April 26, 2018


Bob Churchill

I’ve let the backyard go to jungle
again.  Not like “The Bush” in Vietnam—
after fifty years still the place
of nightmares, with lime-green pit vipers
nestled in lianas, blood-sheened

April 24, 2018


For Poetry Month, ceramic artist and steward of the land Susie Osler offers this poem by New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock.
Fleur Adcock by Caroline Forbes/British Council
Fleur Adcock

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

April 21, 2018


sakura sakura saku sakura chiru sakura

cherry tree
cherry blossoms
cherry blossoms scatter
cherry tree

April 19, 2018


Sandra de Helen

There's an arroyo seco right next to my
littoral zone. Crazy right? Dry bed adjacent
to an area so rich in love and light, plants
and animals, it could make a person

April 17, 2018


Ellen Bass by Irene Young/ellenbass.com
Ellen Bass

What did I love about killing the chickens?  Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard

April 11, 2018


Mary Jo Salter photo by Marina Levitskaya

Passionate intensity, quiet unfolding, excited language -- whatever the formal elements, it's a poem's particular energy that stays with me. Fragments of my earliest reading materialize in memory's ear, kinetically intact, sometimes even intensified. This kind of memorable energy courses through Mary Jo Salter's chain of sonnets "The Surveyors."

As fall gave way to winter, and winter to more winter, Mary Jo and I exchanged emails about her writing and her life, the multiplicity of endings in poems, time-jumbling, the sonnet as ramble, and poetry's particular remembering.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

MARY JO SALTER: Through my parents.  They were both literary, in oblique ways.  My father was a master's degree dropout in the English department at Berkeley, before turning to the advertising business--another way of working with words--by the time I was born.  I used to love trying to come up with slogans, really fast ways of saying something snazzy, the way he did.  Thanks to him, I never looked down on puns--I still love them.  My mother was actually the more literary parent, though she wasn't a writer until, in her last bedridden years, she started writing Emily Dickinson-like poems that went straight to the heart of life.  She had always foisted books on me, eye-opening books like "The Catcher in the Rye" was I was 12.  My mother was a painter and sculptor, but she was the one who walked around with poems in her head, and who wasn't afraid to quote them--Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.  She wouldn't say, "It's time to do your homework;" she'd say, "The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things..."  She was also, I see now, a model for me of the legitimacy of being a female who created things.

Never once did my parents make me feel that I was wasting my time when I wrote a poem (the first one at age 7) or played the piano or drew a picture.  Never once did they ask me how I was going to make a living doing such useless stuff. They took me to museums, to the theater and to the opera before I could understand what I was seeing or hearing. Only now do I realize how rare that was.

SG: “The Surveyors” begins with an excerpt from a letter that describes a poem the letter-writer dreamed you had written. “Does this poem exist?” your friend asks.

In the poem’s opening lines, you look back over the landscape of your life – a rich one, lived and literary – from a point in time as though from a point in space, and confess that the poem your friend has dreamed is not one you have written.

Or is it? As the poem develops, “the chain / gone taut, then running out, over and over,” your poetic attention sweeps panoramically across the landscape of memory and imagination, settling finally on the present, at which point you aver that although you’re sorry to say it, “ The Surveyors’ does not exist.”

With this paradox, the question that occasions the poem has become the question that haunts the poem: what does it mean, to exist? Does taking stock, surveying, provide an answer to that question, or is the paradox itself the answer?

April 9, 2018

Once There Was and Never Was

For Poetry Month, Naz Arabaghian offers this poem from Forgotten Bread, an anthology of first-generation Armenian American writing (edited by David Kherdian, Heyday Press, 2007).

Diana Der-Hovanessian (photo by Karen Antashyan)

The Armenian American poet Diana Der-Hovanessian (1934-2018), who was twice a Fulbright professor of American poetry and an award-winning author of more than 20 books of poems and translations, has been a fixture on my “reread again and often” list. Along with other poets of the Armenian diaspora (the 2016 Pulitzer recipient Peter Balakian, David Kherdian, Helene Pilibosian, Harold Bond [Bondjoukian], and Gregory Djanikian immediately come to mind), Der-Hovanessian’s work permeates with longing and loss, remembrance and renewal; her poems are palimpsests on which the twentieth-century genocide of the Armenian people has left its traumatic imprint. I’m always struck by how a misleadingly whimsical poem like “Once in a Village” coalesces snippets of history (Tadem, the tale of its fate “too terrible to tell”) with fragments of folklore (the incantatory “Once there was, and never was,” the woods, a mysterious king), details from borrowed proverbial wisdom (the speaker’s grandmother’s stories) with reports of rumored atrocities (burning villages, orphaned children, a lonely boy noticing how “goats, the school, the children,/their teacher, the church,/priest and parish disappeared/in a terrible way”), narrative convention with lyrical concision.

Once in a Village

Once there was, and never was,
my grandmother’s stories began
the way all Armenian fairytales
begin: Once there was
and never was, a village,
at the end of the woods,
a small village roofed
with cranes and smoke.

Once there was, and never was,
at the foot of a mountain
a village called Tadem,
where everyday, a shepherd boy
passed the house of a woodsman
at the edge of the town.
The woodsman lived there with
his wife and little girl.
And when the boy took his goats
to graze, the girl would watch
secretly from a window, making
up names for the goats, and the boy.
She was not the daughter of the woodsman
and his wife, but had been sent
to live with them by her real father
a mysterious king, with a mysterious name.

Once there was, and never was,
a village with a shepherd boy,
and a witch’s curse. In this village
lived a woodsman, his wife
and an orphan girl who thought
she was the daughter of a nameless king.

Years passed and the king never came
to take home his little girl
and so she was sent far away
to America to marry.

And after she was gone the boy felt lonely
and unwatched. But not for long
because a strange thing happened.
His goats, the school, the children,
their teacher, the church,
priest and parish disappeared
in a terrible way. Too terrible to tell.

One morning there was an Armenian village
that turned into a Turkish fire.

Once there was or never was
a little girl who thought
she was the lost daughter
of a lost king who would go back
for her and thank everyone
in that village for taking care
of her. He would thank woodsman,
priest, teacher, baker, shoemaker,
children, tillers in the fields
for singing their songs for her.
And she would go with him
to thank them for being her friends.
But they disappeared.
Once in a village, a rooster crowed
and no one stirred.
Once there was a village
with wild hedges, a goat boy who never grew up
and a princess who never woke.

April 5, 2018


A trilingual Poetry Month offering from poet Emiko Miyashita

Here are three from a set of 72 haiku by Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959) in his first Hai-kai collection Au fil de l'eau (1905), which I am just reading in a book titled Le japonisme de Haiku: P.-L.  Couchoud et les échanges culturels franco-japonais in Japanese written by Dr. Yoriko Shibata and published by Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan in Tokyo.

L'orage se prépare.                                
Toutes les feuilles du tremble
Battent de l'aile.


A poplar tree stands straight connecting the earth and the sky; dark clouds are moving in with the cool wind. A thunder storm is about to begin. The poplar tree is flapping all its leaves, a feeling of tension builds up in the rustling sounds.

A daffodil in our small garden had six buds; every morning we stood by the plant. Now, all six are blooming, we just admire them from our balcony. I think hints and signs excite the mind with dreams of things to come.

Couchoud was traveling in a river boat pulled from the shore; it must have been scary to be on the water in the thunder storm.


D'une main elle bat le linge
Et de l'autre rajuste 
Ses cheveux sur son front.


Someone is washing clothes in the river. While washing with one hand, she tidies her loose hair with the other hand. Nothing special is happening here, however, this small deed enables us to see the young woman more in person. The breeze, the sunshine, the flow of cool river water, the white of the clothes, the blue of the sky. Our imagination continues to seek the missing puzzle pieces.


Une simple fleur de papier
Dans un vase.
Eglise rustique (St-Bouize)


A small church in a village. There is not much to mention, except for a single paper flower in a vase. How quiet and how modest; the paper flower makes me think of timelessness but paper itself turns yellow and crumbles into pieces in the course of time. Perhaps the god is taking a short trip and is away from the church, so that there is no offering of fresh flowers today? 

Couchoud says what haijin (Hai-kai poet) has to do is just to point at things, which he does in these three Hai-kai poems. The things he has selected are still in motion and will be so forever. Lovely!

Emiko Miyashita is a poet and translator based in Tokyo.