Poem of the Week, by Jane Kenyon

If you’re interested in taking one of my one-day creative writing workshops this fall, you can check them out here.

In grad school my stories often came back with margin notes like Repetitive; you’ve used this word three times in two sentences and Transition needed here and Let the reader know how this was done or said, e.g., “she shrieked wildly.”

Me, internally: But I meant to use that word three times, and I see no need for transitions, and maybe you love adverbs but I don’t. These professors didn’t like my writing and I didn’t like theirs, so it was a relief when I took a workshop with someone who knew exactly what I was trying to do. Who admired my writing the way I admired his. Whose one or two sentence responses on the last page of my stories were all I needed.

My last semesters of grad school were completed via independent studies with this writer, except that they weren’t. I’d fill out the forms, he’d sign them, and then… I’d just take his workshop. Again.

It worked out great. When I read this stunning poem below those long-ago days of silent, fierce rebellion flashed over me.

Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School, by Jane Kenyon

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.


For more information about Jane Kenyon, please click here.
alisonmcghee.com
Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Gunter Grass

If you’re interested in taking one of my one-day creative writing workshops this fall, you can check them out here.

It’s busy here at poetry hut central. Poems are disappearing at a rapid clip and we have to keep up, printing, scrolling and rubber banding new ones while bingeing shows. When I’m on the porch, which is most of the time, I love to see passersby stop and choose a poem, read it, put it in their pocket.

A few fun facts about operating a poetry hut:

1) People greatly prefer poems printed on neon paper. Violent pink and intense teal are always the first to go.

2) People do not like yellow poems. Yellow poems are always the last to go.

3) Some people read their poem, then carefully scroll it up, replace the rubber band, and put it back in the hut. For some reason this goes straight to my heart.

4) Over the years, a wood engraver has left limited edition prints of their gorgeous, intricate, otherworldly work as gifts. Maybe an art-to-art exchange? We save every one and my daughter framed several. One of these days I’ll spot the artist in the act, but no luck yet.

5) Some passersby leave poems of their own making, written on the scrap paper we leave in the hut. Others write down their own favorite poems, ones they must have memorized, like the beautiful poem below that I found a few minutes ago when I returned from a run (okay fine, slow jog).

The world feels so lonely sometimes, but not always.

Happiness, by Günter Grass

An empty bus
hurtles through the starry night.
Perhaps the driver is singing
and is happy because he sings.

For more information about Günter Grass, please click here.
alisonmcghee.com
Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Betsy Franco

If you’re interested in taking one of my one-day creative writing workshops this fall, you can check them out here.

Every day my goal is to get to Amazing in the New York Times spelling bee game (I don’t care about Genius). The other night, at dinner with friends who also love the Bee, I told them “jouncing” had been my best word of the day. They looked at me with blank faces. What? I said. It’s a very common word!

But guess what? It’s not. Over the next three days, out of many word-ish adults queried, only my sister in law Julie and my friend Julie (two Julies!) had ever heard of the word. This led to a mini existential crisis: how is it possible I’ve used this word all my life and never noticed that no one knew what the hell I was saying?

Words obsessed me as a kid. I’d mutter words, think words, write words in the air with my finger. Nothing has changed. Last night one of the two jouncing Julies and I sat talking about how much we love words, even confounding combinations like temblor and trembler, careen and career, bounce and jounce.

Words! They’re alive.

Anatomy Class, by Betsy Franco

The chair has
arms.
The clock,
a face.
The kites have
long and twirly tails.
The tacks have
heads.
The books have
spines.
The toolbox has
a set of nails.
Our shoes have
tongues,
the marbles,
eyes.
The wooden desk has
legs and seat.
The cups have
lips.
My watch has
hands.
The classroom rulers all have
feet.

Heads, arms, hands, nails,
spines, legs, feet, tails,
face, lips, tongues, eyes.

What a surprise!

Is our classroom alive?

For more information about Betsy Franco, please check out her website.
alisonmcghee.com
Words by Winter: my podcast

August 2021 Books I Read and Loved

(Note: I only write about books I love.)

The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay. I’d dipped in and out of this book before, but finally read it straight through, essayette to essayette, until all the essayettes were gone, kind of like I do with the bags of Lindt milk chocolate truffles I buy and stash away on a high shelf. These tiny essays, every one of them, made me laugh, smile, nod, frown, and see something about the world in a slightly different way. Every time I read something by Ross Gay I feel like calling him and talking about it, that’s how much I love his work, and then I remember that oh, we’ve never met and we’re not friends in real life. (Yet…bwahaha.) So far I’ve bought four copies of this tiny book –FOUR–at my beloved neighborhood indie Magers and Quinn to give to people I adore. That alone should tell you something.

Goldenrod, by Maggie Smith. How I love this book of poems. I treasure it as much as Good Bones, and I didn’t think that would be possible. Maggie Smith’s poems are so spare. There’s space and light on every page of her books, yet what she conjures in both image and feeling is vast. She’s a word artist in her use of the visual, and of negative space. Same thing in her imagery – the woman has an uncanny ability to flip a situation, or an emotion, inside out and upside down until suddenly you see possibility and freedom where you didn’t before. (I’ve also bought four copies of this book too, one to keep, three to give away.)

Pablo and Birdy, by me. You would think that, having written this book myself, I would remember everything about it. You would be wrong. I want to adapt Pablo and Birdy into a screenplay, so I re-read it in preparation, only to find that I’d forgotten so much. In fact, it felt like a novel I’d never read before. Who was Pablo’s original family? Why was he floating alone on the sea with only a parrot to watch over him? What will happen when the winds of change come over Isla? What if there really were such a bird as a Seafaring Parrot – what could I learn, and put to rest, about my own past? (Yes, I realize this not-remembering my own novel reveals way too much about me, but so be it. Shrug emoji.)

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Damn, this woman knows how to tell a story. I was captivated by this book from page one and didn’t want to put it down. Pixie! She will live inside me forever, and so will her sister Vera. So will Thomas, and dear Wood Mountain, and the unearthly Zhaanat. So will the land they live on so deeply that when I think about this novel I think about its people as part-land. Historical fiction based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, this novel is contemporary and timeless and sweeping and specific and just wonderful.

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult. You know those little shelf cards you often see in indie bookstores, placed by booksellers next to books they love? Sometimes one of my novels has one with something like “If you love Jodi Picoult, give Alison McGhee a try!” So I’ve always been scared to read a Jodi Picoult novel because what if I hated it, and by extension hated my own books? Finally I decided it was time to get over it, and wow did I love Leaving Time. It’s captivating, mysterious, sad, funny, with a wild twist at the end, and I learned so, so much about elephants, those beautiful creatures. Now I want to read all Jodi Picoult’s novels – which one should I read next?

Sanity and Tallulah, by Molly Brooks. This graphic novel has been on my shelf for a while now, and I finally plucked it off and figured I’d read a few pages to see if I was interested. Three hours later I’d gobbled the whole thing down – so funny and full of adventure. Two best friends relegated, with their cool and funny parents, to a far corner of the universe in a falling-apart space station who have to figure out, on the fly, how to fix the thing before everyone dies. That’s kind of the plot – I was having too much fun reading it to keep close track. The whole way through I kept thinking damn, Molly Brooks must’ve had a blast with this book. Reading Sanity and Tallulah made me want to come up with my own joyride of a graphic novel.

Poem of the Week, by Andrea Cohen

If you’re interested in taking one of my one-day creative writing workshops this fall, you can check them out here.

Words by Winter: my poetry podcast 

My dog is perfect at being himself. He twirls madly at the sight of his food bowl, springs straight up when he sees a favorite human, sprawls belly-first when he wants affection. If he wants to play he places his paws on my keyboard and bats at my typing fingers. If I accidentally step on his paw he yips. He hides nothing but the miniature Greenies he buries in the couch cushions.

My dog doesn’t put on a smooth facade when something or someone is hurting him. He doesn’t pretend he’s not hungry or exhausted or sad or in need of love and comfort.

It wouldn’t occur to him to override his own feelings. I wish I were more like my dog but I’m not, which is probably why I so love this little tiny poem.

Refusal to Mourn, by Andrea Cohen

In lieu of
flowers, send
him back.

For more information about Andrea Cohen, please visit her website.


alisonmcghee.com