For a video of the installation ceremony, please go to


How a Poem Happens:

Go to, managed with finesse by Jayne Jaudon Ferrer, who says, "Our intent is to make visitors to Your Daily Poem aware of the joy and diversity of poetry."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Time Out

(Jacquelyn Culpepper)

I will be away for the next four days doing a poetry/music program using Kenneth Frazelle's Appalachian Songbook with soprano Jacquelyn Culpepper at Davidson College. We will take the program to Charlotte on Election day, and I will resume my blog on Wednesday, the fifth. In the meantime, to learn more about Jacque, go her website--

Be sure to come back next week for photos from this event and more NC literary news and writers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

End of October

Here is a spine-tingling poem for the season, by my friend Isabel Zuber, poet and novelist. It is from her as yet unpublished manuscript of poems, RED LILY.


Tonight's their time but they came early,
have been here all day, watching
from among the trees, rustling faded grass.
They speak in whispers too low for sound,
seem to approve the way we've let the place
go to wild and ruin, its hedges pokeweed--
bright, beautiful poison--
tangles of rose, honeysuckle.

Clouds come and go as I hang out the clothes
with them still observing it all. Then later
I sense what could have been their breath
as I unpin warmed white sheets,
sun-fragrant towels, the shirts.

Do they think they've been summoned?
I know better than to do that, yet
strain to hear voices in the leaves.
"Why have you left me?" they call.
But to the evening's strange
and rising wind I say nothing. They linger
for any who will listen but by now
they have no differences and
all their smiles are grave.

(Isabel Zuber)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Prodigious Honesties: A Test for all the Candidates

This is a replay of a "Language Matters" column I wrote two years ago. I updated it a bit.


The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” These days we snicker at such an inflated claim for poets, or for any other voices claiming that language used well and with poetic intensity matters at all. And yet, what can we say of the real “legislators” of our world? Their world of spin and double-talk? Now that another election is upon us, the t.v. ads, the debates, and the bumper stickers, I’m left, yet again, wondering what qualities a leader worthy of our nation should embody.

This is a difficult question to answer. We exist surrounded by television, cell phones, computers, ipods, and palm pilots, all sending signals that can either confound or instruct. We watch the images of men and women on the screen professing this or that value or policy. How can we tell if they are worthy of our respect, not to mention our vote?

I think I have found a way, thanks to a recent speech by former University of Chicago President Don Randel. He begins his speech by quoting noted poet Richard Wilbur, whose poem “Clearness” begins this way: “There is a poignancy in all things clear,/In the stare of the deer, in the ring of a hammer in the morning./Seeing a bucket of perfectly lucid water/We fall to imagining prodigious honesties.” Mr. Randel then laments that we live in an age of “prodigious dishonesties,” but his solution does not require more classes with “ethics” in the title. “Perhaps,” he declares,” we should require everyone to study poetry.”

He concludes his speech with a revolutionary idea! One that might help us focus our attention more accurately on the men and women whose faces we see in the media: “The next time you see a face on the front page of the newspaper... you might ask yourself whether the subject reads much poetry.”

I don’t think it’s asking too much that our leaders read poetry, that they be able to speak our language clearly and precisely, nor do I think it is asking too much of them to be well-read in the texts that our canon of great literature has given us. After all they contribute, as Mr. Randel observes, to our understanding of what it means to be a human being and how we ought to behave in relation to one another.

When we have leaders who proclaim that they read nothing much at all, what does that say about them? And about us? When those candidates who do value education, literary culture, and artistic achievements are called "elitists," what does that suggest about our values?

I suggest that as Election Day bears down upon us, we apply Dr. Randel’s litmus test to all the candidates asking for our votes. Or dare we? Might we come away disappointed that no one, not a single solitary one, would pass muster?

If so, we face a future worse than any of us could imagine, one in which language is used not to draw our attention back to those “prodigious honesties” that the poet expresses, but to deceive, confuse, and seduce us into supporting policies that will ultimately undermine and silence our own voices. Then the word “democracy” will have been robbed of all meaning.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

NC Student Poet Laureate Awards

(At the annual NCETA convention in Winston-Salem this Friday, with the three Student Poet Laureate Winners: from left Anuja Acharya, Katherine Indermaur, and Sarah Bruce.)

Last year my family and I helped endow a new award through the NC English Teachers Association, the North Carolina Student Poet Laureate Awards for both high school and middle school students. I felt that poetry needed a special award to take its place beside the Wade Edwards Fiction Award and the essay awards handed out every year at the NCETA annual convention. I'm delighted that now the current state Poet Laureate will serve each year as final judge in the two categories, selecting the students who will serve as our state Student Poet Laureates until the following year. Students are invited to submit, through their teachers, their poems, which a preliminary member of NCETA will read, in order to make final recommendations to the current Laureate. This year my preliminary reader was John York, whose splendid poem, "Naming the Constellations," recently won the NC Poetry Society's Poet Laureate award and was featured on this blog.

His responses to the work submitted matched mine; thus, we were delighted to be able to give this year's Laureate award to "Downtown After Dark" by Katherine Indermaur, second prize to "Death by Chocolate," by Anuja Acharya, and Honorable Mention to "yellow" by Sarah Bruce. All three students were nominated by Priscilla Chappell at Enloe High School in Raleigh and all three spoke of how much Ms. Chappell had opened up the world of poetry to them. We at NCETA and the Arts Council are excited about this new award and the excellent poetry these three young women have given us. We did not have enough entries for middle schoolers this year to have a real competition in that category; next year we hope to have many more submissions from both levels.

(Our first NC Student Poet Laureate, Katherine Indermaur, with her mother, after the NCETA Awards banquet.)

(Our second place winner, Anuja Acharya with her parents.)

(Honorable Mention winner Sarah Bruce with her parents.)

Each student received a cash award, a plaque, and an inscribed copy of my first book of poetry, THE GIRL IN THE MIDST OF THE HARVEST. Their poems will appear on this blog in the next several days.

Autumn in Budapest

(Autumn fire in the leaves as we walk through the Pest side of the Danube on our first morning in Budapest.)

Being in Europe during October brought back my memories of reading the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke when I was in College, in particular his early work from the Book of Pictures. Here is his poem "Herbst." (Autumn)


Rainer Maria Rilke

Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh die andre an: es ist in allen.

Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.


trans. Bertram Kottmann

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as if distant gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with a denying gesture.

And in the nights the heavy earth falls
from all the stars into solitude.

All of us fall. This hand here falls.
And look at the other: it is in all.

And yet there is one, who holds this falling
immensely gently in his hands.


(Thanks to John C. Holcome's website,

A lofty summer! Lord, it's time to lay
encroaching shadows on the sundials now
and let in meadowlands the winds have sway.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
and wake to read, write endlessly, and go
up and down through avenues now filled
with leaves and restlessness, blown to and fro.


Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

(Trees near the Citadella, on the hill overlooking the city, where we climbed to see the famous statue of the woman holding the palm wreath, erected after WWII. )

Autumn has stirred my imagination as no other season does. Here is my poem "Alma" from WILDWOOD FLOWER.


Two dead leaves
on the table and ice

floats on milk like the ashes
of leaves. Oak
twigs kindle
and fire leaps like a prayer, “Give us

breath.” When I open
the door and breathe deeply
the cold air inflames me.
The fire seizes log after log.
In the garden my husband burns
dead stalks of squash and potatoes.
I sweep my dust into the coals
and our smoke mingles over the orchard.

In autumn I sweep the floor gladly.
I gather the crumbs from the cupboard,
and the rinds of the apples.
When my dustbin grows heavy,
I give what it holds to the fire
and the fire sings its song:

raise your dead
from the earth, make a fire
of their bones,
set them free

to be sky,
to be nothing at all.

(October in the Blue Ridge Mountains)

If you have a favorite autumn poem, why not share it with us on this blog. Or write your own!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Back from Hungary!

This is my first morning back in the US after two wonderful weeks in Hungary. I was delighted to find several comments on the poems by the Basketball Poets and on the splendid poem by John York. No poems from students, though! I've removed comment moderation, so please feel free to send me some responses. Teachers, too! And anyone else who feels inspired by these posts.
I'll be posting photos and stories about my time in Hungary soon. And I'll be responding to the comments left while I was gone.
I hope October is stirring up all sorts of poetic impulses among NC poetry lovers. I'll be sharing a few of my favorite autumn poems over the next few days. Let me know what yours are, ok?

Monday, October 6, 2008

NC Poetry Society Poet Laureate Award--John York: Springboard # 2

I've been asked to judge many contests over the past few years, but at no time have I been as excited about an entry as about the poem titled "Naming the Constellations," which was among the group sent to me from the NC Poetry Society's Poet Laureate Award finalists. " Who is this poet?" I asked the contest co-ordinator. I didn't find out till weeks later that it was John York, an old friend and one of my favorite poets. Of course, all the entries were submitted anonymously. I had no idea who the author of this poem was. All the more reason to be thrilled when I found out! This poem was published in the NCPS anthology PINESONG this summer. I'm honored to be able to feature it here. John is an English teacher at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in Greensboro.

Because I am always looking for ways to engage readers and writers, I'd like to suggest some "springboards" from this fabulous poem. For starters---what about naming the constellations? How many of us know them anymore? Go find out about them and stand out at night looking for them, if the light pollution doesn't foil your efforts. Write a poem from what your see or don't see, or a poem springing from the names themselves--and their stories.

Find a line you love from this poem and begin with it; or use it as an epigraph for your own poem. I may do this myself. I find this poem haunting, totally memorable. Let it play in your imagination and see what happens. Then send me your responses through the "comments" link.

(John York)

Naming the Constellations


Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.

Then look for Bootes rising
among catalpa blossoms, Aquila hovering
above summer haze, Orion climbing
through unleafing trees, or the Gemini
watching over hoar-frosted mountaintops.
Even if we never venture over desert places

or through winter woods at night,
we need to learn the old names,
Ursa Major, the Great Wain, the Drinking Gourd:
a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots.
We watch the stars as we watch our steps,
looking to take the long way home.


When my grandmother read the paper,
there in the back yard, where she watched
the squirrels playing around the eaves
of the barn’s tin roof, she sat on a white chair,
until she eased forward to the crackling
sigh of relieved cane bottom.

It’s a low chair, made for a shorter generation;
either that or the tapering legs rested
once on rockers that wore out.
Little Roy Burgess wove a new seat,
a simple pattern that’s held for decades.
I fended off Uncle Gilbert at the auction

and claimed my inheritance: and sometimes
I ride the chair around the galaxy while I play
my guitar, the jigs and ballads
Great-grandfather fiddled, tonic, dominant,
sub-dominant chords, then back
to the keynote, opening a door to a cornfield at dusk.

And sometimes, walking out on a December night,
I find the Celestial Chair--Orion's rectangle--
his belt, a tin pan spilling,
his sword, corn dropped for the chickens,
Canis Major making a flock of white beaks,
the hens rushing to flashing seed, while Grandma
sits invisible, a dust cloud gathering into a star.


Walking down to the bike path, I see
Orion tilting, stretching over
the street from one group of trees to another,
and on the horizon, a white steeple,
shining in front of a trio of skyscrapers—
a Gothic tower, a space ship, a box—

so bright, I can’t find the Pleiades
or the Pole Star. The astronomers know
that the constellations are changing,
the patterns bending, the stars light years apart,
so that Orion may become “the Manacle,”
“the Butterfly,” or something nameless—

all stories lost: our fictions have lasted
for centuries, the narrative lines forming a map,
there for everyone to accept, revise, or reject,
but now we work at obliterating
the sky, smog, ozone, blather and baloney
our children’s final inheritance.

Walking home, I see a row of lights, a constellation
along a hilltop, but so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door,
a chair, a book, a place to snudge like a Hobbit,
listening for a tea kettle, snow fall, sleigh bells.


What is hardest is walking with a naked
mind into the night, like some earliest
man or woman, leaving behind
the communal fire, the flickering screen,
to go to mountaintop or empty field
and forget our yammering selves.

When I was a country boy, before I read
about Orion, I saw his limbs and belt
and called it all “The Great Box Kite,”
and I held its string as I stood in the alfalfa stubble,
and a strong breeze kept it aloft
long after I went to bed—and it flies

in me still, when I shine like a clear
sky far from city lights,
when I remember the smell of cows
and a chill wind shimmering,
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.

Alyssa Miller, Supply Elementary School

Recently, fifth grade student Alyssa Miller received a letter informing her that her Poem Sunkeeper was selected as Second Place in the 2008 Poetry Council of North Carolina Student Contest, Charlotte Young Category.

Alyssa will have the opportunity to read her poem at Poetry Day on Saturday, October 4 at Catawba College in Salisbury. She will receive a copy of Bay Leaves (in which all the winning poems are published), a certificate, and a check for $15 as her Second Place Prize. (See the post below on The Basketball Poets and Assignments.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

THE BASKETBALL POETS: Springboards for Students and Teachers: #1

I don’t much like the word assignment--it sounds like chalk dust tastes. And exercise? I think of jumping jacks and sit-ups. No thanks! Springboard, now that sounds challenging to me, who never learned how to dive off of one but always wanted to. There waits beneath you the shining surface of water and the depths, and depending on how good the springboard is and how hard you jump off it, you can soar for awhile before arcing downward. So, I will call what follows some "springboards" for teachers and their students to leap off of and see where they end up.

Although the poems I’m using were written by 5th graders, they could be used as springboards by older--and younger---students. Every class that emails student poems,using the comment link below, will get a personal response. AND, to the class that sends the most poems, I will send a prize! Please make sure that you identify yourself, your teacher, and your school.
While I am away for the next two weeks, I will set my blog to moderate the comments, which means they won't show up right away but will be saved for me to read when I get home. Then I will be able to give my personal responses at the time the poems go up on the site after I return on October 22.

I am using several short poems by students at Supply Elementary School, in Supply, NC, where my friend Marty Mentzer has been mentoring a group called the Basketball Poets for several years. (More about this fabulous after the poems.) Marty says, “My new group of poet ( 5th grade) this year have started off well." I'll say! Each poem is followed by a photo of the student poet.

1. This poem recently won second prize in the student category in the NC Poetry Society’s contest. (See post above this one.)

inspired by Langston Hughes
by Alyssa Miller (age 10)

Bring me all the sun’s small sunbeams
Bring me all the warm memories
so I may wrap them in a soft pink cloth
where only worthy eyes can see

Try beginning your poem with “Bring me” and ask for something that is not really able to be carried in the usual sense--the wind, for example, a song you really like, or how your pet’s fur feels when you stroke it, and then do something with it, as in Alyssa’s poem, where she compares the small sunbeams to memories (something else that’s not tangible, yet very real) that she then wants wrap in a soft cloth.

2. Here is a poem called “A Poem’! I like it because it has a lot of energy and it tells us something important about poetry, that it helps us LOOK and see all sorts of things we might not see otherwise. Even better, it urges us to learn the words of “a poet you know,” and to learn them so well, which she repeats like the woodpecker’s drill, that they work magic, making the bark on the tree soft as the sky. Wow! And that woodpecker. Did you know a woodpecker can sigh? I didn’t, but I love the thought of it and how poetry can make that sigh heard “mile after mile.”

A Poem
by Mariah Cashman

Look up, look down
Look all around.
Go here, go there
Go everywhere.
Learn the words of a poet you know.
Learn them so well, so well, so well
Learn the motto
As if the bark on the tree
Was as soft as the sky.
And when the woodpecker sighs
It's heard mile after mile.

Now, try this. Go out looking, up, down and all around and find something you think is interesting. If you have a camera you can take a picture of it, or you can draw it. Then write a poem about it, trying to use all five senses to describe it.

3. Let’s stay with Mariah’s poem for our third springboard. Find a poem you really like. It could be from anywhere. Maybe you’ve found one you like in one of your school books. Or you could read back through this blog and find one you like. Try to memorize some lines from it, or the whole poem. Read it aloud and listen to how it sounds. Then write a poem to that poem, telling it why you like it so much.

4. Poetry
by Cardarius Gilbert

Rhymes or

Ok, this could be fun. Take the letters in the word poetry and write six line poem, one word per line that has p-o-e-t-r-y somewhere in the word, as Cardarious has done. A spin-off--try to write a poem with ear-splitting rhymes and rhythm! Go for it! Make a poem that really grabs your attention when you read it out loud.

This is my dog Ace below; he has a passion for my daughter's guinea pig. See how alert he looks? What makes you want to sit up and pay this much attention?

5. Love your sister
by Thomas Lovett

Love your sister
like never before.
Love her like you
love yourself.
Love her like
she's the only one.

This poem takes on that hardest of emotions to write about without sounding all sweet and shmaltzy---LOVE. But, love your sister? I sure didn’t love my brother when I was growing up. We got into a lot of fights. Maybe if I’d read or written a poem like this one, I would have been nicer to him. Think of someone you have a hard time trying to love or even just get along with and write a poem for that person. You could even mention some of the things you don’t like about that person but try to see those things in a new light. Or, just admit, hey, I don’t like some of these things, but so what? Nobody’s perfect, and I’m going to try care about this person as much as I care about myself.

(This year's Basketball Poets)
Left to Right
Bottom Row: Devin Pritchard, Tristan Snook, Ian Niggles, Kendall Andrews, Alayna Miller,
Garrett Britt, Anthony Bell
Middle Row:Dreshaun Stanley,Mariah Cashman, Tyler Carlisle, Alyssa Miller, Summer Freeman, Carlos Santes, Melanie Negrette, Cardarius Gilbert
Top Row: Mrs. Marty Mentzer,Devin Fesperman, Tristan Murphy,Nicholas Melendez-Kelly,
Thomas Lovett, Tremaine Johnson,Jay Inman, Mitchell Barfield, Principal Dr. Dwight Willis, Brittni Watson


"Basketball Poets" is the brainchild of Mrs. Marty Mentzer, who teaches physical education at Supply Elementary School in Supply, NC. When she was asked to tutor students at the school five years ago, she introduced poetry to the children with the book Love That Dog, by Newberry Award-winner Sharon Creech. Since then, Basketball Poets has developed into a club in which membership is earned and highly prized. For admission students must write their own poems and give them to the teacher on the first day of school. The first 25 are accepted. The fourth- and fifth-grade sections of Basketball Poets meet separately, once a week for 40 minutes. The sections come together for performances, in which they present their own poems and work by others. In addition to the title poem of the book the club began with -- "Love That Dog" -- the current repertoire includes "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Pasture," by Robert Frost, "Love That Boy," by William Dean Myers, "The Red Wheelbarrow," by William Carlos Williams, and the two poems presented here. The students' favorite poem is "The Tyger." Mrs. Mentzer's is "El Dorado."
The Basketball Poets won a $5,000 Innovation Grant from the National Education Association in 2004 and a $1,000 Bright Ideas Grant in 2005. The national student magazine Weekly Reader featured the group last April 2006. According to Mrs. Mentzer, besides being wonderful poets and performers, the club members "are also awesome basketball players."

(The 06 Basketball Poets)

Off to Hungary!

On Tuesday I head to Hungary for the European premiere of Harold Shiffman's wonderful Alma Cantata that is based on poems from WILDWOOD FLOWER. The American Premiere took place at FSU in 2006; these photos are from that event. Harold's website,, will give you a definitive glimpse into this important composer's life and work. I will return on October 22.

(Harold and I discuss our collaboration before the premiere of "Alma."

Onstage after the performance with mezzo-soprano Nadine Cheek Whitney and Harold Schiffman)

(At the reception afterward with Nadine, Harold, and conductor Alexander Jimenez. )

From Harold's website:
Coinciding with his 80th birth year, Harold Schiffman's cantata Alma (2002) will receive, in Győr, Hungary, its European première in a performance by the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hungarian National Chorus, Mátyás Antal (for whom the work was written) conducting. The première is scheduled as part of the orchestra's regular subscription series. Mátyás Antal's recording of Alma (North/South Recordings), released in 2004, has drawn high critical praise.

The concert will take place the evening of Thursday, 16 October 2008 in Győr's János Richter Hall.

Streets in the center of the old city of Győr,* which
are but a short walk from the János Richter Hall.
Győr, Hungary (16 September 2007)
Photograph by Szidónia Juhász

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Salem College Center for Women Writers

The young women you see below is Ginger Hendricks, Director of the Salem College Center for Women Writers ( Ginger was the hostess during my visit to Salem for both the On the Same Poem program, co-sponsored by the Forsyth County public Library, and the William M. Hendricks Memorial Reading sponsored by the Forsyth County Public Library and the Salem College Center for Women Writers in Shirley Recital Hall, Salem Fine Arts Center. Ginger, a Salem Alumna, is a writer herself, and her family has contributed in important ways to the literary life of Salem College. I hope she will let me feature some of her work on my site in the near future.

(Ginger Hendricks, Director of the Salem College Center for Women Writers)

I had a lively time at Salem College, which must be one of the prettiest liberal arts campuses anywhere. Just before heading to the Forsyth County Library for the On the Same Poem luncheon, I visited Professor Edyta Oczkowic's
literature class, where the students had written essays about my work. Class visits are always my favorite part of any visit. The young women in this group listened intently and their questions were good ones.

Salem College is a congenial campus; being a woman's college alumna myself, I felt right at home there. Ginger, true to a women's school alum, arranged an elegant dinner for us, including selected students, before my reading. There I was astonished to meet Maggie Wynne, a Salem alumna, whose poem I had awarded first prize in the WNC Women Journal's poetry contest a year ago. She was thrilled to have finally received recognition for her work, and I plan to feature her work in a future post.

(Maggie Wynne, poet and alumna of Salem College, with Isabel Zuber and Kathryn Stripling Byer)

An extra highlight, on the second day of my stay, was hearing Chelsea Clinton speak just outside the guest house/dorm where I was staying. I stood on the fringes, letting the students press close to see her, but I could tell that she is an attractive and articulate young woman.

The folowing day I met the renowned composer William Bolcom and his wife Joan, in town for the 25th anniversary of the Piedmont Chamber Singers, who had commissioned a piece from him based on my poetry. We were treated to a recital of songs by Joan and Bill that night, and then next day--rehearsal time---I heard the suite he had composed for my poems. The songs gave me goosebumps! He did a splendid job, and I hope this suite will be perfomed many times over in the years to come. Bill Osborne, the director of the Piedmont Chamber Singers, had helped arrange this collaboration. Hearing the Chamber Singers recital, with two performances of the suite based on my poems, was the high point of the day, but I'll have to admit that meeting Joan and Bill at the Salem Tavern for lunch, ran a close second. What an energetic duo they are! Their website is

(Ginger Hendricks, Director of the Salem College Center for Women Writers, Kathryn Stripling Byer and Caywood Hendricks, President of the William M. Hendricks Family Foundation. (left to right). I gave the fourth Hendricks Reading at Salem College on May 1, 2008.)

(At the podium)