Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: 13 Ways of Looking at a Writer

Scorpio Patricia CaspersEach week I scour my twitter feed for signs of my Scorpio horoscope via Astro Poets (AKA Dorthea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov, for those two people who don’t know). Sure, I could thumb a few words into the search bar and voilà, but where’s the hunt in that? I want to scroll through my feed of poems and shiny disasters and stumble upon phrases like this recent treasure: “Never getting over being alive is poetry.”

I love the way the Astro Poets inspire me to wonder.

Here’s a Scorpio horoscope that caused me some big wondering:

“There are so many ways to look at something. There are at least 13, but also maybe more. You get into that one way and it’s strong. But is it always right— no. Start to turn the facets until you see yourself clearly again. Luck will arrive soon.”

“That one doesn’t apply to me at all,” I thought out loud the first time I read this tweet, but then I reconsidered.

Because here’s the thing: I’m a poet. That’s how I’ve defined myself since I was nine years old. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.

But here’s the other thing: Nobody else really knows it. So when I go on Twitter, and I see all the beautiful people – who are often so very much younger than me – becoming famous for their poetry, I’m happy for them. I really am. A win for poetry is a win for the world; there’s no doubt about it. But there’s a teeny place in my heart that asks, “Why not me?”

And then I am sad.

But I know why not me. Not me because I’ve written maybe a total of three complete poems in the last year, and I published all of one. I can hardly expect to have my poems recited in the next Greta Gerwig film if I don’t do the work of creating them or sending them off to poetry journals for excoriation.

OK, so I don’t really need to be a famous poet, I tell myself. I’ll be satisfied with an eclectic cult following.

I’m beginning to think that’s not happening, either.

I’m a failed poet.

Meanwhile, in the last two years I’ve written more than 100 weekly columns for my local newspapers. At one time or another every column I’ve written has also been written in the form a poem that no one read. I write about my teenage parents, my father’s drug addiction, the car wreck that took his life, my lifelong struggle with depression, the time I was too drunk to consent.

Recently my column was picked up by another news outlet in a neighboring county, and last year I was named the best columnist in the state by California News Publishers Association.
Better than that is the fact that almost daily I receive messages from readers who tell me my column is the best part of their day.

“I felt like you were telling my story,” they say.

“You are the butterfly,” they say.

“Thank you,” they say.

I’m not telling you this to brag. Well, maybe just a little; I am a Scorpio after all.

The truth is I find it all a bit baffling. All I ever wanted to be was a poet, but somehow I’ve ended up becoming a columnist instead. Clearly, I’m no Pauline Chen, but I do have what some might consider a tiny, eclectic cult following.

Still, I feel like a failed poet because every time I receive one of those messages I think, “It’s just a column. It’s not poetry.”

So I thought about my horoscope, and I considered 13 ways of looking at a writer, as well as something else Dana Levin once said, which was along the lines of this: When you find people who love your work, love them back.

Levin was talking about loving the small literary journals who love us instead of chasing the ever-elusive behemoths, which is solid advice, but maybe it also means that when people tell us we have a gift, we should believe them and love them for it – even if it’s not the gift we hoped they’d open.

Sometimes life is a trip through the constellations when we thought we were just hitchhiking across town – and that’s a kind of poetry, too.

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: A Review

It’s not necessary to be a connoisseur of German philosophy in order to fall in love with Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Turn, but if you know something about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s theory of revolution, you might enjoy seeing the layers of the book through that lens. Chin-Tanner, who has a background in sociology, learned Hegel’s theory of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, and she considered the way Hegel’s ideas also applied to our emotional lives.

Book CoverHere’s my somewhat reductive explanation of Hegel’s theory, in case you need a refresher: We have an idea (thesis); we have new ideas that oppose our original idea (anti-thesis); and eventually we bring those opposing ideas together in a way that works for us (synthesis). Another piece of Hegel’s theory is about totality. “For Hegel, only the whole is true,” write Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze in Hegel for Beginners. Totality, they write, “preserves within it each of the ideas or stages that it has overcome or subsumed.”

“It is a book with a lot of ideas in it,” Chin-Tanner said in a phone conversation. “I want it to resonate on more that just one level, but I tried not to allow academic language to seep into the poetry.”

While Turn does illustrate Hegel’s academic ideas, it also remains intimate and accessible for the reader. For example, the book as a whole reads as an autobiography of Chin-Tanner’s life as a young girl, as an adult, and as a mother, while each of its three sections reflect the ideas of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis within Chin-Tanner’s personal narrative:

Thesis: “I am her creature. Her / Caliban. Or am I Miranda / with my thin winter skin?” (from “Tempest”)

Anti-thesis: “I returned from that / ruinless war victorious by// surrendering, having given over / to myself as some do to God” (from “Veteran”)

Synthesis: “And out my bedroom window, the strange bright chirps // of the birds building a nest in the blind winter night.” (from “Signs and Symbols”)

Turn illustrates Hegel’s ideas of totality in the way the speaker’s vision of herself and her family evolves in each section, but at the same time the poems build on their foundation and continue to preserve within in them Chin Tanner’s earlier ideas.  “Alzheimer’s” from the last section of the book, is an example of this totality:


as if childhood had not

died as

if the intervening

years had

not passed you by

giggling she

is peeking at

you through

the widening

lacuna signaling ship

to shore unmoored

but restored to

your own private

time her face the

face of your waking

hours mother’s

milk gone

sour if you let it

be again

as it was between

you then what

would happen to

what happened

to what was

real or

true what

would you do?


The result of this effort to demonstrate totality is that Chin-Tanner was very conscientious about the order of the poems, so that each poem builds or reflects upon the poem that came before it, and the book, as a whole, becomes a poem in itself.

But forget about Hegel and totality if you like. Choose to read the poetry layer you prefer; each one is as finely-crafted as the next. I prefer the layer in which the book is an autobiography of a strong woman who has overcome family abuse, and is working toward forgiveness. “Abuse happens in more than 30 percent of all households globally,” Chin-Tanner said.  “It’s important to me on a personal level that readers not forget that people are multi-faceted. The bad stuff that happens to us is not all that we are.”

And the water / sits still, unburdened, // unbroken by light. (from “Genjokoan”)

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Mays Anthology of Oxford and CambridgeThe Saint Ann’s ReviewThe Raintown ReviewPraxilla, MelusineMascara Literary ReviewUmbrella, Softblow, and Lantern Review. Chin-Tanner is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, staff interviewer at Lantern Review, and online sociology instructor at Cambridge University, UK. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughters. Turn is a finalist for the 2015 Oregon Book Awards.

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: Hearing Voices – Women Versing Life presents Julie Brooks Barbour

JBB1When her daughter was born eleven years ago, poet Julie Brooks Barbour wanted to know why everyone lied to her about motherhood. “People would say things like, ‘It goes so fast. Enjoy these moments,’ and I thought ‘Why is nobody telling the truth?’” Barbour began seeking out poetry by women who had children, but it was a challenge to find work that was honest and not intended for a laugh. Eventually, she stumbled upon Alice Notley’s, “A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead,” originally published in 1972:

My baby is quiet and wise, but I’m
a trade name and I’m
rainwater on a piano . . . .

Finally, Barbour had found someone who told the truth. “It’s one of those poems every mother should read,” she said, “because this is chaos, and for the first two years there’s no me here.” Notley gave Barbour the glimmer of hope she needed to keep searching. She went on to discover other poets who wrote truthfully about motherhood, and about the body: Lucille Clifton, Eavan Boland, and Nikky Finney, for example, and then Barbour started writing her own poems about motherhood as identity. “I’ve always been interested in the feminine and the body,” she said, “but when my daughter was born she really brought it together for me.”

The poems from Barbour’s first chapbook, Come to Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press) address the ways a woman figures out who she is once she’s become a mother. “I kept asking: How do you keep in touch with yourself when you feel split apart, when you’re only allowed to show certain sides?” Barbour said. After reading her work, it’s clear that poetry became the perfect solder for the poet’s split selves.

The title poem from Come to Me and Drink, which will also appear in Small Chimes, a full-length manuscript due out from Aldrich Press later this year, is one example of that fine weld:

Come to Me and Drink

I know what she tastes: the ambrosia
that one morning fell in drops
from my breast to my arm. Tasting it,
my tongue recalled the white and yellow
blossoms of honeysuckle sprouting wild
along a field’s edge. Collecting vine upon vine,
I’d pluck each sweet blossom, pull out
each green stamen, careful not to lose
the drop of nectar at its tip, delighting
my tongue with the watery sugar.

Now the gods put me on the vine.
The buds of my nipples are pink
and dripping. An infant plucks me dry,
a sweet smell on her breath. This liquid:
a heal-all for a stomach-ache, a sedative
for the sleepless child making her bed
in the field’s tall grass. Her lips suckle in sleep.
Her tongue clicks in her mouth, an exercise.
The passing breeze my voice,
whispering around her ear. My arms vines
coaxing her to come to me and drink.

(Originally published at Inscape / Morehead State University)

The subject of women’s identity has certainly kept Barbour inspired, as she has a second chapbook, Earthlust (Finishing Line) also due out this year. Earthlust considers the ways girls are taught to be desirable, how a woman keeps her identity in the face of sexual desire, and the institution of marriage. Many of the poems are re-tellings of fairytales; for example, the series “The Woman without Hands” takes a fairytale character whose hands were cut off by her father, and imagines how she continues to accomplish necessary tasks, such as breastfeeding: “forehead to forehead, she nuzzles him like an animal. / She cannot sling him around to her back like a bear.”

“At one point in the fairytale, her husband gives her silver hands, and I thought, ‘Dear Lord, what is she going to do with those?” Barbour said. In the end, (spoiler alert) she removes the silver hands, her own hands grow back, and she uses them to discover her body. The series acts as a metaphor for the many ways women empower themselves despite being told what they are and are not allowed to do.

In fact Barbour has been told that she should write about other subjects, should write poems that are less soft-hearted. Her response: “Just because I’m writing about being a woman doesn’t mean I’m being sentimental,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m sugar-coating it.”

Other poets who inspire Barbour include: Jeannine Hall Galey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mary Biddinger, Marianne Boruch, Susan Grimm, and Mary McMyne.

“Hearing Voices – Women Versing Life” is a continuation of a series that originally appeared at Ploughshares.

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: Writing Sugarless

Sweet Pea

Before I talk about my struggle with rejection letters, it’s important that you know how much I want you to love me. By “you” I don’t mean a general second-person all-encompassing kind of you; I mean you: the person reading these words awash in the light of a computer screen. And by “me” I don’t mean the don’t-assume-the-author-is-the-narrator kind of “me.” I really mean me, here, tapping at the keys in the dark, dog snoring softly at my feet.

My only hope of winning your love is to woo you with my words, to be smart and funny, and whip up a mean metaphor or simile now and again, so that’s what I’ll do if I can. Sometimes I can’t, and if I can’t win your love I will console my sorrow with an ice cream sundae or maybe a chocolate-covered cream puff.

Well, that’s how I would have consoled myself four months ago, before I gave up processed sugar in all of its devilish incarnations.

I gave up sugar because I wanted to know what drove me to eat it, in any form, in the car, and on the beach, in front of the computer or behind a book, after every meal, and just before I brushed my teeth. I thought if I sat quiet and still in that place of craving, the answer would rise to the surface of the abyss, returning like a bottle I tossed into the sea as a young girl. When I had the answer it would be over; no more cravings.

Of course I had the answer all along. I never tossed that bottle into the sea. I swallowed it whole, washed it down with a Coke sipped through a Red Vine, and it’s been sitting in my belly ever since: Sugar = Love.

Except that it doesn’t.

Now I’m working on the part where I love myself so completely that I don’t need your love, or anyone’s. I’m so not there yet. I’m reminded that I’m not there every time I open a rejection letter, and the urge to drive myself to the ice cream stand is so strong I very nearly have to chain myself to the porch rail and sing myself lullabies— because besides eating sugary products, writing is the one thing that I have, at times, done well. It is the basket in which all of my eggs lay. Or is it “lie”? Well, Sometimes those eggs do lie. They say, “This poem is your best yet. It is sure to be scooped up by the editor of [insert name of fabulous journal here] because you and the editor are both fans of skydiving clowns and blue-eyed mares named Maggie.”

Four months later I open the rejection, and it’s not even personalized. Sometimes it’s such a clever form letter that I can’t tell whether or not it’s personalized, and I have to go look it up on Rejection Wiki, which is incredibly humiliating, or would have been if I had ever dared to admit it to anyone before now.

There are very few places where people are rejected outright — romantic relationships, employment, college admissions, immigration, and the submission or audition process— where someone says bluntly, “No, not you; You’re not good enough,” and of those, the latter two are the only rejections that are likely to happen on a daily basis for the rest of our lives, although my rejection letters seem to gang up on the same day, like unwashed teenage boys loafing outside the corner liquor store, emitting a gauntlet of testosterone and cigarette smoke through which I was required to pass for my daily dose of Blow Pop.

If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, you’ve felt the misery, however brief, so I don’t have to tell you. My trouble is that I’m eternally optimistic, so when those poetry eggs whisper their sweet nothings, I believe them every time, no matter how often they’ve been proven wrong.

The rejection letter is the price I have to pay for that optimism, and indulging in a little snort of post-rejection sugary goodness was like paying that price with credit. Sure, the sting was still out there, but “I’ll get to it later,” I’d say. “Pass the cookies.” Now my credit’s run out, and it’s all cash on delivery, Baby. So what do I do instead of sucking whipped cream straight from the can? I write about it, and then I write some more, and the cycle repeats.

Do you love me yet?