Monday, July 10, 2017

Scissortail Poets: Jim Benton

For three weeks in April of this year, I did a book tour of the deep south, reading from Dharma Rain, my most recent collection (Saint Julian Press, October 2016). When Jim Benton, my good friend and fellow-poet living in Ft. Worth, told me about the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK, I didn't set out to travel 3,000 miles through 7 states. Jim had attended the festival in 2016, and spoke highly of it. With his encouragement, I submitted poems for the 2017 festival; and with my encouragement, he did as well. We were both accepted as readers.

Shortly afterwards, Jeannie Thompson, Executive Director of Alabama Writers' Forum, emailed me and expressed interest in my work, asking if I had ever toured the deep south. No, I said, but I was willing to consider it--what did she have in mind? She told me about the Alabama Book Festival held every year at the end of April. After a few months of email exchanges, I received an official invitation to be a featured reader. 

As a resident of northern California, I then had a lovely problem--reading in Ada, OK the first weekend of April; and reading in Montgomery, AL the last. I decided to connect the dots and plan a tour, stopping along the way (a circuitous route, no doubt), through Ft. Worth (where I used to live and close to where my 3 children still do), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Little Rock, Montgomery, and back to Ft. Worth for the flight home. I asked Jim if we split gas and motel stays, if he'd be interested in driving his car for the 3,000-mile adventure. He said yes, booked a final "homecoming" reading in Ft. Worth, and the tour was born.

Between the summer of 2016 and April of 2017, Jim put together a chapbook of some of his own poems. He read from it, not only at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, but at several of the readings where I was booked--either as a co-featured reader, or as an open-mic guest. I will never forget our trip, or be able to repay Jim for his kindness in driving the entire way, his patience in putting up with my quirks, and our long, in-depth conversations/arguments about poetry, life, and all things human and divine. 

I offer the following preface I wrote for his chapbook, as a way of honoring him and his work--both of which inform the other, and which are as much in concert with one another as in any person or poet I have ever known. Jim has spent a lifetime tirelessly teaching young people, in and out of the classroom, to be better writers and better people. He has also spent much time since his retirement writing poetry that is better than most written today by poets who have amassed prestigious publication credits. He "killed it," as I told him at Scissortail (as he did wherever he read). But that is not why Jim writes, as you will discover, if you read his work below with "the way of seeing" that a poet sees--the way that he has taught countless students to do over the years.


NOTE: After the preface, I have also taken the liberty to publish a few of my favorite poems in their entirety from his body of work.

Preface to Finding Poetry in Santa Fe 

In 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe,' Jim Benton offers up a true sample of his work, which is, in my assessment, stronger than poems of the majority of poets who do not yet have a full-length collection—and many who do. I say this as an editor of a national poetry press who reads hundreds of manuscripts a year, not only with regard to the craft and voice present in each poem, but in consideration of the rigor Benton brings to the editing process for each poem and for the manuscript as a whole, being fully aware of Frost’s statement about the final poem being the book itself. Benton’s choices about sequence have created a manuscript with a traceable narrative arc, appropriately interrupted with gorgeous lyrical passages—all demonstrating a mature artistic sensibility.

This achievement comes not only from his almost twenty years of teaching poetry to high school students as “the way of seeing,” but also from a life lived as “the way of being” in the world. Jim is fully present in each poem with all his powers of cognition, his sensitivity of emotion, as well as his delightful irreverence, and scathing satire for anything false. He is the same with other poets’ work and with each person he encounters.

In “Holiness is Overrated,” Jim Benton challenges not only those who are in the clergy, but all who are given to sermonizing and able to be perceived as “above” others in any way, to commit acts of rebellion: “Swing from the sanctuary chandeliers, / say shit in the pulpit, sing hymns without rhyme, / recite  inspired non-sequiturs, pray gibberish,” and to “Preach free verse sermons with such alliterative excess / that only their sounds are true.”

Benton takes his own advice in 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe.' Every poem not only rings true in the sonic realm, but in the typographical, ideational, and all the other sensory levels, as well.  

Benton has a knack for shining the light of his poems on the most sacrosanct of ideas and the most sacred of gods, showing them for what they are—delightfully ordinary, aberrant, and carnal—and, like Whitman, the grandfather of American poetry, for exalting the profane to the divine. In “Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe,”

            Jesus, restless in heaven,
            slipped away alone,
            for a quiet vacation. Unknown
            and unrecognized in sweatshirt
            and jeans from Goodwill,
            he treated himself
            to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
            with a bottle of local red
            and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

The poem ends paying homage to two equally great things in God’s creation: “Peace on Earth / and great tacos.” Benton gets it right in diction and tone in this poem, and even a cursory read of the New Testament reveals that Benton gets it right theologically, as well.

In “Santa Fe Dreams,” the action of an unknown lawbreaker chiseling away the word “savage” from an inscription honoring the “savage Indians” on an obelisk erected at the center of the Plaza, is raised to the heavens where “the stars tremble,” and becomes an example for the poet to follow:

            Chisel-bold in the heroic dreams
            Santa Fe conjures in my imagination,
            I am he, raven-eyed justice,
            replacing the savage obscenity
            carved in stone on the monolithic face of memory
            with a graven scar that bears my name
            for eyes that walk uncovered, unbalanced,
            in moonlight.

Many poems in Finding Poetry in Santa Fe have a strong narrative. But, Benton can be quite lyrical, as well. In “Poet at Dusk,” he invites the reader to join him, to “Dress the naked desert / in wordstreams / to evaporate / in sere sunlight. // Clothe the shapely clouds / in see-through verbs / to float weightless / above the page.” That’s because, for Benton, poetry is not some esoteric art, created only by the inspired or talented few, but “a way of seeing” that can be acquired by all who are willing to open themselves to truly experience what they are already experiencing.
Jim Benton found poetry in Santa Fe, a city he has had a love affair with for decades now. In the process, he became a poet. In these poems, he invites you, the reader, to find poetry where you reside. And, who knows, it might just change the way you see and write and live, as well.

*    *    *

Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe

Jesus, restless in heaven,
slipped away alone,
for a quiet vacation. Unknown
and unrecognized in sweatshirt
and jeans from Goodwill,
he treated himself
to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
with a bottle of local red,
and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

Next day he went shopping,
dressed himself up in gaudy drag,
donned a flashing electric tiara,
AAA batteries entwined in bejeweled weave.
He dyed his hair a lovely, soft
auburn, danced alone an inch
above sandal-worn adobe floors,
dined on Northern New Mexican
Cuisine, sat for hours amid juniper
and sage in the crisp evening air.

A Canyon Road crafter tried
to sell him a pair of white hand-sewn
kid gloves with sterling silver
stigmata medallions, inlaid turquoise, red leather tassels,
and one-of-a-kind ceramic drop-weight
beads, at a Semana Santa Sale price.
Jesus wept.

Silently, he slipped away,
scrubbed his hands in adobe dust,
sat down for a sopapilla
and a soda. At Chimayo,
Jesus tasted his first brisket taco
with a pinch of fresh cilantro, grilled onions,
and lime on a hand-formed corn tortilla.
And fell in love. A gentle abuela
shared the secret of her green chile stew--
fresh corn grilled on an open piñon fire.

The pixilated cascade of golden aspen
took his breath, and no apple ever tasted so sweet
as the one he picked right off the tree
without so much as a moment's thought
of Eden. It was just the quiet vacation
Jesus needed. Peace on Earth
and great tacos.

(First published in Poetry Super Highway, June, 2014.)

If I Were a Poet

If I were a poet I would stop
for every hitchhiking line
and give it a ride
to wherever it could take me.
I would let it smoke in the car
and not turn up my nose
at the smell of urine and asphalt.

I would welcome the baggage
it casually tossed onto my backseat,
and the greasy, matted, misplaced modifiers dangling
from the edges of its wooly watch cap
would not tempt me to avoid
awkward eye contact. Though it ranted
and rambled and raged
and wept and wailed and whined,
the shallow, contrived, unnatural, pointless quality
of over-alliteration would not provoke
my disdain. If it were raining and it had
a rumpled, ugly, smelly, wet
dog with slobbery jowls, mud-caked
paws, and puppies in the pouch,
I would not throw a prophylactic blanket
over my decorous rear seat upholstery.
I would welcome each mud splatter and dirty

If I were a poet
and a toothless hitchhiking poem
in a black leather jacket and yellowed cotton shirt
stumbled dazed and disoriented onto the shoulder
of my awareness, waving bloody hands with dirty nails,
screeching alternately incoherent gibberish and precisely
articulated obscenities from the corner of its mouth,
I would stop, roll down all four windows,
hop into the back seat,
and toss it the keys.

(First published in Sin Fronteras, Issue #19, Spring 2015.)

Three Ladders

A ladder leads me down
into a dusty numinous womb
of fertile Earth.
Here the travails of mother time
linger in adobe and dance
the beat of soft steps.
Step by step I descend
into the darkness of the ancients
to inhale their smoky wisdom.

A ladder lifts me up
onto a branch extending beyond
my reach or grasp below.
Here the flight of scissortail,
raven, and swallow beckon me
build a nest from which to fly.
Step by step I ascend
into the limitless open sky
to soar among sunlight and stars.

A ladder leads me to the edge
between two worlds
I sit astride.
Here the decisive paths are split,
spread before me from dawn to dusk--
forward or back again?
Step by step I ascend
to reach an untenable divide
from which I must descend.

(From Finding Poetry in Santa Fe, 2016.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Scissortail Poets: Brady Peterson

I was compelled to purchase Brady Peterson's book on the basis of one poem he read at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK this month: "Chant." I'm a sucker for vocabularies used by workers in jobs and careers other than my own. Peterson had me at "Soffit is a builder's word, a carpenter's word-- / like fascia and header and stud."--the first two lines of the poem. The balance of the poem did not disappoint:

                                                ...Top plate
and joist. Soffit though has a mantra quality.
Whisper it over and over as you slip into deep
meditation.  soffit, soffit, soffit...

As if to quietly call the angels to your side,
whispering low so they have to move in close
to hear.  What is it you want, they ask--nothing.
What is it you want--nothing.

After this lyrical opening, there are two more stanzas of reminding us the practical purpose of a soffit ("seals the attic, keeping out squirrels / and raccoons"), and then Peterson's easy style of storytelling gives us a mini-narrative with rising action ("You set out a trap / ... // It's raining.  You check for leaks, / ...listen to the rain), punctuated with lyrical lines that, once again, end in the penultimate stanza with "What is it you want--nothing," meaning, I'm pretty sure, that it is not that we are being told that there is not anything that we want, but that we want something--precisely nothing, as in nothingness--a state of the ineffable, achieved with the incantatory nature of this poem.

And then the killer final two lines, bringing us back to the concrete world:

You are dry and warm inside your house.
Puddles form on the driveway.

Those puddles offer us all the promise we need of more showers, more cleansing, more poems by Peterson.

I thought it interesting that Peterson comments somewhere that the poems he likes are rarely liked by editors, and that he is always surprised by the ones editors do like. I found the same thing to be true of his poems, almost without exception. (The one and only being "A Summer Night," previously published by Ilya's Honey, and one that I marked with a big "+".)

A Summer Night

We lie to children, unable to bear
the emptiness of what we know--
My daughter realizes heaven is full
of dead people--just a bunch of dead
people, she says. She is four.

Death is a door, we say when fireflies
glow in the evening. A summer night
in Arkansas--the air thick with the smell
of bark and honeysuckles. The knob
turns, a door opens, then shuts.

Someone you loved--still love.

Fried catfish with French fried potatoes,
sweetened ice tea--the ice clinking
in the tumblers. They drove past our house
on the way to the restaurant, my cousin
says. I waved at them.

We sing old songs, the ones we sang
as children when the only radio was AM
and fuzzy. We walk the street of a town
where we lived, waiting for my father
to come home from the war.

But what about "Chant," "The Delicacy of Wood," "Passage," "Sleeps Through the Morning Marm," "Turning," Measuring Gaps," Fireflies and Baseball," "Saturday," "Tucked Away in a Drawer," "The Birds Chirp," "In Session," "Free Breakfast," "One Small Step," "Sawdust," "Keeping the Files," "3 AM," "Floss," and "And Now"--all 5 star (at least 4 star) poems in my estimation? None of them published prior to From an Upstairs Window! The second stanza of "And Now" could serve as Peterson's Ars Poetica: 

I call it as I see it, he says.  Back seat
love on a gravel road--before the dam,
before the lake, the Kingsmen singing
the only song we ever really needed.
What were the fucking words--

Peterson's poems are quest poems--searching for the words, the forms, the memories, and the best way to combine them, as if he were working in his garden, bringing together the dirt, the water, the sunshine, or ripping a 2 X 4 to make something better than what he could buy at the store to solve a nagging problem in his life--the nagging problem about his life: that it will end.


I spend the day shoveling turkey shit and dirt--
plant tomatoes, onions--scatter a few basil

Work shirtless, though almost seventy--
too old and wrinkled to work half naked
in the open air--to old to give a shit.
Drink Shiner in the afternoon--
soil and sweat making the beer taste better.

Walter was working his garden when he died--
so we figure--lying in the back yard.  The phone ringing
when we arrive--something whispers in my ear,
and I pass quickly through the house to find him
lying on the grass a few yards from the squash--

under a pecan tree.

Something about growing your own food.
It's better than hating immigrants
or worrying over who gets into heaven.

My accountant tells me he probably has less
than five years left--he is seventy-two
with a bad heart. I spend my days listening
to people grumble about paying too much
in taxes, he says.  No way to live.

I don't complain, I tell him.  He grins.
You believe in taxes, he tells me.

Grady Peterson believes in the power of language and story to redeem us in this life, if not in another. And I believe in Grady Peterson. He's probably writing today from an upstairs window.  You can get a copy of his book with the same name and learn a thing or two about writing and living. And you can email him at and he'll put you on his list to receive what he puts down on paper almost every day. I did, and I'm already a better writer for far as a better person, that may take a while...

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sissortail Creative Writing Festival Poets: Paul Bowers

If there ever were a poet of witness, it would be Paul Bowers. Paul resides some 120 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, and 200 miles from East Central University in Ada, where the recent Scissortail Creative Writing Festival was held. I spoke with Paul after his reading last week to compliment him on the obvious craft I heard in his poems, particularly the musicality and extended metaphors employed. He replied that he simply wrote about what he saw out his window. A humble statement, for Bowers's vision is better than most. And his ability to record it in poetry is nothing less than virtuosic.

After reading the entire collection, The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, I can say that I not only enjoyed its bucolic subject matter, populated with Black Angus, White-faced Herefords, red foxes, squirrels, and egrets--animals I assume live on or near Bowers's ten-acre farm--but also his "cubist birds," a "stone St. Francis," wildebeests, crocodiles, orangutans, and wolves with names like "Akela, Keara, Sakara, and Sabin," caged in a sanctuary in Divide, Colorado. Bowers sees, and let's his readers see, "trumpeter[s] in Hawaiian shirt[s] and khakis," "Southern Baptists and Lutherans and Mennonites," in settings like Rome and Tuscany. People like Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, Billy Collins, and the poet's mother with only "six thousand or so" breaths left, roam Bowers's poems, augmenting a vision that extends far beyond the horizon outside the poet's window.

Bowers is such a good writer that his readers can see much of what he sees, as well. In his opening poem, "Black Angus," after telling us "There are more Black Angus / this year than last, / or the year before that. / More than White-faced Herefords / or pale, humped Brahmas, or Longhorns;" this poet says more in the following eight lines than many poets say in 70 pages:

I watch
from my porch in the evenings
and wonder what grass tastes like
when eaten all day and night;

and wonder, even more if the cattle,
who bunch and turn and feed like
the darkest fish in green ocean tides,
know what they are, or what they are not.

This passage, and others like it, caused me quickly to trust Bowers's voice, to believe that he knows exactly what he is and what he is not, confirmed with every poem that follows. The way they are organized--something not immediately apparent--with no divisions in the 80 pages of poems, seems to lay them out like the "round hay bales" he writes of in the poem with the same name.

I have seen hundreds
stretched to the yellow horizon

in summer, like so many adobe ovens
tended by beaded Navajo women.

At first, I wanted Bowers to organize these poems into the 3 standardized sections found in most full-length poetry collections. But after re-reading the book, I realized that these poems are organized (I shouldn't have been surprised) organically. Bowers inserts short poems with more commentary than description or story, between longer poems with more concrete imagery and narrative arc. All are tied together by what his eye sees, his ear hears, and his brain connects to, both outside of and within itself--the life he has lived and the life he has read. And the choices he makes about the order are usually masterful.

For example, after 2 full page-length poems--"Vortex," in which he tells the story of his father's disappearance with the conceit of a storm, "As if, by throwing open the front door / Of our little yellow house, / Leaping from the tongue-and groove-porch, / He dove, body and limb, / Feet first or head first, / I don't know which, Into a passing tornado;"  and "Envy," the observations of a "twelfth-week pup" discovering a world with "vacuum cleaner[s]," "beige, columned lamp[s]," "a statue of St. Francis standing solemnly on a corner table," "a stick," "a discarded grocery store receipt," and a "walnut husk,"--Bowers gives us this short poem:

Who We Are

you and I,
are what is pressed up
through the gauze of bodies:
shapes that come and go, and we
call that a "lifetime" together.
When we hold hands
we find a common source 
in our palms and fingertips.
It is a kind of death
but we are only 
our separate selves
because we call each other
by familiar names that fall in syllables
from parted lips.

Like this one, many of his poems could be considered ars poeticas. Bowers has a knack for keeping one eye on the world of carnality, and the other, if not on the world of spirituality, at least on one of interiority. And who, according to the narrator in "Prints," can tell the difference?

I fill up the trash can
with flowers cut too late
and exercise to be healthy
at my death. Whose breath
is it that fills my lungs?
Whose thoughts are these 
that pile against the shore
with such small fish in tow?

If I have any quibble with The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, it is that some of its final poems seem to be a bit lightweight for concluding a collection of such depth. Choosing "The Judgment," for example, as the penultimate poem, seems an editorial miscalculation:

The Judgment

The orangutan
raised by two women
who taught him the signs
for ice cream
and hugs
finally saw his own kind
in a zoo, and called them,
with a subtle human disdain,
"Orange dogs."

If we view a collection of poems as one poem, I prefer the book climaxing in the final poem(s), the way Dorianne Laux describes one way a poem distinguishes itself from a story. "In a poem," she says, "there is no denoue-fucking-ment." Although I understand what Bowers is doing by placing "Notations" as the final poem, with the poet "disappear[ing] into the woods" the way Patches, his mother's dog did after she died, and his father's leaving "her bed / in the shed, a quilt of stars and / moons, just as she left it," I wish he had given us a capstone poem like "Who is to Say?" with its "waitress looking over / her shoulder at a clock / ...wondering / whether she can absorb / the final hour of her shift," and in section 3:

I am not a Whitman
leaning over the rail
of a ferry boat
to witness his divine halo,
passing through time
that lightly floats like a boat
in the midst of eternity,

but a Keats
counting the heavy notes
of a bird he cannot even see,
and falling desperately in love
with his own mortality. 

Or perhaps Bowers could have ended with "The Blurb on the Back of Billy Collins' Latest Book" with its final stanza:

Mostly, I live the mundane stanza
of waking at a definite hour,
engage in a rhythmic lurch
that is the exposition of my days,
and hope the last, departing line
is not yet composed.

Even "On a Visit to a Wolf Sanctuary in Divide, Colorado," would more appropriately close out this paean to all sentient life with an admixture of lupine and human ritual, its visitors

...form[ing] a ragged half circle
and send[ing] up a human howl,

to which first one, then two,
then four,
then more wolves

join our voices and suddenly
we are ten thousand years gone,
separated only by a low-burning fire:

we humans on our haunches,
those wolves, their yellow eyes aglow,

just outside
of light
and reach.

But having too many terrific poems from which to choose a final one is a good problem to have. And not ending on a poem or poems that this reviewer thinks the right one(s) is a minor issue in a major work of poetry.

The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life gives readers poem after poem that not only tells but shows with spot-on imagery and a unique metaphorical sense "what the world is like." For writers of poetry, it sets a high bar for what a poem should be like--higher than most of us will ever be able to reach.