Poem of the Week, by Anni Liu

Click here for all the details of my brand-new January Write Together week-long session. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room.

This past week I deleted a couple of no-longer-functional emails from my Poem of the Week subscriber list. As I was scrolling through the long list, addresses of passed-on friends flashed up – oh look, my darling Zdrazil, there you are. And Jay Hopler, the poet whose gorgeous poems I discovered just before he died. And Melissa Bank, beautiful human, beautiful writer.

Everyone on the list stays there unless an official bounceback flings itself my way, full of incomprehensible code that to my non-coding eye means only one thing: this person will never again open an email from you, Alison. Until that day comes, I send the poems out into the ether, because who am I to decide how and when and where a poem will find its way home?

Lake of the Isles, by Anni Liu

            January 2021

 After my grandfather died
I waited for him to arrive
in Minneapolis. Daily
I walked across the water
wearing my black armband
sewn from scraps, ears trained for his voice.
Migration teaches death, deprives us
of the language of the body,
prepares us for other kinds of crossings,
the endless innovations of grief.
Forty-nine days, forty-nine nights—
I carried his name and a stick
of incense to the island in the lake
and with fellow mourners watched
as it burned a hole in the ice.
He did not give a sign, but I imagined him
traveling against the grain
of the earth, declining time.
Spirit like wind, roughening
whatever of ourselves we leave bare.
When he was alive, he and I
rarely spoke. But his was a great
and courageous tenderness.
Now we are beyond the barriers
of embodied speech, of nationhood.
Someday, I will join him there in the country
of our collective future, knowing
that loneliness is just an ongoing
relationship with time.
It is such a strange thing, to be
continuous. In the weeks without snow,
what do the small creatures drink?

Click here for more information about Anni Liu.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Ross Gay

Click here for details and to register for this Thursday, November 17’s Memoir in Moments evening workshop and January’s Write Together week-long session – I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

Once, just out of college, I went to the movies with a friend. In the pocket of my jeans were nine dollars – a five and four ones. This was my cash for the week. I leaned back and draped my legs over the seat in front of me (terrible, I know) and watched the movie.

Walking home, I put my hands in my pockets, realized they were empty –my nine dollars must have fallen out to the floor of the theater–and panicked. My friend was weirded out. “Nine bucks?” he said. “Why are you so upset?”

He was a trainee investment banker. I was a trainee novelist.

Some of us – most of us? – are panicked by money worries at some point in our lives. For some, it’s a lifelong condition. I’ve never forgotten that night at the movies, the loss of that precious cash, how I tried to comfort myself by picturing some other penniless person, maybe a movie usher, maybe a late-night cleaner, and the wild happiness they must have felt when they found that $9 scattered beneath my seat.

The Truth, by Ross Gay

Because he was 38, because this
was his second job, because
he had two daughters, because his hands
looked like my father’s, because at 7
he would walk to the furniture warehouse,
unload trucks ’til 3 AM, because I
was fourteen and training him, because he made
$3.75 an hour, because he had a wife
to look in the face, because
he acted like he respected me,
because he was sick and would not call out
I didn’t blink when the water
dropped from his nose
into the onion’s perfectly circular
mouth on the Whopper Jr.
I coached him through preparing.
I did not blink.
Tell me this didn’t happen.
I dare you.

Click here for more information about the wonderful Ross Gay.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Robert Okaji

Still room in tomorrow’s The Art of Writing Picture Books, Tuesday’s The Intuitive Leap and other workshops! Click here for all the details – I’d love to see you in the Zoom room.

A while ago I was out doing errands, heading to places I haven’t been in a while: Turtle Bread Bakery, Great Harvest, the coop, Sunnyside Gardens. When I was finished I headed home, except not, because next thing I knew I was pulling up to the curb in front of my children’s old elementary school.

Alison, what the hell are you doing? It’s been well over a decade since I picked a child up at elementary school.

I looked up at the old brick building, the playground that we fundraised new equipment for, the third floor that was the domain of the eighth graders, the first floor where every year we hosted the Carnival fundraiser that parents semi-dreaded and every child adored.

The routine of those years washed through me: drop off the older two, take the youngest and her friend to Turtle Bread for a muffin before school started, return to Turtle Bread and sit in a booth with coffee and my laptop, writing one book, then another, then another. Years and years. Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye.

Driving without Radio, by Robert Okaji

One minute you’re sipping coffee at the stoplight,
and the next you find yourself six miles

down the road, wondering how you got there,
just two exits before the French bakery

and your favorite weekday breakfast taco stand.
Or while pondering the life of mud,

you almost stomp the brakes when a 40-year old
memory oozes in — two weeks before Thanksgiving,

the windshield icing over (inside), while most definitely
not watching the drive-in movie in Junction City, Kansas,

her warm sighs on your neck and ear, and the art
of opening cheap wine with a hairbrush. How many

construction barrels must one dodge to conjure these
delights, unsought and long misfiled? You turn right

on 29th Street and just for a moment think you’ve seen
an old friend, looking as he did before he died,

but better, and happier, and of course it’s just a trash bag
caught in a plum tree, waving hello, waving goodbye.

Click here for more information about Robert Okaji.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week (excerpt), by me

Ever wanted to write a picture book? Join me on Zoom next Sunday afternoon, November 6, for a nuts and bolts workshop on The Art of Writing Picture Books. Click here for details. I’d love to see you in this or one of my other workshops!

All my life I’ve dreamed of flying. Just me and my arms, soaring through the sky. In a recurrent dream I run down my city’s streets, but my strides get longer and longer and higher and higher, until I’m floating above the sidewalk. Long, effortless air strides.

At first it’s exhilarating. But then it accelerates, and suddenly I’m too high. Beyond the reach of gravity. I can’t get back down. Soon I’ll be among the stars. And I don’t want to be among the stars! I’m not ready to be among the stars!

Sometimes a picture book you wrote long ago comes back to haunt you. Like this one.

Only a Witch Can Fly (excerpt), by Alison McGhee

If you were a young witch who had not yet flown,
and the dark night sky held a round yellow moon
and the moon shone light on the silent broom
and the dark Cat beside you purred Soar
would you too begin to cry 
because of your longing to fly?

The dark night around you fills with Fly, fly
and bright yellow moonlight shines down. 
Cat, by your side, purrs a gentle Bye, bye
and Owl stares up at a star, so far.
Your heart tells you now and you walk to the door. 
Cat arches his back and croons, Soon.

You stroke dear Cat and slip from your home,
your home in the woods by the fire,
cauldron and hat, brown velvet Bat,
the too-small robe you once wore…

Click here for more information on the incredible Taeeun Yoo.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Ellen Bass

I’d love to see you in my January “Write Together” session or one of my half-day workshops next month. Find all the details here.

When I was young I felt desperate sometimes, desperate to escape my own grief, spiraling thoughts, panic, pain. Drugs aren’t something I’ve ever done but I understand the wild impulse to get out of my own head. I used to tromp for miles and miles until I’d temporarily walked myself out of the internal chaos. In really bad spells I narrowed time down to half-hour segments, sometimes fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes, Allie, was my silent mantra. Can you get through fifteen minutes? That’s all there is, is fifteen minutes.

Getting through the next fifteen minutes is a form of waiting. The act of waiting is a kind of living mantra, a belief that everything changes, everything passes. Waiting is a form of matching your breath to the breath of the wider, wiser world.

Phone Therapy, by Ellen Bass

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”

The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.

In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Ruth Awad

Sign up here for one of November’s workshops: The Intuitive Leap, The Art of Writing Picture Books, Memoir in Moments. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

The food shelf three blocks north is extremely busy these days. People trundle down the sidewalk with wheeled carts holding brown paper bags of food or load bags of groceries into old rumbly cars. The little free library outside the church now holds cans and boxes of non-perishable food.

I don’t like capitalism. When I say that out loud I often follow it up with as-practiced-in-our-country, because saying you hate capitalism here in the “richest country on earth,” where 1% of Americans have amassed more money than the bottom 50% tends to get you pushback. Usually from people who have lots of money or who want lots of money. Who sometimes assume you’re a fan of Communism, which, nope.

Why the pushback? Maybe because we’re taught that all you need to do is work hard, work harder, just keep working, and if you end up poor it’s your own fault because you didn’t work hard enough? Maybe because we’re so used to the systems we’re born into that it’s hard to see what’s right in front of our eyes? Like that man with the cart who passed by yesterday, one of the wheels about to fall off.

Hunger, by Ruth Awad

Imaginary, the value of the pound, and yet when it drops
like an apple rotted from its branch, my family may starve.
1,507 pounds to the dollar. What that means if you’re not
an economist: a kilogram of meat is now a luxury. A line
huddles outside a Beirut bakery though the price of subsidized
bread is up again. The worst financial crisis in 150 years,
the World Bank says. And I don’t see the story anywhere
here. In my house with its lights on. Where I choose to skip
meals. Once we were stitched together by food stamps.
Dirt poor, my mother describes it, though land is more valuable
than almost anything. America and its incongruent abundance:
fields of corn and the hungry in the streets. The cattle well fed.
Security guards in grocery stores. If you die from hunger, the spirit
goes searching for food and the wanting never stops. Hard to say
what you’d do to live. My father picked an apple from someone’s
tree, was chased until he dropped it. If you steal an apple, it’s a crime.
If you withhold an apple from someone who’s hungry, it’s not.

Click here for more information on Ruth Awad.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Dorianne Laux

Please check out my half-day and Writing Together offerings – I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

A few days ago I was on the phone with my sister, telling her a true-life tale from a few months ago. She started laughing so hard she had a coughing fit (always my goal). Then she turned quiet.

“I bet it wasn’t funny when it happened, was it, Allie?” Nope. But making unfunny things funny is a way to transcend what really happened. That child with a book in her treehouse, in her hay fort, in her room with a flashlight: she was me. She’s still me, making up people who take everything that’s too hard about being alive and somehow make it manageable. The older brother I always wanted, the high school boyfriend I never had, the woman who’s the me I want to be, they rise up from my keyboard every morning, saving my life like always.

Moon in the Window, by Dorianne Laux

I wish I could say I was the kind of child
who watched the moon from her window,
would turn toward it and wonder.
I never wondered. I read. Dark signs
that crawled toward the edge of the page.
It took me years to grow a heart
from paper and glue. All I had
was a flashlight, bright as the moon,
a white hole blazing beneath the sheets.

Click here for more information about wondrous poet Dorianne Laux.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland

Most great celebrations, like my daughter’s wedding last month, begin long before the celebration itself. Yards of cotton chosen years ago, to be turned into a quilt. Endless bottles of vodka turned into homemade gin, enough for 180 miniature party favors. Evenings with my daughter and a letterpress kit, hand-stamping each letter of each name of each place card.

Early mornings, late nights: hand-stitching, hand-stamping, hand-steeping juniper and cardamom. Moment after moment in which I thought about how much I love both my girl and her now-husband. Nothing was hurried. Everything took time, time, time, and every moment of it was a reminder that, among our endless rushing, time itself is an act of love.

The Word, by Tony Hoagland

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

Click here
 for more information about the beloved Tony Hoagland.

Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Ron Koertge

As a little kid I had a baby doll I loved and played with, but no Barbies – I hated them. They scared me. Maybe because they were so grownup-looking. Those big boobs, the feet permanently stuck in a pointing-down position. I didn’t want big boobs, high heels, fancy clothes.

Ken creeped me out too – that coiffed hair, that shoulders-back confidence, that gleaming I’ll be the decision-maker here, little lady look in his eye. It all gave me the willies. It still does.

Cinderella’s Diary, by Ron Koertge

I miss my stepmother. What a thing to say,
but it’s true. The prince is so boring: four
hours to dress and then the cheering throngs.
Again. The page who holds the door is cute
enough to eat. Where is he once Mr. Charming
kisses my forehead goodnight?

Every morning I gaze out a casement window
at the hunters, dark men with blood on their
boots who joke and mount, their black trousers
straining, rough beards, calloused hands, selfish,
abrupt…Oh, dear diary—I am lost in ever after:
those insufferable birds, someone in every
room with a lute, the queen calling me to look
at another painting of her son, this time
holding the transparent slipper I wish
I’d never seen.

Click here for more information about Ron Koertge.


Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Gerald Stern

A long time ago, one of the men from my writing class at the Minnesota AIDS Project, a beautiful writer whose memoirs I still keep in a “Favorites” file, invited us all over to his house for a potluck dinner. I remember he was lying on the couch when we arrived. He hadn’t felt well for years. He’d had to leave his job at the theater. He moved slowly.

But at one point in the evening, talking about one of his favorite performances, he suddenly drew back, hands extended, and transfixed me with a few lines from the play. I remember how his eyes blazed, how his voice changed. I saw for a minute the wildness of his young man self, in love with theater, in love with life, before disease ravaged him.

The Dancing, by Gerald Stern

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop—in 1945—
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany—
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

Click here for more information about Gerald Stern.


Words by Winter: my podcast