Thursday 31 December 2009

Goodbye, 2009

My parents, Henry and Bernadine Etter, in 2006

It was the year my first book of poetry was published and the year my father died tragically, in a horrific episode of malpractice. It was a year of terrible grief and loneliness, a year of kind friends and small pleasures. I am relieved to see it past.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Christmas 2009 in Normal, Illinois

My nephew Matt, 15 on the winter solstice

Brother-in-law Scott Cummings, showing his new Smoothie King gift card

My sister Sandra in her new motorcycle cap (not that she rides a motorcycle, mind you)

My niece Sara, 6, in a flurry of unwrapping

Thursday 17 December 2009

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems, third selection

NB: Some of the spacing is incorrect as it could not be replicated.

Intact, we rose to love one another
while death sang at our side.

last lines of "Tenayuca" (tr. John Oliver Simon)

Now, in this time,
as unlucky days return
I break my dreams like clay jars....

from "Malinalco" (tr. John Oliver Simon)

her shackled tongue sleeps
feigns that it sleeps
stretches into its fullness
savours its own darkness

from "Cantharides" (tr. Ruth Fainlight)

With its blackened heraldry,
its relentless downpours,
the city is dying.

Around the fountain
young people shoot up,
sleep on paving slabs
with runes drawn
on their shoulders.

* * *

only on sweaty faces,
twitching hands.
The perfect illusion shifts elsewhere,

A foreign dialect
with no wish to express
quite simply brings
its clean edge.

opening and closing lines of "Tattoos" (tr. Anamaria Crowe Serrano)

Night accumulated on the walls.

* * *

Oh long kisses,
hand that travels a thigh
like a beach,

the curl in the groin--
(oh summer body).
And thoughts pause
in that flowering

like insects.

from "Reflection in a Sphere" (tr. Anamaria Crowe Serrano)

The touch of day
and the cloud of dreaming

skirt each other.
And deep down
like a cloyed fish
lies consciousness.

Its intimate calm
unbuckles into arborescent light....

* * *

The heat holds up a taut arch mid-way through the day.

* * *

The heat draws its pincers closer, like a crab.

* * *

A transversal cut through meaning.
We look at the oracle, none the wiser.

Everything begins where we close our eyes.

* * *

You can hear the east wind,
the metal of cowbells,
the incipient polyphony of summer.

* * *

And at night, where will clarity suggest itself?
A wave in the sea
where the moon instils its desire?

* * *

Under the shade of the palm tree,
on the banks of the dry lagoon
as much sediment gets superimposed
on stones

as on the mind--
creatures of thought
or desire,
--who engenders them?
which all-fertile god germinates the tiniest impulse,
the most trivial fantasy,
as he goes by,

and turns them
into dark or radiant beings,
whose beauty overwhelms?

* * *

Desires become bright stones,
seeds devoured by birds,
or in the dark they spread their emptiness.

The moon flutters like an insect,
in spirals over the water
and flush with visible things,
in the fissure,
it grows toward a more confined
recess of consciousness.

from "Stones" (tr. Anamaria Crowe Serrano)

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems were published by Shearsman and can be purchased delivery-free from The Book Depository.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Sunday 13 December 2009

Divining for Starters, or How It Began and Begins and Begins

"Divining for Starters (65)" is now up at Intercapillary Space. Edmund Hardy, one of the editors, asked me where the phrase came from, and here's an attempt at an answer.

My series of poems "Divining for Starters" began with the first two written in late 1999. I was in my third year of the Ph.D. program in English at the University of California, Irvine, and was completing my graduate coursework, which included an emphasis in critical theory. The emphasis involved a 3-course, year-long survey, and a required number of optional courses, which for me included Marxist Literary Theory with Rey Chow and Pardon and Perjury with Jacques Derrida. Anyway, in 1997 or '98 I read Derrida's seminal essay, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," and related writings, and began thinking about this Western compulsion to create/assert origins, and the way this compulsion is embedded in our thinking--it's a new day, new project, new year, new beginning, and so on, always suggesting we can decide such an origin simply by stating it (I know I'm getting away from the Derrida now; this is the direction my thoughts took me in when I thought of the work more abstractly later). That was the idea when I wrote the first, and hence unnumbered, "Divining for Starters," and I explored the idea more explicitly in "Divining for Starters (2)" a few months later. For me, the phrase divining for starters means trying to find a way to create a beginning, to originate while acknowledging one is always
in medias res. I think many people, consciously or unconsciously, live by divining for starters, and each poem in the series considers the possibility of a particular new origin or the possibility/problem of deciding an origin more generally.

I'd be glad for questions that may help me clarify this answer further.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Matt Bryden's "Miso"

My reading of Matt Bryden's poem "Miso" has now aired on WGLT Poetry Radio and can be heard in this podcast.

Sunday 6 December 2009

"Cycle on the Pavement" by Nicholas Whitehead

Following my and Vuyelwa Carlin's readings on the First Thursday series this past week at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, there was an open mic, in which the following poem was read. Thanks to the author for allowing me to share it. Americans might want to keep in mind that in the UK pavement is the equivalent of sidewalk.

Cycle on the Pavement

You want to get from A to B,

Don’t want to drive or pay.

Don’t want to cycle on the road

Yet still, there is a way.

Cycle on the pavement!

No cars, no traffic lights.

No one-way signs, no dotted lines,

A cyclist’s delight!

But even on the pavement,

Cycling’s not without its cares.

Your route involves pedestrians

Who think the pavement’s theirs!

They’re living in society

They really should get real.

Faster is the master here,

And foot gives way to wheel.

You’ve got a flashing headlight

And a helmet for your head.

Yellow, hi-viz cycle clips,

And back light flashing red.

If they can’t see you coming,

They must be bloody blind.

There’s someone with a white stick there.

[SMACK], Well, never mind.

It’s actually illegal,

It’s in the Highway Code.

It spells out very clearly

You should cycle on the road.

But human laws don’t matter,

You can break them with impunity.

Environmental friendliness

Gives you complete immunity.

So cycle on the pavement,

With a smirk across your face.

Cycle on the pavement,

And fuck the human race.

Nicholas Whitehead

Friday 4 December 2009

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems, second selection

Translations by Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo

You answer through silence.
You reduce thought
to the void,
and there where you razed all image
your name is renewed.

last stanza of "Name"

Where can I fall where you are not?

last line of "A Tightrope Act"

The ends of the earth
at the tips of your tangled hair.

last stanza of "Dancing Shiva"

My senses dissolve in this wordless sea,
words become quiet,
and one step further on the mind opens up
to the shock of its own annulment.


Present in everything
thus you also disappear.


Where are you leading me
stripped of my own body?


And what of Death?
Small butterflies flying among the ruins.


Froth leaves necklaces around the throat of rocks.
Islands of black rock.
Terns nest in the porous walls.
A necklace of froth--and I see my own wreck.
Night comes and shuts off the shine on the water.
Come, you tell me.
With closed eyes, just the tumble of the sea.
Still very close
those beaches to which I will never return.
Very far away now.


Black light devouring our bodies.


And on the water,
where rays freeze in their own light,
I see you like a seed of fire.
Every wave leaves trails of silk against the sun.

from "Malabar Canto"

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems is published by Shearsman Books and can be purchased online here at The Book Depository, which offers free worldwide delivery on all their books.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Linda Saunders' The Watchers

Linda Saunders' second collection, The Watchers, has just been published by Arrowhead Press. I must admit in this case to a personal bias: Linda has been in my private Poetry School seminar, meeting at my home once a month through the academic year, since 2005.

"Sideways" brings together Linda's principal strengths: a distinctive, precise visual perspective, arising at least in part, I assume, from her former career as an art critic; pleasing wit; a tightly-focused lyricism; and an abiding interest in the philosophy of language. It makes me eager to read the entire collection.

poem starting with a line by Jack Gilbert

We use them sideways.
Words, he meant, that will do for now,
slipping them through or between
to prise a way towards
what we don’t know yet how to say.

My mother cut sideways through water –
she’d swim in any weather, any sea,
her right cheek pillowed on the waves.
Once she hooked back a man from drowning,
brought him to shore on her strong sidestroke,
legs scissoring the undertow.

is a strategy of cunning,
making headway in adversity,
catching the gale sideways
and using it.

After the stroke, she was often lost
for a word – she the linguist who loved a cryptic
crossword. I took the slant of her meaning
and how she strove by indirection
to arrive at it, like a small craft
in a contrary wind.

Some things, faintest stars, we see more brightly
if we just look
so a mist, a smudge, resolves
into points of light, sidereal
in the corner of the eye.

It’s the way our eyes are made,
near the edge more densely receptive,
so we always have this sense of what escapes
our scrutiny,
a truth askance and facetted,
a love so far unsaid.

Using them, even the blanks in her mind –
“Almost...” she said once, exhausted,
gripping both my hands and waiting
like the poet for the word that will tend
his passion, then hooking the prize at last
with an intake of wonder, “...inexhaustible.”
Which was about the size of it.

Linda Saunders' The Watchers can be purchased from

Friday 20 November 2009

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems, first selection

Mexican poet Elsa Cross, as translated by Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo


At every entrance of that village, a church.
The seven doors protected by the archangels, so they said.
And ours got drunk in the arcades of the square,
talking of heaven and hell
as placed separated by two inches
inside the body.

last lines of II

We forgot to mind our children,
like Bacchantes,
we forgot our homes.
The rain was a fiesta on the mountain.
And who could predict his own fulmination?

from IV

...pianos stumbling in an out-of-tune waltz.

* * *

We became deer,
we crossed through the woods like arrows.

from VI

Pleasure lashed us.
our bodies, the offering,
like fruits that women leave
on the beaches of the south and the sea carries away.
We were lost to the world.
We sketched boats in the air
and we went off in them.

from VII

Your eyes, emerged from what blaze,
from what sombre places,
saw without seeing the plates of food.

from VIII

Unceasing celebration,
at the cost of so much of our life,
our faces so pale.

* * *

And who could stop us?
Who could stop
those plants climbing along the wall?

from X

Elsa Cross's Selected Poems has recently been published by Shearsman and can be purchased here.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Words for Michael's funeral, 19 November 2009

I thank Michael’s family for giving me this way to pay my last respects to Michael as I can’t be there in person. (While this is being read, I’ll be teaching in England.)

I will remember Michael for his earnestness, his kindness, his gentleness, and his warmth. I will remember him for his greatest ambitions: to be a good father and to be a good friend.

As I look through photos of Michael with Kaylee and Austin, what impresses me most in all their faces is the look of contentment. There’s happiness, too, but contentment goes deeper and speaks to their appreciation, to their delight and pride in one another. If I had a dollar for every time Michael spoke, with a sneaking smile, of how smart his son Austin was, of how bright (in several senses of the word) his daughter Kaylee was, I think my flight from England would have been paid for several times over. He used those words in my hearing enough times for me to believe that for each time I heard him, he’d said it a hundred, maybe a thousand times to others. Yes, Michael loved Austin and Kaylee, he loved them dearly, and just as importantly, he admired them for who they were, for their individuality and strength of personality. Often I thought his tone of voice, when speaking to them, suggested he was speaking to a younger friend rather than a child.

He was also a good friend—so I have heard, and I have seen in him the qualities that make one. He avoided rudeness, cattiness, and complaint; he was passionately loyal, unusually unconditional in his affection, and considerate. The last time I spoke to him it was September. It was a warm night, and he was sitting in his truck while Sandra had come inside to pick up some mail. I didn’t want them to just come and go, I wanted to talk to them and hang out for a while, so I went outside and invited Michael in for a glass of wine. It wasn’t to his taste—not quite sweet enough—but even that he admitted with a smile. It was the kind of conversation you have late at night, in a quiet house, voices low, relaxed, and straightforward. I suppose if I’d been outside that scene and been able to look in, at the writer and her sister and her ex-husband, the person I’d have chosen first to have a drink with would have been Michael, for his earnestness, his kindness, his gentleness, and his warmth.

Michael Lusher, I am glad you were alive. I have no doubt your children will take your ambitions—to be a good parent, a good friend—into their lives, and they will be better and happier for them. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sunday 8 November 2009

George Ttoouli's Static Exile

Tonight at eight o' clock, George Ttoouli's first collection, Static Exile, has its London launch at The Slaughtered Lamb. Here is a poem from the collection, first published in Pomegranate.

Love on a Monday Evening

Today I felt fear and it was the grandest thing -
like the crown of my head would lift off.
Not a leaf could have flipped on its back in the wind

that I wouldn't have noticed.
An Arab sat opposite me on the train.
I had taken the first carriage,

the one we had imbued with likely death
in a way we can only substantiate for each other.
My fingers filled with static and my blood turned

to white noise. I could describe him for you,
a quick photo-fit sketch, but mostly it was his stubble
and the wart on his left cheek,

like in news reports. I have a spot in the same place
on my right cheek. You've never called me
a terrorist when I've not shaved for that long. Mostly

I have been supporting myself on wire link fences
looking at each partition of waste land,
square by square, until the police move me on.

George Ttoouli

Static Exile can be ordered directly from the publisher, Penned in the Margins.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Online Notices

Thanks to George Ttoouli for his kind remarks on the launch of The Son in Bath last week.

And somehow only now have I come across
an article published in El Mercurio (according to Tony Frazer it's Chile's equivalent of The Times) on New Year's Eve in 2004. Tony Frazer translates the passage in which my name is mentioned thus: "
As for poetry, the global scene is vast, dynamic, diversified and in some cases brilliant (the recently deceased Anthony Hecht, Monica Ferrel, John Ashbery, Charles Simic, John Mole, Carrie Etter, Brad Leithauser are mere sample [names] (or: illustrative examples) in the thriving English language poetry of today. In other words, if we left our parochial surroundings, we would be able to see a literary landscape [that is] stimulating, energetic, provocative, tempting, very diverse and a contrast with the backward republic of native letters."

How I got on that list--how I'm known to Camilo Marks--I don't know, but to be among those poets and to have my work described as "brilliant" thrills me.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Infinite Difference launches March 2010!

If I work very hard over the next two to three months, work like an ant, a bee, a cadmium yellow insect, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets will launch on schedule in March 2010. Indeed, the launch has already been scheduled by the perhaps-too-trusting Shearsman editor Tony Frazer, for Wednesday, 10 March 2010 at Swedenborg Hall in London. As many contributors either live in London or are planning to come to London specially for the occasion (as with Catherine Hales, who intends to fly in from Berlin), the launch should be a fabulous event with a wonderful range of poets and poetries, so mark the date!

Don't Women Write Great Books?

Please read the following press release from the Women in Letters and Literary Arts.

Why Weren’t Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly’s Weenie Roast?

Publishers Weekly recently announced their Best Books Of 2009 list. In their top ten, chosen by editorial staff, no books written by women were included. Quoted in The Huffington Post, PW confidently admitted that they're “not the most politically correct" choices. This statement comes in a year in which new books appeared by writers such as Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh and Alicia Ostriker.

“The absence made me nearly speechless,” said writer Cate Marvin, cofounder of the newly launched national literary organization WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts), which, since August, has attracted close to 5400 members on their Facebook web page, including many major and emerging women writers. “It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.”

WILLA’s other cofounder, Erin Belieu, Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University, asked, “So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that. I, on the other hand, have heard from a whole lot of people—writers and readers--who don’t feel good about it at all.”

PW also did a Top 100 list and, of the authors included, only 29 were women. The WILLA Advisory Board is in the process of putting together a list titled “Great Books Published By Women In 2009.” This will be posted to the organization’s Facebook page and website. A WILLA Wiki has also been started for people to share their nominations for Great Books By Women in 2009. Press release to follow.

WILLA was founded to bring increased attention to women’s literary accomplishments and to question the American literary establishment’s historical slow-footedness in recognizing and rewarding women writers' achievements. WILLA is about to launch their website and is in the process of planning their first national conference to be held next year.

(Note: until recently, WILLA went under the acronym WILA, with one “L.” If you’re interested in the organization, please Google WILA with one “L” to see background on how this group was originally formed.)

For more information contact:
Erin Belieu ebelieu at fsu dot edu
Cate Marvin catemarvin at gmail dot com

Friday 23 October 2009

Homesick, or A Few Photos from My August-September Visit Home

Back in Normal...

Andrew, age 2--mischief itself

Lindsey looking pensive--she's a thoughtful girl

Alex, age four--always in motion

Mom and Kaylee

Monday 19 October 2009

High Chair 11

The Philippine online journal High Chair has just released issue 11. I was invited to submit work, and my poem "The Reclamation," first published in The Warwick Review, was chosen. The poem is part of manuscript in progress The Weather in Normal.

Monday 12 October 2009

Etter and Crowther review and interview

In the new issue of the online journal Horizon, there's a piece where Claire Crowther and I comment on each other's work and interview one another. It was a great pleasure to do, as I'm so fond of Claire's work but have little opportunity to write about it given that she's one of my closest friends.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Wednesday 30 September 2009

"A Century Find" from Richard Price's third collection, Rays

A Century Find

High up the beach, sea debris resolved in lines--
brittle black--dry seaweed and ribboned bark. That's

a stretching step.
We've gained the sand.

Footfall hallmarks the sifted acres.
We're goldsmiths of the shifting commonwealth,
brand in bulk.

Outpace the gusts and there's a rock to race to,
exceed. The tide

is lapping away (the force in gentleness):
we're the centre of all murmur--
no ocean can shoosh us.

Slowly, secrets. The confidence to confide . . .
I was, you were . . . I am, you are . . .


In your displaying hand a hard small shell,
offwhite, convincing pure,
drilled the once with a dainty calibre
(incremental parasite or shock-quick beak?)

Hard?--frail, sea-crushable.
Creature-perfected, capable
of a low whistle. Strung on silver,
the central jewel: a century find
to fulfil a necklace.

You throw it--so far out
it's still in your fist.

Richard Price
Rays (Carcanet, 2009)

To purchase directly from the publisher, please click here.

Monday 28 September 2009

Barbara Guest's The Countess from Minneapolis (Burning Deck, 1976)

Absolutes simmer as primary colors
and everyone gropes toward black
where it is believed the strength lingers.

"River Road Studio"

Unreasonable lenses refract the
sensitive rabbit holes, mole dwellings and snake
climes where twist burrow and sneeze
a native species

opening stanza of "Prairie Houses"

There was a poem with
A Moon in it travelling across the bridge in one
Of those fragile trains carrying very small loads
Like moons that one could never locate anywhere else.
The Mississippi was bright under the bridge like a
Sun, because the poem called itself the Sun also;
Two boxcars on the bridge crossing the river.

[untitled; from the work numbered 32]


The problem proposed to the lemon tree. When will your green fruit turn yellow? When shall I understand Minneapolis?

If not grain by grain, at least loaf by loaf.

If not the river flow, at least its turn and tributary.

Still there are permissions to approach through that immigrant air.

[As they do not work as well out of context, I've not included the most humorous work in the book, the quirky poems that provide accounts of the Countess's life. You'll just have to see the collection, which I borrowed from (and returned to) The Poetry Library in London.]