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Book Review — Made in Derbyshire: Laureate Poems

Made in Derbyshire: Laureate Poems

Derbyshire is a county in the central part of England. It is rich in minerals and home of Rolls Royce. But more importantly, it is the home of a poet, who happens to be the poet laureate of the county. Helen Mort’s first collection of poems Division Street and her other publication A Pint with the Ghosts tell of a poet with deep blue-collar roots instead of an ivory tower attitude. I described A Pint with the Ghostsas Bruce Springsteen lyrics sung by Stevie Nicks — there is a beauty in the grittiness of life.

I first heard of Made in Derbyshire: Laureate Poems on Twitter, having been waiting to see when Helen Mort was releasing a new collection. The Derbyshire post was about a book signing event for this collection. I asked if there were copies available for sale outside of the UK and was happy to hear I would have a copy in the mail shortly. I was told that this was a collection of mainly commissions by Mort and was a publicity project for Derbyshire, and perhaps not what I was expecting after Division Street.

This short collection comes with an introduction which explains its purpose. Anyone who has studied art or history knows that many painters survived on commissions from patrons. One wonders how difficult it was for a portrait painter to paint a portrait of a person they had no previous interest in. The accurate portrayal of a person is the task and it would seem rather routine. But, for a poet, it seems like a more difficult task to create more than just a picture of the subject, but build with words and imagery something that is multidimensional and personal. If that is not difficult enough, how about a poem for a tea towel? A football team? A friend’s new house? Mort is more than up for the task. You can tell there is an effort in her work that pulls together poetry on a subject in other times she would not be writing about. One thing I greatly admire about her work is her sense of history. Her poems in an earlier collection give the impression of first-hand observation of the coal miner’s strike, which actually happened before her birth. In this collection, she writes a poem for the rededication of a recreational area on the 100th anniversary of the first world war. “Sonnet of Summer 2014” is a response to “Sonnet of Summer 1914” reflecting on the Great War. Her sense of history is commendable along with her writing.

Other poems in the collection reflect the true meaning of poetry. The spreading of the art. There are poems from the children of Derbyshire and poems by others (with a little help from Mort). Here, Mort does what so important, she involves herself in the community and teaches the art of poetry– not always in a formal sense but seemingly in an open and friendly manner. From the poems written by others, there is a growing appreciation of poetry in Derbyshire. I sit here in Dallas, Texas and wonder have the Cowboys ever commissioned a poet? Does Texas have a poet laureate? (yes) Is poetry alive and growing in Texas? in America? Sadly it seems we like ad jingles more.

Made in Derbyshire was published for Derbyshire and it’s equivalent to a chamber of commerce. It was not intended for widespread distribution especially halfway around the globe. I reading the poems as someone who has not been to Derbyshire or the UK for that matter, I can feel the warm, welcoming, conversational tone in the poems. The link to a distant county across the ocean is clear established. There is an emotional attachment when reading these poems — a smile mostly. I doubt many readers here will be dropping by Derbyshire anytime soon to pick up a copy, but Division Street and A Pint with the Ghosts are available. A new collection of poetry will be published this year – –No Map Could Show Them — and an unnamed novel. Mort is definitely worth the read for those who love poetry and those feel a bit intimidated by poetry.

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Book Review — Today Means Amen

Today Means Amen


Today Means Amen by Sierra DeMulder is a collection of poetry and a reflection on life.  DeMulder is an internationally touring performance poet, educator, and two-time National Poetry Slam champion. Sierra is a 2014 McKnight Fellowship recipient and her work has been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, The Advocate, and others.

It’s not all that often that a collection speaks with emotion throughout and in a way that a male reader can relate too.  From a break up she compares to the experience to that of an infant finally realizing that he is no longer part of his mother and the first realization of being alone.  DeMulder digs deeps in imagery and comparison.  

One day, when she leaves the room, the baby

will comprehend that he is actually alone.


Such a heavy load for something so small

The death of a spouse can be measured by the piles of mail, dishes, and photos.  DeMulder calls this “tree rings of his solitude”  In “Exodus 33:20” her comparison of the face of God or creation (and where the world technically begins) is insightful if not a bit sacrilegious to some, but her ability to draw comparisons is remarkable.

She writes touchingly on dementia that her grandfather suffered from, and, likewise, her treatment of depression, abuse, and self-doubt reach deep into the soul of the reader.  Poems like “New Year”  and “A Thousand Pieces” break the tension and provide a bit of emotional  relaxation.  
DeMulder is extremely talented and writes with real feeling.  The emotional presence is real and not, as in so many first collections, forced or feigned.  It’s rare that a collection can capture and hold the reader from cover to cover.  I expect that we will be seeing more from DeMulder in the near future.

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Book Review: Addicts & Basements


Addicts & Basements by Robert   Vaughan

Addicts & Basements by Robert Vaughan is a collection of free verse poetry. Vaughan is the former fiction editor at “Thunderclap!” and currently is the senior flash fiction editor at JMWW as well as the poetry and fiction editor at Lost in Thought Magazine. His work has appeared in numerous print and online journals. Vaughan was a finalist in the 2012 Micro-fiction Awards and a finalist in the 2013 Gertrude Stein Award. 

Poetry is something fairly new to me. My start was with my history background and World War I poetry. I have since started taking poetry collection in for review and ran the gamut of themes and poets. From the traditional, to open verse, to truly experimental, and poets from pastoral, to inner city, to LGBT poetry have all become part of my reading. For contemporary poetry I prefer that gritty, Selby-esqe, rough, punk rock type of writing. When I received the request forAddicts & Basements, I accepted it because it looked to fit my preferences. The title, a play on words, reminded me of the Neil Young song The Needle and the Damage done. Addicts & Basements did have the grittiness I expected and shockingly sometimes went much deeper than socially acceptable grit, but nothing deeper than real life. 

“The Black Sea” seems to set that tone but with grace and style. I had a feeling that this collection would be something I would like when the introduction featured three quotes one from William S. Burroughs, one from Virginia Woolf, and one from Morrissey — whom I know as the guy who sings Meat is Murder. My kind of people. Some poems have a very dark underside to happy family life like “Vaporous” others seem all out creepy, like “A Wonderful Life.” “On the Wings of a Dove” is a touching tribute to Matthew Wayne Shepard. Other poems relate to real life. We all know someone like the speaker in “Pool Hall.” “The Basement” relates to the fear I experienced of my own basement as a child. It was not a dead cat that did it to me, rather it was Dark Shadows. The feeling, however, is still the same. 

The voice speaking the poems seemed to change throughout the book. There is a voice speaking as a father, one as a boy who knits a pink scarf for his grandmother, a young woman, and at times the reader is left to determine the gender or orientation of the speaker. This may be a bit confusing for those who associate the writer as the speaker. The writer, however, is an artist not a gender, or as Patti Smith put it: When I’m writing a poem or drawing, I am not female; I’m an artist. Perhaps, it is one step farther than that as Smith also says: “All gender is a drag.” 

Intermixed in the collection are two poems that held a personal meaning with me. “Wheels” is fifteen lines about going back to his Schwinn. “The Patio” is about witnessing a cyclist getting hit by a car. In a split second the customers enjoying margaritas and queso and suddenly experience a bicycle getting mangled and a cyclist going through a car’s windshield.

Addicts & Basements is that real life poetry. It does not apologize for its contents. It reports from various angles, on various themes, from various witnesses to produce a real look at the world and the relationships of its inhabitants. Addicts & Basements pushes the reader out of his or her comfort zone. It leaders the reader through the underbelly of society very much in the same way Virgil lead Dante. A truly outstanding collection of cutting edge poetry.

Joseph Spuckler gives Addicts & Basements 5 Stars


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Book Review: Congotronic

Congotronic by Shane Book is a collection of unique poetry. Book is the author of Ceiling of Sticks. He is a graduate of New York University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. 

I picked up Congotronic because it was published by the University of Iowa Press, and I have not been disappointed by any of the works they have published. Congotronic, however, is very much out of my usual element of poetry. With no introduction, except for the cover art which lead me to think possibly West Africa, maybe Haiti, or again maybe big city America in the 1970s. The answer I received was “Yes.” The poetry seemed to capture all of that and more. There is imagery of an African fishing village in “Worldtown”. “Mack Daddy Manifesto” blends Engels and Marx into the street life of rap:

Real, real soon
as in yester-after-noon, I need to step to
your crib, and tell you how I feel the proletarians have
nothing to lose but their world to win. 

and into “Bronze Age”

The revolution?
Through our high powered geigers: twin-stroke
underbuzz of revolution’s engine; the puttering

three-wheeled revolution; the landless campesinos
beaten by pots and pans into land and nothing we could
do. They resented our husks.

Sometimes the words flow with a rhythm of a rap, other times they flow like cut-up, making the read stop, think, and reorganize the words he read. What is not lacking is imagery and message regardless of the topic. There is that edge of resistance, pride, and that reminder much like the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. There is power in the words, and that power seems to speak louder as proper English drifts into street slang. There is that feeling of pride and power that rose in the 1970s and now fades with illusion of equality. An excellent and unique collection poetry.

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Book Review: Skylight

Skylight: Poems

Skylight: Poems by Carol Muske-Dukes is a re-release of previously published poems giving an overview to the various styles, themes, and subjects of the poet. Muske-Dukes is the former Poet Laureate of California and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, and a wide array of awards including the Witter Bynner Award, the Castagnola Award and several Pushcart Awards. She is currently the professor of English and Creative Writing and the founding Director of the new PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. 

This is another collection of poetry I read before finding out about the poet. I do this sometimes so that I won’t look at a biography and think that I have to like this collection. How can I not like the poetry of a former Poet Laureate of California? Needless to say, this a solid collection of poetry. Perhaps it is because of the poets skill that I finished this collection content but not feeling what I usually do when finish a collection. Usually I will read a collection and one of two poems will stand out above all the rest and there will be a line or two that I have to share with everyone I talk books with. It was not the case here. The collection was not the rollercoaster of a few peaks and a few valleys mixed into a steady medium level. Here all the poems were on a higher than medium level with very little deviation. 

“Tuesday Again” caught my attention in the transformation of the narrator and the freedom found in an earlier annoyance. “Ahimsa” is a tribute to nonviolence and Gandhi’s political change after the massacre at Amritsar. “Short Histories of the Sea” capture the spirit of the day when the sea was contained unknown wonders and dangers:

and beside them historians
wrote poems
in which
the sea was eccentric 
tempestuous character

“Census” reminds us:

Once everybody had a place
among the nameless. Now we
can’t afford to be anonymous

and from “Choreography,” perhaps my favorite:

Somewhere, in a garden of jade, sits Buddha.
He is neither holy nor just
but has been carved from stone in a world 
which has invented holiness and justice. 

Perhaps the most moving and personal poems are in the final section titled “Siren Songs”. Here free verse and paragraph form tells profoundly sad stories in a beautiful manner. 

This an outstanding collection of modern poetry from an accomplished poet. The physical style is straightforward and easily recognized. This is a rare collection without a bad poem or filler. 

Open Road Integrated Media reprinted this collection using a special typesetting that keeps the lines in their original form and uses intents if the line runs over the page size. This is a great improvement of e-book readers. Changing the font size or page dimensions often changes the original lineation of the poem. This is quite frustrating for the reader trying to see the pattern in the words and lines. Open Road has seemed to fix this problem and allows the reader to see the poem in its original form. A definite added plus for e-book poetry readers.

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Book Review: Trickster

So I lay on Stone’s belly And Stone warms me
~ Folklore

Trickster by Randall Potts

Trickster by Randall Potts is his second collection of poetry. Potts taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of San Francisco and the California College of the Arts. He has also attended Iowa Writers Workshop and his work has appeared in numerous poetry journals. 

Trickster is a collection of various styles of poetry. A narrative poem called “Pest” near the beginning tells of a man’s loss of a corner of his yard

…I see 
the Yellow Jacket’s nest, hung like a horn-of-plenty under the
wide leaves — a thread of Wasps spooling out its dark hole 
mumbling threats — 
a corner of the garden is no longer ours. 

Potts moves to “A Natural History”, a two part poem, that examines two sources of a meal in a much closer way than most people ever look at their food. “The Good Life” is a haunting poem in two parts. “Balance” reads, in part: 

I’m black & white. Bees hum gold. They swarm. I kneel in
grass. I try to be small. I feel bees on me. Too many Bees
Walking on me. A boy yells, “He’s Being stung –” But I’m not
stung. My eyes open,

I dream a reactor to ruin A dam to rubble —

“I go poorly” is a man bargaining with extreme cold. The cold wanting to “nibble” at parts of his body and the man resisting. Cold is hungry and won’t be denied its meal. 

Many poems look at nature or the natural world with a different eye. Poems about bees, ladybugs, and oyster harvesting. Some poems look at people:

Two women run on a beach, ecstatic: they are alive. Their hair
trails into clouds, become clouds. They rush on, their hands
part the air.
They are always just about to arrive. 

A few poems focus on none of the above, like the poem “Math”:

I put 0 and 0 together
And arrived at nothing
Nothing accomplished. I had done it perfectly.
I made 0 disappear into 0
I made sure nothing was left. There was no doubt of it.

The changing structure of the poems, from narratives to a haiku, and the variety of subjects combined with the unique viewpoint making Trickster an interesting and worthwhile collection. The subjects are common to most people and the style is of writing is accessible to nearly all levels of readers, but at the same time not too simple for regular poetry readers. Taking the ordinary and making it something more than ordinary for the reader creates a chance for the reader to look at something as different as a hornets nest, rain, or a snail in a new light. A very good collection of poems. 

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Book Review: Tender Buttons

Just when I begin to understand poetry, I run across a book like this. I did win it in a Goodreads giveaway from City Lights Books, so I did volunteer for it. 

This is not your typical poetry. It is not Wordsworth, it’s not Rimbaud, it’s not even Ginsberg. If it comes close to someone’s writing, I would have to say Burroughs. There is a disconnection within the work. The poetry is in paragraph form and structured much like Naked Lunch’s* cut-up style. In Stein’s cut-up style, common words are joined together. For example, the title tender and buttons, two common words have little in common with each other but seem to fit well together. She also uses the phrase “piece of coffee.” It sounds very wrong, but somehow works well. 

Stein was influenced by the Cubist artists who dissected what they saw and rearranged the pieces in a different order. Below is Braque’s Violin and Candle Stick

The violin and the candlestick are visible in the picture, but not in the way we are used to seeing them. Stein does the same with her words, grammar, and structure. It is all there, but not in the expected manner. 

The poem “Apple” allowed me to see what was being done and acted as a Rosetta Stone for interpretation of many of the poems. Others seemed to take some thinking. The poem “Dining” consists of one line

Dining is west 

I have no idea if my thinking is right, but it went something like: 
Dining = dinner 
dinner = evening
evening = sunset
sunset = west

However the equally simple “Salad”

It is a winning cake

left me clueless. 

The poems are short one line items, like above, to several pages for the poem “Roast Beef” the poems however, seem to have little to do with the title. Most poems, however, fit on a single page. I am not sure what to make of this collection. My mind tries to find a code or a pattern in the work and there probably is not one. In the notes and afterword several theories are discussed from a hidden code to Stein being stoned. I can see where the latter might come from, but I doubt it. I am placing my amateurish opinion her work as an experiment. There are enough similarities in her work and Cubism to make that case. This edition also includes copies of Stein handwritten corrections to the first publication. 

Tender Buttons is worth the read for the open minded and those readers who do not see the need for strict form, grammar, or style…to the extreme. This collection is a mind bender, but one I will be keeping and reading again and again, waiting for that magic moment when it all makes perfect sense.

*In verifying my information on Naked Lunch, I learned that it was rejected by City Lights Books.

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Book Review: Indigenous Poetics in Canada

Indigenous Poetics in Canada edited by Neil McLeod is an in depth look at history and practice of poetry among native Canadians. McLeod grew up Cree on the James Smith Reserve in Saskatchewan. He has written two collections of poetry: Songs to Kill a Wihtikow and Gabriel’s Beach, and is also the author of Cree Narrative Memory. McLeod teaches Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. 

To start with, this is not a collection of poetry, but rather a very scholarly study of what indigenous poetry is and the experience of native authors. Each section meticulously sited with an abundance of source material. Sections that are not sited are interviews with scholars and poets — primary source material. At least one section is an excerpt of a graduate thesis. Actual poems are, however, few. 

There are several themes that seem to run through the book. First is the oral tradition (and an explanation why oral tradition is not a valid term) or verbatim memorizations of stories and traditions. The importance of remembering the story without changing a word. Words mean things, and changing even one word affects the story. Education and the Reserves play another role in the book. There is a paradox between Cree parents wanting their children to have White-Man’s Knowledge to move beyond the reserves and being “welfare Indians” and the death of culture:

“The objective of Indian Residential Schools, paid for by the government, was to kill the Indian within the child. Languages other than English were forbidden. Hair was cut and families torn apart, We were literally silenced.”

Modern Western society marginalizes poetry in general and native poetry even more so. There have been periods where there has been a resurgence in native literature and poetry, however, much of it is not in the tradition or is written outside the experience. One professor who receives many books of native poetry and literature and despite all the praise on the back cover, he feels sorry that trees had to die to make the book. Quantity over quality…or maybe just marketing is cheapening the genre. 

Although I was hoping for more poetry, I finished this book with a much better understanding of native literature and poetry than I would have gotten from reading a collection poems. Although, that will be my next step. Indigenous Poetics in Canada is a detailed and scholarly study of the Literature of the Native Canadian peoples. It is rich with background information and source material. An essential read for anyone wanting to know the philosophy of native literature. 

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Book Review: Mysterious Acts by My People

Mysterious Acts by My People by Valerie Wetlaufer

Mysterious Acts by My People written by Valerie Wetlaufer is a collection of nine years of work. Wetlaufer holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. Her MFA is from Florida State University. Wetlaufer also holds degrees from Bennington College — a BA in French and an MA in teaching. She is also the author of three chapbooks. 

Wetlaufer has an impressive educational resume, and things like that sometimes intimidate me as a reviewer with a small college resume and an MA in political science. I have no educational background in poetry, and only in the last year developed an interest poetry beyond a few well known names. Poetry has since become my favorite reading, and I only use Goodreads Giveaways for poetry. Going through the list of offerings I came across: “Mysterious Acts by My People is a fearless exploration of love, grief, violence, and humor.” So I entered and won. The book arrived promptly. It was signed and included a bookmark and the author’s business card. The note in the book said I hope you enjoy the poems. I thought this is nice; it should be right up my alley. 

However, I found myself in that “outside your comfort zone” place in reading. There is violence, and humor. The love is something that hit me as a very surprised, “Wow.” The grief is soul wrenching. The poem “Twins” and the “The Fourth Miscarriage” will rip your heart out. “City of Salt” and “Your Body will Haunt Mine” are powerful and very moving poems of the loss of a loved one. “Anger Endures” continues the sense of extreme loss. 

There is humor in the collection too. One line is burned into my brain is from “Instruction Piece”: “I live in the belly of a wail, swimming the ocean.” The play on words is near perfection. 

The violence and sex are graphic, perhaps a bit more than I expected. I had read poetry from the LGBT community before and enjoyed it. Feelings are the same no matter who you love. Wetlaufer, however, left me feeling a bit different, not offended, but maybe a bit embarrassed reading it. But that too is not quite correct. At times, I would get caught up in the poetry and come back and think, “Did she really say what I think she said?” Other times I caught what she said, but the words softened the bluntness. There is power in what is being written, immense power, enough to knock you over, but Wetlaufer’s use of words makes everything seem as it should. She made this former Marine blush, yet at the same time see the raw beauty in her words. 

I will admit I was not fully prepared for the subject matter in this collection. Perhaps the elk on the cover distracted me. Perhaps, only reading the opening lines of the introduction made me think of something else. Contemporary poetry is, in my experience, a few hits and many misses. Mysterious Acts by My People is a hit. After reading this collection, despite most of it being outside my personal experience, my first thoughts were, “My God, this woman can write.” The poems in this book will stay in my mind for some time to come. Wetlaufer does something that is both difficult and rare. She is able to take someone with completely different experiences and have them feel like they are part of her experiences. She has the ability not just to tell you what she felt, but to have you experience what she felt. Absolutely amazing collection.

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Book Review: The Daring of Paradise

The Daring of Paradise by Brian Day is an edgy collection of poetry. Religion is the topic of this collection and not necessarily in a reverent way. Being raised a Catholic, but not having set foot in a church or having any serious thoughts about religion in decades, I was still left with a slightly uneasy feeling. Much like a school kid getting his first look at a Playboy magazine, there is a feeling of guilty, wrongdoing, but at the same time a need to continue looking. The same feelings are present for me in reading The Daring of Paradise. So, needless to if you are a conservative Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, you may not want to read this book. 

“Jacob, Wrestling” presents the Biblical story of Jacob, but with Jacob wrestling God instead of a man or angel. This wrestling is violent with an almost sexual undertone to the bodily contact. Not the connotation of a Sunday School lesson. Likewise “Pursuing our Pleasure in the Body of Christ” brings the same nearly erotic imagery. The writing is well done and despite the subject matter this is not crucifixes in a bottle of urine or a dung painting of Mary. This is complex and thought out. This is a collection that will have plenty of reviews, all of them either five star or one star with very few taking a middle ground. 

“Hunting” brings us St. Peter on the rooftop in The Acts of the Apostles and God telling Peter to kill and eat. In the next stanza tells Krishna and the Khandava forest fire. Both events produce a blood bath for the animals of earth. Peter and Krishna next meet at heaven’s butcher shop and see first hand the carnage of the multitude of mutilated animals, their skins reclaimed from shoes and belts. Religion and the pleasures of the kill. 

No religion is spared in Day’s collection. Several figures meet: Jesus and Buddha Commiserate”, “Krishna and Jesus in Algonquin Park”, and “Guru Nanak and Jesus”. Although Christianity is the subject of most poems there is plenty of variety in the subjects. Gay men want to be Mary in “A Wish to be Mary”:

We all want to be seared by the need of God, 
to have this night blazoned with the mark
of pure scalding, to be wreaked 
with a blessing that exceeds human shape.

The Daring of Paradise provides a paradox. While it may be sacrilege for the those who believe in any of the religious faiths mentioned in the collection, it would be almost meaningless to those with no understanding of the several religions used. Here is a collection for those who understand the faiths of the world, yet do not hold to any of them with much or any conviction. Perhaps these are poems for the Epicurus in all of us.

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