Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cathy Smith Bowers' "The Napkin": An Excellent Example of Narrative Poetry

As I've discussed this project during our Call for Submissions, several poets have admitted that sometimes they weren't quite sure if particular poems are narrative or not. I know Jane addressed the question in an earlier post. One of my simplest explanations:  Something happens. From a more practical standpoint, though, I think an example serves not only to illustrate but to show what we have in mind for this project, especially since our intended audience will be readers, not writers.

When I had the first inkling of what I wanted to do with this project, Cathy Smith Bowers was service her term at North Carolina Poet Laureate. Those of you who came into contact with Cathy during her time know what a force she is.  I love so many of her poems, but two in particular I find myself sharing again and again.

If you love poems, you may have done the same thing: You read a poem that brings to mind a friend, someone who doesn't write poetry and who may not even read it often. These are also the ones you'll ask the poet to be sure to include in a reading.  For Bowers, the two are "Syntax" and this one from The Collected Poems of Cathy Smith Bowers (Press 53) I share with permission:

The Napkin

One night in a pub
on the outskirts of Roanoke,
I sat with my husband

at a table lit only
by the candle’s mute flickering
and the small waning moons

of our drinks. I was writing
in my journal, journaling
a journey soon coming

to its end when suddenly,
at the table to our left,
a soft commotion of arms

and hands. I looked
at my husband, lost in some
lost moment of the now

lost day, and then at them,
a subtle, peripheral glance
I had long ago perfected.

I could easily have touched
them – they were that close – lovers,
perhaps, signing to each other

their tongueless words. Each
in turn, their hands rose, bright
wings above the flame’s dim

corona, secret negotiations
of finger and thumb.
I was stunned to see

how beautiful he was, as if
in the convoluted logic
of my mind, those devoid

of sound and speech must, too,
be devoid of loveliness.
I could see the silvery sheen

of her nails, glimmer of bracelets
and rings as they mounted the air,
lifting then falling, strafing

the crumbed and waxy
landscape of the table below.
When they left, something

fluttered to the floor, the napkin
they had at intervals been scribbling
on, passing back and forth,

the sweet lexicon of their
hands eluding even them.
My husband reached down,

handed it to me. Slowly
I began to read,
unfolding like lingerie

the delicate layers,
each boneless

naked before
my eyes: She
should be talkingto him, it said, not writingin that book. Poor guy,

he looks so lonely.

~Cathy Smith Bowers

That poem has everything a good story could ever hope to include: characters, setting, conflict, dialogue (even though it appears first in gestures, then in writing.) The poet chooses her words and her images carefully, setting the tone of the poem. The figurative language is subtle and fresh--the "waning moons" of the drinks, the message on the napkin "unfolding like lingerie."

Frost said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." Bowers' poem surprises. This is a poem I would have loved to have written; it's a poem I share over and over.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Wherever Poets Gather

Having just returned home from the fall conference of the North Carolina Writers Network (only to leave again the next morning), I have a head full of great workshops and readings, great writing ideas, a stack of books to read, and a reminder why poetry still matters. The conference held in Asheville was a perfect setting for Jane and me to share our call for submissions for the Well-Versed Reader, since so many of our favorite poets were there.

One of the few complaints I heard (other than the usual variation of themes on thermostat) came during the evening open mic readings, held in three different rooms: "Why have they separated the poets?!"

Fiction write Lee Smith opened the conference with a reading on Friday evening and presented a workshop session on Saturday.  Former NC Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer was featured at Saturday's luncheon, beginning with her beautiful, timely poem "Mountain Time," which moves from pessimism about the state of and future for poetry to a lovely quilting metaphor.

Two themes thrummed under the surface of so much I heard this past weekend:  Words Matter. Stories Matter. That's why poets write and why readers read. That's exactly why we hope to bring the two together.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Calling All Book Clubs

Call for Submissions.
I've been a book clubber long enough to know that coming to a consensus about what to read can be one of the biggest challenges. Some people want to read all the new edgy fiction; others want "something light for a change." Some come for the wine.

Some book clubs are well-organized, choosing books, hosts, and meeting locations a year at a time. Some plan programs about the author or the book. Some have book-themed food--or wine. I've visited book clubs in which the members swap books but never read the same one at the same time. (They also serve refreshments using the good china and silver.)

My book club rarely manages to settle on a single book, often adding a second or third extra choice.  We can't plan too far ahead because the book we read in June might not have been published in January.

Most book clubs I know lean heavily toward current fiction, but some read nonfiction--and some read the classics. One of my male college friends, a non-reader back then, joined a book club after he retired and read War and Peace--and convinced his wife and grown son to read it.

Very few book clubs choose poetry. On a few rare occasions, I've been invited to speak to friends' book clubs who selected my chapbook for reading.  I'm sure there was some duress on the part of my friends. Usually, though, the members expressed surprise that they enjoyed reading poems.  They even seemed to enjoy them more after discussions. 

After teaching high school for all those years when students, given an option, tended to choose the shortest book, I wonder why, then, adult readers avoid poetry? As I've mentioned in an earlier, some  people are put off poetry by school experiences.

I think a bigger problem may be that people rarely have any contact with poetry after school, any reason to pick it up and read it. Try browsing the big box bookstore poetry section, and you will find a little Frost, Dickinson, Whitman--but very little poetry from this century.  If your exposure to poetry is limited to The New Yorker, you might think it's all supposed to be highbrow (translation: obscure and abstract.)

Show up at a local poetry event--yes, most cities have them, even small towns--and you might be surprised. Sometimes the best introduction to a poet is hearing that poet reading his or her own poems. It adds another dimension to the words on the page. 

When I started going to our local poetry reading, I made a point, whenever I could, to buy two copies of a chapbook or collection from the featured poet--one for me, one to share.  Then I had an automatic book club meeting, someone else who could talk about the poems with me.  Almost always, something in the poems suggested exactly who my recipient should be.

Jane and I would love to hear from book club members to know (1. what you are reading; (2. if you've ever considered poetry. 

While I'm talking poetry: The National Book Awards for 2015 were just announced. Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis was the poetry winner.  Yes, there is a poetry winner! Check it out.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pouring Water on a Great Poem

While keeping in mind our Call for Submissions, I wanted to share a little piece I came across in my reading.

I read the Sunday papers in my own arbitrary method, stacking my favorite sections in the order in which I will attack.  From the New York Times Book Review, I prioritize the "By the Book" interview section, in which the author of a recently published book answers questions about his or her reading life and history.

Last week, Gloria Steinem was front and center. When asked which genres she enjoys reading and which she avoids, her answer both pleased and surprised me. While she admits that she "used to be hooked on novels," she says she's not "hooked on ideas," adding, " Poetry has replaced novels. If you poured water on a great poem, you would get a novel."

That is just the idea Jane and I are pursuing in this anthology project. We want to introduce readers to the distilled language, the conciseness of story found in poetry. I forget huge portions of novels, even short ones. I'm often left with what Cathy Smith Bowers referred to as the "abiding image."

Try this: Think of your favorite novel and conjure up the most concrete image you recall. 

 Of all people, I would never suggest replacing novels with poetry--or biography or philosophy or DIY--but I would hope serious pleasure readers would expand their horizons to include poetry.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Scintillating Shapes of Story

Nancy’s post discussing pairings of fiction and poetry for book clubs (not unlike the wines and cheeses that nourish discussion) gives a wonderful example of narrative poetry in Miller Williams’ “The Curator,” a free-verse piece. Now, friends, let’s open a dialogue about narrative poetry in the comments section here.  In the weeks ahead, Nancy and I plan to post some good examples of narrative poems that we find compelling and hope you will join us here to read, comment, and suggest narrative poems you love and writers you admire.  While this is not the place to submit your own work for discussion, it is a wonderful forum for links to poems and poets who inspire your work.  Want to share?

So, let’s talk form. Should narrative poems always be free verse? Not at all, in my opinion. Narrative poems can take any number of forms. Some of the most memorable to us from childhood are rhymed and metered to a fine bounce.  Remember “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer or Henry Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”?  Poets from Shel Silverstein to AA Milne peopled poems with rhymes we could dance to.  As we grew older, we engaged with epics, narrative poems with a long tale to tell, but also with shorter stories like Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Is this a character study or a narrative poem?  Look at the form it takes—couplets in iambic pentameter— that nevertheless does not read in the bouncy fashion of our childhood favorites.

Now, have a look at Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” written in blank verse (iambic pentameter with no rhyme scheme) so masterfully that Frost uses two partial lines of conversation to complete one line of iambic pentameter, not an easy thing to do. Through conversation, the characters are developed, the plot thickened, and the overall conflict and purpose of the poem revealed or suggested. There’s nothing like a misunderstanding between a man and woman to generate heated discussion. Frost appeals to readers for understanding about this couple’s plight.  I had a student tell me that “Home Burial” and “Death of a Hired Man” could be short short stories or flash fiction.  Clearly, narrative elements—a story and characters—were obvious to him.  Why not just call it prose then? 

Because Frost is a poet.  Because the lines and the form itself, blank verse, is verse, not prose.  Because the margins and line lengths suggest NOT a prose form but a poetic one.  Let’s face it, any number of works can be re-formed into another kind of writing.  The writer gets to make that call for his or her own work.  Still, isn’t the effectiveness of a narrative’s form and structure an interesting conversation to have with your book club?

None of the poems mentioned here are short poems, begging the question of how long a narrative poem should be.  E.A. Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” insisted that all stories be only as long as one could read in one sitting, no interruptions. Homer would clearly disagree. Perhaps more important than length, I’d say a narrative poem should be effective, long enough to tell the story as well as it can be told and still leave a mystery for the reader to discover. Yes, I know that Nancy and I arrived at 110 as our line limit, simply because we’d like to represent more than one writer in our anthology. What do you think about the relationship between length of poem, story told, and reader engagement?

Can a story be told in fewer lines, even in a few words?  Perhaps you recall DeGroot’s play Papa that says Ernest Hemingway allegedly bet he could write a story in under ten words.  His story was this: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."   Whether or not the writer actually wrote the story or engaged in the bet, the legend of it engages writers and thinkers to consider what a story is—what is written or what is suggested that leads the reader to imagine a completion, an actual story.  I submit that these six words are like a good question, the seed of a story, which, when planted in the mind of a writer or reader, becomes rooted and leafy, fleshed out as a plethora of thriving stories.  The six words alone won’t do it for me.  However, you may feel differently and consider this a microscopic story.

As you write and submit your own strong narratives to our Call for Submissions for The Well-Versed Reader, help us engage you in discussing effective narrative poems that you would well suggest to your book club. Post links and comments in the comments section below.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of Book Clubs and Poetry

Rather than spend time analyzing all the reasons members of book clubs might not select poetry for their common reading choices, I’d rather share an example or two of poems that dovetail nicely with reading group choices.
When my book club selected Debra Dean’s novel The Madonnas of Leningrad, I thought at once of one of my favorite poems by the late Miller Williams “The Curator.” Both the poem and the novel present fictional accounts set against a historical background. As the Germans neared Leningrad, the priceless works of art were removed and hidden for safekeeping, but their empty frames were left on the walls marking their places.
Dean’s novel deals with the hunger and desperation of the local citizens, many of whom moved into the Hermitage Museum during the days of conflict. Miller’s poem also covers many of these same days, but his poem is peopled by soldiers and then other curious visitors who come to see where the painting once hung. They come to hear the curator’s description of these works of art, more vivid that his usual spiel when the actual canvases remained in place.  The most powerful lines, in my opinion: Slowly, blind people began to come.Slowly, blind people began to come. “Here. Here is the story I want to tell you. / Slowly, blind people began to come.”
Not only would this moving poem pair well with The Madonnas of Leningrad, I realize, but with Monuments Men, the novel by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the attempts to safeguard monuments and art or to relocate art stolen by the Nazis. Even the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel With All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, with its blind young protagonist, might be enriched by a discussion of this poem. Then Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna also takes a turn in the end, when her protagonist is charged with safeguarding the collections from the National Gallery during WWII.
I dare say that the story Williams tells in him poem will stay with readers as long as, perhaps longer than, the narrative in these books. With its theme of “confluence,” the odd way that things often come together, it would be a perfect choice.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Thank you for the responses we’ve had so far. Every submission provides us with a moment of joy, celebration, and, um, awareness.  Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out a few important issues for each writer that submits, not just to our anthology, but ANYWHERE, EVER.  Please understand that Nancy and I are both English teachers. Good ones.  Award-winning, top-of-our-game, intentional and interested ones.  When a teacher sits up nights getting guidelines for an assignment so crystal clear no one could fail to understand them, only to learn that some students haven’t bothered to read them, sending in assignments however they please, the message seems to be that they believe they are above all that instruction, just too good to take directions. 

That’s the message a submission sends that doesn’t follow the guidelines.  Let me say here that Nancy and I spent two weeks of discussion, tweaking the Call for Submissions, finally getting guidelines down to five, the number of fingers on one hand, so they would not be overly cryptic or repetitious.  READ THE CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS BEFORE YOU SUBMIT YOUR POEMS. 

Before you hit send, ask yourself: 
(1)   Did I follow the suggested formatting for the poems?  Is my name beneath my title, for instance?
(2)   Is my poem under 110 lines?  Have I sent no more than 3 poems in one document?  Have I honored the request NOT to send pictures and art?
(3)   Is my poem narrative?  Do this easy exercise: What is the story your poem tells?  Is there a character and a conflict present to create plot?  Will this story engage readers enough for a discussion to ensue after its reading that will delight and enlighten the reader and stimulate discussion?  If you had to write one sentence stating what your poem is “about”, what would you say?  Consider these questions.
(4)   Did I send a short third-person bio?
(5)   Did I send a sentence about the poem and its origins?

And there you have it.  Five fingers again.  Whether your writing is considered for this or any publication is in your hand, for in following directions, you are telling the editors who read you that
(1) you were willing to read and respect the guidelines
(2) you believe in a level playing field in which all poets are considered equally,  
(3) you are not entitled to special treatment, even if your poetry is spectacular, and
(4) you are a good citizen.  (I threw that one in for the fun of it, but even creative people are called upon to follow laws that govern us all). 

This said, we’re enjoying connecting with so many poets from so many different parts of the country and world.  We appreciate that you wish to be a part of a collection that will encourage book clubs to embrace poetry as they currently do prose writings.  Let’s start a poetry movement within our book clubs!  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions
We are seeking submissions of strong narrative poetry to be included in an anthology entitled The Well-Versed Reader to be edited by Jane Shlensky and Nancy Posey.  The poems may be on any topic and in any format, but should inspire reading and group discussion.  Send up to three poems to by February 20. For further information and questions, go to

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions
Deadline: February 20, 2016

1. Poems must be no longer than 110 lines, in any form that effectively serves the narrative.  Poems must be typed, single-spaced, title first, poet’s name beneath. Online submissions should be attached as a single document in .doc or .docx format.
2.  On the first page of your submission document, include your name, address, phone, and email.  Include a short bio in third person, title of poem(s), and a brief statement about each poem.
3. While we favor original poems, we will consider poems previously published in magazines, anthologies, or chapbooks, if the poet retains rights to the publication. Include previous publication information in your submission.
4. Poets may send up to three poems for consideration. No illustrations, photographs, or images should be included.
5. Poets will be notified via email of acceptance to the anthology.

Please share and check here at the Well-Versed Reader blog site for more information. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Welcome from the Other Half

Hello, Friends!  Welcome to The Well-Versed Reader!

I’m Jane Shlensky, and I am a poem nerd.  I'm also Nancy Posey's partner in crime and rhyme on this project to design an anthology of poetry especially for book clubs. As Nancy has told you, we've been friends in teaching, doing sessions at conferences, reading, writing, making music, and making fun wherever we can.  Perhaps these activities have honed our abilities in the classroom and on the empty page.  I do know that everything we are and do comes into play in our artistic endeavors, as well as in our careers.  As an avid reader and book club member, I also know that reading and discussing a work—any work—creates special kinds of friendships and wonderful creases in the brain, just as writing or playing an instrument does. 

Tell me: did you grow up with Mother Goose rhymes? Dr. Seuss? Shel Silverstein?
Nursery rhymes set to music that was snappy and memorable? Then you are grounded in formed poetry, my friends.  Perhaps later, you graduated from “Casey at the Bat” to Walt Whitman or Theodore Roethke and then let it drop. However, if you’re still singing along with your favorite performers, you’re engaging with one kind of poetry, lyrics. If you are a closet poetry reader and writer, come out! We need not shun poetry.

I asked some of my book club friends to answer Kay Byers’ question as to why book clubs don’t read poetry, and found their responses edifying but not unlike those of my students for nearly forty years.  Poetry is hard; I’m not sure I understand the symbols and allusions; we need someone to read it to us who understands it; it’s too bouncy (think formed); it’s too free; it’s too abstract; (and my personal favorite), I’m not smart enough to read poetry.  Where did we ever get these ideas? I’m guessing an over-zealous teacher in love with iambs and anapests spent more time on the form of a poem than on its meaning and enjoyment. I confess to telling students that poetry was like a bouillon cube of meaning and narrative.  Add water and stir, and presto, you have a flavorful short story or novella. That’s why all those teachers could joyfully discuss a single poem for an hour and a half while their students wondered how there could be so much packed into so few words.

Consider our proposed anthology, The Well-Versed Reader, a gateway drug to other poems and another viable choice of reading material for book clubs.  Nancy and I, with this narrative anthology project, hope to undo negative stereotypes of poetry by selecting poems that will engage every kind of reader and lead to rewarding discussions—with the outside hope that once a reader digests good narrative poetry, he or she will consider sampling other flavors of poetry, or even writing it.  If you are a poet, keep an eye out for our Call for Submissions for this project.  If you are a reader in your own book club, keep us on your speed dial.  We’d love to use your club for feedback once the book is in your hands. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Welcome to the Well-Versed Reader Blog!

Coming Soon:  Call for Submissions!

For quite awhile now, Jane Shlensky and I have been plotting and planning a project that makes sense to both of us. First, I'll give a little background for those of you who don't know us--or our connections.  Jane and I have been friends since we met when serving on the board of the North Carolina English Teachers Association. For several years, the conference was held on our birthday weekend (Oct 4-5), so we celebrated together.

In addition to sharing career interests as teachers of English, we realized that we both loved to read and aspired to write. The first time we presented a conference session together, "How Can You Teach What You Don't Do:  Teachers as Writers," we had to confess that we were hypocrites.  Wanting to write and planning to write are not the same as writing. We started to motivate each other.

In the meantime, we regularly attended the National Council of Teachers of English convention together (even after she retired), often bringing our musical instruments and playing in our hotel room.

I discovered Poetic Asides about eight years ago, and I kept encouraging Jane until she finally joined that community. Since then, we've found plenty of opportunities to collaborate.

The project we are planning, for which we plan to solicit submissions, ties together two of our passions:  reading and poetry. Several years ago, when I was posting on my regular blog, The Discriminating Reader, Kathryn Stripling Byer asked why book clubs didn't read poetry. The question stuck with me.

After I published my chapbook Let the Lady Speak, I had a few invitations to speak to book clubs, whose member had read my book before the meeting.  I found that most of them had always felt uncertain about poetry, but found they enjoyed talking about it when they knew what to discuss.

Jane and I plan to create an anthology of poems with a strong narrative focus, aimed at readers who usually prefer novels--or nonfiction with a narrative structure.  We're thinking of those kinds of poems that we read and then send to non-poetry friends we know would appreciate them.

Cathy  Smith Bowers' poems "Syntax" and "The Napkin" fit those parameters. Miller Williams' "The Curator" is another I share regularly. "Tin Ear" by Peter Schmitt, which appeared on Writers Almanac a few years ago is another I immediately forwarded to a friend who had once confessed that his elementary music teacher had suggested he keep his voice low.

These may not be the poems one would find in The New Yorker. They are the ones you might find in that folder of poems you kept simply because you liked them.

If you're a poet with folders or notebooks of poems in search of a home, sort through and see which might (1. tell a good story and (2. inspire a good discussion.

We will post the specific submission guidelines soon.