Poem of the Week, by Martin Espada

IMG_E2022One of the top-rated MFA programs in the country once recruited me to fly out and interview for a fiction position. A day into the interview, deep in discussion of teaching technique with the faculty and students, I subtly began to portray myself as less interested in criticism and more interested in nurturing a creative spark. This wasn’t what they wanted in a teacher and I knew it. I was in effect throwing the interview, but I wasn’t sure why. 

Years later, I do. In the midst of the enormous talent gathered in that interview room, I wanted to be back with my students. My immigrant, refugee, loan-burdened, first in their family to go to college, work two jobs and raise a family and still make it to class students. Listening as they read their work aloud, then clapping for their gargantuan effort. Seeing a poem they wrote make their classmates cry. When news broke last week of the college-admission bribery scandal, this stunning poem by Martin Espada instantly came to mind, and I thought of my students, their hands upturned and burning.


Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper
by Martin Espada

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
Yellow paper
stacked seven feet high
and leaning
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
The glue would sting,
hands oozing
till both palms burned
at the punch clock.

Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open law book
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.

For more information on Martin Espada, please check out his website.



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Poem of the Week, by Li-Young Lee

img_5354Thirty years ago I stood in a kitchen reading through a letter of complaint sent to a business about one of their products. “Oh my God,” I remember saying. “Whoever wrote this letter is a horrible speller. And the grammar? Jeez!” Then I turned the page over and looked at the signature. And realized that the letter had been written by someone I loved, someone who had worked incredibly hard their whole life long, someone who could always be counted on to help, someone who was right there in the room. 

That memory has haunted me ever since. When I think about it, the sensation of shame that flooded through me in that moment, that almost made me fall on my knees, was the beginning of a long slow road that brought me to where I am now, a writer and a teacher of writing who doesn’t care how bad her students’ spelling and grammar are. I am so so sorry, a student wrote me last week, thank you for being so patient and correcting my horrible spelling. All my terrible mistakes must feel like fingernails on a chalkboard to you.

But they don’t. I don’t care anymore about things like that. The surface doesn’t matter to me. Years and years of listening to others’ stories and watching others’ faces when their mistakes are pointed out, when they’re being laughed at, when they smile and smile and smile while their eyes fill with tears, have softened and gentled me. They have turned me into someone who will sit with her laptop propped on her lap and spend whatever time it takes to see through to the golden, glowing sun that shines beneath all those halting sentences. 


Persimmons, by Li-Young Lee

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker 
slapped the back of my head 
and made me stand in the corner  
for not knowing the difference  
between persimmon and precision.  
How to choose 

persimmons. This is precision. 
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.  
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one 
will be fragrant. How to eat: 
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.  
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.  
Chew the skin, suck it, 
and swallow. Now, eat 
the meat of the fruit, 
so sweet, 
all of it, to the heart. 

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.  
In the yard, dewy and shivering 
with crickets, we lie naked, 
face-up, face-down. 
I teach her Chinese. 
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.  
Naked:   I’ve forgotten. 
Ni, wo:   you and me. 
I part her legs, 
remember to tell her 
she is beautiful as the moon. 

Other words 
that got me into trouble were 
fight and frightwren and yarn
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,  
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.  
Wrens are small, plain birds,  
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn. 
My mother made birds out of yarn.  
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;  
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man. 

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class  
and cut it up 
so everyone could taste 
Chinese apple. Knowing 
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat 
but watched the other faces. 

My mother said every persimmon has a sun  
inside, something golden, glowing,  
warm as my face. 

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,  
forgotten and not yet ripe. 
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,  
where each morning a cardinal 
sang, The sun, the sun

Finally understanding  
he was going blind, 
my father sat up all one night  
waiting for a song, a ghost.  
I gave him the persimmons,  
swelled, heavy as sadness,  
and sweet as love. 

This year, in the muddy lighting 
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking  
for something I lost. 
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,  
black cane between his knees, 
hand over hand, gripping the handle. 
He’s so happy that I’ve come home. 
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.  
All gone, he answers. 

Under some blankets, I find a box. 
Inside the box I find three scrolls. 
I sit beside him and untie 
three paintings by my father: 
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower. 
Two cats preening. 
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth. 

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,  
asks, Which is this

This is persimmons, Father

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.


​For more information on Li-Young Lee, please ​click here.

Poem of the Week, by Derek Sheffield


Write about a powerful moment in your childhood, a time when you felt seen, heard, acknowledged and powerful,  for exactly who you were.

This was the ten-minute writing prompt a few weeks ago in my Writing for Children and Young Adults class. Memories conjured themselves up around the room. A boy known as the Fat Kid watched a Chris Farley sketch and ran to the mirror to begin practicing comedy. A shy girl, quiet and overshadowed by the big sister who had always scoffed at her taste in music, received a package filled with homemade mix tapes of classic rock songs put together by that same big sister’s college roommate, with a note that began, “So I hear you like classic rock. And so do I.” 

And a little girl watching her older sister perform a play, in Hmong, the language that she had grown up speaking and hearing only in the safety of her family home, and felt for the first time “that I was at a place that wasn’t home, but that in my heart felt like home.” 

I listened to these stories and felt like crying. It takes so little, in the life of a child. A single moment can either take away their power or infuse them with it, as in this beautiful poem below.


First Grade, by Derek Sheffield
Sunday afternoon and she looks up
from her drawing, wants to know
if I know the game where you put
your head down and thumb up

until someone picks you.
“Yes,” I say, across the room and half-
listening. “‘Well, I always pick my friends
but they never pick me.” I pause

in the middle of a sentence.
“Who are your friends?”
“Everyone!” she says, as if I had asked
one plus one or the color of the sky.

Sunlight draws a skewed rectangle
across the floor. “I see,” I say
and let my notebook close, seeing
children in rows, heads on desks,

her big ears poking through sandy hair,
listening for a step or a breath, “Yes,
I remember that game.” And I stand
and walk over to find the outline of her hand

plunging through a white sky.    



​For more information on​ Derek Sheffield, please click here

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Poem of the Week, by Derek Walcott

img_5354This fall I’m teaching a class on identity and race and creative writers. Last week’s assignment was to choose an author from the wonderful anthology A Good Time for the Truthsomeone influential to you personally, and write about why. One of my African students, in a short, beautiful paper, wrote of the importance of reminding her black American-born nephews that “. . . they are not what the media or the world portrays them to be. They are what those who love them see in them.” And what they see in themselves. Which reminds me of this poem by the wondrous Derek Walcott, a poem I don’t often live out myself, but which I love and aspire to anyway.


Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

For more information on Derek Walcott, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Sabine Miller


Please help me be a good teacher today. Please help me bring kindness and clarity and joy. Please help me heal and never hurt. This is one version of an ongoing prayer that unreligious me invokes before I walk into the door of every classroom I teach. It is tough, tough going these days, for so many of us. We feel ourselves, our families, our friends to be under direct attack from our own elected employees. We fear the crumbling of a great, flawed, ugly and beautiful democracy. But hopelessness is not an option. When the terror and outrage threaten to paralyze me I think about the decades I have spent teaching. I think about how energy –my own energy, one single scrawny human being’s energy– can change the feel of an entire room. Exhausted, grieving, in despair, it doesn’t matter; stand outside that room and vow to be and to project energy and kindness and connection. The air in the room will change. You can literally feel it. Every moment of every day you can bring people down or you can lift them up –you, one small person– by the energy you project. We choose what we want our lives to mean, and what we want to leave behind. We have the power to write our own stories. Remember that.

Story, by Sabine Miller

Tell me the one
about the sick girl —
not terminally ill, just years in bed
with this mysterious fever —
who hires a man
to murder her — you know,
so the family is spared
the blight of a suicide —
and the man comes
in the night, a strong man,
and nothing is spoken
—he takes the pillow
to her face — tell me
how he is haunted the rest
of his life — did he
or didn’t he
do the right thing — tell me
how he is forgiven,
and marries, and has
2 daughters, and is happy —
no, tell me she doesn’t
die, but is cured and
gives her life to God,
and becomes a hand-holder for
men on death row —
tell me the one where the man
falls in love with the girl
and can’t do it, or
the girl falls in love
with a dog and calls
the man to tell him
not to come, or
how each sees their pain
mirrored in the other’s eyes —
tell me how everyone has already
forgiven every story
they ever told themselves
about living
or not living —
tell me, oh tell me
the one where love wins, again
and again                and again.


Sabine Miller is a writer, visual artist, and qigong practitioner. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Haiku 2013Lilliput ReviewModern HaikuSolitary PloverThe Red Moon AnthologyContemporary Haibun, and Mariposa.

Poem of the Week, by Dorianne Laux


Panhandle 2013, Howard Creek yellow water flower

That little phrase above there, “changjiang shangyou hen feiwo,” is one of my favorite sentences in the world. It translates as “the upper reaches of the Yangtze River valley are very rich and fertile” which is all well and good, but what I love about it is the way it sounds when you say it. The upward swoop of the chang, the sustained note of the jiang, the downward bark of the shang and the swing of the you, the deep growl of the you, and the swift up and down finish of the feiwo. Mandarin is a language I speak to myself inside my own head. It’s part of the language of words themselves, the sound and feel of them, phrases and fragments and little mantras that in my life others have used to soothe, like All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. All the good words that save us, that have saved us.

Tonight I Am in Love
     Dorianne Laux

Tonight, I am in love with poetry,
with the good words that saved me,
with the men and women who
uncapped their pens and laid the ink
on the blank canvas of the page.
I am shameless in my love; their faces
rising on the smoke and dust at the end
of day, their sullen eyes and crusty hearts,
the murky serum now turned to chalk
along the gone cords of their spines.
I’m reciting the first anonymous lines
that broke night’s thin shell: sonne under wode.
A baby is born us bliss to bring. I have labored
sore and suffered death. Jesus’ wounds so wide.
I am wounded with tenderness for all who labored
in dim rooms with their handful of words,
battering their full hearts against the moon.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek.
Wake, now my love, awake: for it is time.
For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love!
What can I do but love them? Sore throated
they call from beneath blankets of grass,
through the wind­torn elms, near the river’s
edge, voices shorn of everything but the one
hope, the last question, the first loss, calling
Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears.
When as in silks my Julia goes, calling Why do I
languish thus, drooping and dull as if I were all earth?
Now they are bones, the sweet ones who once
considered a cat, a nightingale, a hare, a lamb,
a fly, who saw a Tyger burning, who passed
five summers and five long winters, passed them
and saved them and gave them away in poems.
They could not have known how I would love them,
worlds fallen from their mortal fingers.
When I cannot see to read or walk alone
along the slough, I will hear you, I will
bring the longing in your voices to rest
against my old, tired heart and call you back.

Poem of the Week, by Stephen Dunn

IMG_0447I’m teaching a Creative Writing Boot Camp this week. Six days in a row, seven hours a day, nineteen of us gather in a windowed classroom halfway between Minneapolis and St. Paul to write and write and talk and talk about the art and craft and act of writing. Poems and tiny short stories, tiny memoirs. Beautiful, painful, funny, wistful fragments of life, captured on paper and released into the invisible air of the room. I could teach for another fifty years and never lose this astonishment, that nurses and truck drivers and musicians and stay at home parents and hair stylists and sex workers and clerks and commodities traders and group home workers, Muslim and Christian and atheist, come together in a single small room and transform themselves and me and the whole outside world by the power of sharing stories. If a teacher asked me to name a sacred place, the classroom would be mine.

The Sacred
     – Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.


For more information about Stephen Dunn, please click here.

Public radio interview

Poetry hut, flowersFor anyone interested, here is the link to the public radio interview I did this morning. The thoughtful and talented Kerri Miller and I talked about poetry, my poetry hut (pictured to the left there), teaching, writing, the making of Firefly Hollow, the inner lives of children (and grownups), what it means to be a lifelong adventurer, the freedom that comes when you stop caring what others think of you in favor of resting with your own intentions, how the death of someone you loved when you were young affects you then and forever, how a book can momentarily take the poverty and pain out of a child’s life, a novel I feared and hated as a teenager but never forgot, the enormous usefulness of waiting instead of acting, Galway Kinnell, teaching at my beloved Metropolitan State University, school bus bullies, and a whole bunch of other things.

Poem of the Week, by Gaius Valerius Catullus

Last week in the class I’m teaching we went around the room and each student recited a poem from memory. One man recited the below poem, one I had never heard before, and at first I thought he himself had written it; it was so brief and raw and real. But no, it’s a poem by Catullus, who died in Verona more than two thousand years ago at the age of 30. I drove home thinking about this poem, and then I looked up Catullus and have been reading his work, the little that we have from the one manuscript unearthed long after his death, ever since. The more things change, the more they don’t, even over thousands of years.

Poem 85
– Gaius Valerius Catullus

I hate and I love
Why do I, you ask ?
I don’t know, but it’s happening
and it hurts.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
    nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
(In the original Latin)


For more information on Catullus, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Lianne Spidel

The workshops I teach, at my non-traditional, designed-for-working-adults university, are filled with all kinds of characters, with characters meaning people: tattoo artists, auto mechanics, journalists, pearl-wearing grandmothers, cops, military vets, hairdressers, graphic designers and you name it, you get the picture. Within the first class, friendships and alliances are formed. I can’t even call them unlikely alliances, because they aren’t. People are people, first and always. “A gentle affinity.”
Summer School
           – Liann Spidel
Because I needed to know for a poem,
I asked the science teacher sitting
next to me (the one they teased
about his massive chest) to explain
to me the composition of a cloud.
He had already told me he was there
only for the credit, a step up
on the salary scale. His wife
wanted a bigger house, the kids
were growing, he was overwhelmed

with bills and coaching.
I said, “When you’re my age
it will empty out.
There’s too much, then all
at once there’s almost nothing.”

When he answered me about the cloud,
his voice went soft:
“Moisture on dust,” and when
I asked him “in” or “on,”
he said it didn’t matter

either way. We never shared
a coffee and spoke only
of casual things, a still viable
jock and a graying grandmother
pretending to concentrate on the course

content, side by side through indolent
hours, easy in the peaceful co
existence a couple of prepositions
had provided–a gentle affinity,
pleasure like moisture on dust.

​For more information on Lianne Spidel, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/lianne-spidel​

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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