denver butson | what she was wearing

23 02 2009

Poetry Dispatch No.271 | February 23, 2009

This poem appeared on Garrison’s, “The Writer’s Almanac” today, for those of you who haven’t seen it, or heard it read on National Public Radio. My apologies for further dispatching it. But I couldn’t help myself. It’s too good not to share with as many readers and writers as possible.

Buy the book. Subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac and/or tune in to it daily on Public Radio.

Thank you, Garrison for featuring it. . Thank you Denver Buston for writing it. . Thank you Luiquer Street Press for publishing it. –Norbert Blei


What She Was Wearing

by Denver Butson

this is my suicide dress
she told him
I only wear it on days
when I’m afraid
I might kill myself
if I don’t wear it

you’ve been wearing it
every day since we met

he said

and these are my arson gloves
so you don’t set fire to something?

he asked


and this is my terrorism lipstick
my assault and battery eyeliner
my armed robbery boots

I’d like to undress you he said
but would that make me an accomplice?

and today she said I’m wearing
my infidelity underwear
so don’t get any ideas

and she put on her nervous breakdown hat
and walked out the door

“What She Was Wearing” by Denver Butson from Illegible Address. © Luquer Street Press, 2004

U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says that DENVER BUTSON’s “imagination unlocks for us the cells of reason and sets us loose in a world of dizzying possibilities.” Collins recently selected Butson’s poem “Tuesday 9:00 AM” to be included in Poetry 180, a grouping of 180 poems that will be read in U.S. high schools and published as an anthology, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry by Random House in 2003.

Butson has published two books of poetry: triptych (The Commoner Press, 1999) and Mechanical Birds (St. Andrews College Press, 2000). His poems have also appeared in The Yale Review, Ontario Review, Quarterly West, Caliban, The Mid-American Review, tight, and Exquisite Corpse, among other journals. Late in 2000, three of his “drowning ghazals” were in Agha Shahid Ali’s anthology, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English on Wesleyan University Press. Butson has work forthcoming in numerous journals, including FIELD, Contemporary Ghazals, SOLO, Crux, la petite zine, and Ontario Review, and in The Brink: Contemporary American Poetry, 1965-present.

During the fall of 2000, Butson served as Ezra Pound Visiting Writer at Brunnenburg Castle (Pound’s daughter’s home in the Italian Alps). In 1999, he was the first Ronald H. Bayes Resident in Creative Writing at St. Andrews College and the first featured poet on FOX News Online’s “Book Page.” Also in 1999, Joyce Carol Oates nominated his poem “Beauty or Flight” for a Pushcart Prize.

A frequent collaborator with artists in other media, Butson has worked with filmmaker Rhonda Keyser on her film an unpredictable thing (Solange Productions, premiere screening at The Williamsburg Brooklyn International Film Festival in 2001), with visual artist Maria Mercedes on The Cigar Box Project, with painter/sculptor Pietro Costa on Blood Works, which premiered in New York in 2001, and with Costa and photographer Cedric Chatterley on grace: for all the children, to be published in a bilingual edition in Italy in 2003. Recently, several of his poems were adapted for the stage by Keyser and performed at The Little Theater in New York, and film director Kevin Doyle transformed Butson’s poem “The Effigy Café” into a short film, which first screened in Manhattan in the No Idea film series. The interactive CD, Denver Butson: Solo Works and Collaborations (Digitram Productions, 2000) has won awards throughout the South, including a “Merit Distinction” at the 2001 Richmond Show and the “Silver Award” in Atlanta’s 2001ShowSouth.

Butson has read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Cornelia Street Café, the National Arts Club and KGB Bar (all in New York City), as an annually returning featured artist in St. Andrews College’s Writers’ Forum, and at other venues throughout the U.S. and Europe. In addition to Billy Collins, noted writers Jim Harrison, Edmund White, Agha Shahid Ali, W.S. Merwin, Thom Gunn, Ned Rorem, Forrest Gander, and Theodore Enslin have praised his work.

Butson earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from James Madison University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University, where he held the Richard M. Devine Memorial Fellowship.


Denver Butson – vita


MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING. Bowling Green State University. (Major Areas of Study: European Modernism, The Thirties’ Avant-garde, Poetry techniques and forms; thesis: The Air Might Burst With Broken Bells, poetry collection; thesis committee chaired by Michael Mott; extensive study of music in poetry with Distinguished Visiting Writer, Theodore Enslin.) Degree Received, 1990.

BA IN ENGLISH. James Madison University. (Concentration in creative writing and general humanities; elected, Sigma Tau Delta, National English Honor Society, 1986.) Graduated, December 1987.

SEMESTER IN PARIS. James Madison University Studies Abroad. (Intensive study of contemporary Parisian artistic and literary culture; focus on American expatriates in Paris, primarily in the nineteen thirties.) Spring 1987.


  • Mechanical Birds. St. Andrews College Press, February 2001. (Introduction by Edmund White; blurbs from Agha Shahid Ali and Jim Harrison.)
  • triptych. Commoner Press, September 1999 (blurbs from Billy Collins, WS Merwin, Thom Gunn, Forrest Gander, Theodore Enslin, Michael Mott, Ned Rorem, and others.)


  • POEMS published or forthcoming from the following journals: FIELD, Crux, tight, Contemporary Ghazals, SOLO, Cairn, The Ontario Review, LUNGFULL!, WordImage, Onthebus, Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, New Virginia Review, The Yale Review, ZuZu’s Petals Online, Mid-American Review, Lingo, Lost and Found Times, Feedback, Rolling Stock, The Chattahoochee Review, Nexus, Caliban lift, Exquisite Corpse, and Quarterly West.
  • NONFICTION (including an interview with John Yau; an article on Delta Bluesman, David “Honeyboy” Edwards; and reviews) published in tight, Countermeasures, Lingo, Feedback, The Adjunct, and LiveWire.


  • Over twenty poems published in the following anthologies Poetry 180: A Return to Poetry (edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins for Random House, Spring 2003), The Brink: Post-Modern Poetry 1965 – the Present (Fall 2002); Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (edited by Agha Shahid Ali for Wesleyan University Press, Fall 2000, major reviews in national and international sources, including an extensive positive mention in The Harvard Review, Spring 2001); and Ikons (a collection of poetry by “young Virginia writers” on St. Andrews College Press).


  • Denver Butson: Solo Works and Collaborations: interactive CD-ROM featuring video footage, recorded readings, and collaborative text/image projects, produced by Eddie Williams for Digitram, winner of a “Merit Distinction” at the 2001 Richmond Show and “The Silver Award” at Atlanta’s 2001 Show South.


  • Numerous collaborations include Blood Works (a book project with visual artist Pietro Costa, to be published in a limited edition artist book by Raphael Fodde Editions, 2003); grace: for all the children (a collaboration with photographer Cedric Chatterley and Pietro Costa, to be published in a bilingual edition in Italy in 2003), The Cigar Box Project (a series of poems and drawings in collaboration with visual artist Maria Mercedes); Metal Words (collaborative works with sculptor and furniture maker Greg Hershey); The Effigy Café (a short film based on poem of the same name directed by Kevin Doyle); and an unpredictable thing (a short film written by Tom Noonan and directed by Rhonda Keyser).


  • Over one hundred readings in the U.S and abroad, including readings at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, The National Arts Club, Brunnenburg Castle in Italy, and Foyer Centre International Quartier Latin in Paris.

film and stage

  • SCREENWRITER: The Effigy Café, a short film by Kevin Doyle (Premier Screening, No Idea Bar Film Series, New York). 2001.
  • CREATIVE CONSULTANT: an unpredictable thing, a short film by Rhonda Keyser (Premier Screening, 2001 Williamsburg/Brooklyn Film Festival). 2001.
  • WRITER/DIRECTOR: Three Short PoemPlays (The Little Theater at Tonic. New York). April 2000.
  • PRINCIPAL ACTOR: Beyond Expectations, a feature film by Mark Ching (Dearborne Productions). 1996


    Bowling Green State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, St. Andrews Presbyterian College, WritersWriting (private writing studio in New York), and Brunnenburg Castle in Italy.
    CREATIVE WRITING courses include 20th Century World Poets; Beginning and Advanced Poetry Workshops; Beginning and Advanced Fiction Workshops; Nonfiction and Memoir Workshops, Creative Writing Project Management and Discipline, online fiction and nonfiction workshops; intensive one-day workshops; Craft of Poetry; Writing for Young Writers. Have also worked extensively with individual writers in the capacity of consultant, editor, coach, and project manager.
  • LITERATURE courses include Contemporary World Poets; World Poetry of the Twentieth Century; Writers and Collaboration; 20th Century European Poets; Western World Literature (from the Ancient World to the Enlightenment and from the Enlightenment to the Present); and American Literature from Realism to the Present. Have also worked extensively with individual students and reading groups on directed readings of poetry and prose collections.
  • COMPOSITION AND RHETORIC courses include Advanced Composition; Composition and Rhetoric; Varieties of Writing; Honors Composition and Rhetoric; General Writing Problems; Rhetorical Skills; and Special Topics in Composition (with concentrations on issues of obedience and authority, gender and language, race and language, and film study and writing). Have also worked extensively with individual writers on a variety of writing projects.
  • SPECIAL TEACHING PROJECTS include “Minority Participation in Graduate Education” (1993 Virginia Humanities Grant).


  • THE EZRA POUND VISITING WRITER. Brunnenburg Castle, Dorf Tirol, BZ, Italy. Fall 2000.
  • THE RONALD H. BAYES RESIDENT IN CREATIVE WRITING. St. Andrews College. Laurinburg, North Carolina. October 1999.
  • RESIDENT WRITER. Raven Studio. Maytown, Pennsylvania. Summer 1997.


  • FREELANCE EDITOR AND WRITING CONSULTANT. Richmond, Virginia, 1995-97 and in New York,
    1997- present.
  • EDITORIAL CONSULTANT. VCU Editorial Associates. Richmond, Virginia. 1995-95.
  • EDITOR/WRITER. The Ellerman Report on Luxurious Living. 1995.
  • POETRY EDITOR. Feedback. 1993-94.
  • ASSISTANT EDITOR. The Mid-American Review. 1988-1990.
  • LITERARY EDITOR. Chrysalis. 1985-86.
  • READER AND EDITOR. Empty Shelves. 1984-86.
  • administration
  • ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, vendôme arts association, Inc. New York. April 2001 – present.
  • ARTS COMMITTEE WORK includes various planning and publicity committees for vendôme arts. New York. 2001-02.
  • FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, WritersWriting. New York. January 1999 – present.
  • DIRECTOR, The New Language and Music Festival. Bowling Green State University. April 1990.
  • ACADEMIC COMMITTEE WORK includes “The Adjunct Issues Committee” (English Department. Virginia Commonwealth University. Served as “Chair” from January 1994 – September 1996) and “The Faculty Committee” (English Department. Virginia Commonwealth University. 1992 – 93, elected “Adjunct Representative”).

Awards and honors

  • POETRY 180 PROJECT. Library of Congress. Poem chosen by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. 2002.
  • THE W.B. YEATS CHAIR IN POETRY. Brunnenburg Castle. Dorf Tirol, Italy. Fall 2000.
  • MERIT DISTINCTION. Richmond Show. 2001.
  • SILVER AWARD. ShowSouth. Atlanta. 2001.
  • PUSHCART PRIZE (nominee). Poem nominated by Joyce Carol Oates. 1999.
  • FIRST FEATURED POET. FOX News Online’s BOOK PAGE. November/December 1999.
  • MULBERRY PRESS POETRY PRIZE. Honorable Mention. 1994.
  • MASTER TEACHING AWARD. Bowling Green State University. Nominated 1990 and 1989.
  • AWP INTRO AWARDS. Poem chosen to represent Bowling Green State University. 1990.
  • THE RICHARD M. DEVINE MEMORIAL FELLOWSHIP. Bowling Green State University. 1989.


Please click here… to read an interview with Denver Butson and Lily…if you like…

norbert blei | night notes

19 02 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.169 | February 19, 2009

NIGHT NOTES: 2/19/09

It’s a line I heard late last night on public radio, the BBC overnight news. About 2:15 A.M. I noted it so I would not forget, come daybreak. I noted both the time and the line–a line I wish I had come up with.

How could I not have thought it? Seen it? Said it? Made the comparison?

The BBC reporter was in Canada, discussing Obama’s visit there today, relating some of the reactions amongst the Canadians. And suddenly there it was, coming over the darkest airwaves at two in the morning in my own living room…there was the line, hanging there… glowing in the dark.

I memorized it immediately. And for safe-keeping, turned on my reading lamp, reached for pencil and paper, and wrote it down:

“Obama is the Miles Davis of politicians,” I heard the voice say.

Jesus! Of course! Of course! Perfect!

KIND OF BLUE…(I reached for my old LP copy)…all the while visualizing the dark man with the bright horn on stage, alone (he was always all alone)…”So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “Blue in Green”, “All Blues”, “Flamenco Sketches”.

I switched to the stereo, set the old LP on the turntable, put the arm and needle down on “All Blues”…let the sound envelop the room.

I turned the record jacket over to an incredible little ‘jacket note’ penned by no other than Bill Evans (“Improvisation In Jazz”) …and swallowed the first three paragraphs like a poem:

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

“The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

“This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.”

Obama…the Miles Davis of politicians.

–Norbert Blei/night notes/2/I9/09

sharon auberle | saturday nights at the crystal ball

12 02 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 270 | February 11, 2009

Sharon Auberle: Saturday Nights at the Crystal Ball
(An Overview, Interview, Book Review)
by Norbert Blei

Sharon AuberleSaturday Nights at the Crystal Ball
by Sharon Auberle
Cross+ Roads Press #31
PO Box 33
Ellison Bay, WI 54210
$12 plus $2 S&H

Of the thirty-one books published by Cross+Roads Press to date, half of them were written by women. Not that I’m counting, not that political correctness or anything else matters when it comes to choosing a book I like, introducing a writer I feel deserves greater exposure. I’m aware that more women are interested in literary work than men. And it’s no surprise that writing workshops students are predominantly women.

When I look at the list of women I have thus far published, consider their books of poetry and stories, certain common themes emerge: family, relationships, the search for selfhood. Not that the men do not exhibit an interest in these same themes, but that their approach is often different in style and perspective. Sometimes, radically so.

It’s my contention, however, that if only men would pay more attention to any of the women I have published by Cross+Roads Press, they would learn so much more about themselves…about family…about relationships …about the art of writing…perhaps even gain a little more knowledge toward that age-old question: “What does a woman want?”

Sharon Auberle doesn’t have all the answers in SATURDAY NIGHTS AT THE CRYSTAL BALL, but she asks many of the right questions and leaves the reader with plenty of insights to carry around for a long time.

Just prior to publication, I asked her to explain a little about the book:

this is a book full of ghosts…once, during the deathwatch, my mother looked up at me (she was perfectly lucid) and said who is that woman behind you? there was no one, and I said so, but she insisted, oh yes, she has her hand on your shoulder… the death of a parent is enormous

“We are all victims of our childhood”… I read somewhere

as I sat by my mother’s bed those two weeks while she was dying I knew the thing I’d feared most as a child, her leaving me as my father had done, was happening and I became that child again…

a child who, nevertheless, could sit at her bedside in a darkened room and scribble in my black journal… didn’t know why I was doing it, never thought it would become a book…just knew I had to it started as my mother’s story…but my father needed to be in it too, though I didn’t know him…how can I write about him?

I did…and began to feel as if I had known him. certainly better than I ever had…felt compassion for him…would not go so far as love, but, more importantly, forgiveness the realization that in my own life, in a different, yet same way, I’d done the same as he…

…the more I wrote of their failed love and marriage, the more I understood it, though much, of course, was imaginary…who can ever know another person’s heart?


At the age of eighty
my mother confesses
riding with me through the town
where a man she knew once lived:
/ should have married Luke
he sent me roses every week
and wrote in the most lovely hand…

The road tilts for a moment
in the copper autumn light.
I could let the words pass
pretend I’m intent on driving
forget there was once another
man meant to be my father.
Not that tall man
who kept love he couldn’t give
because of the man with a fine hand
who sent roses every week.

I could forget her words
and just go on loving
white roses and autumn
my mother, my dead father, unaware
of this sunlight kindling October maples
and old, unforgotten desires.


I decided to continue the dialogue with Sharon now that the book has been published and so well received. What follows is an extended conversation about one writer, one particular book, all that transpires once the work is set free.

Now that the book is out, I feel strangely removed from it–almost as though someone else wrote it–that surprises me. That, and my children’s reaction, which, though my daughter said it made her cry–was mainly discomfort: ‘ tmi,’ they both said: “too much information”

Some writers, both published and unpublished, choose to hold back when their work either borders on or delves too much into the personal. Did she experience any of this?

It may be that, because there was a good bit of distance between the time I wrote most of these poems, (at least the very painful ones), and the time of publication, I was able to stand back, distance myself from the pain. And I could never have put this book out there while my mother was alive. She was a private person and would have been appalled. Even now, I wonder if it was the right thing to do. Yet, I feel its important for people to stand back and look at their own parents, apart from the parent/child connection and see them as vulnerable human beings with love stories, heartbreaks and circumstances that shaped their lives. Time does give some objectivity and discretion.

I’ve been very surprised at the male reaction to this book. I thought women might relate to it with understanding, connect to it in a more personal way than men. But, in fact, from the feedback I’ve received from men (admittedly a small number), there has been strong and positive reaction, including tears, from a close personal male friend–someone from whom I would never have expected such. And it touched me deeply.


Someone said the best thing
my parents did together was dance.
When the two were out together
people would stop and watch
the tall man and the laughing girl
who never missed a step
but then their music ended
and my father left
to marry a woman
who looked up at him
in a pleading way
and though she didn’t dance
he could not stop
and this may be the softest thing
I know about my father:
they say he kept on dancing
to those old seventy-eights
on moody nights at home
alone and lonely, circling
endlessly in the smoky dark.


The book began with memories, dreams, and unresolved questions about my parents. There was a time when I felt a very great need to know that my parents had actually loved each other once. And then I had the actual dream described in “Love Song.” That and “Confession”, the first poem were the key poems to the story. I then began collecting little snippets of actual facts I knew about them from before I was born, enlarging those, and certainly imagining some. I foraged through all the old poems I’d written over the years, old journals, etc., to see what might fit. Those writings fueled new poems, and though this sounds implausible, I actually felt that there were times there was “guidance” in my writing,, particularly about my father, whom I barely knew. The physical laying out of all the poems, old and new, alongside old photos brought it all together.

Other than the previous poems that, ultimately, went into this book, much of my poetry was less painful to write–though about love and relationships, I was NOT writing about these deepest, oldest parts of me.

Do you see another book pattern emerging? Has the poetry changed? Is there something you would like to do with the poem that you, for whatever reason, have not yet been able to do? And are you working with that?

Every year I start a new notebook of poetry on Jan. 1. At the end of that year, I have a variety of poems, and it’s interesting to see what, if any, patterns emerge. That’s where I am now, considering. But, upon seeing how SATURDAY NIGHTS AT THE CRYSTAL BALL has touched readers in its universality, I’m definitely striving to do better with that in all my work. I was aware of the importance of that, of course, but the deep response to this book really opened my eyes to the beauty of it. I think that’s the main change in my writing. Last year’s collection of work shows that a new chapbook, should I choose to do it, could be about some very difficult things to write about in the relationship area. I’m still wondering why and if I should consider putting that out there. But then, why do any of us write, if not to be read? To share where we’ve been, what it was like, and how we got back, (if we did). I don’t know the answer, but the words seem to be leading me back out there.


My mother does not revel
in excess pleasure.
She sleeps in a narrow bed.
Her food is sparse
she drinks no wine.
At eighty-two
her body is honed
of every excess inch or process
yet I am surprised by sudden joy
rippling beneath my hands
over the tender bow of neck
down the white-lathered curve of spine
into that naked place
where pleasures live
and swans sing
their final song.


Take the reader through this poem…washing your mother’s back…

I think it happens to many of us—that the child becomes the parent, and that is heartbreaking. We don’t want to be the parent, we still need our parents. The poem first came to me, as I was helping my mother to bathe. She was very weak, recovering from a heart attack, and all defenses were gone. She sat in the tub, and her tender back was bowed, her head bent, as I lathered the white soapsuds over her. The image of a swan came vividly to mind, which is, of course, in the last two lines, not the first.

I certainly wasn’t thinking of a poem at that moment, but the image stayed with me. I don’t remember how much time passed before the poem was actually written. My mother recovered, and was back to her sturdy, no-nonsense self, but I could not forget her vulnerability in that time and the contrast between those two selves. Very few of us want to think about, let alone write about, the sexual side of our parents, yet I think I wanted to explore this idea—that there is this place in all of us, no matter how old, where memory and sensuality still reside. I wanted to show the beauty of that, for my own approaching years, as well. Since it was my mother I was writing about, I still needed to maintain that distance and respect. So the swan image seemed right–pure and beautiful–yet also sexual.

In writing this poem, using this image that still lingered in some corner of my mind, I came to understand that it was honoring that place in my mother/child, that this place exists in all of us, and it seemed that no further words were needed.

Review: Saturday Nights at the Crystal Ball
by Ralph Murre

Sharon AuberleThere’s a new book on the shelf that I reserve for the fine work of my friends over at Cross + Roads Press. Not that I expect Saturday Nights at the Crystal Ball to spend much time on the shelf. Far too much good material to set it aside for long.

Poet Sharon Auberle, on the surface, tells the story of her mother’s last days on this earth; that of a woman who danced her way through an uneasy life. Anyone who’s ever lost a parent, or ever will, can benefit from the reading. Just beneath the surface, the writer finds other tales about to finally break into daylight: the story of a father who left early, in a time when that was the exception; the subsequent effects on the lives and loves of the author and her mother; the perhaps too quickly passed judgments all around; all told in the voice of an accomplished artist of the written word, and through it all, there is the dance. In “Spring Came Late That Year”, we read:

Maggie danced
the night Edward left
her baby girl
about the kitchen
their mingled tears
spinning out
bouncing off windows
like the freezing rain
falling that night

and later, in Legacy:

What my mother left me
was not dancing shoes
or diamond rings
or bad luck with men

it was the way she stood
so straight
barely reaching my shoulder
but tall
on days when life
bends most people low

and that quickstep of hers
forward always
to music only she could imagine

Sharon Auberle is storyteller enough to find and relate what is unique in her life. She is poet enough to show us what is universal. She has deftly tackled subject matter that in lesser hands could have been maudlin, even trite — but has triumphed in a way that elevates us. Her luck in collaborating with editor/publisher Norbert Blei assured an elegant book to stand beside the thirty others from his press. Blei’s decision to reproduce pages from the author’s journal, written in the days immediately preceding her mother’s demise, was a brilliant one, giving us a very palpable connection to the writer in a time of vulnerability juxtaposed with great strength.

Much more on Sharon Auberle can be found on her website. Just click on Mimi’s Golightly Cafe

norbert blei | the poetry of persona and the divided self

6 02 2009


Poetry Dispatch No. 269 | February 6, 2009

The Poetry of Persona and the Divided Self
Norbert Blei

Not every poet finds a reason or need to develop a voice within a voice, another ‘persona’ if you will, but for sometime a number of poets (Americans in particular) have been getting outside/inside themselves in a way writers of fiction create `characters’ or characters to voice other levels of meaning.

CAUTION: It may seem an easy thing to do. But it’s not something you can play around with like: “I think today I’ll write a sonnet” ten consider yourself Shakespeare. Rather…it’s a voice that may (or may not) call you when you are ready to listen—and record. One way or another, life itself propels you in this direction. Which is always the way of authentic writing. When it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit. When it’s true, it’s true.

The late John Berryman, author of an American classic, THE DREAM SONGS, is one of these poets who introduces the character of Henry in his work. A likeable guy. So much so that the reader begins to feel comfortable in the possibility that Berryman and Henry are one or share the same sensibility which the recorded moment requires—sad, sensitive, self-indulgent, self-disparaging, confessional roustabouts with something unsettling to say about life, art, the American dream:

Books drugs razor whisky shirts
Henry lies ready for his Eastern tour,
swollen ankles, one hand,
air reservations. Friends at the end of the hurts,
a winter mind resigned: literature
must spread, you understand,

–from “Dream Song 169” of THE DREAM SONGS, Farra, Strauss, Giroux

berrymanHenry = Berryman? Some resemblance, perhaps. Though Berryman himself states: “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white-American in early middle age sometimes in black face, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. Requiescat in pace.”

Paul Zimmer, (FAMILY REUNION: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, THE ZIMMER POEMS, etc. University of Pittsburg Press) is an immensely entertaining yet serious poet with his own special take on an alter ego who looks at the real world through the small-town eyes of a character named Zimmer. The titles alone pull you immediately into his world: “Zimmer and the Ghost”, “Zimmer Remembering Wanda”, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven”, “Zimmer’s Last Gig”, “Zimmer Is Icumen In”…


At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth,
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I cried,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I’d be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.

My friend, Illinois poet of the people and the prairie, Dave Etter, has to date never developed a whole book of poems to a character of his named Doreen (shades of an old high school sweetheart, word has it) but she pops up occasionally in his work, especially in a book of prose poems, HOME STATE (Spoon River Poetry Press).


Doreen always sleeps in a pajama top—that’s all. Winter or summer, just a pajama top. Who wears the bottoms? How would I know? Nobody, I guess. She probably uses them for dust rags, or maybe she gives them away to some girl who sleeps only in pajama bottoms. The way Doreen squirms and kicks her legs in bed, I can understand very well why she opts for tops over bottoms. What do I wear between the sheets? Well, it’s none of your business, but if you must know, I wear neither pajama tops or pajama bottoms. You wouldn’t either if you slept with Doreen.

On the international scene, one poet in particular of the post-modernist school, Zbigniew Herbert of Poland, brings a thoughtful character to light, Mr. Cogito, who seems to carry the whole sad history of Eastern Europe on his shoulders as he ponders the state of our times.


If I went back there
probably I wouldn’t find
even shadow from my house
nor the trees of childhood
nor the cross with n iron plate
the bench where I whispered incantations
chestnuts and blood
not a single thing that is ours…
…while all around
piles of ash are growing
up to my shoulders
up to my mouth

from MR. COGITO, The Ecco Press

Back in the rural Midwest, over in Minnesota, the poet Leo Dangel sometimes sees the world through Old Man Brunner’s magnificent, munificent eyes:


Old Man Brunner never cuts his weeds.
Right up to the house,
sunflowers and fire weeds
grow tough and hard as small trees.
In the summer evening, Old Man Brunner
sits and surveys his jungle,
his sleeves rolled up,
his cracked shoes beside him.
Old man Brunner’s feet are white,
white as angel feet.
He hold one white foot in his brown hand
and cuts his toenails
with a tin shears.

-from OLD MAN BRUNNER COUNTRY, Spoon River Poetry Press

It is almost impossible to read any of the many collections of the late Bukowski’s (Charles) poems, stories and novels and not come up with a street-wise character, part buffoon, part philosopher, part loser, part poet…semi-serious slant on himself, Bukowski likes to call Chinaski:


I met the movie star, he’s playing Chinaski
in my new movie, I pout my hand on his shoulder: “you’re
all right, Ben,” I tell him.
then the famous Italian director puts his leg up on
the table: “now I’ll drink with you Chinaski,” he says.
(that’s the way he always drinks, I’m told.)
“o.k.,” I say and I put my leg up on the table.
I drain my glass, he fills it again, I drain it
Again, he fills it again.

they know I’m a real guy then.

-from, OPEN ALL NIGHT, Black Sparrow Press

Tom Montag, one of our best Wisconsin poets did a book, Ben Zen THE OX OF PARADOX with my press, (Cross+Roads Press) in l999 which is a wonder to read, behold. I won’t say It’s all Zen; I won’t say it isn’t Zen. I will say that for any reader with the slightest interest in the subject, not to mention a love of poetry—Tom Montag speaks to you in this book—through the simple presence of a wise old farmer, who sounds a lot like a Zen monk, speaking in koans:


Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.


If you don’t have
Truth in your heart

You won’t know
What you have.

Anything will fit, Ben says.
You just have to learn to wear it.

Oh to a be the junkman, Ben says.
To have everything no one wants.


Much as I’ve been,
Ben says,
I’ve never been enough.


There do not seem to be as many women writing the poetry of persona as men, though one in particular, Lyn Lifshin, whom I have read for more than twenty years in hundreds of little magazines, has written “more than a thousand” (she tells me) “Madonna” poem (in addition to her regular poetry) and is still writing them. Her “Madonna” is—ribald, rambunctious, erotic, excessive, demanding, demeaning, ironic, iconic, horny, heady, outspoken, outrageous…born to deliver the double whammy. Her latest books are: COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT (Black Sparrow Press). Collections of her Madonna poems, are hard to find. Check out: I leave you in her (“Madonna’s”), warm, anxious hands:


around her bed:
spoons like lovers
licked and left


makes you feel
good twice


gets you going
fast, leaves
you in your
own juices


unexpectedly hot
but she doesn’t stay


is into feminism
likes to tower over men
thinks of them all as dopey


takes what she
can’t use
and uses it
so it won’t
use her

from Wormwood Reviews, #’s 82, 87, 92, 117


For a number of years now a local character by the name of Olaf has been knocking on my door, pulling up a chair here in the coop, drinking all my brandy, telling me some of the damnedest stories. But I’ll save him for another time.

michael dickman | my autopsy

6 02 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 268 | February 4, 2009


by Michael Dickman

There is a way
if we want
into everything

I’ll eat the chicken carbonara and you eat the veal, the olives, the
aaasmall and glowing loaves of bread

I’ll eat the waiter, the waitress
floating through the candled dark in shiny black slacks
like water at night

The napkins, folded into paper boats, contain invisible Japanese

You eat the forks,
all the knives, asleep and waiting
on the white tables

What do you love?

I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on
aaadespite worms or fire

I love our stomachs
turning over
the earth


There is a way
if we want
to stay, to leave


My lungs are made out of smoke ash sunlight air
particles of skin

The invisible floating universe of kisses, rising up in a sequinned
aaahelix of dust and cinnamon

Breathe in

Breathe out

I smoke
unfiltered Shepheard’s Hotel cigarettes
from a green box, with a dog on the cover, I smoke them
here, and I’ll smoke them



There is away
if we want .
out of drowning

I’m having,
a Gimlet, a Caruso, a
Fallen Angel

A Manhattan, a Rattlesnake, a Rusty Nail, a Stinger, an Angel
aaFace, a Corpse Reviver

What are you having?

I’m buying
I’m buying for the house
I’m standing the round

Wake me
from the dash of lemon juice,
the half measure of orange juice, apricot brandy,
and the two fingers of gin .
that make up paradise


There is away . :.
if we want
to untie ourselves .

The shining organs that bind us can help us through the new dark

There are lots of stories about intestines .

People have been forced to hold them, alive and shocked awake

The doctors removed M’s smaller one and replaced it, the new
aaabright plastic curled around the older brother

Birds drag them out of the dead and abandoned

Some people climb them into Heaven

Others believe we live in one
God’s intestine!

A conveyor belt of stars and saints

We tie and we loosen

and forgettable
miracles :

from THE NEW YORKER, December 15, 2008