Posts Tagged ‘William Stafford


On Keetje Kuipers’ All Its Charms

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Keetje Kuipers All Its CharmsAll Its Charms (BOA Editions, 2019) is Keetje Kuipers’ third full-length collection of poems. There is much to admire in this book, but what catches most of my attention are the steady, evolving tones paralleling a woman becoming a mother.

The book begins with poems of a speaker confronted with the morality of killing creatures. The opening poem, “Becoming,” recalls William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” where Stafford has to decide what to do with the dead pregnant doe with a living fawn inside her. Stafford “thought hard for all of us – my only swerving –, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Kuipers’ similar incident is “When I saw that early spring / meadowlark – one-winged, flapping into the road – / I pressed my heal to its chest, to the earth” (9). She, like Stafford, provides mercy. In the following poem, “Landscape with Sage and the Names of My Children,” she held a “dead / buck by his antlers and dragged him through the sage” (10). In the next poem, “The elk my father shot,” she witnesses her father’s respect for an elk he just shot with a bow and arrow, as he is “quiet / so as not to scare away the grazing // ghost he’s made” (11). The tone of these opening poems is one of conflicted compassion. A tone not dissimilar to Stafford’s thinking “hard for all of us.”

After these opening poems, the tone shifts to joy, reverence, and awe. What’s remarkable is how long Kuipers sustains the tone, which is for about half the book. And this tone is inspired by a pregnant mother awaiting her new life and trying to create the joyful atmosphere for her soon-to-arrive child. The tone affects the poems’ attitude and me, as I felt uplifted. In “Migration Instinct,” she compares her earlier life of a late-night partier and a careless spender who maxes out her credit card to her present life. The joyful tone asserts itself in the final lines (which is where it often happens), when she writes of her current situation:

     But I’ve got dishes to wash, tiny sock after sock
     to fold. Sadness is so much work. Angry takes too much 

     time. And there’s my own daughter, mouth to my breast
     as she winks in the lamplight, sucking it all right out me.   (23)

After reminiscing, she is faced with chores, but then is swept away in the adorable cuteness of baby socks, and pendulums back to her youthful, unfulfilling feelings, then swings back to a winking baby enabling her to experience a new type of love. She finds hope and awe, as if she has blossomed into a new and meaningful life.

This delightful tone continues into the second half of the book, too, but on occasion, it is interrupted by the worries a mother (I assume) tends to have. The tonal demarcation isn’t clear cut, but it starts somewhere around the poem “Outside the Refugium.” In this poem, Kuipers watches a magpie eat a dead sparrow and swallow its heart. Then the magpie speaks to her, “Yes, the world has always been this fragile” (37), before the worry of protecting and caring for a child sets in. In the following poem, “Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends,” she worries about how she’ll “shelter” her child. Following that in “Landscape with Children,” she thinks to herself about her child:

                                          Your absence
     is impossible, unimaginable. 

     You can’t ever be gone from me – a prayer
     I hold under my tongue like a dark pill 

     I’m afraid to swallow.   (39)

I start to see what I think is the evolution of a mother. A single mother who had a baby via sperm donation and who is alone in the world with her child amid real and imagined concerns that are presenting themselves to her. Bravely, she learns to negotiate those feelings with a joyful tone, again, such as at the end of “Collaborators”:

     we drive our big cars onto because now

     we can go anywhere, ferries that took
     the people from the clear shore of their lives

     to the internment camps on the mainland
     because nothing could be more dangerous

     than living among each other where voices
     unnetted and rising in complaint

     are a flock of birds that can make no better
     song than the one which we sing together.  (52)

She realizes no matter what happens, they will make it, they will survive, and they will make joyful music.

While the tones evolve and oscillate, as they probably should or the book would be too sugary, Kuipers sees the world like a sparrow, whose “head [is] turned to the side / so one black eye can search the stippled sky / in ecstasy,” even as it is being eaten alive by a magpie. She rises out of her past life of soured relationships and experiences, and she finds joy and compassion in her new life as a mother, and therein lies the beauty of the book and all its charms.//





Kuipers, Keetje. All Its Charms. BOA Editions, 2019.



David Budbill’s While We’ve Still Got Feet (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.


The New Woodcutter of Old

David Budbill's – While We've Still Got Feet“You can make something become a poem by looking at it a certain way,” said William Stafford. Not that David Budbill’s poems in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press) need to be looked at a certain way to become poems, but a way of looking/listening to the poems in Budbill’s newest collection is to see/hear that these poems are mostly built on a friction between the ancient Asian & the American linear. More precisely, the two temporal locations rub up against each other to help Budbill reflect on life/living. This happens in a few ways.

For Budbill, it physically happens like this: “In the fourth century C.E. T’ao Yüan-ming” purposely choose to live reclusively, “Four hundred years later Han-Shan” did the same on a mountain, “Seven hundred years after that, Han Shan Te-ch’ing” did the same, “Another five hundred years later and here I am / on Judevine Mountain” in Vermont, contemporary America. In all cases, all these poets had “. . . this urge to go away / into the quiet, to sit down and listen for that / still small voice whispering from within.” The reader walks away with this feeling & this mountain, also, but imaginatively.

Physically for the reader what happens is the reader hears/sees poems written with an ancient Asian tone but with an American linear language, or at least presentation. That is, one tends to think of ancient Asian poems as having a calm reserve about them & as poems that sometimes make brilliant leaps – as you might expect to find in Han Shan or Muso Soseki or Li Po or in The Kokinshu – but the momentum of the poems is in the American language, which makes the thinking of the poems forward moving – no great associative or unassociative leaps. For example, consider the opening poem:

   Gama Sennin

   Gut hangin’ out
   Stick on shoulder.
   Toad up on me

   Singin’ me songs
   on Red Dust Road,
   headed toward

You can clearly see/hear the contemporary American language with words like “Gut,” “hangin’,” & “singin’” & with the use of “me” instead of “my.” And you can sense the ancient Asian tone, in part from the toad on the head & heading toward death. In part, the tone is derived from Soga Shohaku’s Gama Sennin & his three-legged toad, which is the book’s cover art. But that is how this book works – many of the poems need the other poems to work in full, & that is another way we can look at these writings to make them become poems. (This poem, however, does have a leap from “headed toward” to “dead,” The leap pronouncing the tone a bit more. However, this type of leaping, however, is rare in While We’ve Still Got Feet.)

Another manner in which Budbill accomplishes this friction between the ancient Asian & the contemporary American is by quoting an ancient Asian poet & then responding to the poet. For example:

   Ryokan Says

   With what can I
   compare this life?
   Weeds floating on water.

   And there you are with your
   dreams of immortality
   through poetry.

   Pretty pompous –
   don’t you think? – for a
   weed floating on water?

By writing in this fashion – ancient Asian rubbing up against contemporary American linear — Budbill can confront issues in his life & the world.

Consider the dozen or so political poems in this collection. Almost all are written as if in or for ancient Asian times, but the poems, in actuality, talk to present America. Consider:

   The Emperor

   Lao Tzu said flexibility and resilience are what it takes to stay alive.
   And kindness, Confucius believed, is the highest virtue.

   So why is the Emperor so spiteful and malicious? Why
   does he go around beating up on everybody all the time?

   Why do so many people have to suffer and die just because
   the Emperor and his Imperial Court have an idea?

If you read “President” for “Emperor,” you can hear the poem speak to our times, especially Some of the temporal parallels in other political poems are more obvious, or become obvious with the simple substitution of “President” for “Emperor.”

Budbill’s fusion of ancient Asian tone & the contemporary American linear language helps him contemplate his ego, too: should he care about his wants, needs, pleasures or should he care about the horrors of the world?; should he live on the mountain or in the city — both of which have desirable attributes?; should he live in solitude & write poems for the simple pleasure of the poem & for sharing them (“. . . What if I wrote my poems // only on walls or scraps of paper / and gave them away to strangers? (“Wild Monk Or?”); or should he write poems to become famous & satisfy his ego?

It’s the latter fame/solitude issue that is significantly derivative of the ancient Asian/contemporary American theme in this book.

Let me expand more generally: the mythology of the ancient Asian poet seems to be about a poet who lives alone, perhaps on a mountain, & is writing poems to help clarify the world for himself or to share with whomever he wants to read the poems – there’s no fame-driven poetry in that mythology. Now rub that up against the developing reality of the contemporary American poet who seeks to publish for prizes, honors, PhDs, or a professorship at a college.

If the poet chooses the latter, the ego/fame, then two things can occur: one – & this is a theme of a few poems – the poet will end up living a life with death as a finish line or a goal (as if climbing to the top of the mountain is the only goal) as opposed to the poet who lives a life as if death is a place of great reflection, as if by climbing a mountain, & once at the top, you can see where you have been – “Summer’s here and we can hike the peaks again, / have lunch and tea on mountaintops look down // on the backs of circling hawks and laze away / the afternoon watching blue-hazy, distant hills” (“Summer’s Here”); or two, the poet & his poems will be rewarded with prizes & honors which will satisfy his ego.

But how will the satisfaction come – by being judged & rewarded abstractly, & “Why should a bag of bones / [. . . ] / get all dolled up / in all these honors?” (It should be noted that in this poem “a bag of bones,” though a cliché, works based in part on the poems & images that precede. As a result, the concreteness of the “bag of bones” rubbing against the surrounding abstractions actually fleshes out the cliché-image – it becomes “a bag of bones,” it becomes real, which is what most poets want to do.) And once the poet & his poems are judged, then one can wonder: for who is the poet writing? Or, how is he writing? Is he writing genuinely? Or, as William Butler Yeats says in “A Coat,” is the poet writing for “the world’s eyes / As though they’d wrought it,” & thus judged it? I like how this subtle allusion from “dolled up” calls up this Yeats’ poem, & does it in a good way, perhaps unintentionally. For if we continue with Yeats’ poem, we can see what else can happen after the poem becomes judged & as if the world wrought it: “Song, let them take it / For there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Obviously, Yeats & Budbill had similar issues.

So Budbill’s book is not moralistic. It’s a book of simple poems that accumulate an overwhelming amount of depth & reflection (like The Kokinshu), but it is written with the anxieties & confusions of an American. It is written by a man who has lived thirty-five years on a mountain & is looking back through two important influences: ancient Asian wisdom & his contemporary American life. Budbill is a man trying to understand life while he can still think on his feet. And this reader left Budbill’s While We’ve Still Got Feet with a new lens through which to view life & is feeling damn good about it.//




Budbill, David. While We’ve Still Got Feet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//


The 500 Rejections Club

Finally, and happily, I have reached my 500th rejection from a literary journal or book publisher. I’ve been waiting and trying for some time in an attempt to get here, and I really am I excited about this. Really.

I started submitting around 1999 and very lightly. Lightly, because I was scared. Who knows why? And because I had so little material. A few years before, I burned everything I ever wrote. Two boxes of writing. Banker boxes. Burned the poems one by one. I read most of those poems before I ignited them, released each flaming one from my fingers, and watched them burn and float through the sky and turn to ash and nothing.

By about Fall 2005, I had about 150-200 rejections. That’s when I started pounding the market and writing a lot, too. Writing well, too. I would always have out at least 50 submissions to journals and another 10-20 to book publishers. I did that for about four years. This can become troublesome if a poem gets accepted, because then you have to write withdrawl letters. I once had to write 44 withdrawl letters for the poem “The Enemy of Pleasure” after it was accepted. I also had a poem, “The First Rain,” rejected 77 times before it was accepted. (Yes, I keep stats, vide infra.) I thought of William Stafford then. At one reading he gave at The Writers Forum at SUNY Brockport, he read a poem. Everyone thought it was a wonderful poem. He then read a list of about 30 to 50 journals. He said, “Those were all the journals that turned down that poem.” He then read the name of some small and obscure journal and said, “This was the one that wise enough to accept it.” I understand.

By fall 2006, I was at about 300 rejections. Fall 2007 about 400.  I thought 500 would be easy to get. I was getting excited to get there by the end of 2008. Come fall 2008, I was at about 450. I was slowing down. I was getting poems accepted. At one point, I had a 15-to-1 ratio of rejections to acceptances.

A rejection, by the way, is when the whole submission gets rejected. An acceptance is when at least one poem gets accepted. So if I send five poems to a journal and they all get rejected, that’s one rejection. If one poem from the submission gets accepted, that’s one acceptance and zero rejections. If two poems from the submission get accepted, that’s two acceptances and zero rejections.

In order to accelerate the rejections, I suggested a rejection contest. I challenged fellow poets to see who could get the most rejections. Each rejection contest season started right after National Poetry Month on May 1, of course.  Here were the rules for the 2008-09 season:

2008-09 Rejection contest rules

A) 1 point for all poems in one submission to a journal not being accepted.

B) 1 point for poems not winning a contest. If a poem comes in second or third, that counts as winning and equals –1 point.

C) 1 point for a manuscript (chapbook or full-length book) being rejected.

D) -1 point for an accepted poem. If, for instance, three poems are accepted from one submission to a journal, then –3 points.

E) -100 points if chapbook is a finalist in a contest but is published, but many glasses of wine will have to be drunk. Friends can join in, but they must pay their own way.

F) -100 points if chapbook is accepted by a publisher, but many glasses of wine will have to be drunk. Friends can join in, but they must pay their own way.

G) -100 points if chapbook wins a contest, but many glasses of wine will have to be drunk AND you will pay for drinks for your friends as you have just won a chunk of change.

H) -250 points and immediate disqualification if a full-length manuscript (42+ pages) gets accepted for publication or wins a contest. Again, you buy drinks for everyone if you win a cash prize. You may still play but only as a honorary participant because you are not allowed to win on both sides.

I) If a journal accepts submissions, but only accepts 1 poem per email but ultimately will accept 3-5 poems as a submission, and you submit, for example, 5 poems, and all 5 are rejected one at a time, then it is only one rejection and 1 point. If one is accepted and four rejected one at a time, then it counts as one acceptance (-1 point) and zero rejections (0 points).

J) Only submit to a place you would normally submit. No submitting a poor poem to “Poetry,” but you may submit you best poems to “Poetry.” And only submit to legitimate journals, online journals, and publishers.

K) Once a poem is published, it cannot be submitted again elsewhere, at least in regards to this contest.

Whoever got the most points won. Last place paid first place 20 envelopes and 20 stamps. Second-to-last place paid second place 10 envelopers and 10 stamps. Third-to-last place paid third place 5 envelopes and 5 stamps. (I love gambling.) I, however, always came in second [shakes fist at Donna Marbach].

By fall 2009, I was at around 487 rejections. Damn. “Why won’t 500 come,” I thought and said aloud. Good thing is, I was getting poems accepted . . . and books, too. My ratio today is 5-to-1, 500 rejections and 97 accepted poems, one accepted book review, five collections of poems, and one book of poetry writing exercises.

Now mind you, I don’t write to get published. I don’t know how to do that. The poem is always telling me what to do. No one else. I have to be honest with the poem, and it won’t let me do otherwise. I did like the challenge of submitting, though. I like numbers. I like stats. I love football. I’ve always loved football and its stats, and all sports stats. (I like gambling, vide supra.) So this was natural for me.

To make it more challenging, in late 2007 or early 2008, I stated to submit almost exclusively to only those journals with “Review” in their name. I thought, a journal with “Review” in its name just sounds good to me. Plus, it’s a review. It’s more legitmate if it has “Review” in its name. The legitimacy thing isn’t true, but the thinking was something like that.

Anyway. Today I got my 500th rejection, and I am now a member of a club I invented a while ago, which now has a t-shirt. (Thank you Kristy Funderburk for the idea.)

The 500 Rejections Club

I’m very excited to be here. It’s a significant event, I think. Anyway, it’s certainly fun. So hooray.

So, if you are there or beyond 500 rejections, join The 500 Rejections Club and order a shirt, which reads: The 500 Rejections Club / (500 Rejections from Journals and Publishers) / We wish you luck in placing your work elsewhere.

Come on, be a reject.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

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