Insights from the Don Share masterclass at the Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat

In honour of this being the last day of Don Share’s editorship of Poetry Magazine, I thought I’d repost these valuable insights he gave at a workshop at the Molly Keane Writer’s Retreat in Ireland.

Poem as Totem

Don Share 2

I was lucky enough to be one of fourteen poets to get a place on the three-day Masterclass with Don Share at the magical Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat in Ardmore. I have dozens of pages of notes, but this is a glimpse into some of the insights he offered. Yes, we know many of these things already, but it’s good to be reminded. And this is Don Share – if we pay attention, we might just get into Poetry Magazine one day.

The first thing Don looks at is the shape of the poem on a page. If it has sections, do the sections help? He likes names rather than pronouns. Names are striking things, he says. They can do a lot in a poem. Look at the etymology of words. What does Inchigeela mean? A place name becomes imbued with the qualities of its history. Be curious. Don’t just…

View original post 1,515 more words

This Is What I Know by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

*For LGBT Africans

I know that Black people were sold as slaves because they were seen as
talking beasts of burden and Africans colonized for their own good;
and it was unnatural for women to operate heavy machinery let alone
operate on a brain.

I know that in the United States, Jim Crow used the rope to keep
black from white, and apartheid in South Africa killed for as little
as looking across the color line; and that intermarrying between the
races was a crime against God, Queen, and Country.

I know that a God of many names, the laws of many lands, science
and nature were used to justify slavery and colonialism, holocausts
and genocides, rapes and lynching.

I know that African dictators called those who fought for democracy
“puppets under the pay of foreign masters” and the foreign masters
called those same people communists and insurgents.

And this I know very well: that had the Sojourner Truths, Dedan
Kimathis, Martin Luther Kings, Malcom Xs, and Ruth Firsts failed,
my wife and I would not have crossed the color line and my daughter
would not have been possible.

I know that she, just like her mother and me, just like her
grandparents, will have her struggles, but it will BE a struggle waged
at the crossroad of many cultures and worlds.

So I must know that those before me did not die so that I could use
my freedom to put others in jail; or use the same laws that betrayed
them to enslave and torture.

I must know that if Steve Biko died so I could write what I like, then
my pen cannot become the weapon that justifies the torture and
murder of others.

How then can I not know that no one appointed me protector of
African cultural purity? How can I not know that I am not the
standard of all that is moral and natural?

What fortress is this I build that subjugates those within and keeps
those outside under siege? Whose moral law is this I use to judge?

Whose legal system to jail? Whose weapon to murder? And whose
tongue do I use to silence?

How can I, Black and African and blessed as I am by the struggles of
my fathers and mothers deny my gay brothers and sisters their rights?

To The Woman Crying in the Airport Lounge by Kim Dhillon

Browsing on a different topic entirely threw up this poem. Hope it stops you the way it stopped me.

 after Kim Addonizio

It will get easier that baby kicking you on the inside will come out through your own strength on the backs of grandmothers and shoulders of giants into hands of midwives and it will fight sleep wean off your breast or off a bottle (it doesn’t matter) and give you sleepless nights to the point you forget days and weeks in blackness of memory and it will fight with that brother who is currently running between gates to Portland and gates to Los Angeles past the line to the coffee barista because he is too tired to sleep too hungry to eat going dizzy from the fluorescent lights and he is screaming and wailing and you sit on the floor of the airport lounge and hold your head in your hands and cry like him who is lying there and refusing to get up and banging his fists into the floor.

The gate steward calls Miss, final call, and you say you have no more calls within you because you are too tired to speak so a circle of women waiting for their respective planes who do not know each other or know you will form a circle around you.

One will offer an orange from her purse one will hum a nursery rhyme one will offer you a bottle of unopened water that she had saved for her own flight one will find a toy and another will just kneel quietly and in that circle the toddler will calm and you will board your flight. So will they too disband like the end of a farewell concert of a reunion tour. But there will be no encore your child will take flight as will you as will the one in your belly and you’ll go home saying, ‘listen I love you, joy is coming.’

Kim Dhillon

Stroke by Matthew Dickman

This poem really struck me, because I have a close friend who’s just had a stroke, in his fifties. I believe Matthew Dickman was only in his early forties when this happened to him. I wanted to know what it felt like and Matthew is forensic about how his body and brain felt, so now I have a sense of what my friend is experiencing. This poem first appeared in Rattle.

The hotel sign blinking
in the brain

of my body
stops blinking but not

the whole sign,
you know, just a couple

of the letters,
the H and T.

Then the E and L
so all that is left

when the whole left
side of my body

comes to an end
is the O.

I am sitting across
from a beautiful

woman, drinking coffee,
and she is asking

me what I did.
What were you doing

when you were
in your twenties,

she asks.
And I am

saying something like
I was doing

a lot of drugs
but the words

come out all slurred,
they come out

like pushing your tongue
through a clay door,

the word drug
becoming droog.

And then free-will
floats up and out,

really it flies, it leaps
off the ledge of me,

and I remember
while falling

from my chair
to the ground, trying

to apologize.
The half of my brain

that was still
alive, as alive as

a deer
standing in a meadow

in the morning
licking dew off

the blades of grass,
telling what was left

of me that I was just

You’re just tired
the left side

of my brain said,
you’re just tired,

this is normal.
The normal not normal

blood clot
in the right side

of my brain
wiping everything

away like a teacher
wiping chalk away

with an eraser,
the blackboard

full of signs and cosines
and then just long

strokes of white,
a white field in winter,

a white sky
before rain. A white

sheet of paper.
Through the tunnel

of my body
I could hear someone

ask me
are you ok?

My whole life someone
asking me,

and so often it was me,
are you ok,

are you feeling well?
I’m just tired,

I thought.And then this
thought: I’m not.

A hand on the hand
I could still feel.

They are coming,
the voice said,

it’s ok,
you will be ok.

The sound then
of the ambulance

from far off.
The sirens getting

closer, lights
and sirens approaching

my body
from a street far off.

That’s something
I never thought of

That sirens are always

a body, that’s the whole

reason for them,
to let everyone know

there is a body.
I thought of my son

at home,
seventeen months old,

pointing to the window
in the living room,

siren, siren,

siren,and up, up, up.
I was lifted up

onto the gurney,
my shirt cut off

in the ambulance,
and arriving

at the hospital,
the triage nurse

are you Matthew Dickman.

Yes. Up, up, up,I thought.

is not a design,
not an idea.

Death is the body,
I know

this now, it’s your arms
and legs,

your whole cardio
vascular system.

It is the whole of us,
only we walk around

enough to think
it isn’t.

The blood clot is doing
its job,

it’s doing exactly what
it was made to do

and the only thing you
need to do

when you are dying
is to die.

Nothing else.
You don’t need to

fold the laundry
or clean

the kitchen floor,
you don’t have to

pick your children up
from school.

the rest of your life,

there is only this one

You don’t even
have to be good at it,

you just have to
do it. A list of chores

with just one
chore. In the operating

room I’m awake,made
to stay awake,

while the surgeon
threads a “line”

through the artery
in my groin

and up through all
the rooms, through

the room of my legs,
and the room

of my chest,
through the room

of my neck
and into the room

of my brain.
When I put my son

to bed I give him
a bottle of milk,

and rock him and sing,
it’s time to rest your body,

it’s time to rest
your mind,it’s time,

oh it’s time
to rest your brains.

The surgeon is able
to grab the clot

and slip it through
and out

of all the rooms,
into the one

he’s working in.
I can hear everyone

in the operating
room clapping

because they
are happy,

because it took
that one try

to get it all,
to remove

the clot, and then
the left side of me

begins to move again,
and there it is,

I have to pee,
my body is done

with this death.
And now there is nothing

to do but wait
for the next death.

I have never been more
inside than that

moment. I have never
wanted anything

as much as I wanted
to stand up

in that room
and walk out through

the automatic
doors to you,

to walk right into
your arms

like walking
into the sea.

Matthew Dickman: ‘When I suffered a stroke in April 2018, I wasn’t sure that I would write poems again. Of course I could physically write a poem. I was lucky that I was in a public place when the stroke occurred and got help right away. It’s just that mentally I felt lost and alone and angry. But with any of the trauma I have experienced in my life it was always poetry that called me back to myself, back to the world—even if that world had changed dramatically. This poem was a calling back.’

Easter by Roisín Kelly

As it’s Easter, and Roisín is one of Cork’s own (well, we claim her!) here’s her lovely poem, which first appeared in The Guardian. Just had to share it on my blog:

You walk by holding a bunch of flowers
never knowing that you’ve just performed a miracle.
Are those flowers for your girl?
I imagine her dressed up like an Easter egg
in yellow and pink. I’d tap at you like an egg,
cracking your thin chocolate shell.
If I were made of chocolate too, I’d break
off parts of myself to give to you and your girl.
Once, I gave my words for garden
and water and moonlit and love
to a man who kissed me. After he rolled
a stone over my heart and shut me off
from the world, I had no words left
to describe the dark dream that followed.
Now you’ve walked by, godlike in jeans
and an old t-shirt, the sun glinting on one
silver earring. Now a rose is once again
not only rose but also soft and red
and thorn and bee and honey.
Now a bird is singing song and tree
and nest in a high place and blue speckled egg.
You yourself are glowing with words, they move
up and down you as if they’re alive.
The words bring themselves to me
and tell my tongue sweetness over and over.
The words are everything. With them,
I’ll turn water to wine at your wedding.

And here’s Carol Rumens’ analysis of the poem. Hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it:

From Mercy, the first full-length collection by the young Belfast-born poet, Róisín Kelly, Easter seems to have a special glow to it. And no, the glow isn’t only that of romantic love. The latter is a strong contributory factor, of course: its pains are rekindled for the speaker when her ex-boyfriend walks by “holding a bunch of flowers”. The question “Are those flowers for your girl?” contextualises it a little, while retaining the tonal mystery. Is the voice angry, sarcastic, sorrowful? We might guess it’s all three.

I like the mixed emotions playing throughout the earlier passages of the poem, and how they are finally resolved. Easter eggs initially supply the poetic calories. All three players in the love triangle are turned into chocolate, the man’s current girlfriend being a particularly sickly and triumphant example “dressed up … / in yellow and pink”. The man is seen as the more vulnerable.

Writing a kind of verse letter to the man in question, the speaker imagines tapping him and “cracking your thin chocolate shell”. Birth may be suggested, but death occurs first. She imagines her own comic-extreme self-sacrifice, breaking off parts of her chocolate self to give the man and his girl.

Later on, imagery from the Passion of Christ recalls the numbness and sense of being buried alive “after he rolled / a stone over my heart / and shut me off from the world”. Probably the same boyfriend was the culprit, though not necessarily. Kelly’s change of pronoun leaves it ambiguous. The “sepulchre” analogy is pitched high, yet it’s also faithful to the experience of severe depression, a suffocating stone that’s all too real.

Now the speaker returns the ex-lover to mortal form, a little self-mockingly at first – “godlike in jeans / and an old t-shirt, the sun glinting on one / silver earring”. The mood has changed, perhaps with the recovery of simultaneously erotic and sublimated feelings.

Words withheld and words given become the dominant theme. In line nine, the first of the special, italicised words and phrases, garden, helps the transition to biblical analogy. There is an implied betrayal. But the words are magically potent. They ignite the rose, although they include thorn. They produce birds who lay “blue speckled egg(s)” in nests high in trees. Kelly’s italics slow the reader, so we savour these archetypal symbols, these ordinary happy words, and, importantly, imagine them as the especially meaningful gifts originally offered in the poet’s native Irish language.

Six lines from the end, the poet turns on her full power with that marvellous image of the man clothed in, covered in, words that “move / up and down you, as if they’re alive”. Most significantly, “the words bring themselves to me / and tell my tongue sweetness over and over”. They enable the speaker to find her own words and “The words are everything…” Once more, I was reminded of a passage from the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the word was God.”

Out of the rediscovery of inspiration and language comes the generosity of forgiveness – and, of course, the miracle. A miracle was first attributed to the man in the poem’s second line: now, an old-new miracle is performed by the speaker. What could be more generous than turning water to wine at a rival’s wedding feast? And of course the wine is also the poet’s gift-to-self – part of her own word feast, now freely flowing.

Easter appears in the forthcoming collection, Mercy, to be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2020.

The Mayo Tao by Derek Mahon

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.jpg

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
and a prescriptive literature of the spirit;
a storm snores on the desolate sea.
The nearest shop is four miles away— 
when I walk there through the shambles
of the morning for tea and firelighters
the mountain paces me in a snow-lit silence.
My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
at night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud— 
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like sunlight cleaving the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water
runs cold at last from the tap.

I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.

The Mayo Tao” by Derek Mahon. Text as published in Selected Poems (Penquin Press, 2000), edited by Philippe Jaccotett.

 “Mayo” refers to the County Mayo, in western Ireland.

Art credit: “Keem at Night,” photograph of Keem Strand in County Mayo, taken on February 16, 2010, by Larissa O’Duffy. 

I want to learn this song by Megan Merchant

I was reading the journal, One, today and stopped at this poem. It gave me such a thrill,

I had to snatch it for my blog. Hope you like it. And go read the journal. It’s always great:

I want to learn this song—

a man tells me he sang it once, in an elevator shaft—
some people just know where the best
acoustics dwell.

I get weepy when I think of it—all graffiti and damp,
a cringe of piss in the air, the song
like a dried dandelion

blown three stories and the bass notes—maintenance,
a few buildings down, with their jackhammers,
knocking out a hunk

of greenspace where the most human parts of us are
allowed to break—cigarettes pinched
between lips—a conspiracy

to keep us from singing. My god, I want to unpack
and spend at least three weeks between
the strings, have someone

slide their fingers across my skin, and while I’m not
usually fond of being muted, I might
forgive that pressure

holding me steady. I tell him that I’m going to return
as a musician in my next life. If I can
grasp a few chords now,

embody the vibrations. If I can learn to move
between frets with a broken string.
I’ll bruise trying.

I’ll press the emergency button between floors.
I’m a raw nerve and that song is a horsehair
brush, splendid.

Megan Merchant is an editor at The Comstock Review and Pirene’s Fountain. Her latest book, Before the Fevered Snow, will come into the world with Stillhouse Press in April 2020

My father moved through dooms of love by e.e. cummings

My father moved through dooms of love by e.e. cummings

My  father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if(so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch

drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:

vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand
so strictly(over utmost him
so hugely)stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;

no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

Septembering arms of year extend
Yes humbly wealth to foe and friend
Than he to foolish and to wise
Offered immeasurable is

Proudly and (by octobering flame
Beckoned) as earth will downward climb

So naked for immortal work
His shoulders marched against the dark

His sorrow was as true as bread:
No liar looked him in the head;
If every friend became his foe
He’d laugh and build a world with snow

My father moved through theys of we
Singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
Danced when she heard my father sing)

Then let men kill which cannot share
Let blood and flesh be mud and mire
Scheming imagine, passion willed
Freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

Giving to steal and cruel kind
A heart to fear, to doubt a mind
To differ a disease of same
Conform the pinnacle of am

Though dull were all we taste as bright
Bitter all utterly things sweet
Maggoty minus and dumb death
All we inherit, all bequeath

And nothing quite so least as truth
–i say though hate were why men breathe–
Because my Father lived his soul
Love is the whole and more than all.

Got this from Genius. To learn more about the poem, check out their site:

Thanksgiving by Rachel Long


As if by accident, I find my head
washed up window-side of his bed.
After all that fucking, look!
the sky’s still pinned up.
His nose is longer with his eyes shut.
This whole time, I’ve been holding,
squeezing, wringing, folding,
bending, nodding, thank you,
God, for giving me someone who makes me hold
my breath. I will be so light
upon his life he won’t realise
he’s kept me.
I’ll leave not a mark
on his pillow, papers,
knife, DVDs or wineglass.
What blessing
Only when he is sleeping
can I breathe out. So deep
my ribs come up like a ship.

(First published in Mal.)

Rachel’s work has featured in The London Magazine, Magma, & Filigree: An Anthology of Contemporary Black British Poetry. Co-founder and curator of Octavia, she is also the co-translator of O Martelo/The Hammer by Brazilian poet, artist & activist, Adelaide Ivanova, a collection I have reviewed here: