Monthly Archives: November 2011

Night Owl by Ann Neelon

This poem comes from Ann Neelon’s first collection of poetry, “Easter Vigil,” which won the 1995 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Joy Harjo, judge of that year’s contest, say’s this about Ann Neelon’s collection:

It is rare to come upon a poet with such a wide ranging vision as Ann Neelon. She’s a risk taker with heart, a poet who in in the world as a compassionate observer. The poem’s deserve your attention.

Night Owl by Ann Neelon From you, I inherited this starry flesh, The night is young, the night is young — my voice is your voice in endless mimicry. Thirty years ago, sleepless and hungry for quarry, I caught you drinking milk of magnesia, staring into the kitchen sink as into a deep well, Father, if you had jumped in, I would have had to follow. How many times I space-walked toward you across the pock- marked moonfloor, triumphant in my pajamas before the less courageous world, Gravity was your unfailing argument: just what, young lady, do you think you’re doing up? Tonight, bills unopened, heart too in arrears, I remember how the muscles in your face relaxed. To ease your cares, it was enough for you to know that I didn’t have any. And so we discussed kindergarten, the moon and the stars. — Ann Neelon is a native of Boston and a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and of Holy Cross College. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, as well as a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford Univeristy.

Interview with Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low

This week’s interview with Denise Low marks the beginning of the new Poet Laureate Series here at ZingaraPoet. Check back frequently for future interviews with Laureates from all over the U.S.

I first became familiar with Denise Low when I was an undergraduate student at Washburn University and was given a copy of “Kansas Poems of William Stafford,” which she edited. I read the collection, found legitimacy in its pages and figured anyone who put together a collection like that was all right by me.

Later, I discovered and read Low’s early collection of poetry, “Spring Geese.”  I think it resonated with me because, like the poems I write, this collection contains poems about that Kansas environment and natural history.

Fast forward to November 2010. I’m living in Kansas City  and learn that Denise Low, second Poet Laureate of Kansas, will be reading at The Writers Place to promote her latest collection,  “Ghost Stories of the New West.”  Nothing could make me miss it.

The reading that night was well attended  and Low did not disappoint. She is a dynamic reader and a gracious poet. I was thrilled to get a few minutes of her time to discuss poetry news and brag about my Alma Mater – home to Kansas’ first poet Laureate, Jonathan Holden. I did not know then that I would someday be asking her for an interview, but when the idea for a poet laureate series nudged my imagination, she was the first person I thought of (and, consequently, the first I asked).

In this interview, directly following Pocahontas, Denise discusses her revision process, the current state of the arts in Kansas, and encourages poets who may be questioning their dedication to their craft. Her biography follows the interview as do links to her blog and website.


Pocahontas: A Portrait

                                In memory of Paula Gunn Allen

Oval face     eyes turned aside    

high collar, ruffled.     Once: a favored child              
cartwheeler      envoy between camps
student of  English      daughter of Powhatan           

 wife of Kocoum      political gamepiece          

kidnap victim of Argall      forced bride
converted wife of Rolfe      lady in wooden rooms
awaiting a child           mother of Thomas

literate Christian      forest Madonna

tobacco cultivator     London celebrity
ailing martyr.      Her words “Everyone must die.”
and “It is enough that     the child lives.”

Oil portrait filigree    tatting on a stamp

lace-wreath collar     the woman named Matoaka
narrowed-eyes look     a few days before the grave
frozen obliqueness      now the last oval face.


What did you take away from your experience as second Kansas Poet Laureate?

Being poet laureate of Kansas was a great honor, and it helped me appreciate the educators, writers, arts administrators, and librarians across the state. Sometimes in a capitalist society the arts, especially poetry, can seem frivolous, but I came to understand how word arts connect to most skilled fluency with language. Literary uses of language impel readers to learn history and context. This is not a time in history when superficial reading will suffice. Poetry trains its readers to read closely and with a mind open to unexpected associations. It is essential to understand multi-layered communications in the public, social media, and private realms.

How does poetry bring or add meaning to your life?

1. First, I became involved with poetry so young, that it is hard to tease out how it, among other experiences, add meaning to my life. It’s a spiritual practice—I do believe that learning the discipline of language is one of many paths to enlightenment. It requires engagement with reality, not neuroses. Observation and reflection are the polarity, and syntax the means along the way. So poetry keeps me connected to immediate experience, and it makes historic tradition collapse into the present moment. We use ancient words, and each use reinvigorates them. I cannot imagine my life without poetry.

2. Also, poetry helps me understand my multidimensional identity. It connects emotion, ideas, and spirit to the locus of body. And so it helps sort out the chaos—with grammar, syntax, image, and sound all coordinated into coherence. If a person visualizes a crystal, that sense of order is soothing. Likewise, and on more levels, poetry creates serenity—even poetry about hard truths.

How do you protect your mental and physical creative space?

I have arranged my days to create writing time—easier now that my child- and elder-caring years are behind me. The importance of my writing is an essential understanding in my marriage. I’ve claimed a small but nice room in the house for an office—it has a great view of the back yard—which is critical to my writing. My family, especially my husband, understands this is my calling. That support is invaluable.

Tell me how you approach revising your work.

Often. I write and rewrite. I have blind spots and repeat obvious words or miss opportunities. Once in a long while a poem comes out in one piece, but not often. To me, the editing is also very creative, and it gives me the opportunity to make better crafted writing. I’ve often been in a writers group, and I’ve worked with editors, so I’ve become impersonal about trying to improve work rather than treat it as a precious emanation from the great-poet-cosmos. Like William Stafford used to say, “Editors are our friends.”

In your 2006 interview with Miranda Ericsson, you mentioned you were thrown lifelines at crucial moments in your life. Can you elaborate on these lifelines? How did they manifest and how did they help?

I was about to abandon poetry and commit to developing prose projects when I won the Kansas Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship in Poetry, in 1991. That program was one award every two years to a poet in Kansas, and it was $5000. That was summer support plus a computer. Then in 2007 I became poet laureate for Kansas through the KAC, again. Of course, all those programs are suspended because of politics right now. These awards really helped me have the time needed to write and publish. I have been so fortunate to see so many aspects of the writing process and how it connects to audience. My next mission is to help restore these essential programs.

Currently, I am president of the board of directors for the Associated Writing Programs, and through this role I’ve been able to see a wide range of programs that serve poets and other writers. All these experiences deepen my understanding of how crucial creativity is to being a conscious, contributing citizen. Creative writing is, I believe, the deepest form of literacy. If you can write a poem, you can assemble your children’s toys, maintain your car, troubleshoot your computer, write grant applications, and select factual information from the bovine excrement in the news media.

How does keeping a blog fit in with your overall creative endeavors?

I’ve had some illness this summer, so I’m very behind on my blog. I want to use it as a forum for book and reading reviews, because my region and my literary genres are so underserved. Some fabulous writers get overlooked because of poor distribution and poor publicity. Blogging helps me feel empowered to present writers of merit. For starters, I’m thinking of Robert Day’s terrific book of essays The Committee to Save the World, Jo McDougall’s memoir, and William Trowbridge’s amazing Ship of Fool. These are terrific, first-rate works that will not be in the New York media. But the internet blogosphere is democratic, and I hope to take advantage of its strengths to promote some good writing.

Have you any advice to share with writers who may be struggling to continue their craft?

1. Yes—first, be professional. The novelist David Bradley told me this at a critical period in my life. A few people are able to work at other jobs all their lives and keep a parallel writer’s life going. These are few. Commit yourself to taking classes, being involved in a writer’s group, and other faster ways to learn than trial and error. I see many people who put off writing during their most productive years, retire, and then expect to have writing skills in a few weeks. My mentor Carolyn Doty told me it takes ten years to learn how to write a novel. I believe her. Putting off writing for practical reasons is the most risky choice—for example, your health may not hold up, and when you retire, you may not be able to write.

2. The second bit of advice is to get up early in the morning and write—you have some good hours before work schedules. Go to bed early, skip TV, and use those early hours.

3. Third, read as much as you can of writing that you admire and that relates to your field. One of the great paradoxes is people want to write poetry in great numbers, but they don’t want to read others’ poetry, even the greats. Trust me. Reading great poetry will not stifle your own originality.

4. Write about topics that matter. Reynolds Price did a great presentation at AWP one year about looking for material that will make a difference rather than self-centered cleverness. Hundreds of thousands of books are published and self-published every year. As a writer, what contribution can you make? I find myself impelled to document as much as I can of suppressed histories and voices. This led to the Langston Hughes in Lawrence project and many others.

What’s next?

Oh, so many projects. I have a number of articles that need revising. A book of essays about Midwestern literature—Natural Theologies—is coming out from The Backwaters Press of Nebraska later this year. I believe this is the first critical book entirely about contemporary literature of this region. I’m finishing a grant on Cheyenne ledger art, which is amazing conjoining of image and glyphic text. I’m trying to write a memoir about my grandfather who was of American Indian background. I want to get back to some research on Langston Hughes’s family. More.

Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-2009, has 20 books of poetry and essays, including Ghost Stories of the New West (Woodley), named one of the best Native American Books of 2010 by The Circle of Minneapolis and a Notable Book by the Kansas State Library & Center for the Book. Other books are To the Stars: Poets of the Kansas Ad Astra Project (Mammoth/Washburn University Center for Ks. Studies) and Words of a Prairie Alchemist (Ice Cube Press), both Kansas Notable Books; and Thailand Journal: Poems, a Kansas City Star notable book (Woodley). She has taught creative writing and literature at Haskell Indian Nations University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Richmond. She is 2010-2011 president of the board of directors for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs, and she has served that organization as vice president and conference chair. Awards are from the Academy of American Poets, The Newberry Library, Lannan Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Kansas Arts Council, and Kansas Center for the Book. Her MFA is from Wichita State University and her PhD is from the University of Kansas. Her blog is and website is

Write With Joy!

Today’s writing exercise is adapted from Rebecca McClanahan’s “Write Your Heart Out. ”

We find it relatively easy to write when times are tying or when we experience grief, sadness or anger. We are, after all, encouraged to use our journals to vent about difficult situations so that we might work through them. Experience may have even taught us that this approach to our discomfort and confusion is preferable to sitting with these frustrations for an inordinate amount of time. McClanahan refers to this tendency to write only when in pain as the “foxhole syndrome: writing as desperate prayer.” When happiness returns, we suddenly have nothing to say.

Perhaps this is because happiness so absorbs us that we don’t stop to think about writing. Maybe we fear writing about our happiness is tantamount to testing the fates. McCallahan writes that:

French theologian Francois Mauriac called happiness the most dangerous of all experiences, ‘because all the happiness possible increases our thirst and the voice of love makes an emptiness, a solitude reverberate.’ Seen this way, happiness is a scary proposition. As our capacity for joy increases, so does our capacity to feel all emotions. So won’t we be sadder than ever when the happiness ends?(98)

Or maybe we just forget to notice the small things that do make us happy. Our brains are finely tuned to notice the dangers that surround us and dismiss that which cannot immediately hurt us. If it is not a threat, we do not make note of it.

Take some time this week to notice things that bring you joy, no matter how small, and make a daily list. Start with yourself – your eyes, hands, ears, nose, etc. From there, take in your surroundings and note that which bring you joy – music, books, a warm blanket and a comfy couch.

This exercise only takes minutes a day and will result in a more joyful you.

Good luck, and happy writing.

Merry, Happy, Poetry

November drags major American holidays to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Christmas is close on the heels of Thanksgiving, though more and more, Thanksgiving barely gets its due these days. Less time to be thankful, more time for consumerism.

But these are not the only Holidays that mark the end of the year. Really, year-end consists of at least four months in which several holidays occur. They include Labor Day, Autumnal Equinox, Halloween, All Saints Day, Dias de los Muertos, Veterans Day, Election Day, Winter Solstice, Chaunakkah, Kwanza, and New Year’s Eve. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the biggest of all, Festivus.

For this week’s prompt, write a story, poems or essay about an end-of-year holiday, real or imagined, American or international, uplifting or depressing.

Good luck, and happy writing.

How to Use Automatic Writing

This exercise involves writing “automatically” for five to ten minutes at a time when the mind is in a slightly altered (but unimpaired) state. Ideal times for automatic writing include first thing in the morning, when tired, emotionally charged, cranky, elated, physically drained, late at night or anytime synapses are firing a little randomly. Ever wake up in the middle of the night to see a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower? Engage the same enthusiasm and devotion for your writing by setting your alarm for 3:00 am to write for ten minutes before going back to sleep. You don’t even have to leave your bed.

Focus (or attempt to focus) on concrete images and sensory details. When your five or ten minutes are up, save the document and close it. Do not read what you’ve written.

Try this approach a few times a day and/or for several days in a row. Once you have ten pages of automatic writing (doesn’t matter how many days it takes), read through them for passages containing images or ideas that seem interesting, weird, fresh, irreverent, inventive, astonishing or whatever. Underline or cut and paste them into a new document. Trust your instincts as you choose what seems right for keeping. You may discover that you don’t remember writing most of it.

Finally, select fragments and ideas which seem to belong together or perhaps juxtapose in a particularly significant manner, and use them for the basis of a story, poem or essay.

Good luck, and happy writing.

Interview with Poet Amy Beeder

Amy Beeder is the author of Burn the Field (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006). Her next book, Now Make An Altar, will appear from the same press in early 2012. Her work has appeared in POETRY, Ploughshares, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and other journals. She lives in Albuquerque and teaches poetry at the University of New Mexico. Amy has lived and/or worked in France (student), Mauritania (Peace Corps teacher), Suriname (elections) and Haiti (elections and human rights observation). Before teaching, she was was also a sous-chef, a freelance writer, and a political asylum specialist. She has been teaching at the University of New Mexico for ten years, is married and has two daughters.

1, Tell me a little bit about your history with poetry – the when, why and how of your experience.

A. Like most writers/poets, I started writing when I was in grade school: mostly poetry. I also took poetry workshops in college, but I never even thought of trying to publish anywhere beyond the small departmental magazine.

I spent a lot of time after college (and then after graduate school) working overseas or in DC . I never wrote anything but journals during those years

Basically, poetry remained an occasional hobby until I went to graduate school. There, even though my major was literature, I started taking workshops with a poet named Gerald Barrax. That’s when I started writing seriously.  A few years later (after another stint in Haiti), I decided I wanted to publish−a sudden mania!−and started sending out to magazines and contests. My big break came when I won the “Discovery”/The Nation Award in 2011. On the strength of that I was hired as an adjunct to teach poetry at UNM, which I’ve been doing ever since.

2. Many writers have regular writing schedules and rituals which contribute to their writing and creative product. How about you?

On mornings I don’t teach, and after my kids go to school, I sit at my desk with coffee and a sharpened pencil (which is only for fiddling around with or scribbling notes, I actually write on the computer). Often I spend awhile looking at other people’s poems, usually from whatever journals I’ve received in the last month, looking for a word I like, or looking through books on other subjects for an idea or interesting phrase.  I keep telling myself I need to write on a laptop at the coffee shop like everyone else. But I haven’t done it yet.

3. How do you maintain mental creative space when you can’t be at your work?

I talk to myself a lot.

4. In your experience, how do writing and teaching influence each other?

I love teaching poetry, but the influence it has on my own work is mostly to keep me from it.  I think most writers, if they’re being honest, would admit this. Both writing and teaching require considerable time and dedication, and both are kind of intoxicating when things are going well. It’s easy to let teaching push writing out of the way.

There’s a great essay by Stephen Dunn called “The Poet as Teacher: Virtues and Vices,” in which he says that teaching can’t hurt your writing as long as you remain more of a poet than a teacher.  I try to keep this in mind. If a poem is going well and I need to keep writing, the lesson plan, critique, grading, etc., can wait a day or two.

5. Tell me about any current or upcoming projects you are working one or hope to begin working on. How do your early creative dreams guide and inform these projects?

My second book, Now Make An Altar, will come out either late this year or in January 2012.  I am working on the third book, which will probably take a few years. I write slowly.

Read more about Amy Beeder at The Poetry Foundation. “The Sunday Poem” by Amy can be read at Duke City Fix

A copy of Amy’s book Burn the Field can be purchased at

Write Despite Distraction!

Even writers with a room of their own have to deal with distractions. Family members, loved ones, and friends all quickly figure out how to encroach on whatever protected time or space a writer manages to carve out for herself. Fight fire with fire by desensitizing yourself to distractions. Set an alarm clock or kitchen timer to go off in increments of varying length, ten minutes for the fist session, fifteen or twenty for the second, five for the third, or whatever combination suites your needs. Try this exercise for a period of sixty full minutes if possible. Each time the alarm sounds, take just enough time to reset it, then get right back to writing.

If it is difficult at first to shift your focus from alarm to page, and it probably will, try taking a few deep breaths and center yourself mentally by repeating the following incantation before returning to your writing: inhale and say,  “I am…” exhale and say “writing right now.”

Remember, learning to regain your writing focus after a distraction is the goal of this exercise. It will likely feel uncomfortable and difficult at first, but will become easier with practice.Completing this exercise will give your brain a point of reference – a successful experience of dealing with distractions – that it can recall when more pressing distractions arise. It’s not possible to eliminate all distractions from life, but it is possible to learn to write despite them.

Good luck, and happy writing.