“Second Oldest” by Blythe Davenport (Reviewed)


Second Oldest: A Poetic History of Philadelphia
by Blythe Davenport
published by PS Books, a division of Philadephia Stories Inc.

Blythe Davenport recently published her first book of poems, Second Oldest: A Poetic History of Philadelphia. It’s published by PS Books, a division of Philadelphia Stories, Inc., which is a real literary force both in our region and beyond.

Davenport’s debut volume is a series of poems about or responding to the city of Philadelphia. If you didn’t know about Kathy Change, you’ll learn about her here. You’ll hear a few anecdotes about Mario Lanza, as told as told by Alfredo Cocozza in “Alfredo Cocozza, 1959.” You get the idea.

Second Oldest
succeeds, in part, by using many points of view. The poet’s own voice is there, to be sure, but poems are also told from the views of others, real or imagined; personalities or portraits drawn from materials, records, observations.

In “Allegheny Avenue, 2007,” she’s a kid with a can of spray-paint.

My voice is wrong. My voice doesn’t waver
around these husks that were so big
when I was small.

In “Moving to Susannah’s, 1827,” she’s an elderly Betsy Ross.

My fingers did fine-work,
did rough burlap, did canvas,
stitched the colors of the nation:
blood, indigo, and blank newness.
My pins are tired. Let my daughter lift me up
as these bones drift away, through the city
streets and parks and off
to fight with God once more.
Let Mr. Satterthwaite dig my plot
and grin me into the grave;
a good son-in-law, but he never would
lend my girl even to her mother.

A series of connected poems is a pleasure to read, but by no means easy to write. Davenport mixes things up enough to keep us always interested. Different styles of poems are interspersed throughout. For instance, numerous poems are based on works of art or well-known landmarks. Some poems excavate bones from the ground, others have captured snippets of overheard conversations.

After reading this book, you may just see your own town or city a bit differently.
Reviewed by Valerie Fox


Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge (Book 4)

Writing Retreat: Fall Things Literary (at Musehouse) November 8th


A Writing Retreat in the Woods
at the Schuylkill Center
Saturday, November 8
Join Musehouse at The Schuylkill Center’s beautiful wooded environs to: Write! Reinvigorate your craft! Reconnect with nature!
Cost: 45 dollars (early)
50 dollars (regular)
Beth Kephart’s morning workshop is called “The Memoir Portal.”
What does the world around us teach us about ourselves? How do we identify the voice that feels most true? In an intimate workshop setting, inspired both by the nearby landscape and a series of carefully selected readings, we will discover and write signifying memories. We will open the door to memoir.
In the afternoon, you may choose between these workshops:
Poetic Memoir: In 7 Words (with John Ebersole)
Can we really say more with less? How can one tell his or her story adequately in seven words? In the midst of the natural splendor of The Schuylkill Center, writers will find inspiration and explore the possibilities of painting tiny portraits with words.

Flash Fiction, More Than Just a Word Count (with Curtis Smith) Flash fiction is more than a story that meets a specific word count. Flash is an exciting and challenging form that combines traditional (and non-traditional) storytelling techniques with a precision of language more commonly associated with poetry. This workshop, set in and inspired by the beautiful surroundings of The Schuylkill Center, will explore the elements that contribute to a compelling piece of flash fiction. Bring a pen and paper and an open mind as we share what promises to be an interesting autumn afternoon.

Intensive Workshop at Poets House (July 26/27)


Lynn Levin and I are offering a workshop at Poets House (in NY). It’s a two-day intensive (4 hours on each day) happening on July 26/27 (Saturday 2-6/Sunday 12-4).

Here’s the workshop description:
We have within us our own stories, memories, and artistic influences—the subject matter for poems—and often all we need is the right kind of creativity-boosting prompt to help us shape that material into a poem. Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, co-authors of the new craft-of-poetry text Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (2013), will conduct a weekend workshop exploring several of the unique prompts in their book. We will find inspiration and guidance in these prompts, which are all classroom and workshop tested. This fun, positive, and supportive workshop will include some in-class writing and sharing. No poetry experience is required;

“Viral” and “Local News from Someplace Else” (Reviewed)

Marjorie Maddox
Local News from Someplace Else
WIPF and Stock Publishers (2013)

Suzanne Parker
Alice James Books (2013)

Reviewed by Valerie Fox

While stylistically different, Local News from Someplace Else, by Marjorie Maddox, and Viral, by Suzanne Parker, share some themes. Both invite the reader to examine the causes and implications of the often violent and tragic signs of our times.

Maddox draws on the headlines (natural disasters, school shootings), honoring the voices of bystanders, family members, various participants. Parker’s book examines the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his room-mate broadcast by webcam Clementi’s encounter with another man. Parker also looks at the events using many personae (mother, father, students, Clementi himself). Both poets tell their own stories too.

Gleaned from the headlines, many poems in Local News interpret and comment, going well beyond the usual sound-bites with which most of us are all too familiar, and that create a kind of white noise surrounding us all the time. In the riveting “Pennsylvania September: The Witnesses,” Maddox gives voice to witnesses surrounding United Airlines Flight 93, the plane on September 11, 2001, that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It’s a moving poem, combining the voices of cell phones–those “21st-century messengers,” emergency coordinators, a 911 dispatcher, bike-riding witnesses, a photographer, and a service station owner, and lastly, the mother of a victim. The seven sections are ordered to recreate events, chronologically. It’s truly eerie, as well as graphic. Reading the poem you sense the moments passing and leading up to the crash.

Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website
Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website

Many of Maddox’s more personal poems explore her natural surroundings and attachment to place. I found many of this type to be satisfying works that contain memorable imagery. Here’s the beginning of a twelve-line poem, “First Snow”:

So provisional, it almost doesn’t
count–uncourageous, afraid
of everything concrete, the frozen closes in
on asphalt, then vanishes
into nostalgia.

“First Snow” highlights Maddox’s ability to make the landscape come alive.

In addition to the references to television, the book contains plenty of references to photographs and photography. “Still Life of House in Late March” features the house as character, as a sort of ghost, emblematic of a proud woman from the past, but not too distant past. The photography poems contribute to the documentary-style effect of the entire book.

Suzanne Parker’s Viral elegizes Tyler Clementi, indeed, the volume is dedicated to him. It makes us consider how the young man got to the point where suicide was his only path. It makes us think about how his parents will have to deal with the loss of their son. It even attempts to somehow understand the cruelty of those who victimized him.

As a series, as a book-length treatment on a theme, it’s extremely successful. I’m guessing most readers will read it front to back in a short time, and then reread and revisit the entire volume. While specific poems do stay with me, I am also left with an over-riding sense of injustice that our society still cannot provide more safety and care for a young person such as Clementi. Despite gains, we cannot underestimate the deep hostility and prejudice out there being directed at young gay people.

Parker does not preach. Rather, she helps us to empathize with Clementi and the others portrayed.

Stylistic variations of many kinds help her to create distinctive voices. In “Viral,” the title poem, Parker lists brief messages (texts or online comments) in which people respond to the invasive video, complete with “OMG” and “LOL.” The comments–petty, hateful, ridiculous–are arranged like a wall of words, the wall that must have surrounded or enveloped Clementi when he later became aware of them.

“Things You Practice” depicts his mother as she goes about a day, confronting the layers of her grief (when she doesn’t “buy a certain kind of ham” or finds one of her son’s shirts in the back of a closet).

Image from Alice James Books website
Image from Alice James Books website

In the final section of the book, Parker’s own voice emerges strongly. Still deeply immersed in Clementi’s story, she is able to express gratitude for her own agency. Like Maddox, Parker looks forward. Both Viral and Local News from Someplace Else subtly challenge all of us to question the status quo, to look beyond the headlines. By including their own stories alongside the stories of others, Maddox and Parker are envisioning a world that can learn from its mistakes.

Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge, Books 1 and 2:

Musehouse Afternoon Workshop (Jan. 11, 18, 25, and Feb. 1)

Prompt-based Poetry Writing Workshop at Musehouse, in Mt. Airy

Valerie Fox will be facilitating a four-week workshop meeting January 11, 18, 25, and Feb. 1. The workshop meets from 2-3:30 at the Musehouse Literary Arts Center.
For more information on this and other Musehouse offerings, check out their winter catalog.

Click to access Musehouse_Winter_2014.pdf

Hanoch Guy is offering a poetry-writing workshop at the same time and place on the four Saturdays following Fox’s workshop, in case you are interested in combining the two for an eight week course.