I have watched two kinds of television today–the political coverage on MSNBC and CNN regarding the status of the presidential campaigns on both sides, and the movie Thor, out of Marvel Studios, because, hey, it’s Friday, and I’m alone, and I needs me some escapism too. The interesting thing is how easy it is to relate the two: the polls are where they are because America craves superheroes.
It’s not hard to support my superhero theory. Thor is part of an extensive web of superhero movies based on the Marvel Comic Books, which includes the Captain America and the Iron Man movies, and has grossed over $19 billion worldwide. Add to that the Batman franchise, and the Superman franchise, both of which are harder to quantify in dollars because they span decades and studios, and you can get a sense for our cultural yearning for the superhero.
Enter Bernie Sanders. Don’t laugh! Isn’t Bernie just as unlikely a hero as the geeky Clark Kent or the scrawny Peter Parker? He’s a 74 year old Democratic Socialist from Vermont. Yet the electorate is in the process of endowing him with superhero powers. Of course he can singlehandedly replace the hard won compromise of Obamacare with a single payer version modeled on European systems overnight, regardless of whether or not he has the support of congress and the senate. Free college for everyone? Done, with a flick of his wrist. Raising the minimum wage to $15? He does the impossible before breakfast, every day.
Meanwhile, the other side has Donald Trump. Different (and far worse) principles, same deal. The Donald (who even has a superhero name) can force a hostile neighboring power to build a 10.5 billion dollar wall. He is going to make America great again. America doesn’t win any more, but the Donald is going to make us win.
We want these superheroes so badly that Donald Trump is leading in the South Carolina Republican Primary, and Bernie is close to leading in the Nevada Democrat caucus, both of which happen tomorrow. I don’t like equating the two, because I admire Bernie’s principles, whereas I have many issues with Trump’s.
But the point remains: these guys are both playing on America’s need to be saved by a superhero. And while I really enjoyed Thor, (Ladies, the scene where Chris Hemsworth takes his shirt off is worth the entire price of the movie,) at the end of the day, it’s not real. Trump can’t build that wall. Bernie can’t make a single payer health care system happen in the US. I love escapist movies. Now I’m turning back over to CNN.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
They Asked Me and I Could Go: For the last 5 or 6 years the Philadelphia Writers Conference has always happened the same weekend as the West Chester Poetry Conference. This year, not so much. And Poetry by the Sea happened a comfortable 2 weeks ago.
The Faculty & Board Are Awesome: Keynote by Pretty Little Liars author Sara Shepard. Organization by Eileen di Angelo, James Knipp, Christine Weiser et al. Excellent workshops from people like Tom McAllister, Don Lafferty, Dan Maguire. I could go on…
I Always Learn Something New: memoir reading suggestions such as Amy Butcher’s Visiting Hours, website optimization tips etc. etc.
This Is a Book Buying Audience: good job I went home yesterday evening because I had sold out of copies of The Stolen From and had to bring some more today!
When the packed audience in Dempsey Hall rose as one to give Kim Bridgford a standing ovation during her opening remarks on the first night of the conference, I was moved almost to tears. This was the culmination of five and a half (was it really only that?) months of planning, organization, and at times sheer graft from the Executive Board–that would be Kim, Natalie Gerber, Kat Gilbert, Cherise Pollard and myself–and here we all were, finally, surrounded by a grateful community of friends in poetry who genuinely appreciated our efforts.
If you are reading this, you were probably either there in some capacity, or wish you had been, so I don’t want to bore or tantalize you with a blow by blow account of “my conference,” even if it is worth pointing out that with two or even three events often available at any one time, your conference might well have looked very different from mine. There were people there whom I barely saw (and I attended events at most of the scheduled times, other commitments permitting.)
Rather, I want to give you a general flavor of Poetry by the Sea 2015, although it would be remiss of me not to draw specific attention to Marilyn Hacker’s inspiring keynote address followed by her reading of her flawless poems on Wednesday night–truly a landmark event.
The thing that many attendees noted, however, was the general level of excellence of ALL the panels and readings, without exception. For example, I naturally went to the Raintown Review Anthology reading, admirably hosted by Assistant Editor Jeff Holt, and starring Erica Dawson, Jehanne Dubrow, John Foy, and Quincy R. Lehr. The readers and poems chosen were excellent (and I think Jehanne said it must have been the filthiest reading at the conference!) but everyone who attended the Children’s Poetry panel, which occurred simultaneously, was equally blown away. Similarly, Quincy’s After Modernism panel (Nick Friedman, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Wendy Sloan) was stunningly well-prepared, with a high level of academic fortitude, but so, by all accounts, was the Edgar Bowers tribute, while the Amira Baraka panel reached new levels of potential scholarly debate. And I could go on.
Likewise all four of the one-day workshops (led by Jehanne Dubrow, Spencer Reece, Rafael Campo, and Patricia Smith) received glowing accolades, as did the regular workshops and seminars. (I loved my Timeline seminar–ladies, you are the absolute best!)
I’m not saying the organization was seamless, but I don’t think the participants noticed the occasional glitches (and trust me, that’s as seamless as it gets!) Plus, everyone was in such good humor and so happy to be there (by the sea, in exceptionally warm May weather for CT) that glitches were laughed off, even by spotlight reader Ken Chen, who ended up walking the best part of the three mile journey from Madison station. He simply switched running order with Afaa Michael Weaver, and the whole reading rocked!
It’s easy to laugh things off when out of almost every pretty, white-framed window of every classroom and social space you can see a beautiful shell-strewn beach and the Long Island Sound. Many participants reported enjoying time to walk on the beach or even swim (Nick Everett, with his North Sea constitution!). I don’t think that was a pleasure afforded many of the Exec. Board on this occasion, but maybe next time…
It’s also easier to laugh when you are being well-fed and watered. At Mercy, the meals are delicious and available in generous portions (they had me at double helpings of bacon for breakfast!) plus you could always grab a cup of free coffee from the dining room (much-needed given the inevitable build up of lack of sleep!) Later, wine flowed in the appropriately named Seaside Lounge during the evening receptions (and, yes, there will be more Pinot Grigio and less Chardonnay next year!) Looking around the room, it was so gratifying to see men and women of many different ethnicities, with faces known and unknown to me, both old and young, each engaged in lively discussion about the poetry that moves us all.
And, of course, it’s easiest to laugh when you are with a community of like-minded souls, many of whom you have known for years, if not decades, and when a gathering that you thought had been ripped away from you is somehow miraculously restored…but not just restored! Regenerated, reinvigorated, reborn.
Rebirth. That’s what it felt like. Okay, maybe on this occasion I (along with my fellow Exec. Board members) did feel a bit like I’d gone through 24 hours of back labor to get there, but the result was as miraculous as a perfect newborn baby’s first cry.
And like having a child, the miracle doesn’t stop there. (My eldest starts college in the fall at Penn State, so I know what I’m talking about!) The child turns one, and two, and three… It all just keeps happening.
With that in mind I would like to invite everyone to join us at Poetry by the Sea next year. The dates are booked: Tuesday May 24th – Saturday May 28th, Mercy Center, Madison. Some of the conference will be the same, and some of it may be different, because this is the kind of conference that grows and evolves to better serve its community.
But it will be amazing and magical again, because it’s Poetry by the Sea, people! And because that’s not what Kim Bridgford does, it’s who she is.
We are reaching the end of the first full day of online registration for the Poetry by the Sea conference, which will be held next May 26th-29th, at the Mercy Center in Madison, Connecticut, and I’m happy to report that ten people have successfully registered online, four have applied for scholarships, and one generous person has used the online form to sponsor us. More importantly, public response to the conference idea, location and website have all been tremendously positive. In this blog post I want to highlight four things that are important and special about this new event.
1. The Location and Facilities Are Truly Superb!
I’ve tried to give people an idea of the beauty of the place with the photos I have posted on Facebook but really, I can’t do it justice. The view from almost every window is exquisite: sea, beach, garden vistas. There couldn’t be a more perfect place to be inspired to write poetry. Furthermore, the spaces for meetings and panel events are lovingly maintained. Forget drafty or sweltering classrooms forever! Instead, maybe your workshop will meet in the main living room area of the Seascape House, the Solarium, or the Library, all with comfy chairs and the same great views.
2. Mercy Center Treats You Like Family
The Center is thrilled that our conference has chosen their facility and can’t do enough to show their appreciation. Want Gluten-free or Vegetarian meal options? Simply let them know. Need a room set up with projection or a special sound system? Ditto. Want the book store to stock books by faculty AND attendees, and to open late in the evenings? Just sort out a schedule ahead of time. Worried you might need extra evening parking, even though the lot they have is large enough? The school next door can act as overflow. They want us to be happy there. Oh, and complimentary tea, coffee, water and cookies are available in all meeting rooms, all day, no extra charge…
3. It’s Truly a Global and Diverse Conference
There’s a UN Panel–no, I don’t mean me or Dick Davis representing the UK, Micheal O’ Siadhail representing Ireland, and someone from Canada. I mean a panel of people representing the UN talking about literary arts on an international scale. There’s also a Latino/Latina poetry panel chaired by Edrik Lopez, a Margaret Walker centenary chaired by Cherise Pollard, and a panel on Italian Translation chaired by Moira Egan and Damiano Abeni. But listen, there are still some spots for panels available, so if you have an idea, whether it be for something global and diverse or for something more conventional, please don’t hesitate to pitch it to Director & Founder Kim Bridgford, which brings me to…
4. Poetry by the Sea aims for Inclusiveness & Courtesy
There need be no mystery or cliquishness in how a conference is run. Poetry by the Sea is YOUR conference, and we want you to feel you are a part of everything that happens. The Board of Directors are there to work tirelessly in your interest. The conference hopes to break even, but not at anyone’s expense. You know Kim. You all know me. I’m your Facebook friend, and you probably even have my cell phone number. Text me or call me with problems or questions. It is indeed time for something new.
I have never liked flying. I didn’t like it before 9-11, and afterwards I hated it. This was not helped by the fact that my family was IN the UK on vacation when 9-11 happened, and we had to fly back to NJ with a 2 year old and a 4 year old during those first few horrible days immediately after they lifted the flight ban. In fact I credit myself with the ‘transparent carry on’ rule. Their first desperate security measure was to say “No carry ons,” to which I responded helplessly that I was taking a 7 hour flight with a toddler and needed, as a bare minimum, 3 diapers, baby wipes, a bottle of milk, a bottle of juice, appropriate snacks and preferably toys. After hasty consultation they gave me a clear plastic bag to put my necessities in and the ‘transparent carry on’ rule was born, or so I like to think.
Flying has continued to go downhill, IMHO, since then. Seats are more cramped, freebies have diminished, tickets are more expensive, and the peremptoriness of the airlines rampages unchecked. But until this week I hadn’t personally experienced that frustrating and depressing issue known as the cancelled flight.
Airplane 1 – Cancelled!
On Tuesday I arrived at Philadelphia Airport in good time, checked in, ate crab cakes with wine at Chickie ‘n Pete’s, and proceeded to the gate as instructed 30 minutes before take-off. The half-full US Airways flight was canceled “due to a maintenance issue” 5 minutes before boarding was supposed to commence, and it was suggested to us all that we take the (presumably also half-full) flight at the same time the following night–hotel vouchers would be issued.
One of the reasons I booked the flight I was on was to spend a day in the company of my brother, who lives in Australia, and whom I had therefore not seen for (we worked out later) 11 years. Had I taken the flight 24 hours later, I would have been able to spend about 3 hours with him, which was unacceptable. I proceeded to get myself booked on the Philly-Edinburgh US Airways flight instead, followed by a Flybe puddle jumper to Manchester.
Airplane 2 – Plane Change!
As I was rushing to the gate at the other end of the terminal a delay was announced on that flight. Foolishly, I thought “Great!” and stopped rushing. I duly arrived, checked in at the gate, boarded, and we taxied out onto the runway.
Where we sat.
And sat, until an hour later when they announced there was a “maintenance issue”, and we were returning to the gate.
Airplane 3 -Frigid!
Disembarked, we sat some more, until they eventually announced a plane change. I don’t think they dared cancel this full flight, especially since half the passengers had already had a plane cancelled on them. But it took time for the plane to arrive, and it didn’t take off until 1 a.m. Wednesday.
It was an unpleasant flight, despite my delightful seat mates–a couple of spry early sixties classics professors on their way to a conference in Durham. But the airplane air conditioning was fierce, and I shivered under the thin blanket despite my hoodie and jeans. I was also totally stressed that the four hour delay on THIS flight had now reduced my transfer time in Edinburgh down to 90 minutes, and I had to get through Immigration.
Airplane 4 – Turbulence!
I queue-jumped at Immigration, pleading short transfer time. (Go figure–the officials weren’t expecting a FULL flight and had only 1 person processing non EU passports.) I established that my bag was not on the flight and I would need to file a claim at Manchester. At last, at 2.55 p.m. I boarded the tiny plane and started to relax. I even ordered a glass of wine (4 GBP!)
The plane hit the worst bump of turbulence I have ever encountered. The wine shot directly upwards, hit the roof above my head, and proceeded to rain down on myself and my (also delightful) seat mate, a soft-spoken businessman from ‘Old’ Jersey, with a much-needed sense of humor.
You have to laugh, we agreed, or else you weep profoundly.
Anyway, I did reach Little Haywood and spent a wonderful evening with Stephen, his wife and stepdaughter. But here’s my final take:
ANGELS: The classic professors, the Jersey businessman, the staff of the Fringe bar in Edinburgh airport who let me recharge my iPhone for 30 minutes, the US Airways booking clerk who found me the flight to Edinburgh, my taxi driver Tony who let me weep in relief when I finally got into his cab at Manchester, my husband for the text support, my family, Mike Lloyd, and finally the guy who delivered my suitcase last night at 9.05 p.m.
DEMONS: US Airways, you suck! You know you do! You most likely cancelled that flight for cost reasons, with no consideration for the bad remake of Planes, Trains & Automobiles that you were about to put me through. I hate you!
I would be remiss if I didn’t post a link to the guest blog entry I wrote this morning for Books, Inq., which summarizes my Day 1 of the conference.
However, since then time has moved on apace, and this afternoon as a book launch I gave my own featured reading from Sisters & Courtesans, immediately prior to the participant readings. We had a blast!
If in Doubt, Show Some Skin?
Allison Joseph introduced me, and I was touched and honored that she had actually written a sonnet in response to the book, which she read. Then I dived in. I had decided to organize the reading a little differently from usual, in that I normally read the poems chronologically (as the book is sequenced) but today I began with four “sisters” poems (“Anglo-Saxon Novitiate,” “Polish Nun During World War II,” “Russian Orthodox Nun,” and “French Carmelite Nun”–always fun in my flighty French accent!)
Next I said, “Excuse me while I change,” turned my back on the audience, removed the black duster cardigan I had on to reveal a flirty strapless dress, and shook my hair out of its pony tail. Then I read four “courtesans” poems (“Serving Wench,” “May Queen of Beltane,” “Victorian Streetwalker,” and “Gangster’s Moll.”
I think everyone enjoyed that, but the loveliest thing was that so many of the participants who had signed up for the subsequent Open Mic were friends of mine who took some time to reference me in their chat. Heidi Czerwiec chided me for stealing the “sexy-selfie” as cover photo, Rick Mullin shook out his own pony tail (although he wouldn’t remove his shirt!) and David Katz read his “Haikoum for James Dean”—-a form I invented one bored National Poetry Month—-to name a few.
By the way, as of last time I checked I had sold 18 copies in the West Chester Book Store! Better get yours soon—they’re going fast!
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!”
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…]