Here you’ll find my favorite poems by some of my favorite people. To narrow each selection to one is crazy, all of these poets have written numerous poems that I value. Also this is a work in progress and will take some time to construct, but instead of waiting until all poems were gathered, I decided to post as I go. Poems by Leslie Palmer, Angela O’Donnell, Barbara Crooker, Larry D. Thomas, Rick Sale, Steven Schroeder, Nathan Brown, Sara Kaplan, Ken Hada, Lyman Grant, and Cleatus Rattan are currently posted.
I met Les at the University of North Texas. Rick Sale, my creative thesis advisor sent me to meet Dr. Palmer, so I could ask him if he would serve on my committee. Les was playing chess with an undergraduate when I knocked on the door. He never looked up and asked what I wanted. I told him I had been sent by Dr. Sale and why. Studying the chess board, he said, “Well, Rick likes everybody’s poetry; I hardly like anyone’s.” But then he asked if he might have seen any of my work. I told him that I had been in the school’s literary journal. He asked which one’s were mine. He remembered them, complimented me and said he’d be on the committee while never turning his attention from the game. To say I was intimidated would be a giant understatement. Les and I soon became great friends. He might have been the closest friend I’ll ever know. He had a bent sense of humor, an amazing intellect, and kind soul. He passed away in 2003. He was a prodigious poet, producing several poems a week. “Stars Like Barges” appeared in at least two of his books and is a poem everyone should have a chance to read. It just might be my favorite poem, period.
Stars Like Barges
I knew a couple in Memphis once
at 3 a.m. when the bars were closed
would cruise past Beale Street
where Elvis got his clothes
over the Mississippi bridge
to the dark Arkansas side
down dirt roads to cotton fields
where they would sit sexless side by side
to watch the heavens where the stars
like barges in the Mississippi ride.
Angela O’DonnellI met Angela O’Donnell at the UMHB Writer’s Festival in 2004. At the festival, she gave her first public reading. Since then she has become an ascendant star in poetry and a very good friend who has generously given her time to my ventures often serving as a first reader on many of my poems. I think one of the reasons we became such good friend are our bookend parents–my father and her mother were cut from the same cloth, cantankerous and fierce individuals who were always authentic to themselves. Angela rightfully has a reputation as a Catholic poet, and I enjoy her religious poetry but, “Other Mothers,” is the poem of hers that I love the most. Along with the poem is a picture of Angela’s mom and dad that she sent me quite some time ago.
Other girls’ mothers sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.
My mother took lovers. Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.
The kind that came back, parked their cars in the drive,
and slept in our house night after night after night.
Other girls’ mothers wore aprons, baked bread.
My mother slipped on stockings, stepped into heels, and went to work
late evenings while we’d lie half-awake in our beds.
We’d hope for peanuts, chips, mints, small signs she’d remembered us.
Other girls’ mothers didn’t like my mother,
grew green-eyed in the grocery, cold-shouldered us at Mass
where she’d stay in the pew, marooned, at Communion,
her black mantilla shadowing her black eyes.
Other girls’ mothers liked their daughters,
asked them questions, listened for replies.
My mother would have thought them amusing
had she thought of other mothers at all.
from the book Mine, Finishing Line Press
I met Barbara at the same conference that I met Angela. I overheard her tell Angela at dinner that her maiden name was Poti. I am a life long New York Ranger fan. When I heard the name, I asked Barbara if she was related to Tom Poti a defenseman on that year’s Rangers squad. She was; talk about odds. We became friends that instant. Except for 1994 when my beloved Blue Shirts won the cup, meeting her has been the best thing about my devotion to the Rangers. She is, simply put, a great poet. If you don’t believe me, ask Garrison Keillor who has often read her work on the Writer’s Alamanac. There are at least a dozen poems of her’s that I admire enough to include here, but I have a self-imposed limit of one. I picked “Anniversay Song” for two reasons. I wanted to pick a still-in-love poem. I’m not sure if Barbara invented this genre, but, if not, she is the master of it. Secondly, at a reading she gave at Del Mar College, Barbara dedicated this poem to Alice and me. Such genorosity is common to the uncommon Mrs. Crooker. Thank God for the New York Rangers! ANNIVERSARY SONG
for Richard, on our 30th
It’s evening in the garden now
and shadows are starting to fall
on the pink coneflowers
and Russian sage, whose blue
green wands wave
in the hot wind, this late
July twilight. Fireflies rise, spiral
up from the lawn, like the tiny
light from the pointer our guide
at Font-de-Gaume used to show us
that the walls of the dark cave were alive
with bison, reindeer, horses,
the contours and bumps of the rocks
part of the painting, casting a third
dimension, the flicker of her flashlight
mimicking torches made of rush,
and suddenly a whole herd
gallops across the plains. And then,
in the last room, she traces a deer,
the parabola of his antlers arcing
above, his mate kneeling before him.
His mouth parts, his tongue reaches
down to lick her face, and across
30,000 years, your hand in mine,
we feel the stroke of tenderness
in the dark.
from More (C&R Press, 2010)
Larry D. ThomasGuess where I met my dear friend Larry Thomas? Yep, the Writer’s Festival at UMHB. It was a year or two earlier than I met Barbara and Angela. I had been assigned to read with Larry. He has just won the Texas Review Poetry Prize with his book Amazing Grace. I remember entering the venue, and it seemed as if 3/4 of the crowd were holding their copies of the book. Larry was reading first and being the worse case scenario kind of guy, I figured that a poet with this many fans and major awards under his belt, I’d be lucky if I got 10 minutes out of the hour to read. I didn’t know Larry. I remember being blown away by his poetry and being a little dissappointed when he stopped at exactly 30 minutes and made way for me to do my reading. I finished up and was trying to slip out of the room so folks could have Larry sign their books. As I was leaving, a giant hand landed lightly on my shoulder. I turned around and there was Larry. He wanted me to know that he had enjoyed my reading. He asked me if I was up to speed on the Texas poetry scene. When I told him no, he handed me his card and told me to get in touch with him so he could mentor me. I did, and Larry couldn’t have been more generous with his time and knowledge. Larry has gone on to even greater things and was the 2008 Texas Poet Laureate. Just like all others on this list there are many poems of Larry’s I admire. I especially like the narrative poems that he has written about his childhood. I know that must be a big surprise coming from me. But I asked Larry if I could post his poem “The Red Raging Waters.” There’s something about this poem that continues to have a strong pull on me over a decade since I first heard Larry read it at UMHB.
The Red Raging Waters
For weeks on end it has rained in Texas
Sending the Brazos miles beyond its banks
Where it rises even now under dark Texas skies
Over the wooden floor of a bottomland Baptist church,
Floating creaking pews shaped with the aching buttocks
Of generations, the wild Brazos rising higher yet
To the stained-glass robes of the Apostles,
Soaking the feet of Jesus and lapping the elbows
Of His uplifted arms, creeping up the pulpit
On whose open Bible coils a fat diamondback,
The red raging waters of the Brazos
Bringing to sweet communion the serpent and the saint.
Rick SaleSimply put Rick infected me with poetry. It’s all his fault, and yet I consider him a very good friend. I’m normally pretty good at holding grudges too, so I must really like him. Maybe it’s Teel his amazing wife that keeps me going back for more. My creative thesis at UNT was Rick’s idea. He chaired my committee and let me experiment with the narrative, humor and a conversational style which all led to me finding my voice, which probably started out by being pretty close to Rick’s own. I always liked his poetry. Funny, smart and insightful, just like the man himself. He’s a great teacher too. He has a wonderful talent to guide and not steer. When I was working on my thesis, I asked Rick if he would facilitate an independent study course in contemporary poetry. I bought what was then the current Norton Anthology of Poetry and started reading my way through. Once a week, I would meet Rick at a pizza joint called the Flying Tomato. We would eat some pie, split a pitcher of beer and talk about what I read that week. Eventually the course turned into a course on Elizabeth Bishop because once I found her poetry, I didn’t want to move on to anyone else. One night while we were conducting class, an office mate and fellow poet, David Taylor joined the conversation. He was accompanied by a friend of his who was from China. David and his friend were ardent imagists. We had a great time arguing poetics and busting balls. For some reason, we ended up playing team pinball. The heated discussion followed us to the game. Now, the Flying Tomato was not a quiet joint. It pumped in the music of the day at a high volume, and it was an undergraduate hangout. As we were at the pinball machine, a manager told us to pipe down. A few minutes later they bounced us. Rick said that he was proud to be one of the four men in the history of the universe ever to be kicked out of a bar for arguing about poetry. I’m really proud to have Rick as a friend and to be able to post “A Rattlesnake Story” which is from Freeze & Thaw (Incindio Press, Dallas).
A Rattlesnake StoryWhen the foreman met with a particularly argumentative
student, he would look at him for a while, then say,
“You do not yet know the secret ways of yourself,”
and turn,and walk away.
You do not yet know the secret ways of yourself
but I can tell you a little about them.
It all starts with a story that catches your eye.
Along the way come other stories you like.
Then one day the epiphany arrives.
(Don’t say “Whoa!” anymore, say “Epiphany!” from now on:
your College Boards will take a noticeable jump.
And I might as well tell you there will come a time
When you’ll have to stop saying “epiphany,” too,
but that’s way on down the line.) I was saying,
one day you see the stories melt–Epiphany!–
into One Big Story. And it’s your story.
And it counts, as you do. (Old Miz Rooty at D.H.S.
was carrying the epiphany lesson for you
all these years and didn’t even know it. Or maybe
she did and was waiting patiently for you to notice.)
Here’s the story.
I was lucky as a high school kid: I lived
in the country but had no country boy chores,
no money either, but there were a couple of horses,
at the oil camp, and I could ride them on the Welder Ranch,
a spread that stretched from here to the Nueces River.
One Saturday near a clump of mesquite my horse shied,
the saddle slipped under his belly, spooking him
into a gallop that didn’t stop till he reached the barn.
(I had forgotten to re-tighten the girth when I started out.)
I got up off the ground, pulled out a few thorns,
and grouched on home, kicking clods. Weeks later,
Andy Hughes and I were riding by the same patch
of mesquite and saw a huge diamondback slide across the spot
where my horse had shifted sideways. (Every rattlesnake
you stumble on is huge by definition.) And–little epiphany–
that snake or its mother had spooked my horse
last month and I could have landed on it!
Now, I would like to tell you, since this is a story,
that the rattler could talk and asked us a riddle or
granted us three wishes, but it didn’t. It crawled
on into a pile of brush where it joined a dozen others.
Because neither Andy nor I knew the secret ways of ourselves
(or snakeselves or Nature-Itself or much of anything),
we started digging out the snakes with sticks and killing them,
working on the premise that a good rattler is a dead rattler
and planning to take their cool rattles home as trophies.
We hadn’t caused much damage to the population when,
standing on either side of the snake pit, each of us notices
other rattlers silently sliding in from all directions. Eden
on the Welder Ranch that stretched down to the Nueces River
was trying to send us a signal. We caught a glimmer
of the message, found our horses, and shaken,
split for home. Andy became an engineer, I became
a herpetologist. I’ve found out that snakes
(like white whales) have always had a bad rap,
that evil sits inside the ribcage (in my case, male)
and not in a snake in a clump of mesquite brush.
I’m not claiming I know why the story shies
from one side to another, but I
would almost bet it takes the shape of a meander.
Steven SchroederI met Steve at the Writer’s Festival at Angelo State University. He is a remarkable man, a scholar who splits most years between working at the University of Chicago and universities in the far East, that would be China not Maine. He is a philosopher and theologian. His poetry often has an Eastern flavor and although the diction is often simple, the concepts addressed in his work are anything but. But that’s Steven, he thinks everything through. He might be the only middle-aged man I know who still lives true to his ideals. Hell, I’ve compromised most of my compromises by now. Yet, he’s not a pilgrim; he’s a great guy to hang with and talk to. I always look forward to spending time with him. He is the wizard behind the screen of this web page. It wouldn’t exist without him. This page is just another debt I owe to him, like getting some of my work translated into Chinese, and putting me in touch with folks in Lithuania. The tab on my account to Steve rivals the national debt. He is a prolific poet, and I’m a big fan of his work. The poem I asked Steve for is a retelling of the Noah myth that is powerful and unexpected. It is one of those poems that just yanks the way you think of the story and places it into another dimension. Steve and his work do that no me often.
on a wave he could understand
as nothing but god’s anger
clung to his family, dreamed
he was good, thought the flood
a mirror sent by god
to confirm it, planned a world
to look like him when the dove
returned with a token
of a tree, head above water. Not
a word of death, though the air
must have been full of it, nothing
but a rainbow sign.
Noah digs mass graves for absences
that haunt the world, keeps an eye
From, The Imperfection of the Eye, VAC
Nathan BrownNathan is one of those guys who is insanely talented. The kind of guy who reminds me that I need to remain humble as I go through life. A musician, song writer, singer, poet, one of two Ph.D’s in creative writing in the history of the University of Oklahoma. He writes a poem a day. Beyond that he is just a really funny man. I love hanging with Nathan. It is always a great time. He is primarily a narrative poet. His use of humor and irony is spot on. He is also a wonderful nudge. It was his constant promptings that got me to working on my second book. His poem-a-day habit has generated many poems that I admire. A self-proclaimed recovering son of a preacher, Nathan’s work that explores his faith or doubt have hit some deep chords with me. His book Not Exactly Job is a collection I find myself going back to often. “Lyle’s Big Hair,” is my favorite of the bunch. Nathan has given me permission to post it here. For that and so much more, I am grateful to him.
Lyle’s Big HairEven if I summoned him and he
I do not believe he would give me
a hearing. Job 9:16
My new friend—Beth Wood—who can
sing it like it is, tells me that for really
big decisions, Lyle Lovett comes to her
in her dreams at night and tells her
which way to go by pointing with his
big crazy hair.
She says it’s workin’ well
And I trust people
who can play guitar as well as she can.
And I know this is not exactly
about Job. But it has a lot to do
with direction, and how, even when
we pray our guts out for God’s guidance,
sometimes—no… a lot of times—Lyle,
with his big hair in our dreams at night,
is just as good as it’s going to get,
and we know it.
From, Not Exactly Job, Mongrel Empire Press
Sara KaplanSara is a fellow Del Martian. She is an Associate Professor of English at DMC and holds an MFA from the Idaho program. She is practically a member of the family, a good friend with the quirkiest sense of humor on the face of the Earth. She’s a hell of a poet too. She pulls off the the amazing trick of being both vivid and dreamlike at the same time. In the past year she has published chapbooks at Trilobite Press and Finishing Line Press. Both are well worth tracking down. The poem I asked Sara for isn’t in either. She showed me “To Drive” months ago, and I have been haunted by its images ever since. If you are wondering how someone can be both dreamlike and vivid, you are about to find out. More of her poetry is available in her just released chapbook, Touring West of the Mississippi, from Finishing Line Press.
Jane’s skin loosens
around her arthritic knuckles & they bend
over the wheel. The instructor takes Jane
through a prairie-style neighborhood,
past pinwheel-shaped homes—
the clerestory windows shadowed
by the low-pitched roofs.
The roofs loom like heavy brows—
dark, middle-aged. She parallel parks
by the Wesleyan dance studio, its brick sponging
in snow like mortar. With the car in park
Jane & her teacher watch the dancers
plié on the walk, the steps, in the doorway—
even the cold doesn’t stiffen their bends.
And the instructor’s silence while the heater
hums leaves Jane to feel as if she’s alone & amp; she signals,
checks her mirrors, and returns into traffic.
Ken HadaKen Hada is a poet, scholar, and the driving force behind one of my favorite literary festivals, Scissortail at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. He loves the outdoors, fishing, kayaking, and the scenes play an important part in his work. Ken is an imposing figure, a giant of man. I met him at a TSAT where he was giving a paper on John Graves, Goodbye to a River. I have to admit, at first I was intimidated by him, but as I got to know Ken I learned his soul and heart were as large as their packaging. How kind is Ken? My favorite story about Ken happened at Scissortail. One of the coolest things about the festival is novice poets and readers are often teamed with established writers. At a session Ken was moderating, a young undergraduate nearly passed out behind the mike before she could start reading. Ken invited the girl to sit down and gather herself. The other two readers performed, and then Ken invited the young girl back to the podium. At that point she was still a little wobbly, so Ken fetched her a stool. The young poet asked him to stand next to her as she read the first poem, so he did. She got through the poem, and Ken started to move away from the podium. The girl asked him to stay. He went got another stool and sat next to her until the reading was over. I don’t know if I’d ever seen an organizer ever take such time and interest in a non-established writer. I was beyond impressed. Ken’s work has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac three times and that’s pretty imprssive too. I asked him if I could post the Ancestors on this page. Also from a family of immigrants the poem speaks to my core.
Once you shook the dust off them
you found hard men
driven in their denial
of fear, of failure.
They preferred plowing to killing
but there weren’t too many options
once they pissed off the czar
and his army.
They found a boat headed
for New York , found
a prairie home and tried to keep it
living on cabbage and coffee.
They worked and died young
but I’d like to think they died free.
They believed in the freedom
of dirt, turning sod,
Turning possibility over and over
every spade-full a chance,
the reprieve of destiny.
Cleatus RattanThe 2004 Texas Poet Laureate is another poet that I met at the UMHB festival. Marine, wide receiver at SMU, Cleatus has always gone out of his way to be encouraging to me. The night we met, we happened to be seated together at an Italian restaurant in Belton. It was a tradition that all the folks at the festival would go out together after the last reading of the day. Cleatus was with his wife Connie, and we enjoyed the food and conversation. The next day at the conference, Cleatus told me that because he and Connie had enjoyed the meal so much that they wanted to buy me meal for me that night. Well, I got to the restaurant a little late and ended up being seated with a friend on the other side of the restaurant. I was relieved because although I loved hanging with the Rattan’s, I have always felt awkward receiving compliments and gifts. Well, that night when the waitress came to give us our checks, I asked her where mine was she pointed at the Rattan’s who waved from across the room. He is a man of his word, with a gift for words. The are many poems I admire written by Cleatus, especially his love poems. I asked if I could post When It’s Time, a love of life poem.
When It’s TimeThe only way to keep your health
is to eat what you don’t want,
drink what you don’t like, and
do what you’d rather not.
Mark Twain, Puddin’head Wilson
When it’s time to go
I want to know
so I can grab a breath
in an oak-floored pool hall
and wait for death
with a can of Skoal
and a case of Lone Star longneckers
while lucky old men play checkers.
from The Border , Texas Review Press
Jill Alexander EssbaumJill is an amazing person and poet. She has won major national awards and has been published in places like Poetry. We share a publisher in more ways than one. She is a long time friend of Neil Orts, the man behind NeoNuma. The first time I saw Jill, she was sitting next to Neil in a small room at the Granbury Liteary Festival. Neil had dragged to a reading of mine. She was wearing a bright orange business suit, jacket and skirt. She had the funkiest horned rim glasses on. At some point during my reading, she blurted out, “Brilliant!” At first I thought, she may have had a stroke or vision, but she was well and sending a compliment my way. After the reading Neil introduced me to Jill. She was finishing up her collection of sonnets that would become, Oh, Forbidden, and let me read from the ms, as we sat out on some lawn chairs. I was blown away. Years later Jill helped me hone an early draft of The Comic Flaw into the biographical wirk it became. Jill is known for both erotic and Christian poetry. At times she combines both, a hard trick unless you are as talented as she. I asked if I could post a poem from her NeoNuma collection. It is about the cremation of her mother, and a believer’s struggle with grief. It is a force of nature’s tour de force.
what(c)remainsfor my mother
Her skin, her wrists, her fists, her shins—
the plan of her hands, the remnants of them. But how,
Sir, did she burn? Did she flash out like a star?
Sear like a roast? Did she flame with panache,
or was it all and simply pain? Promise again:
Only her body is over, is done. Her soul (so you’ve told), is
someplace keen and green. I can’t say I’m convinced.
Cold Ghost, have you spun her into gold? The filaments,
the bits left singeing from the old retort? A harmless fact
of absense. Nothing more, nothing less. I envy the urn
that holds her, but only because it can. Her flesh is finished.
her knees, their kneeling complete. The heart’s been leached
of love. But did she suffer much? Did she smolder? Oh
only her body is over. Are all of her pieces at peace?
The ground down bones, the shards that were her arms?
Did she blister? Did she bleed? Never you mind it. She is
released. Christ, go comfort someone else. You crawled
from the tomb like getting out of bed. You did not stay dead.
Your last breath wasn’t. And I don’t think that’s very fair.
Forgive me if you must or if you dare. Ashes to dust
or despair, I suppose. Did the char come first,
or did the blaze? Defend, Oh God, your ways,
your meaner means. How exactly has your will be done?
And where, precisely, has she gone?
There are people you meet along the journey that you feel an immediate and strong attachment to; Lyman is one of those folks. He is thoughful, funny, and sincere. When we first met he wore his hair long and a ear ring. He was a poet in the Austin Community College writing program. Now he’s a dean at the same school; his hair is shorter, and the ear stud is gone, but he is still the same great person he has always been. Not only that he continues to write amazing poetry. I love his work. There is a sweet (and I mean that in the best possible sense) melancholy that imbues his poems. The following poem is from his book The Road Home. I fell for this poem when I reviewed the book for JASAT. It’s an amazing poem about lost passion, and the limits of poetry, while it expresses the power of the artform at the same time. Now that’s an amazong fete.
SEARCHING THE PARKING LOT FOR A POEM
Though I’ve been silent several months,
I might now write about a man
and a woman in a parking lot.
This parking lot is very large,
acres, and there are but few cars
huddled beneath the scattered trees,
like cattle in western Kansas.
I would want to be clear, to make
understood that the distances
are vast, and that the air contains
a heat, something like four in the
afternoon, when the air is like
that last still moment inside
a balloon just before the balloon
blows up. I could say something
about the man and his marriage and
about the woman and her marriage,
but I might not. It would be better
to mention that his car was a
long way from her car but he walked
with her all the way to the far
end of the lot where her car stood
and then when she left he walked
all the way back. I would not make
the reader think this journey was
difficult, like desert fathers
searching thirstily for Christ.
I would just want to point out that
they were together for a long time
and then the man was without her
a long time. Merely that. Because
the poem is not about the parking
lot or all their walking about.
The poem occurs when they arrive
at her car and they stand looking
at each other. This is where really
huge distances are, the inches
separating two bodies. Here,
I find unbearable heat. Here
is the silence so full of words
they float between parked cars waiting
to call her back with this poem.
From The Long Road