Jeff Hardin: Welcome In

img074On my first day of Creative Writing class with Jeff Hardin, he told our room of eclectic and eccentric students: “You’re writing for now, and you’re writing for later.” I was hardly aware of how that quote, that class, and that man would change my path into the one that I’m now walking. He asked us once, who had given us permission to “play in the game [of writing];” and though there were others who have lovingly encouraged my love of writing over the years, it was Hardin, who looked at me, and said, “Yeah, you can write poetry.”

Jeff Hardin was raised in Savannah, Tennessee, and is an eighth generation descendent of the county’s founder. He received degrees from Austin Peay State University and the University of Alabama. Hardin teaches English at Columbia State Community College– where I first encountered him and was his student for two semesters. He has amassed some 500+ publications, and has birthed two books of poems, Fall Sanctuary, and Notes For a Praise Book.

I’m struggling, more than usual, to convey the importance of this particular poet, for he has been more influential to me than a mere poem on a page. He is a friend to trees, to old waterways, to the last light of a sunset, to the voice of a guitar, to tomorrow, to grace. And I’m blessed to say he is a friend to me.

Seed Heads Bursting Gold Light

We need to busy ourselves with memorizing autumn

in the puddles down the drive. A single

forgotten reflection makes all the others tremble.

 

I didn’t think twice as a boy, lying prostrate

to watch a dandelion bend with the breeze.

Amazing! I knew already what to do with my life.

 

I’d wager Solomon, had he lived nearby,

would have taken long walks in the sage grass field,

just to watch how seed heads burst with gold light.

 

I’m an advocate of letting things lean as they must.

When one tree rests its dying toward another,

I go among them to listen in and take my place.

 

No big difference, I say, between years that lean that way

and a shared gaze between me and some friend’s eyes.

Some weakness unspoken may be the strongest voice we have.

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I smile as I read, because this poem is such a prime look into exactly who Hardin is. He says it himself, “I knew already what to do with my life,” as he identifies that noticing and bringing attention to the beauty found in the smallest, simplest of things is an integral part of him. His attention to detail is lovely; I’m there, and I can see each moment frozen in a photograph rich with emotion–the “trembling” puddles down the leaf-speckled drive or the delicate seed heads lifting into the dying sun. “I’m an advocate of letting things lean as they must,” is a line that encourages us to accept life as it comes.  The poet reminds readers, as if they were young maple trees pushing into the wind, to embrace those especially unique things about oneself. Because Hardin and I both know that it’s in those things that everyone’s particular loveliness is found. Spend some time paying attention and celebrating the distinctive elements of today. Take your place among the woods that are beginning to burn with color, put your hands to the bark and character of the trees you pass, nod your head to life’s cycle of death and rebirth, and raise your “strongest voice.”

For more Hardin reading, you can utilize the following links to his personal website, blog, a feature on Still: The Journal, an interview with Shane Toombs, a review of Fall Sanctuary, and a poem feature and a review of Notes From A Praise Book on Chapter 16’s website.

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James Cherry: Here, Now

IMG_1293I had the great privilege of hearing James Cherry read at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend and meeting him afterwards. Though we were surrounded by a crowd of ardent book lovers and a medley of city sounds, I was deeply moved by how comfortably he shared the workings and introspections of his mind. As he read of a death in the family, new neighbors, and judgement in his everyday 21st century life– it was as if an old friend was simply unfolding those kinds of incidents that we’re all trying learn from. Cherry and his wife Tammy reside in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is the creator of The Griot Collective of West Tennessee, a non-profit that promotes poetry and the spoken word. He has written four books (Bending the Blues, a poetry chapbook; Honoring the Ancestors, a full collection of poems; Shadow of Light, a novel; and Still A Man and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction), and this week’s poem can be found in his newest book of poems, Loose Change.

Space Between Us

Death that has brought home my niece,

her cousin, lost in twisted metal, broken glass

on an interstate highway.  The house is hushed

 

with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.

She hops onto the counter, her shoulders hunched

inside a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.

 

I anticipate a change in college majors, a new job

or even life in another city, but I’m still not hearing

what she has said, her words

 

crystalizing in the space between us,

shatter into syllables around my feet.

“I’m going to have a baby.”

 

She is twenty and in her smile remains

Christmas, bright early, sparkling with surprise,

summers in Tennessee swelter

 

satiated on Bar-B-Que and ice cream,

living room skits performed with baby brother Niles,

replete with costumes, props and improvisation.

 

She explains her plans to resume school

after the baby is born, that it’s a girl,

that the father is close to my age, mid-forties.

 

“Is this what you want, Lauren?”

Her answer echoes down the hall

to my bedroom long after

 

we have said goodnight.

I undress the moonlight, measure the pulse

of my wife’s breathing and lay beside her,

 

ponder the shape of shadows on the wall

and the wants of loved ones that rarely fit

desires we have designed for them.

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I can’t help but hear Cherry’s steady, gentle voice every time I read and re-read this poem. His writing voice, much like his physical one, is strong and rich, as he describes this encounter with his niece. I am struck by how vividly I can see the scene Cherry’s described–“The house is hushed/ with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.” Perhaps there’s a grandfather clock ticking like the house’s heartbeat and the linoleum in the kitchen is cool on their feet, but it’s the “space between us,” that’s so tangible to me. Much like Lauren’s “crystallized” words, Cherry has frozen this particular night with all of its conflicting emotions: shock, naive understanding, happiness, confusion, and loving concern. This has quickly become one of my favorite poems as it is straightforward in its form, tone, and language, but quietly leaves the reader mulling over the question of how to respond when one’s desires for someone they love do not align with the actual choices that are made.

To read more on James Cherry, visit his personal website for a list of books, interviews, reviews, etc. Use the following links for the AALBC’s feature on Cherry and Project HBW’s blog feature on Cherry’s book, Loose Change, which I highly encourage readers to purchase on Amazon.

Why We Share Our Words

img 213The Tennessee Poetry Journal Credo circa 1967.

When I read Jeff Daniel Marion’s introduction in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee and discovered this declaration by the Tennessee Poetry Journal, it gave me a little more spirit and resolution for this project. In addition, I’ve never been so proud to be a Tennessean as I was following my time at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend. For I am more than pleased to hail from the same state as Jim Clark, Jesse Graves, Amy Wright, Kory Wells, Jeff Hardin, Linda and Jeff Daniel Marion, TJ Jarrett, William Wright, James Cherry, and many more talented individuals. And indeed, I am privileged to be a part of the beauty and richness of history that Tennessee has to offer its inhabitants and passers-by.

“It would be a shame to live most of your life here thinking it’s ‘just’ a place.”

 {my adaptation of a quote by author Matt Guinn.}

 

John Bensko: Perceptive Heart

IMG_1916I am quickly finding that the most common thread among contemporary poets, but especially our southern ones, is their potent sense of place that they champion, and John Bensko is no exception. This poet has resided in many southern states before calling Tennessee his home, and he has particularly highlighted his Alabama birthplace through his book Iron City: PoemsWith an impressive string of degrees, teaching positions at Rhodes College and the University of Alicante, Spain as a Fulbright Professor, and celebrations such as the Yale Younger Poet Series winner for his book Green Soldiers, I am pleased to feature John Bensko’s poem found in my spanking new copy of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee.  

A Broken Ode to Snow

A winter day cannot avoid its snow.

Can I accept that I do not belong to myself?

 

On the street at night a flurry of shadows falls

across the light, Can I think that I will not be?

 

My feet leave impressions

that the snow itself cannot remove.

 

Things melt. Hair grows gray, then white.

Disappearing, can I think those I love will be gone too?

 

I love snow, when it falls fast and thick,

when the wind takes it and throws it up against itself.

 

To explain me to me. To know

exactly what I am, and am not.

 

Snow does not worry, does not toil.

Its only order is to fall and deepen.

 

When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt

in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?

 

I like to watch the snow melting leave the footprints. The icy

remainders where I’ve gone down the walk are the last to go.

 

People like to speak of the soul, and the soul’s awakening.

It drifts, it rises, and falls, it deepens.

 

Watching at night, I wonder how thick it will be by morning.

In the day, I hope it won’t stop before night.

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Bensko’s ode to snow is accompanied with an inescapable chill that your body and your mind cannot seem to shake long after you’ve read the piece and shut the book. His simple language, quiet repetition, and drivingly introspective questions build throughout the poem just like piles of its cold, white subject matter. Bensko starts the poem by reminding his readers that just as a “winter day cannot avoid its snow,” one cannot necessarily escape the heavy thoughts of personal existence during one’s life of many seasons. In a steady pattern of alternating between descriptions of snow to asking questions about the soul’s transience—“things melt”—, Bensko beautifully crafts this connectedness. But he also contrasts the lightness of the snow, saying that it “does not worry, does not toil,” with the weightier matters of the soul –though they both “fall and deepen.” Three-quarters of the way through the poem, the eighth couplet snagged at my spirit: “When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt/ in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?” Each of us knows those instances where we helplessly dissolve into our circumstances, but I don’t think I’m ready to answer Benkso’s final question. Yet, here’s to continuing to ask myself the heavier questions and learning to live in gratitude, no matter what season my soul finds itself.

To read more of John Bensko’s work, invest in a copy of Vol. 6 of The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, or any of his books: Green Soliders, The Waterman’s Children, The Iron City: Poems. And for some insight into his poetic practices and thoughts, click on Poetry Net’s feature of Bensko.

A Celebration of the Written Word

SFOBposter3_small finalWith just two more days between you and the weekend, I hope you’ve planned accordingly for the 25th annual Southern Festival of Books this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!

This Nashville literary event boasts around 200 authors and as many as 30,000 lovers of the written word. This past week, The Tennessean ran a feature on the past twenty-four years of the festival with pictures and posters spanning the growth of this truly noteworthy endeavor.

The Humanities Tennessee site has a detailed schedule if you would rather map out your day than amble around. To keep up with the goings-on this weekend, you can find the Southern Festival of Books on Facebook and Twitter.

See you there!

Kory Wells: Mixing Past and Present

IMG_5616This week I’m happy to feature Kory Wells— a genuine Tennesseean– who writes, reads her pieces to the sound of her daughter’s fiddle, mothers two children, and works as a product manager at a software company. Wells is more than just a well-rounded person; she’s a living and interactive work of art. Her first book of deftly crafted Southern poems, Heaven Was the Moon, was published in 2009. Since then, she has begun to perform these poems as spoken word, “bluegrass rap,” with her daughter Kelsey, who produces old-time music on the banjo, fiddle, etc. The duo released their first album, A Decent Pan of Cornbread, a year ago. As a Tennessee native, Wells grew up in Southern Appalachia and then relocated to Murfreesboro, where she has spent the majority of her days, and received both a B.A. and M.S. from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).

Hope Universal

What happens when a galaxy eats its neighbor? 
the boy reads aloud from Discover online.

His mother, arcade queen of 1979,
pictures Pac-Man gobbling little yellow dots,

targets so flat and mundane they’re almost alien
to the boy, who navigates three-dimensional

Super Mario Galaxy like he’s an astronomer.
Or a Jedi fighter. A dangerous occupation,

his mother knows, and she worries: What happens
when a boy is addicted to PlayStation and Wii?

But the boy, still reading, stops on the phrase
rivers of stars to say

that’s nice, meaning the language,
not the aftermath of a cosmic invasion,

and her heart explodes, a supernova
flinging hope into the universe where,

elegant in black velvet and satellite bling,
Venus waits in the night like a sure lover,

winks her seductive eye
at the man he will become.

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The poem is happily placed in the ordinary, everyday world, and features a heavy vocabulary of Wells’ geekier love: space. I smile every time I read this piece, not only because of its whimsy voice and metaphors, but also because there is a ten-year-old boy in my life who is similar to Wells’ son. My youngest brother, like many children his age, is deeply ingrained with the technological age that we live in. Both boys can wield these new devices with an ease that has begun to worry adults who grew up entertaining themselves with fishing poles and backyard escapades. But often my brother, the young historian and devourer of novels, gives me daily reasons to fling “hope into the universe.” If we can keep teaching them to find beauty in the lives of those who walked before them, in the land they inhabit, in the language on paper pages of a book, and in the richness of the heavens above, I have supernova- sized confidence they’ll grow  to become decent young men too.

To find more of Kory Wells, click here for her personal website and blog. To purchase her poem book or CD, one can buy directly through her site or through Amazon. Though Wells will not be reading at the Southern Festival of Books next weekend, I’m pretty positive she will be around with her fellow writers for the festivities. Come join us!