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green vertebrae cradling all the wood-bone of your years

Poetry exalts. Yes, that’s right, it transports you up and out of dreary into ethereal. No it doesn’t. That’s all wrong. Poetry grounds you. It brings you right on down to where you can plunge fingers and toes into clay, grow roots. How else could you ever expect to leave? Still wrong. Think again. Poetry doesn’t change you at all. It catches you in the moment, this moment, right now, and shows you the you you really are.

So who’s right? How about this: Poetry = Salt. Here’s what the cookbook says – “salt makes food taste more like itself.” Poetry? Makes life taste more like itself. I’m sitting here eating a bowl of lentils. Onion, tomato, even the bay leaf can’t rescue it from bland. A fine sprinkle of poetry: an angel named Gracie; my sapped body a river that floods without regard; green mountains to lift me from the sinking sand. Now that’s tasty. More than tasty, that’s umami. More than base sustenance, that builds muscle. Wings, roots, soul – serve it up!

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Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, March 21, 2015 in Southern Pines – a tenth anniversary gathering of poet mentors and their students from the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. During its first ten years GCDPS (named for founders Marie Gilbert and former NC poet laureate Fred Chappell) has sponsored dozens of students of all ages to work with the finest poets from around North Carolina. A complete reunion of readings would take a full week but this one Saturday is more than filled with five mentors and four students.

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Tony Abbott is Professor Emeritus at Davidson College and still teaches courses in modern drama and creative writing, especially poetry. He has served two years as president of the NC Poetry Society and continues to guide our programs and encourage our members. When he stands at the lectern and pauses before reciting, do you feel it, too? He invokes in me a spirit not of confidence but of questing, not knowing but seeking. The titles of one of his books wonders if words could save us, but when I listen to Tony I believe they can.

When Tony was invited to be one of the Distinguished Poets at SRPF he knew he had to read with a student whom he had mentored before and after (but not during) GCDPS, and whose growth as a poet he still follows and nurtures. Annalee Kwochka will graduate from Davidson College this spring with a degree in Disability Studies and continue graduate studies in clinical psychology; she is currently completing a full-length book of poetry that will be her thesis. Before she entered Davidson she was a GCDPS scholar, and before that she won every youth contest the NC Poetry Society sponsors several years running.

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Tony and Annalee are reading from Tony’s book The Angel Dialogues, Tony the voice of the jaded poet seeking his muse, Annalee the voice of the angel sent to redeem him.

The Poet Names the Angel               —              Tony Abbott

Spring night. Azaleas shining, red and white,
in the pale gleam of the full moon. I step outside.
She is sitting on the hood of my car
across the street, painting her toenails.

“Lets walk,” I say, “I’ve got something
serious to ask you.”
Just a minute, she says, and blows on her toes.
I wait, and then I wait some more.
I don’t think this is my color, she says.
We walk. I watch her toes and think.

I take a deep breath. “Do you have a name?”
She blushes, and she says nothing.
“I want to call you by name. Do you have a name?”
No, she says. Not really.
“Why not? Doesn’t God name you?”
Oh no, our people name us. Each one
names us, she says, and she starts to cry.
“Why are you crying,” I ask.
The names, the names, the names–
Each name brings back the person. This angel
business is hard, sweetheart. I have all these
people. I love them all. I help them all. A little
girl in Venezuela named me Rosalita? Isn’t
that marvelous? The angel Rosalita.
A game strikes my fancy.

“France,” I say.
Antoinette, she says.
“Russia,” I say.
Masha, she says. It must be Masha.
“German,” I laugh.
Oh God, German. Ilkedoodle.
The angel Ilkedoodle.” We laugh together.

I’m standing under the angel tree. It is empty.
She sits at my feet, yoga style,
and looks up at me. Well, she says.
Any ideas?
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do this.”
Yes, you can. Try. You’ll find it.
You always do, eventually.

I close my eyes. Then I know.
“Grace,” I say. “Gracie,” “Gracia.”
Indeed, she says, and floats upward
into the leaves.

*     *     *     *     *

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Renditions of self              —               Annalee Kwochka

1. Neither acute nor chronic fits the curve of your sapped body
these days; rather, constantly recurring, the river floods without
warning, without regard.

2. On the Sabbath, you anoint your own body with Vaseline.
You are snake-leather skin, bird-hollow bone, quickening, flung-
open mind.

3. After dinner; a single glass of cheap, sweet wine. You collapse
into bed. Room still fully-lit, fully-clothed. Without even the urge
to bury yourself.

4. Then—raw-skinned horizon, aching iris-of-eye—are you
not right, to live in fear? You are cortex, synapse, firing neurons—
heart bruised and writhing in the hot sun.

5. You are a failed secret agent, writing your identity over and over
on fortune-cookie papers, filling your pockets, passing them on
with each handshake, pulling them out of ears—

6. Despite your best intentions, home is full of sinkholes.
Classified lives brush against you; You would spring
yourself open, the un-cracked spine of a holy book.

7. Only the mountains comfort you
lift you from the sinking sand, green vertebrae
cradling all the wood-bone of your years.

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Tony Abbott

The Angel Dialogues

If Words Could Save Us

 

Annalee Kwochka

Opening the Doors to the Temple

 

umami, the fifth taste

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Doughton Park Tree #3

 . . . it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

Homecoming – what sort of images does that word evoke?

Marching band lined up, the girls with their blue and gold pom poms, boys becoming men bursting through crepe paper onto the field.

All the old families filing into Salem Fork Baptist for preaching, and in the afternoon pot luck under the willow oaks.

A long absence, a holiday, sitting down to share the meal with family, wondering where you really belong and beginning to get an inkling.

The prodigal returning to discover the grace of unconditional love.

.   .   .

How about this one: men and women who have known each other for fifty years, or one year, or just today, gathered in a single great room to listen and be silent, to laugh and to cry, to start out wondering whether they belong and discover themselves bound together by the soul of words into one family.

Sam Ragan Poetry Festival at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and the tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series – friends, it was one hell of a homecoming! Oh yes, the readings, Fred Chappell bringing new poems, fables and morals to slap you upside the head; Gilbert-Chappell mentors Cathy Smith Bowers, Joseph Bathanti, Lenard D. Moore, Tony Abbott each with their prized student protege from the program; from basketball to angels; from love lost to love well shet of; from growing up to growing old to refusing in any fashion to grow old. And the greetings – more hugs and handclasps per unit time than any baby shower or wake or political convention on record.

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And then there was Shelby Stephenson. Our “newest” NC Poet Laureate? How about our oldest and truest friend and guide? Has anyone in our state done more to encourage poets? To teach and encourage? To just plain get the poetry joy juice flowing in the crowd’s veins?

When I read the announcement that Shelby had been selected as Poet Laureate I immediately dug out my file – all the rejection slips he sent me while he was editor at Pembroke magazine. Friends, you would have to knock me down to get me to part with these sixteen little 2 x 3 inch slips of yellow paper (some actually just a post-it note with the Pembroke rubber stamp). Almost every one has a personal scribble: “good luck placing these” . . . “keep writing” . . . ” liked [poem] best” . . . “send more any time.” My God, how I harassed him with submissions until glory be one was good enough to keep.

Shelby Stephenson, thanks for the poetry homecoming. I am still discovering where I belong.

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from fiddledee
(read by Shelby at the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival)

Saying I need an image to make the world
I went back home and held my eyes on the hill
and it said You need a word deeper than I

so I took the old fencerails the lizards ran
and my family’s tongue came out of the Mouth
of Buzzard’s Branch, the sound of that one story,

everywhere, in the marshes, in the fields,
and lowgrounds, and I said Where is the word
that holds All I am trying to say? –

and the cows lowed through their cuds over
and over it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

*    *    *    *    *

.  .  .  let go the body: the cardinal

flowers stretch across the landscape, handsome
in their high keys: there goes a plankhouse into
a hedge: we come from a desert of innumerable

dances made in pain and pleasure arriving
forever, America’s promise, Huckleberry
laid back every spring when the little green

corn is sided, what broken clods to bounce
in the dirt: the literature of the world
is the people: Whitman, where are you? Our

faculties run out into the unknown:
results are beginning, continuously
extending the plain chance to hold a seat,

here, hardy as a foot soldier: an articulate
voice lowers to let the mind down so the
undergarments might hear humanity

in the bosom stumbling back to breathe independently:
transitory, we bequeath to thee, O Death,
this victorious song thou breaks, the word

of the singer, his parentage and home,
the wood in the flames a quiet crackle
of no hurry going up and out, moving

the dust that settles the ashes, a tune,
a farway injury of happiness,
a bliss that is hard to empty: time and space

affirm the rhythm, the dimensions of
across and around: wrap a tent around
the music and steal away: images edge

the feelings like heels grinding lightly on
a board of closest imaginative
stances delighting the reapers in the

wheat, the keepers in the creek: the word is
another form of dancing: the body
moves on the surface just over truth: we

live amid the skin: the true art of
experience is practiced by the skipper
bugs: they skate so well: I clap my hands and

the water scoots a wake beating with a
new beauty: and the line which begins behind
is brought forward: I look back one more time

to draw a radiance in language, a
radical system formless and grammatically
mountainous and divine, mortal as the

fertilizing rain, a lingering space
that gives the celebration a morning, noon
and night swallowed up by the dallying and playing

world holding the ancient beard in an avenging
dance, a cosmos for jollity: high in
the pocket of a farmhouse I am alone,

a laughing moon brightening like an orange on ice.

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fiddledeedee
© 2014 by Shelby Stephenson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC

More information about Shelby at http://www.shelbystephenson.com/home.htm

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Over the next couple of weeks I will share more vignettes, poetry and photos from the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival & tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poetry Series

Also check back for a link to the full photo gallery, forthcoming

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Doughton Park Tree #3

Waiting for you is full of everything except you.

It didn’t start out to be Valentine’s Day. You and I prefer Hatteras and Pea Island in the off season. I wanted to see the winter migrant visitors again and you don’t mind long walks in freezing spray. How amazing you are. You began telling our friends, “He wants to see the snow geese,” in a tone that sounded like you looked forward to them, too. Amazing.

When we pulled into the First Colony Inn there were big pink and red plywood hearts under the pine trees. Who knew! Godiva on the pillows and champagne in the mini-fridge. Each afternoon we explored another iced-over marsh, the entirely vacant Elizabethan Gardens, narrow lines of threatened dunes; each night we made a small supper in our room, wore caps & jackets while the wind discovered new cracks around the windows. Not really roughing it, not so self-sufficient – but sufficient as two selves. Us. Being each other’s present. Chocolate optional.

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Chen caerulescens, Pea Island Wildlife Refuge

 

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I’ve read most of Mark Smith-Soto’s previous books and I always pause and savor when I discover him again in The Sun. I carefully packed his newest, Time Pieces, for the February trip to the Outer banks. Waited for the stillness of sunset across Roanoke Sound, drew another blanket around my shoulders. How does he do it? How capture the small moment that stretches wide the reader’s heart? Not because the poem has cast searchlights into the grand gnostic meaningfulness of the universe, but because the poem is just itself, the poet is himself, the moment is this moment. And we always have been and are still becoming ourselves.

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Present

Waiting for you at our favorite table by
the window decorated with a rough decal
of a giant coffee cup, I stare at the long,
gray, rain-washed, car-clotted street, the tip

of my tongue fretting against a cracked
tooth. You’re half an your late. You wouldn’t wait.
The coffee is so dark and smooth it lingers like
a song. There are clouds and telephone poles

and two tattooed youngsters smoking outside
the window; inside, all is chatter and clatter,
French pastries in the toaster oven, giggly laughter.
Waiting for you is full of everything except you.

And for this gift, at least, I must thank you:
this moment so completely mine.

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Present first appeared in Sounds of Poets Cooking, Jacar Press

Time Pieces is available from Main Street Rag Publishing

Read more selections of Mark’s poetry from The Sun.  In fact, subscribe.  Now!

Mark Smith-Soto’s bio is available at the Poetry Foundation.

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Red-tipped maples along the ridgeline and pumpkins lined up at Hawks Produce (as well as Brushy Mtn. Stayman Winesaps almost the size of pumpkins) – you know what that means: Halloween is coming! When Linda was growing up Halloween wasn’t one single evening, it was an entire month, sort of the Olympics of holidays. Linda’s Mom Donna French was really into costumes and stories and pageantry in her job as an elementary school librarian, and her seven kids became the flock to her Bo Peep, the Hansel and Gretels to her Wicked Witch, the entire cast of characters to her Mother Goose. In fact, the first time I met Linda (November 1, 1966, eighth grade and first day at my new school), she was wearing the unexpectedly indelible vestiges of the previous night’s costume.

So October 1 Linda mentioned to Saul two books that we’ve inherited from Grandma French’s large collection, and when he came home from school with us the next afternoon he was ready for me to read them to him: Kat Kong . . . and Dogzilla. Saul calls them the “Double Feature.” He has set up an entire audience of Lego men, Blue Rat, Mousie, and various other little critters to view the performance. He does the sound effects, monsters growling and crashing into things, and I do the narration and dialogue. Roll ‘em! Action! Halloween is only four weeks away!

Whoa, I’d better start thinking about MY costume. Hmmm . . . how about Rat-cula? And if you’ve got a kid or grandkid that thrives on silly, you need to track down copies of Kat Kong and Dogzilla, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey with the help of his pet mice, cat, and corgi. At the time he created these in the 1990’s he was living in Kent, Ohio and was a friend of Grandma French’s.

KatKong

.     .     .     .     .

Now for a poem to get you into the Halloween spirit. Who’s your favorite poet? If “favorite” means you seek out all their books and keep coming back to them year after year, I guess Fred Chappell is mine. His latest book, Familiars, is filled with the personalities, imaginings, and eccentric doings of cats. And if you shudder at the approach of ghouls and spirits, if you dread the thought that you might be haunted by former lives, perhaps you really don’t want to be a cat . . .

.     .     .     .    .

Ghost Story

What does Alexander see,
Staring with taut fixity
Into the dusty corner there
And its eerily vacant air?

Perhaps invisible Somethings flock
That barren angle of the room
And speak to him at twelve o’clock
Of an unalterable doom.

It would not be a single ghost
But several who gaze and wait
Until the Halloween veils with frost
The leaf-strewn lawn, the gray roof-slate,

To whisper to him in unison
The dreaded sentence that constrains
Him to a destiny fordone:
“Us eight you squandered. One remains.”

Fred Chappell, from Familiars, LSU Press, 2014

.     .     .     .     .

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Mousie will be ready for a snack at the next Double Feature.

Kat Kong and Dogzilla © Dav Pilkey, Harcourt and Brace

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For one brief moment each place is its center. The sky parts, darkness rends, the sun touches that place then moves on, but the place retains the sureness of its center.

We are wakened at 2:00 a.m. by trumpets and tubas playing hymns. They have stopped outside our window on Marshall St., played two verse, then moved on. I peek through the blinds while downstairs my Mom goes out onto the front porch in her nightie to thank them. From other parts of the old town, faint and distant, Linda and I can hear the band’s counterparts. Our alarm is set for 4:30. We whisper in the darkness. For a moment we are the center.

By 5:30 we have gathered with hundreds of others in the darkness outside Home Moravian Church in Salem Square. Robins sing continuously. There’s a scolding chickadee in the fresh-leaved poplar, its silhouette barely discernible in the pre-dawn. The old church clock strikes the hour. The liturgy commences. The congregants respond: This we truly believe. A brass choir leads the hymns and we listen for the echo.

Now we have processed from the Square to God’s Acre, brass harmonies behind to encourage, bands at all corners of the broad fields to call us along. As we gather among the unadorned white gravestones, “the democracy of death,” each with fresh flowers, the players gradually converge into one orchestra at the center. Three hundred strong. The liturgy concludes with a sweeping final anthem. The sky parts. Darkness is rent. Here is the sun, and the center.

The Lord is risen indeed.

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It’s hard to count how many times Joseph Bathanti has visited Elkin, NC to bring us poems. He read at the library here in March to prepare us all for Poetry Month, and as he always begins when he stands up after the introduction, he said, “It’s great to be back here at the center of the universe.”

Thank you, Joseph. We always feel like you mean it. And after we’ve listened to your poetry we do discover ourselves at the center.

.     .     .     .     .

Joseph’s poem EASTER is from his book Anson County. It was originally published in 1989 but has been re-released in 2013 by Press 53 in Winston-Salem. When we returned from this morning’s Easter sunrise service in Old Salem, and after a nap, I sat on the porch in the sun and leaned back with Anson County. “I know there’s an Easter poem in here.” I was not disappointed. I never am.

. . . . .

EASTER

They stand like shades
against the skyline:
in resurrection suits
and second-day dresses;
waiting to be gathered and burned
by the first fires of dawn
they have come to believe
will perfect their two-days-planted fruit.
Now like the rush of souls
it leaps across the sky
shredding fog with cerise flames
sudden as tongues.
And there can be no denial
of this white light
that carves fields rife
with wheat and corn,
sculpts holy men behind plows,
draws the harrow and martingale –
nor the flash and raiment of seeds
above the red river mouth.
Behold.

.     .     .     .     .

from Anson County, Joseph Bathanti, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, copyright 2103.

Originally published in 1989 by William & Simpson, and again in 2005 by Parkway Publishers.

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Every workday I’m out the door with a travel mug just as the sun pokes through the pines on Johnson Ridge across the valley. One solace – I leave by the back door, through the screened porch, embraced by the centenary beech before I get in my car. If there’s a little light it’s a herald of goldfinches; if full dark a doe might spook. The ‘possum might still be rooting in the compost. All just outside my porch.

This morning March snow is sifting through the screen and puddling on the planks. Office closed (at least until noon). While coffee perks I shove the screened door open against a drift of heavy white and toss a couple of handfuls of seed to the ground feeders. I huddle against the house until the birds return (they’d only flown twenty feet into the hickory branches). Hello, my friends. On the porch I’m only ten feet from the phone, the bills, the desk-high tasks undone, and three miles away I can hear traffic on I-77 unslowed by a little precipitation, but here is sanctuary.

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How many porches have acquired personality in your memory? Grandmother’s in Hamlet: the swing hanging from heavy chains, for Bob and me a pirate ship, a jet plane. Nana’s in Morehead: the smell of Bogue Sound, the chaise lounge one of us would sleep on when the July nights were too hot; our own first porch, the red rental house in Durham on Green Street, a family portrait with toddler Josh and Margaret just beginning to smile, all of us smiling.

With such an archetype it must have been easy for Maureen Sherbondy to elicit the poems, essays, short fiction that she has compiled into Voices from the Porch (Favorite Gathering Places). It is an anthology broad as a coastline or a rural avenue, but also deep in the secret heart of people gathered and torn. It’s a tangled story of memories and feelings that won’t allow themselves to be laid aside. It is voices that have whispered and will continue to whisper to each of us.

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Judith Behar’s poem Evening opens the collection. Like opening a door onto a space of sanctuary, and revelation.

*      *      *      *      *

Evening

Dusk rises from the pond,
misty and green, then gray;
a bullfrog croaks his song
up to the darkening porch
where three women drink wine by candlelight,
the humid air like saris on their skin.
They idly talk of gardening and plans
for summer travel. Work falls away,
lines soften, then disappear
in shadow. A slivered moon
hangs in a cloudless sky.
They clear the dishes, carry their glasses in –
their day ended, the guests depart.
Creatures of the night
swarm in the grass.

*      *      *      *      *

Judith Behar lives in Greensboro and is the volunteer publicity director for Writers Group of the Triad. She has taught English at Guilford College and practiced law in Greensboro for 30 years. Her poems and short stories appear in a number of publications, including contest winners in Pinesong, published by the NC Poetry Society.

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One more reason to consider sitting down in the porch swing and reading this anthology: my short story Overflowing about Jimmy, Nella, and Monty in Surry County and the danger of love.

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Who, Whose, Whom?

Halfway down the steep ridge behind our house I am carving out a level spot where I will plant a bench.  On cool mornings I’ll lean forward and peer between the beech and hickory, Dutchman Creek ripples below, a pileated raps and quarrels above.  On warm evenings lengthening into dusk I will lean back, tentative step of unseen deer behind, mosquito countertenor in my ears. Join me as we entertain small thoughts.

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.     .     .     .     .

Weekend before last I laid down the mattock and dug with my hands.  Scooping up dirt to mold a shallow campfire pit, I lifted something soft.  An underground fungus, the sort that pigs sniff out?  Rare petrified bear scat from a wilder epoch?  What?

I opened my hands – a toad, inert in its hibernation.  It cracked one eye the smallest slit and looked up at me.  “Just five more minutes?”  I found a safer spot between the beech tree roots and tucked him in with moss.

.     .     .     .     .

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Adam & Eve Orchid

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
(translated by R.A.Nicholson)

If there be any lover in the world, O Moslems, ‘tis I.
If there be any believer, infidel, or Christian hermit, ‘tis I.
The wine-dregs, the cupbearer, the minstrel, the harp and the music,
The beloved, the candle, the drink and the joy of the drunken – ‘tis I.
The two-and-seventy creeds and sects in the world
Do not really exist: I swear by God that every creed and sect – ‘tis I.
Earth and air and water and fire – knowest thou what they are?
Earth and air and water and fire, nay, body and soul too – ‘tis I.
Truth and falsehood, good and evil, ease and difficulty from first to last,
Knowledge and learning and ascetism and piety and faith – ‘tis I.
The fire of Hell, be assured, with its flaming limbos,
Yes, and Paradise and Eden and houris – ‘tis I.
This earth and heaven with all that they hold,
Angels, peris, genies, and mankind – ‘tis I.

.     .     .     .     .

Doughton Park Tree #2

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