope herself a bit more gumption:

Believe what you want to. That they never touched me.
Believe your own stories, as you would have me do,
How you only survived by the wise infidelities.

One could argue that the character of Penelope is more myth than history, but if we can assume Homer’s Odyssey is at least informed by Ancient Greece, then poems based on myth can nevertheless be historical. Perhaps mythical characters are also easier to write about than factual figures, because the poet is less constrained by truth. Certainly myths are a common source of character-based poems–Lucille Clifton wrote a series of poems in the voice of Leda, who was raped by Zeus disguised as a swan, H.D. wrote a celebrated book length poem called Helen in Egypt, and don’t get me started on the proliferation of Persephone poems!

Ulysses is necessarily part of Penelope’s story, but Penelope has always had her own story. Many historical character poems, on the other hand, attempt to bestow stories on the often unknown women behind famous men. U.A. Fanthorpe’s “Three Women Wordsworths” is a wry case in point, in which she attempts to reappropriate some of the words that William stole from his supportive wife Mary and sister Dorothy:

Years later William knocked it together;
Mary gave her two lines. But it was Dorothy
Did the fieldwork, across the daffodilled years,

Perhaps the best-known recent example of poems from this perspective is The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, a collection in which all the poems are persona poems in the voices of the women–sometimes real, sometimes imaginary–married to famous men. We meet Mrs. Tiresias, Mrs. Faust, Mrs. Quasimodo and many more. The poems can be funny and caustic, but often have a core of poignancy. Here’s Mrs Midas:

Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art. 

The most popular male historical persona poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, is possibly based on a little-known Italian duke, but much of the poem is fictional, which begs the question of whether there are any similar historical character/persona poems in which the female subject is neither famous herself nor associated with a famous man. This leads us to Margaret Atwood’s gruesome “Half-Hanged Mary,” written in the voice of her ancestor Mary Webster who survived the title treatment during the Salem Witch Hunts.

My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair

Also of note in this poem is what I am calling the dramatic moment that Atwood has chosen. The piece is written in present tense vignettes occurring at intervals throughout the night of the hanging, with a final section labeled “Later.” This gives Atwood the opportunity for her speaker to address different audiences in different sections–including the women of Salem, the townsfolk generally, and God–or to simply meditate upon her fate.

Michael OnElizabeth1daatje employs a different dramatic device in his persona poem about the Virgin Queen, “Elizabeth.” The poem tells her life story in a few past tense stanzas, using language age-appropriate to her life stage. The effect is similar to the dream-like state induced by hypnotic regression, and gives a sense of the evolution of her character from innocent princess to bitter spinster:

I would speak of Tom, soft laughing,
who danced in the mornings round the sundial
teaching me the steps of France, turning
with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches,
who’d hold my breast and watch it move like a snail
leaving his quick urgent love in my palm.
And I kept his love in my palm till it blistered.

Kevin Young, in his poem “Reward,” elects to write the poem in the detached language of a newspaper advertisement submitted by their owner, Elizabeth Young, offering a reward for the information of the capture of two escaped slaves:

RUN AWAY from this sub-
scriber for the second time
an outlandish dark fellow

with his country marks
on his temples and bearing
the remarkable brand of my
name on his left breast,

As Rebecca Hazelton argues in her essay “Teaching the Persona Poem,” “by choosing to use the advertisement language, rather than Elizabeth’s speaking voice, Kevin Young discourages intimacy with this speaker.”

By contrast, John Berryman, in his long poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” fosters a deep intimacy with the world’s first housewife/poet, couching many of his stanzas in language that feels as though it was lifted from her most personal diaries:

The winters close, Springs open, no child stirs
under my withering heart, O seasoned heart
God grudged his aid.
All things else soil like a shirt.
Simon is much away. My executive stales.
The town came through for the cartway by the pales,
but my patience is short.
I revolt from, I am like, these savage foresters

Ironically, this poem was part of my inspiration for Sisters & Courtesans. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first housewife/poet. Before her, most of the female poets were either semi-royalty, cloistered nuns, or women of easy virtue–everyone else was too busy having children and raising chickens! I thought it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens and the sonnet as a form, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common. Being sonnets, most of my persona poems are lyric meditations that attempt to encompass a life–you could perhaps call them character statements–although the odd one is addressing a specific individual, such as “My Life as a Hollywood Madam,” in which the speaker is attempting to pick someone up at a bar!

Be that as it may, I hope this blog piece inspires more female historical persona and character poems, especially if you avoid the obvious. Penelope & Persephone, we are so over you!

Further reading: “Why We Wear Masks” by Jeannine Hall Gailey. “The Sisters & Courtesans Self-Interview.”

NB: All Amazon links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links.



Sexy Sonnets

As a writer who is somewhat known for writing sexy sonnets, I thought it might be fun to look at some older sonnets that may have inspired my own work. So here are a few in chronological order.

  1. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20
    This is believed to be one of the ‘fair youth’ sonnets–in other words, it is written not to the ‘dark lady’ of sonnets such as 127 (“Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black”), but to a younger male, who is the “master mistress of [Shakespeare’s] passion. While not overtly sexual, the sonnet does employ a perfect example of sexual humor and wordplay in its final couplet:
    But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
    Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
  2. Monna Innominata Sonnet 2 by Christina Rossetti
    Rossetti’s most famous poem, “Goblin Market” has often been touted as a hotbed of repressed Victorian female sexuality, so it’s not surprising that this sonnet’s metaphors verge on the coy: “…the budding of my tree/ that would not blossom yet for many a May.” But the poem’s redemption (and a stride into carnality) arise in the final line: “First touch of hand on hand–Did one but know!”
  3. A Church Romance by Thomas Hardy
    This is a love at first sight poem, but there’s something so visceral about the first few lines that I’m tempted to call it ‘lust at first sight’ with the love arriving later in the poem:
    She turned in the high pew, until her sight
    Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
    Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
    Against the sinking sad tower-window light.
  4. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnet XLI
    No list of sexy sonnets would be complete without the eponymous Millay, whose scandalous (for the time) liaisons and disdain for monogamy are believed to have inspired much of her work. This poem gives us the ‘zipless fuck’ way before Erica Jong was capable of articulating the ABC let alone that famous phrase:
    …let me make it plain:
    I find this frenzy insufficient reason
    For conversation when we meet again.
  5. Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton by Kim Addonizio
    These days, of course, we can get away with a whole lot more blatant sexuality in our poems, and Kim Addonizio frequently does. The original Drayton sonnet is pretty hot too, but Kim takes us to a whole new level in her invented form. (You need to pick a word from the first line of an existing sonnet and use it in some form in each of your own lines.)
    …Hold me
    like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
    wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
    yes…Finally it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent anthology, Hot Sonnets, edited by Moira Egan, where you will find a ton of sexy sonnet gems by writers like Marilyn Hacker, Molly Peacock and Julie Kane. Enjoy!

Sisters & Courtesans — the Self-Interview

Sisters & CourtesansBehind Every Good Woman There’s a Bad Woman?

This may be an obvious place to start, but where did you get the idea to write a persona sonnet sequence about nuns and prostitutes?

It’s an easy one to answer! I’m the essay co-ordinator for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which is an online database of essays about women poets., and so I read all the essays as they come in. It occurred to me that, until Anne Bradstreet, the only women writing poetry were outside of society in some way—some royals, but mainly cloistered women and women of easy virtue. Everyone else was busy having babies and raising chickens. I felt it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common.

You don’t need to get very far through Sisters & Courtesans before you realize that the women’s calling has very little to do with their actual level of morality, which in turn has almost nothing to do with their happiness. How do you explain that?

Firstly I get very frustrated, especially in this country, with the way that goodness is so often correlated with religiosity and chastity, both of which, it seems to me, tend to produce more hypocrites than saints. On the other hand, I didn’t want to glorify prostitution, so, yes, my “Crack Whore” is miserable, although not evil, while my “Gangster’s Moll” is definitely a criminal, but in her words, “Jeez, it’s fun!” I wanted a balance of those elements throughout my sisters and my courtesans. (I talk a little more about this earlier in this blog.)

But why sonnets?

There are so many reasons for that! I love sonnets, and can write them blindfold standing on my head? The sonnet is the perfect length for this particular kind of poem? A long tradition of book-length sonnet sequences? I almost feel they couldn’t be anything other than sonnets.

Which of the Sisters & Courtesans sonnets were most interesting to write, and which ones are most fun to read for an audience?

Good question! Typically the ones which were fun to write either came out of interesting research, like “Sworn Virgin of Albania,” or play with the sonnet form a little, like “Norse Spae-Wife,” which uses the alliteration common to the verse of the time. By contrast the ones which I really get a kick out of reading in public are the ones where I can get into character—I used to be an actress in my youth—and do voices: “Victorian Streetwalker” has to be my favorite, but “French Carmelite Nun” is also fun. Oh, and the really raunchy ones like “Serving Wench of the Round Table” and “Canadian Dominatrix,” but I don’t dare read those many places.

Yes, some of them are quite R-rated, and others pretty controversial, like the one where you vilify Mother Teresa! Aren’t you worried the formal poetry establishment will disown you? I’ve heard those people can be stuffy.

I don’t vilify Mother Teresa! Her name isn’t even mentioned, and that’s a true story, reportedly, but I know what you mean. I don’t think the formal poetry establishment is quite as stuffy as it used to be, and anyway, I’ve never been its darling—I’m way too liberal. But seriously, if you’re going to write a book like this, you can’t do it half-heartedly or in a politically correct fashion. It would be dull!

Actually I think the most genuinely controversial sonnets are the ones where I write from an ethnicity other than my own—“Jim Crow South,” ‘Apache Scout” and “Geisha” come to mind—but my defense of that is that in attempting to build a picture of women’s lives throughout history, it would be more offensive to write only from the perspective of white women and omit all those other voices.

So what’s the reaction been to Sisters & Courtesans, especially from said establishment?

Audiences and readers love them. That’s the main point. But reaction from the establishment has been more mixed, shall we say? None of the sonnets was picked up by any of the formal-friendly print journals, and even some e-zines were dismissive, although Angle, Light, The Rotary Dial, E-Verse Radio, and Mezzo Cammin all got on board. I think the problem is not that they are offensive, but that some male editors just don’t see the point? I also feel, not to detract from the individual poems, but the concept does work best as a book.

I love what one of my Amazon reviews says: “The poems catch the moment, and which is what I mean about building up a picture of women’s history – one recognizes commonalities and themes which play off each other. The individual poems are memorable, but the collection as a whole is something more.”

It’s almost as if the ‘Sisters’ of Sisters & Courtesans doesn’t refer solely to nuns, but is intended to include the whole sisterhood of women. Is that right?

Wow! You’re so clever! I wish I had thought of that…

Nice! Now, we can’t end this without talking about the cover photo. Is it you?

Does it look like me? Seriously, the cover has produced some good stories. When my fourteen-year-old daughter saw it she asked me the same question and got the same answer, whereupon she said, “You should have got Kate Upton to do it!”

You didn’t answer the question?

I know.


Sisters and Courtesans is available from Amazon, White Violet Press and annamevans.com

My Holiday Reading – an Exposé

I have a lot of down time when we visit the UK for Christmas, partly because of airplanes, and partly because at my in-laws there’s really nothing else to do except watch TV or go to the pub. So, I thought I’d entertain you all with an honest summary of the books I read over the two week vacation–some highbrow, and some less so. [Note: all the links are Amazon Associate links]. [Read more…]

Collingswood Book Festival 2013

Air-conditioning in October, really? But when I got back from the Collingswood Book Festival this mid-afternoon, I was so hot and tired, and the house so unpleasantly sultry, that it just had to be done.

I also felt sorry for those festival stall-holders without canopies. The festival takes place on Collingswood’s main street (Haddon Ave.) one Saturday every October from 10-4, and normally one would hope for a bright day, but today the sun was hammering down and I saw a few people suffering visibly.

Fortunately, that was the only negative on a day overflowing with positives. I kicked off the day at the Poetry Tent, hosting the Awards Presentation for the Children’s Poetry Contest on the theme of “Putting Words to Peace.” I hope the tent’s capacity audience was as inspired as I was, both for peace and for poetry, by hearing the children read their work.

[Read more…]

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

I can’t call this a book review, because I didn’t actually “read” Franzen’s long-awaited fourth novel–I listened to it on CD, 19 CDs to be precise. And in the way that some reviews (especially of poetry books) often touch on production values, it’s going to be hard for me to separate my enjoyment of Franzen’s fiction from a commentary on the delivery method. But hey, Freedom has had plenty of unadulterated press already, the main message of which seems to be: read it! And I’m not going against that. It’s an excellent, possibly unmissable novel. [Read more…]