2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 3

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 3

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Inaugural”

by Maggie Bowyer

I watched the screen
With my breath held
In between my teeth.
A familiar feeling,
Watching Washington
On another Wednesday.
I waited for the disarray,
The brigade of ostentatious White supremacy, treason,
The rejection of reality.
Flags waved in place of faces, A somber day in history;
As they made their promises
And performed their traditions,
I asked God for one commitment: May we not forget all we have
Learned

Lost

Lamented

Illuminated.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Maggie Bowyer (they/them/theirs) is a poet, cat parent, and the author of The Whole Story (Margaret Bowyer, 2020) and When I Bleed: Poems about Endometriosis (2021). They are a blogger and essayist with a focus on Endometriosis and chronic pain. They have been featured in Bourgeon Magazine, Germ Magazine, Detour Ahead, Written Tales, and Scribe. They were the Editor-in-Chief of The Lariat Newspaper, a quarter-finalist in Brave New Voices 2016, and they were a Marilyn Miller Poet Laureate.

“S.1368”

by Bailey Godwin

The largest tribe of the East,
130 years of not being enough.

As president,
I am committed
to looking out for the needs of every American,
including those of Native American heritage.

Dragging feathers
of fallen ancestors,
as if they were ever a burden;
Or as if they were bricks,
red, for those who couldn’t fend off the devil’s pawns.

For more than a century,
the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina
has sought
for Federal recognition,
but has been met with indifference
and red tape.

They’re all sleepy kids
wanting to stay awake
because if they go to sleep
they might never know who they are.

I am announcing my full support for S.1368,
The Lumbee Recognition Act,

But good things come to those who wait,

which would make qualifying members

to those who strive,

of the Lumbee Tribe

to those who rise.

eligible

for the services and benefits provided
to members of federally recognized tribes.

It doesn’t make up for it,
it’s a detail in the bigger picture.
But balloons float high today,
flags stay raised. People stay hopeful.

They chant:
Lumbee Nation is forgotten no more!

Bailey Godwin started writing at the age of six. She tells people writing is the one thing she can’t live without. To her, it’s a healer, a challenger, and a friend. She is attending the University of Florida for journalism and has been published previously for her fiction and poetry.

“Nursery Rhyme”

by Phoebe Levitsky

What if she sneaks out at night to find places to go, and
It’s a novelty so at first she doesn’t tire of walking in the woods all alone so
She screams as loud as she can and no birds wake up disgruntled and squawking,
And she steps too lightly to echo across the water, and
The novelty fades because she realises the world wasn’t made for her

What if the world has no place for her?
She thinks it does, but she also thinks her body lies miles away, in a world of man made lights and streets
And on her days that aren’t her good days she drowns that thought out with the gummy, erratic rhythm of her heartbeat
But on her days that are her good days she leans into it, sometimes
And pushes hard against the envelopes she gets from her family and friends
And sees her lack of a person as a chance to start over again

And she wonders, what if she is the woods, and has been the whole time
And the leaves slicked to the ground become thousands of pairs of her eyes
And the green and the blue and the brown is herself
And she doesn’t get allergies, and time never melts

And what if she stands so endlessly, quiveringly still
That time congeals around her and condenses on her windowsill
And what if the weather loses its hold and she bakes mud pies in the rain
And water sloshes at her elbows so she starts over again

And what if she is wary and she learns to greet the nighttime breeze
And salt crusts on her lips, and radishes grow from her elbows and knees
So what if she walks alone, for so do the deer and the mice and the weeds
And she screams that she is real, so she is queen of all she sees.

Phoebe Levitsky is a high school junior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY, and although she mostly writes lyric fiction with a tendency towards the surreal, recently she has been really enjoying diving into poetry and playwriting as well. She spends most of her free time reading and writing, but when she’s not doing either of those she is usually arguing with her friends about some obscure Dungeons and Dragons rule or baking bread.

2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 2

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 2

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Thanatophobia”

by Amber Moss

When I visit graveyards, I gaze at the unwalled patches of the lot, scanning over the names of bodies submerged underneath calla lilies and peonies. I close my eyes and wait to feel the souls relinquished by God. Every body leaves behind a spirit. Words from my grandmother who swears she can feel the flick of her mother’s finger whenever she sprinkles too much salt in her grits. Maybe she’s right, and that warmth I feel when I lie down in a wilting garden is really my departed childhood friend holding my body against hers. Years ago, I adopted a vegetarian diet so I wouldn’t die from eating tainted slabs of meat. Death seemed too near and my only option was to push it in the direction of the ocean. I’d rather it extract the body of a trout than the Black skin that shields my bones. Every body leaves behind a spirit. Even the Black knuckles that turn the color of faded eggplant once cold. So, I dig my palms into the dirt and wait for the wind to squeeze my ears, announcing another spirit.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Amber Moss is a Black writer and editor from Atlanta. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of South Florida. She is the author of one full-length poetry collection and two chapbooks. Her latest chapbook, Some Kind Of Black, is forthcoming in 2022 (Nymeria Publishing). Her poetry has been published in Bewildering Stories, Little Rose Magazine, Liminality Magzine, Poetry Super Highway, and others.

“Queer Crucifixion”

by Mallika Khan

I do not know loss, but I have lost to God.
Several times. Never by choice. Now, I hold
my Queer under my palm. It squeezes
itself between my fingers, clawing back
across the dining table. A spidery hand
slowly making its way to my mum.

I cannot let my Queer crucify my mum.
We interlock fingers around the table. Thank God
for the meal. Pray for my family to come back
to me instead. I ache from reaching out my hand,
knowing that my aunty will not hold
it anymore. Another death. The grief squeezes

my chest through my ribcage. She squeezes
her eyes shut, quickly. Before my mum
finds out. My gaze pierces my impure hand,
knowing all the perverse love it can hold
when I am with Her. Perhaps, I could ask God
why my Queer carries a hammer and nails. My back

should be hunched over. Instead, I lean back
to find more than a chair. Shame that squeezes
me into a tight embrace. How does it hold
me closer than my family ever would? Surely God
could reconsider this sin. I know my mum
carries my cross behind her. Her hand

covered in splinters. The same weary hand
preparing peace offerings. Meals to bring back
the relatives that denied me thrice for God.
For they don’t know me at all. I watch my mum
ask for mercy with every spoonful of rice. Squeezes
leftover grace into plastic containers for them to hold

onto as they pass over. She tells me to hold
my tongue when they speak death. Her hand
clutches my Queer firmly as they leave. Mum,
I wish I wasn’t something to fight for. It squeezes
out of me, a thought. That turning her back
meant they died for her too. Forgive me, God.

Truth is, I fear I will lose my mum to God
every day. But for now, I hold her hand
while we pray. She always squeezes back.

Jareen Imam author photo

Mallika Khan is a 22 year-old queer Pakistani poet and artist based in Bristol. They study Psychology with Criminology at the University of the West of England. They believe that where sorrow lies, resilience and strength is always there too; and this is the main focus of their work. Mallika’s poetry has received recognition from Bristol Women’s Voice and Art Within The Cracks, however, this is their debut poetry publication.

More information on Mallika’s work can be found on their website at: https://mallikakhan.wixsite.com/studio

Terrible Awful Beauty

Terrible Awful Beauty

by Angela Voras-Hills

The night Trump was elected, I lay in bed awake all night, wondering if a nuke would reach the Midwest. I was sure we would all explode before the night was over. Lots of people were afraid in different ways, but my fears always culminate in the explosion of the world. Have you seen the movie Melancholia? That is always where my mind ends up.

When I was pregnant, I was afraid of falling. I was afraid the baby wasn’t kicking. I went to the doctor a lot to be sure she was still alive. But then, she was born, and the fears were bigger. There was not a squishy waterball around her body to protect her if she fell. I was afraid if a knife was in the same room as her. I was afraid of stairs. I was afraid of sleeping and of not sleeping. Don’t get me started about crossing roads.

Two Months Before My Son Leaves for Belgium, We Visit the Zoo

 

And a few months before that, the airport is bombed. I get message
message message: am I letting him go? And maybe I’m to blame,
because I never told them I’d once caught him running on the roof
of our third-floor, that he was once hit so hard by a car his shoes
flew from his feet into air (a story I heard as his friends joked
about the lady who’d hit him, who’d cried and hugged him in the road,
making sure he was ok), or when, just three days before the bombing,
a high school kid scrawled plans to shoot everyone on a bathroom stall.
And so, two months before my son boards a plane to Belgium, we feed
giraffes, and he poses with peacocks. He wants to see reptiles and primates,
his sister wants elephants, crocodiles, never stops running until she sees a baby
kangaroo—we all stop and watch him hop around his mother
who lays on the concrete floor, bored. He cleans her ears, jumps
on her head to engage her in play, and she swats him away. He is already
half her size, but clearly still a baby. He doesn’t give up until finally
she stands, and I say I think he’ll climb into her pouch! My son doesn’t
believe the joey will fit, and I tell him he will fit, and then, an illusion—
the pouch one minute tucked against the kangaroo’s belly, stretches,
touches the ground as the joey climbs in head-first, shuffles and turns
settling in. After that, there is little to see. Black paws peek from the belly.
The mother nibbles her fingers, drags her baby toward a food bowl, and I
follow her eyes down the dark corridor toward the metal door bursting
open, the light blasting in, my daughter running out into it.

Most moms I know spend a lot of time at Target. The Dollar Spot. The end-cap clearance. The Starbucks. They go for toilet paper and spend $100. I am occasionally a mom who does this, and I don’t call this out to judge, but to say, when I am afraid, I go to Target. It feels safe there. (Though I’ve seen enough shooting footage at Walmarts to know better.) It’s easy enough to drink a latte, push my kids in the cart while they play with a random toy I won’t buy, and pick out a pretty thing or two that will make my life easier.

When I spend a lot of time at Target (or, more recently, internet shopping), I write nothing. I let all of my anxieties be swept away by faux eucalyptus wreaths, bamboo potato bins, vetiver candles— the promise of an organized home, manageable children, an “Instagram-worthy” life. But when I get these things home, I am unsatisfied. Most things I buy, I return within a week.

Haunted

 

Living alone, I’d call my mom, make her listen
as I moved room-to-room
looking in closets, behind doors,
under the bed, anywhere

a man could fit. I plugged my curling iron in
each day before showering, imagined
identifying a man in a lineup
by his melted cheek,

his missing eye. By then, I’d seen enough
Law & Order reruns to play each scene
out until sentencing. Ever since
I was a kid, I’ve wanted things

to be fair, believed hand-on-my-heart
in liberty and justice for all, but I’ve also
been so afraid. Mostly of a death
I’d have to live through—

drowning, fire, kidnapping that ends with me
tied up in a hole filling with dirt.
My daughter is scared of ghosts,
believes they’re in each

corner of her dark room. I tell her
they’re not real, but once playing Ouija
at the cabin with cousins,
we contacted The Blue Ghost

and the light above us flickered blue/
burnt out, left us in dark woods alone.
So who’s to say? I’ve never walked
through a haunted house,

staged or otherwise, but my cousin
pissed her pants inside one, left
a puddle someone had to clean.
One year, the gun club

sponsored a haunted hayride, and I rode
through the forest, hay splintering
my ass through jeans, and when
a man jumped out of the dark

with a chainsaw buzzing at us, I thought,
“God, who knows if this is really
part of it? Who gets paid
to behave this way?”

This was years before a man
shot into a crowded concert
from a hotel window in Vegas
and before so many

defended his rights. I watch TV,
try to believe “these stories are fictional
and do not depict any actual
person or event.” My daughter

asks about monsters, and I say they’re not
real, but news breaks, and she knows
I’m lying. If ghosts are real,
what do they expect

from a four-year-old? By now,
you’d think we’d all have heard
the unsettled dead. You’d think
something would’ve changed.

It took me a while to recognize this cycle of consumerism and fear, and especially how it is encouraged among women, particularly mothers, and it is fed by social media. The amount of money a mom can spend on “baby gear,” and the sheer volume of stuff one can buy for a tiny human being who can only roll over, is a testament to this.

A few years ago, I watched the video The House in the Middle, which is a PSA made by the Civil Defense Department in the Fifties and sponsored by a paint company. The video suggests that if you (the housewife) keep your house clean (and well-painted), your family could survive a nuclear attack. Can you imagine? All you need to do is keep a clean house, and ta-da! Your family survived the nuke. From there, I read bomb-shelter shopping lists. I looked at fallout shelter meal plans. I looked at photo after photo of how mannequin families “survived” nuclear tests. All of these mannequins looked just like me. They looked like every mother I knew: cooking dinner, stocking the pantry, decorating the fallout shelter with new bedding, encouraged to buy things and stay busy.

The Mannequin Refreshes the Facebook Mom Group While Sitting on the Toilet

 

A pregnant woman has been reading— childbirth
sounds awful, bringing baby home is terrifying,
she wants someone to tell her it’s not. Someone
say it’s beautiful. And they do. 97 comments
gushing about the beauty, assuring her yes, it’s hard,
but you will only remember the joy of those first days,
they go so fast. The mannequin has had enough
babies to mostly remember the awful, the weight
of body after body escaping her own, she can barely
read the comments without feeling cheated
out of forgetting, so she scrolls past them, another
mom wants recommendations for a nutritionist,
her husband won’t let their toddler eat sugar, natural
or otherwise, and her toddler is losing so much weight
so fast now that he’s weaning, and that’s as far
as the mannequin gets before the door bursts open,
and a photo appears in her Facebook feed, and it’s
her baby a year ago, and here’s her baby today, and
she sees he was beautiful—the baby on the duvet,
stretching in his new skin, now wobbling in
on chubby legs, such terrible, awful beauty.

Jareen Imam author photo

Poet, community organizer, and instructor Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin. She earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of the poetry collection Louder Birds (2020), selected by Traci Brimhall for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.

Voras-Hills has received grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar as well as a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. She cofounded The Watershed: A Place for Writers, a literary arts organization, which evolved into Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 1

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 1

We were so happy to receive a significant number of submissions to BMP Voices National Poetry Month 2021 — in only the first week. Editor C. Kubasta’s theme seems to have resonated with poets, and in this first week, we discovered a theme within the theme.

This set of nine poems, this week’s Editors’ Picks, speak out to specific but very different audiences and seem to reach out to connect in order to share what these audiences may need to hear after a year of global pandemic. A thirteen-year-old poet gives us insight into the experiences of young people during this time, protest poetry indicts a complicit United States, a Mainer wife squares her chin and maintains her space, two poets imagine hauntings and ghosts in very different ways. Masks and quarantine bookend change and grief.

Thank you to these poets for sharing our collective experiences and the powerful experiences unique to different communities.

Ruth & Mary Ann
Brain Mill Press Publishers

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Roosters”

by Alanna Shaikh

I’m used to roosters
I’ve always lived in cities; when I hear an outdoor sound, I know it’s roosters
Roosters or stray dogs
Drifting off in bed I hear them
ooo-uh-oo-oo, faintly or loudly but always clear
in the dark of night tending my bladder
in the morning as I cling to my blankets
as I eat lunch by the window

This new city though.
First, it has no roosters.
I never hear them, not ever.
Next, it has other birds; it teems with them.
exuberant choirs of birds
festivals of birds and
determined rusty squeak of palm squirrels

Now, I fall asleep to cooing, trilling, that squirrel squeak
I wake and sleep and urinate to choruses
I know a chirp from a tweet from a squawk
The small hours are all hoots and chirrups

It’s a new thing, this abundance
My ears need time.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Alanna Shaikh is a first-generation Pakistani immigrant. Her poetry is influenced by the landscape of Northern New York state where she grew up, daily life and the literature in the seven countries she’s lived in, and her work in global health and pandemic response. Her poetry has been chosen for publication by Eclectica Magazine and the Norfolk Coast Guardian.

“The Ghost at Home”

by Jareen Imam

I found her standing in the corner,
or maybe I should say, she found me.
She was watching me as I worked late into the evening.
My face illuminated by the pale blue light
shining from my overheated laptop.

I think she mistook me for one of them, initially.

You’re up later than usual, she finally said.
This is normally my time to haunt.

Just give me another hour, I responded.
I’m working on a PowerPoint my boss wants.

She sighed as she threw the white bedsheet off her ghastly frame,
huffing and puffing before she vanished into thin air.
The next night, she found me again,
but this time she was sitting on my bed.

Are you working late again? she complained.
When is this going to end?
I’ve got a schedule to keep up with, she moaned,
as she showed me her planner

Haunt 30-something-year-old woman
between the hours of midnight to 2 A.M.
Make sure to instill feelings of inadequacy, the planner read.
A footnote was scribbled at the bottom, reading:
Extra 10 percent commission if woman dreams about
never getting married.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read her notes.
You don’t have to worry about doing these things, I said.
I already feel so alone.

Jareen Imam author photo

Jareen Imam is an award-winning American journalist who has worked for media companies such as NBC News, CBS News, and CNN. During 2020, she led a global team of journalists who investigated and reported on stories about the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, BLM protests, voting issues, the U.S. presidential election, and more. In 2020, while reporting for NBC, she endured the death of her grandmother, the separation from her family—many of whom worked as frontline healthcare workers and took care of those infected with Covid-19—and a painful breakup from her long-term partner. It was also the year she started to write poetry again after a 20-year hiatus.

“Grief Is the Ghost”

by Anne Marie Wells

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

Anne Marie Wells (She | Her) of Jackson, Wyoming is a queer poet, playwright, and storyteller navigating the world with a chronic illness.
AnneMarieWellsWriter.com

FB|IG @AnneMarieWellsWriter
TW @AMWWriter

“Parable of the Drought”

by Merridawn Duckler

I was rattling the inside of an old saltine tin when you came home. We’re out of tears, I said. Again, I said. You put the bags down in a huff. They were supposed to last until the party, you said, where do they go? We both know the answer to that. You spent them. Pretending it’s for others, to be donated or sent overseas. But it’s crap. Everyone knows you cried up all those tears for yourself. My eyes have been dried for fifteen years. My mouth is like a ghost lake. Sadness scurries in rat feet at the bottom of my well. A soul could drop a rock in there and hear no echo. Whereas you are a fountain, bountiful crocodile. The world is your blue handkerchief, wrung once and snapped out fresh. I am sad, I said, I’m broken. I walked to the other room and saw you absorbed in the images, taking a screen shot and superimposing it on your face. What do you want now, you said. I tried to explain to you about my hollow. My dust. You turned your face to me. Goddamn, you are beautiful. I’m so sorry, you said. And your eyes filled up with tears

Jareen Imam author photo

Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Oregon, author of INTERSTATE (dancing girl press) and IDIOM (Washburn Prize, Harbor Review.) New work in Seneca Review, Women’s Review of Books, Interim, Posit. Fellowships/awards include Yaddo, Southampton Poetry Conference, Poets on the Coast. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.

Twitter@MerridawnD
Instagram@merridawnduckler

“[2020] The Divided States of Attica”

by henry 7. reneau, jr.

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience, is a discharged bullet that commits a felony every day, is the spontaneous combustion that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, his collection, The Book Of Blue(s) : Tryin’ To Make A Dollar Outta’ Fifteen Cents, was a finalist for the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

“Lucency”

by A Whittenberg

Amongst a breathless, debilitating, incapacitating panic
attack, I told myself not to panic and… without warning, I was
suddenly all right.

Jareen Imam author photo

A Whittenberg is a Florida native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum.

“We Stand”

by Keira Schaefer

2020 broke the limits
Tearing our boundaries apart
Like Buffalo trampling the plains
Through nothing but darkness
Our world was the midnight sky
2020 overwhelmed our healthcare workers
Many lost beloved friends and family
Others lost their job, and the ability to pay rent
We thought we lost the world
But we had each other
Now, in 2021, we stand together
We raise higher than the ocean’s tides
Although we are still apart
The light, the sun, the new day is coming
Through hardship we are more united than ever
We stand, we raise, we unite

Keira Schaefer is a thirteen-year-old girl who has a passion for poetry. She loves to express her feelings and emotions through her literature. Other than writing poems, she enjoys gymnastics, playing harp, ice skating, and photography.

“Sea Change”

by Nancy Cook

The sun is midsky when he cuts the diesel.
Now he can hear the tonguelap of water ripples
against cedar plank, feel a shadow of sweat
forming on his brow. A line of pelicans whips
across the horizon and he sees, without looking,
tricolored bullet buoys in neat order, bobbing
at water’s surface in a subtle play for attention.
He senses the sadness all around. In times past,
on days such as this, the water would talk to him.
Now it has nothing to say. The fishing is good,
the weather is fine, but all the world is as quiet
as winter. He unpacks the sandwich the wife
has wrapped in waxed paper: ham and cheddar
and mustard on rye. She’s thrown in some chips,
a folded napkin, and a sliced apple sprinkled
with sugar like she used to do for the kids.
A cold beer would taste so good right now.
He reaches deep into the cooler for a Dr Pepper.

He ends the day early with a light haul. On town
streets bereft of tourists, still he savors whiffs of
rendered butter, partakes with phantom taste buds
the sweet succulence of boiled lobsters. It is one
pleasure that doesn’t age. Before joining the wife
at the church, he showers and shaves. This evening
is the annual strawberry festival, which every year
she organizes. She is a pillar as they say, always
in public her chin lifted, daring and determined,
one ear cocked as if to say I’m listening. And though
tonight, socializing will be minimized, face masks
mandatory, she’ll oversee the sale of two hundred
fruit pies, baked in honor of the state bicentennial.
Keeping busy is a way of life. They all respect that.

Two dozen tables are set up in the churchyard
under hulking shade trees. Broad leaves like titans’
hands block the ebbing sun. The dusk feels heavy
with sadness. As if reading his mind, the wife says,
Even with the church locked up, light’s passing through
the stained glass. There’s secrets older than memory.
Sins to be forgiven. He doesn’t know that some mornings
she takes the deer path down to water’s edge. There
she stands on the old dock, hands deep in the pockets
of her oversized Mac, and watches for the fog to lift.

Jareen Imam author photo

Nancy Cook is a writer, teaching artist, and completely recovered lawyer. She serves as flash fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press and also runs “The Witness Project,” a program of free community writing workshops in Minneapolis designed to enable creative work by underrepresented voices. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been awarded grants from, among others, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Parks Arts Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, and Integrity Arts and Culture. Her first chapbook, Written in Nature, is forthcoming in 2021.

“Safekeeping”

by Tracy Mishkin

We go to some essential job, our faces swaddled
in fear. Masks leave us lightheaded, but sometimes
we wear two because there are worse things.
In the produce section, we struggle to open plastic bags.
We must have licked our fingers back before all this.
And touched our faces.

Walking the dogs feels good. We shout hello
to every stranger, for nothing is stranger
than this year. We used to pick up trash, but now
it’s masks and tissues scattered in the grass.
That neighbor we haven’t seen in months says
the pandemic is a hoax. Six feet isn’t far enough.

A vet we’ll never meet says the big dog has cancer,
and every three weeks she hops behind the wheel
as though it’s normal for dogs to drive. “Shotgun,”
we say, and she moves over. We do a piss-poor job
of watching the road. When we brake hard,
we throw out an arm to stop her from hitting the dash,
the way our fathers tried to protect us, remembering
a world before seat belts.

Jareen Imam author photo

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University. She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She lives in Indianapolis with her family and fewer than ten cats and dogs. You can read more of her work at tracymishkin.com

Top photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Indiana Writers Center, Poem a Day Challenge, April 2020

Rachel Sahaidachny, Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, has shared a writing prompt each day this month. The participants post their poems in a closed Facebook group, and the responses focus on encouragement, not criticism, constructive or otherwise. I’ve appreciated the challenge to write regularly and the opportunity to think (and sometimes vent) about current events. Here are some of the prompts that worked for me and the poems that I wrote. The prompts—and my commentary—are in italics.

#4 Is there an object in your house that used to belong to someone else? Write a two-part poem. Part 1 about the object’s “before you” time. Part 2 about the object’s “now.” Try to incorporate one rhyme in each part.

When I met your mother, she was perched on your off-white couch while you sat on the matching love seat. Close to 90, she had just returned from Florida and the second husband she’d outlived to care for you during chemotherapy. When you felt like crap, you napped on that couch under heavy blankets, clutching the one on top knitted by your mom. When you felt well enough, you leaned against the big cushions, choosing poems from a lifetime of writing. I sat on the loveseat and helped you make a book. Only once I said your granddaughter will remember you with these words.

This doesn’t end with a funeral. We finished the book, you started a clinical trial for immunotherapy, and now you smile when you see the commercials for the drug that cured you on TV. I smile too, because I’m grateful, really, but sad that mild dementia is taking you away piece by piece only a few years later. You gave me the couch and love seat when you could no longer live alone. Now you’re locked down in assisted living— not like when Grandma was on a locked ward so she wouldn’t go outside and wait for the bus to New York City— but because of this damn pandemic. The staff bring trays to your door at mealtimes, and that’s it, no other human contact. Crossword puzzles have lost all appeal. I sit on the off-white couch and talk to you until the battery in your hearing aid begins to die.

#5 It’s Sunday, which means we will explore a particular form. Prompt for today is to write a Nocturne—a poem that is set in the night (usually midnight).

#6 Write a poem using anaphora. Anaphora is a technique that uses a repeated phrase to begin lines throughout the poem. It doesn’t have to begin every line.

I was annoyed with myself for not writing for three days, or so I thought…

Nocturne: Procrastination

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” -Arundhati Roy

Monday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Can’t write a poem about the night in daytime, am I right? I thought the dark and cool air would birth the words. Sometimes trapped, sometimes rushing out. But I tripped over myself, never made it to the stoop. Even now, I should be doing something else.

Tuesday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Excuses. Too easy to fall into my latest thrill. My great escape. Work is hard. People are dying. A man I knew died alone. Excuses.

Wednesday Same. How do I let this happen? Shame. Everything I put off. Fine. I’ll write the night poem right now. Nocturne: liminal. Imagine myself on the threshold of my house. Between dark and light. Inside and out. Neighbor and stranger. Wave to them all.

After writing the Wednesday stanza, I realized that it was only Tuesday, so I didn’t feel so bad about getting behind.

#7 Write a poem using language from a text message or email which you recently received or sent.

How are you doing? Feels like I’m surfing a wave of uncertainty

The key to surfing: convincing yourself you are not going to fall into a wave, get lost.

Don’t think about tumbling, choking on water, the board smacking your head.

Focus on the blue curve below you. It could go on forever.

#8 Pick a favorite song, or one you like, listen to it, and write.

I chose the cover of “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, specifically the haunting music video.

Times so hard, gotta start with happy endings, when ship has almost reached shore. Surely they’ll save the stranded people—lonely, isolated—at least ten thousand. How are they so alone when they’re together? How do they write music—parchment, fountain pen—yet never play or sing? When sailors first saw them—kneeling, hunched—they stared. Why hands and knees, captive, surrendered?

Sailors, too, came from silent lands, journeyed to the ship, alone, on foot, through flat lands, forests. Each carried an instrument, salvaged from earth or fire. Harp, guitar, piano, drum. The keys twisted, burning. They pulled them from the flames. Let the dirt run from the guitar. The sound was still true.

#9 Chose a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) and write a 10+ line poem with words that have only that vowel in them. For your poetic terminology, a poem which excludes one or more letters is called a “lipogram.” A poem which excludes all vowels but one is called “univocalic” (from the Latin for one-voweled).

I challenged myself to write a poem using words with only the vowel U. And this happened.

Mr. Trump

Ugh, just shut up. Guru? Untruth. Humbug, numbskull. Truth. Fuck up. Sputum glut. Bunkum hub. Lustful skunk.

#11 Use the last line of one of your poems as the first line of a new poem.

I chose the last line of poem #8.

Rescue Guitar

The sound was still true despite the batter and dent. She didn’t fret. Her fingers coaxed notes around the sprung string. Like a poet writing without some common letter, improvising around absence made her better.

#14 Select 10-12 words from a poem (or from a couple poems) you admire and use them to create a new poem. Try to have a variety of word types (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.) in your selection.

I didn’t get inspired for #14 until I saw the prompt for #15. I chose “Notes to Myself During National Poetry Month, 2020” by Dante Di Stefano, which was published in Rattle as part of the Poets Respond feature on April 14, 2020.

I wrote down ten words from this poem and numbered them. Whenever I needed a push, I asked my husband to choose a number between 1 and 10.

#15 This is a prompt from Poets & Writers Magazine:

“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?”

The familiar riot in my mind. Sometimes I wish I saw the world without these painful shades of gray. Eleven years of red leaves falling, cherry blossoms tarting up the street, and still I’m juggling working for the man with working on the inside of his damn jungle. Sweating so long under this corporate canopy, I forget the sky is not beneath me. Sky, Tracy, it means above and blue, remember? Symptom of a mental pandemic: if the strings of my guitar snapped daily, I would check the obvious. A rough fret, a burred edge, even a pick too heavy for the strings. I might get hooked on playing four instead of five, but I’d know that anytime I could replace the damn thing and let my instrument sing as it was meant to. But no, me and my front row seat for the crisis of corporate America. Big surprise: slashing staffing means more rushing, more mistakes, more work, less time to think my God what have we done. Some sleep. More coffee. Letting legal addictions sprout like green weeds. Nothing to be done but tell myself Friday’s payday. Perhaps I’ll think of something money can buy to spend that precious paycheck on.

#16 Write a poem about the story of your name. Things to consider: What do you know about the source of your name? What name/nickname have you taken on and why?

Again, two prompts combined in my head and I got a poem.

#17 The cocoon is a place of transformation. What happens there is a mystery. If this time is your cocoon moment, what transformations are occurring? What might emerge? Alternatively, work with the Phoenix mythos: the burning down; out of the ash a new creature is born… rises. Maybe your poem has space for both.

Dead Name

Phoenix, must you leave your nest in ashes to be reborn? I prefer the torn cocoon, you with monarch wings. This isn’t about what I prefer, is it? Your past must be burned. You fill your nest with baby pictures, toss in every reminder you can find, even that old photo of you in a lady’s hat, which I would think would make your new self smile. This isn’t about what I think. But when the ashes cool, I will search them for a keepsake.

#18 What do you know about water?

I liked that this prompt wasn’t just “write a poem about water.” It made me think about water—and knowledge—in a different way.

What do you know about water? It runs, but it is not afraid. Rushes without hurry.

What do you fear about fire? The heat will be wasted, flames leaping.

What do you expect from earth? Rock will smash scissors, scissors will slice paper, paper will wrap rock.

What do you assume about air? It will always be there.

#20 a prompt from Jessica Reed

Reverse-engineer a poem: take a published poem that you love and remove all the nouns and verbs—all the content. You should be left with a skeleton of a poem, just a syntactic structure (you might have to remove a few adjectives or adverbs as well—whatever it takes to get to the skeleton). Now, start filling in the blanks with fresh content. The supplied syntax will guide your poem in unexpected directions. If that isn’t happening—if you’re making too much “sense,” try listing words on a separate sheet of paper and plugging them in “Mad Libs” style. You can also mine for fresh vocabulary in a book that you wouldn’t normally read, perhaps from another discipline.

The poem I chose is “Separation,” by W.S. Merwin.

Our honesty betrays us like a stream underground: cracked pavement, flooded grass.

#21 Choose a spice, herb, or flavor. Do a bit of research—does it have medicinal qualities? A history? Where does it come from? If you have some on hand, spend a bit of time smelling or tasting it, and allowing images, memories, thoughts to come up and write them down. If not, imagine the smell or taste—what does it make you think of? Can you cobble a poem out of these notes? Does one of the notes trigger a poem?

Cream of What Now?

It’s not the oldest item on my spice rack— that would be the allspice from 1997. But Cream of Tartar is the weirdest. It is no fishy sauce but an acidic powder that makes mile-high meringues and boosts the chewy tang of snickerdoodles. Mixed with vinegar, it cleans stainless steel like nobody’s business. Homemade Play-Doh would be lost without it. Video: the many benefits of cream of tartar. Watch as it stabilizes whipped cream and polishes copper. (Add lemon juice in a 1:1 mixture. Rub on, rinse off.) Herbs and spices come from plants, but cream of tartar comes from the crystalline crud that builds up inside casks as wine ferments. It’s not creamy like dairy, but think of creaming as whipping egg whites to a high foam. Are you dismayed when boiled veggies lose their color? Just a pinch of this miracle shit will help your beets stay bright. Science! Science for the win!

#22 Since it’s Earth Day, I thought we could explore ecopoetics. Ecopoetry is poetry with a strong ecological emphasis or message. Some suggested questions to ponder: How do you try to reduce your impact on the environment? Do you ever feel guilty about what, or how much, you throw away? What could you live without? Ecopoetry often uses environmental elements in the poem, pastoral or nature details. It is poetry produced as a result of an environment and humans in the environment.

#23 Docupoetry is poetry created out of primary source materials such as news articles, interviews, medical records, diaries, court transcripts, and other public records. Either utilize direct lines from a source (or more) and rearrange them, interpret meaning through your own words, or use a mix of both approaches.

There’s poetry online. I mean poetic language in unexpected places. For my spice poem, I googled “list of spices” so that I could have a bunch to choose from. I read a few articles about cream of tartar, and all of them had some terrific turns of phrase. I ended up copying several things right into the poem. And today we’re writing docupoetry! I wasn’t feeling the eco-poem yesterday, but today’s prompt reminded me of Holly Haworth’s March 2020 essay “Undefined Waters,” which has some moving thoughts on language and our environment—as a result of Trump’s recent gutting of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It’s easy—too easy—to be seduced by language, to stop thinking critically and just love the sound of words.

Rill and runnel. I used to think of creeks and brooks when I saw those words. But a rill is something more specific: an ephemeral stream, a trickle of water that springs up after heavy rain.

Once rills were all over the poetry map, sonorous, easy to rhyme. Mismanaged agriculture causes most rills today. Sliding hillsides, preventable erosion. A gully is an overgrown rill.

Holly Haworth wrote about the ephemeral streams and semi-permanent puddles that grace her land in Georgia during winter rains. Rills and runnels as they were meant to be, yet may not be for long.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects waters, but Trump & Friends have tightened that definition, excluding headwater streams and wetlands. Our waters will burn again, said an attorney, referring to the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

#24 choose a cliché and write a poem which makes it fresh

I couldn’t resist starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which challenges the love clichés of his time.

Poem in which My Husband Looks a Bit Lame in Comparison to Today’s Weather

Shall I compare you to a warm spring day during a pandemic? You’re cute, but wind and sun and sky are vital to my mental health. Redbuds are my favorite flowering trees— The contrast of pinkish-purple flowers against dark bark, especially after rainfall, rocks my world. I smile when you waggle your eyebrows at me, but a warm and windy day inspires me to write after something of a drought. To be fair, I’ve written many poems because of you, but mostly to express frustration. Nature’s working hard. Even the phlox is exerting itself, though it appears to be lazing around like ground cover. You worked six hours today, but I don’t think you’ll clean the litterbox. You could surprise me, though, like an unpromising forecast that turns into a lovely day, or a curve flattened by a Republican governor who’s quick close the state—so much better for being unexpected.

About Tracy Mishkin

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She been nominated twice for a Pushcart — both times by Parody — and published in Raleigh Review and Rat’s Ass Review.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.