Welcome to where I am, where my kitchen's always messy, a pot's (or a poet) always about to boil over, a dog is always begging to be fed. Drafts of poems on the counter. Windows filled with leaves. Wind. Clouds moving over the mountains. If you like poetry, books, and music--especially dog howls when a siren unwinds down the hill-- you'll like it here.




Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Today I mourn the passing of my friend and teacher Robert Watson.  Bob cared for his MFA students in UNCG's graduate writing program much as a close relative might. He had what I called so many years ago in a tribute to him, "a caring focus."   A detailed and loving description of Bob and his contribution to UNCG and the lives of his students was written by Kelly Cherry for storysouth.  Kelly was in my first poetry workshop, by the way.  

Bob, as an intense young poet!
So many stories to share about Bob at parties, in workshops, along the street, at the nearby restaurant where the food wasn't great but all the writerly talk was!  Here is a poem that contains some details of a memorable workshop afternoon.  

    for Robert Watson

The exotics, as the witty department head called us,
we gathered each Thursday, if  I can remember it right
after thirty-two years, in the seminar room
of the library, eager for what Bob would say
as he scrutinized, word by word,
what we had brought him.  We passed our new poems
round the table and waited to read aloud,
palms sweaty, tongues dry from suddenly doubting
that anything inside the dark of our voices could sing
worth Bob’s listening.  Bertha’s brave circus beasts
galloped in sawdust.  Then Ellen’s glass kept harping back
to the same jangle.  I heard my cornfields beginning
to sprout a shy whisper.  And Rick’s Soledades: O Luminous
Afternoon, when with the fanfare of hyacinths, Pat levitated
her dead grandpa’s flimsy fedora!  The odor of hyacinths
that April I’m not ashamed to saw followed me
everywhere, promising more poems that I believed 
possible.  Poetry or prose, we debated,
and let pass our judgment till some other time
when the question seemed less dull. We’d engineer fire-
works, our poems bursting forth in a plumage
of red smoke. But once when I stubbed my True
cigarette into the trash can and rough drafts of poems
began smoldering, George muttered, “Jesus
H. Christ,” and ran out with a styrofoam cup
to fetch water. So Joel extinguished the first nip
of flame with his breath and swore he would write
poems that burned clean through the page,
as if nobody knew he was falling in love with the air
itself teasing him into her circles
within circles till he was so dizzy
he could see stars in the smallest reflection
of night in his black Chevy’s rear mirror.
That April, King was gunned down
and the city shut tight in its curfew at sunset,
we walked every afternoon roundabout Spring Garden,
looking for poems we could bring back to Bob,
not those blowsy pink dogwoods
that littered the campus with tickets to easy romance,
but the hard freight that rattled our teeth
till we wanted to shout at the crazy caboose-man who waved
as he disappeared into the junkyards
at city’s end: Take Me!
O Central of Georgia, where are you tonight?
Do your boxcars still wait at the corner of Highland
and shudder with wanting to keep their long lines moving
on into margins I can’t see the limits of?
I confess I have gone nowhere.
I’m still caught inside the same lines I’ve been trying
to write since we walked to Bob’s class
in a wind I am sure I remember
demanding so fiercely we hold our poems close to our bodies
as if out of fear
(or desire)
they would blow away into a jungle
of burning wings
green tongues
and we would have no other choice but to follow.

from COMING TO REST, LSU press, 2006


February 20 - 26, 2006: Robert Watson

Robert Watson
Robert Watson
Robert Watson is a master of the Contemporary American Moment. Whether walking alone at night, buying cigarettes at a drugstore, or sitting in his backyard, he makes each poem resonate with both ironic humor and pathos. As one of his students years ago in the graduate writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I saw his generosity and open-mindedness in class after class. He was able to read a poem on its own terms, regardless of what earlier assignment might have triggered it. One of my favorite stories is that of a lovely Japanese MFA student who had struggled through a sestina assigned by Allen Tate our first semester. Mr. Tate, himself a memorable teacher, simply had no response other than, "This is a failed sestina." The young woman turned the same poem in to Bob's class the following semester, saying nothing about it being a sestina. Bob loved the poem and was able to see what it succeeded in achieving. He brought a caring focus to all of his students, and because I lived only a few paces down from his house on Highland Avenue, I saw the ways in which he brought these same qualities to his family. His home was filled with his wife's stunning paintings, and he often introduced himself as the husband of the painter Betty Watson. He was just the teacher I needed when I came to UNC-G as an awkward but ambitious young woman from the deep South. He helped me understand that poetry can spring from many sources and have many voices, tones, and textures. That's probably the most important lesson a young poet can learn and I remain grateful to Bob for setting such a good example for me to follow in the years that lay ahead.-K.S.B.

Please Write: Don't Phone

While there is mail there is hope.
After we have hung up I can't recall
Your words, and your voice sounds strange
Whether from distance, a bad cold, deceit,
I don't know. When you call I'm asleep
Or bathing or my mouth is full of toast.

I can't think of what to say.
"We have rain"? "We have snow"?

Let us write instead: surely our fingers spread out
With pen on paper touch more of the mind's flesh
Than the sound waves moving from throat to lips
To phone, through wire, to one ear.
I can touch the paper you touch.
I can see you undressed in your calligraphy.
I can read you over and over.
I can read you day after day.
I can wait at the mailbox with my hair combed,
In my best suit.
I hang up. What did you say?
What did you say? Your phone call is gone.
I hold the envelope you addressed in my hand.
I hold the skin that covers you.


It's hard for me to get lost in this town
But I try. I seem to know all the streets
And paths. Yes, even where no streetlights are:
At night I can find my way, can name the lanes
Without signs, name the sleepers in their houses,
The dead who built them. How can I get lost?
I try to get lost, to take a wrong turn
That leads to a strange street, an unknown house
Where I ring a bell. The door creaks open
An inch. I say, "I'm lost, very lost."

A voice answers in a tongue I do not know.
I rejoice. At last I am on the threshold
Of the unknown, unexplored. I am lost.

But then a car pulls up to the curbstone
And familiar voices call. "Hey there.
There he is. We found him." They found me.


I hear them bark outside my window, dogs
The country is going to, packs of them.
Rabid dogs, plunging through the forest and field,
Our city streets at night, leaping at doors,
At each others' throats, at our throats. I've heard
About them all my years. Daytimes they are
Behind fences, chained in yards, locked in barns.
And in daylight they wag tails, like our hands.
Nights on the loose, howling they race in packs.
Midnight this tumult calls me to the window
Where outside in moonlight I see my neighbor
Unlock his gate. He looks long-eared and furry.
I hear him growl, snap his jaws. I bark back.

The Uncertainty Principle

From my captain's chair in the yard
I steer the earth among the stars.

Inside the house my wife's asleep.
Our hall clock ticks out minutes, hours.

A cloudless autumn night outdoors
For sailing through the universe.

All thoughts of civic duty gone
Or right or wrong I travel on.

I am not Noah riding a flood
With all the birds and beasts aboard,

Nor am I Ulysses awash
In interstellar seas.

I do not search for gold or for
The waters of eternal youth.

Unmindful of my past I sail
Through chandeliers of planets

In search of what I do not know.
The universe swells like a balloon

After the big bang that began
It all. Before the crunch that marks

The end, I'd like to be certain
Of where I am and what is where.

Robert Watson has published five poetry collections, most recently, The Pendulum: New and Selected, from which these poems are drawn (Louisiana State University Press),Selected Poems (Atheneum), and Night Blooming Cactus(Athenaeum). He is also the author of two novels, Three Sides of the Mirror and Lily Lang. Among his many honors, are awards form the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has taught at Williams College, the Johns Hopkins University, and for many years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. When not traveling around the globe, Mr. Watson lives with his wife, the painter Betty Watson, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Over the past few weeks the Republican primary contest has been rife with concern over the unborn, more so than concern, or so it seems, for the living.  Here a great poet, Louis Macneice, speaks in the voice of the unborn, asking for what any of us should wish for ourselves and our children.   If we have any doubts about the value of poetry in a time of unbridled political double-speak and simplistic, so-called "moral" arguments, this poem should put those doubts to rest.  May we all have a "white light/in the back of my mind to guide me."  The white light of this clear Sunday  pouring down on me as I type this post

Louis Macneice

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis Macneice 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Singing Back to Nina

On Nina Simone's birthday, I remember a piece I wrote a dozen years ago, about being seduced by Nina when I was a student at a lily-white girls' school in Macon, Georgia, the first college chartered to give degrees to women, by the way.  This was in the 60's, when the civil rights movement was heating up and Nina Simone was coming into her glory.  I still love her voice and her spirit.  I still sing along with her when I leave these mountains where she herself was born (Tryon, NC) and drive back down to the deep South where I grew up.

Kim Nalley in San Francisco, singing Nina Simone.  

  Singing Back to Nina
       Am I only indulging my middle-aged imagination  as I sit down at long last to a brand-new stereo system  and push in a new compact disc, The Essential Nina Simone?   Or is this memory real?  Real as flesh and blood?
  Nina, Nina, where you been for so long?  
Thirty-five years ago you were right there in that dormitory room, seducing us, scaring the hell out of us, leaving us limp in our baby doll pajamas and pink foam hair rollers as we sprawled on the floor, resigned to that lily-white Methodist girls’ school in Macon , Georgia, where we were expected to be ladies at all times, white gloves and hose, no cigarettes and no slacks on front campus, no liquor allowed for a fifty mile radius of campus, and if, beyond that, we sipped champagne at a wedding or chugga-lugged Budweiser in a cheap motel in Americus, we had to wait twelve hours before returning to the fold.
You saboteur, who unlocked those iron gates and let you in?  My fast friend from Atlanta, that’s who, holding your record aloft in the hall like a fifth of forbidden whiskey, inviting us into her room around midnight to get drunk on your voice.             
No endless hands of Bridge that night, no gossip about who went how far with whoever.  We turned off the lights, lit  our cigarettes, switched you on, and, just like that, we were hooked.   We sank into the  eroticism of “Wild Is the Wind,”   we shivered at Pirate Jenny’s delicious vengefulness.    We even threw ourselves into  “Mississippi Godamn,” singing out each Southern state with girlish defiance.  We were yours, Nina.  You put a spell on us big-time!
But it didn’t last.  When the record was over, we walked out of that room  and  into our lives, Southern "ladies" in spite of ourselves, even though we had fought against being belles with every sneer and smoke-ring curling out of our mouths.
No, it didn’t last.  How could it?   But here I sit, not having smoked a cigarette in years, no whiskey anywhere in the house,  waiting for your voice to come back to me through the speakers, and when it does I still go limp, letting it take me where it will in its own sweet time, swelling up and around me, no past, no future,  just Nina filling up every pore and corpuscle.
Listening, I become all cellular memory now, feeling  blood pound my head,  breath fill  my lungs. Yes, I still know  these songs by heart. They  surge like  a groundswell of black Southern dirt underneath me and through me, and yes,    I still love to sing along with you, Nina, but now, after all these years, I want something more.  I want to feel  my own voice throbbing,  its blood and gristle, its every grain of sand beneath my soles.  I want to sing my own deep-down song back to you.
Someday, Nina, I will. 

copyright 2000, Women's Review of Books, Wellesley College

Statue of Nina Simone in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina


Friday, February 17, 2012

More About Pat Riviere-Seel

I had planned to do a wonderful post on Pat Riviere-Seel's reading and discussion at City Lights bookstore yesterday and had it all set up with numerous links and photographs. After a good while of work getting the images and words arranged as I liked them, I tried to paste in another poem, and lo and behold, the whole page vanished.

 So, Pat, I'm sorry. I don't have time to re-do this page, of which I was so proud. But I am going to post the photos from our morning in the Regional Room, which you described as "magical."  For you readers who don't know Pat's work, please go to this link on  My Laureate's Lasso blog for an introduction to her work and, best of all, more poems.

Here's the bookstore cat, snoozing on the top of the sofa as we were leaving.  Pat said she especially wanted a photo of him, so here he is.  I wonder if our discussion put him to sleep?

Our reading and discussion circle in the Regional Room. Nobody looks asleep in this group! Except for the cat, of course.  You can see him sprawled just behind Carolyn Elkins' head.
Pat, flanked by poet-friends Susan Lefler, who drove over from Brevard, and Jeannette Cabanis Brewin.
Pat discusses the process of writing The Serial Killer's Daughter and the mystery of entering into the internal landscape of her characters' lives.
Bill Everett, poet, novelist, and retired professor of theology and philosophy reminds us the the origin of "mystery" comes from the Greek "mysterion," meaning something that is unknowable.
Carolyn Elkins, Joyce Foster, and Pat Montee like what they hear.

And they weren't the only ones.  We are grateful to City Lights Bookstore for letting us use the Regional Room for our monthly gatherings--and grateful to Netwest for inspiring us to bring Coffee with the Poets eastward to Sylva.



Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Want to be a Flamenco Dancer

Yes, it's true.  I want to be a flamenco dancer.  This is not an overnight desire.  I've had it for years, but watching those elegant and exotic women dance around the stage at the WCU Performing Arts Center last night brought that old desire back to boiling point. (See preceding post.)  I have to face reality, though.  I'm 67 years old.  I have an ankle with metal plates embedded in it.  (Long story.  I wrote an essay about it 15 years ago for Carolina Quarterly.  You can look it up....maybe.) I have never taken any dancing lessons in my life, except for a few weeks of ballet with a good friend back when my daughter was in grade school.  I wanted to take dancing lessons during my childhood, but my parents were afraid I'd get polio and thus waste the money paid out for dance instruction.

I took piano lessons instead. That way I could sit in my wheel chair and play Mozart.   I wrote a poem about that.  It's in Catching Light.  (You can definitely look that one up!)

So, I'm a frustrated wannabe dancer.  Also singer.  Visual artist.   Gourmet cook.  That's a long enough list, and my time in this particular life is growing short.  Given that grave reality, what else to do but go to google?  Google doth provide.  Flamenco clothing. Shoes.  And cd's.   I'm going to order a pair of black stompers and a long ruffled skirt.  Also Flamenco for Beginners.   Will I write more poems about flamenco dancing once I don my gypsy duds?   I hope so.

I believe that a gypsy skirt and shoes can re-awaken my creative spirit.  Rev up my energy that seems so often sapped by the demands of aging.  The family losses.  The early morning glimpses in the mirror.  The aching joints.  I am absolutely sure that listening to flamenco guitar and wailing cante jondo can cause the hair on my arms to rise up, the goose bumps gather, the flesh itself come alive, wanting to sing back and back and back.

So, don't laugh at my quest for gypsy shoes and skirts.   My longing for alegrias, seguiryas, soleares.  The erotic rhythms of desire and wild, raging sorrow.   Isn't that what all of us long for, whether we are singing along with Dolly Parton, Renee Fleming (trying to!!) or Nina Simone?

Wisteria, or, La Pasión Flamenca

photo by Rosegg (www.flamenco-vivo.org)
Last night the magic of flamenco came to Cullowhee.   The seduction.  The eroticism.  The exquisite yet passionate interplay of music, voice, and movement.   La Pasión Flamenca brought its touring performers to WCU's Fine and Performing Arts Center, and let me tell you, it was hard to sit still in a small auditorium seat during the performance!  My body wanted to move, my fingers wanted to coil around the rhythms, my palms wanted to drum against my blue-jeaned thighs.  I wanted to be part of it all!
I discovered flamenco music since I was in high school.  As a freshman at Wesleyan College, I signed up for Spanish because I'd fallen in love with Spanish music, and although I never learned to speak the language with any facility at all, I still love the sound of it, particuarly the voices of its poets.  Garcia Lorca.  Octavio Paz.  Jimenez. Cernuda.  I've always wanted to be able to dance flamenco, and in the following poem, I imagine doing so.  After last night's show, I am imagining this even more fiercely.  I think I'll try to order some flamenco dancer shoes.   I have plenty of shawls.   Now, let me dig out my old flamenco guitar records!


The hands.  The secret lies in the hands,
the dancer from Andalucia explains
on the afternoon radio program,
the secret of everything opening
over and over again.
Even these windows,
sealed shut over too many winters,
through which I can smell the wisteria.

the guitar strings throb
through the static and  I feel
my spine arching,
arms begin twining
around me, my fingers seducing

the air.  Stroking emptiness.  Oh,
to be wrapped like a gypsy in endless black fringe          
I would slowly unwind from my hips and let
fall to the floor.  Kick it out of my way

and get on with the real work of dancing
this song to its end, drunk as always
I’ve wanted to be  with the scent of these blossoming
vines that my mother said ought to be  ripped
from a tree before they have enough time to kill it.

From Catching Light, LSU Press 2001)

Sunday, February 12, 2012


February's Coffee with the Poet features Pat Riviere-Seel, a friend who graced my poetry class in the Great Smokies Writing Workshop several years ago.  Pat has become a vibrant presence in our North Carolina Literary community, offer her talents and her time to her readers and the literary organizations that help draw us all together.  Please join us at City Lights Bookstore on Feb. 16 at 10:30 to meet Pat and listen to her read and talk about her work.  Our gatherings are always informal and, yes, fun.  Afterward, I highly recommend lunch downstairs at City Lights Cafe!

Here is a poem of hers that I love.   You can find more on her website by clicking on the link above.

The Bears 

The bears returned last night.
 The mother and her three cubs 
slept in the mound of leaves. 
They left deep indentations
 where summer-sated bellies 
A snowy evening last winter.
and massive paws lay curled
 beneath the maple’s outstretched limbs
and the quarter moon’s pale light.
All day, while I raked leaves into piles,
 the bears were watching. They moved 
silent and unseen among evergreens,
 gray trunks, and branches as they had
all summer. Preparing for winter sleep, 
 they stuffed themselves on acorns and grubs.
One late summer day they came  into 
 the orchard. The cubs shimmied
up the young apple trees, bent 
 one bough to the ground and broke
another in their play. The mother
 took her time selecting fallen apples,
and those she could reach balanced 
 on her hind legs. She carried these
one by one to her cubs, gently 
 urged them to taste and chew. 
She knows how long winter lasts. 
Pat Riviere-Seel

Pat Riviere-Seel has published two poetry collections, The Serial Killer’s Daughter (Main Street Rag, 2009), winner of the Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry and No Turning Back Now (Finishing Line Press, 2004), nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry at UNCA in the Great Smokies Writing Program.

Pat is a 2003 graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Queens University of Charlotte. Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Asheville Poetry Review, Passager, Tar River Poetry, and Kakalak, an Anthology of Carolina Poets, among others. Recent poems  appear in Boomtown, the Queens University MFA Program 10th Anniversary Anthology, Cloudbank, and Poetry of Love, an anthology published by Jacar Press. 

Her poetry has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was a finalist in the Press 53 Open Awards and a semi-finalist in the first James Applewhite Poetry Prize in 2011. The Serial Killer’s Daughter premiered as a staged reading in March 2011 with a 4-member cast. 

Pat is a former award winning journalist, lobbyist, publicist, and editor. She worked as a political reporter for daily newspapers in Fayetteville, NC, and Annapolis, Maryland until 1987 when she established her own public and government relations firm. She represented nonprofit organizations in the Maryland General Assembly, designed public relations campaigns for private businesses and political candidates.

In 1992 she returned to her native North Carolina to take a position as Editor of Voices, the bimonthly journal of Rural Southern Voice for Peace. She married Ed Seel in 1997 and moved with him to Germany for two years. During that time, Pat attended the Spoleto Writers Workshop in Spoleto, Italy.

She has lived in Asheville, NC, since 1999 and served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society and Chair of the North Carolina Writers Conference. Pat is an avid runner, hiker, and gardener.

from  The Serial Killer's Daughter
Winner of the Roanoke Chowan Poetry Award from the NC Literary and Historical Association

I. About the Daughter
The serial killer's daughter hangs damp sheets on the line.
She likes the yeasty way the wind fills the cloth and how the sun sweetens the
When she holds the clothespins between her teeth, she tastes bread and salted butter.
She no longer worries about trying to hold on to the brass pole of the carousel.
The serial killer's daughter can hold anything - or anyone - she pleases.
Preferring familiar company, she surrounds herself with dahlias and lavender.
She always rides the wooden tiger because there is no bear.
Why are the animals always one step ahead of the humans?
The serial killer's daughter knows how frightening a creature walking upright can be, so
she always walks as if she were about to waltz.
Her hands write a language only she can read.
She's not a figment of anyone's imagination. 

She is sunlight striping murky swamp water.

II. More About the Serial Killer's Daughter

The serial killer's daughter wears tight curls made of cypress roots and washes them in
buttermilk from the moon.
When mud oozes between her toes she no longer worries about wiping her feet before
stepping through the door.
She likes to touch people she loves on the nape of the neck and feel the rocky landscapes
of their spines.
Her heart measures her intentions and stretches them in a chain around her wrist so she
will not forget.
The serial killer's daughter waits for no one.
It never matters if she is on time. Whose time?
Time is irrelevant, like memories she saves and forgets.
Because her life needs seasoning she grows spearmint, basil, and lemon balm.
The serial killer's daughter is always leaving Robeson County.
For her, the stone covered with moss and mica that she carries in
her pocket contains a galaxy.

(Available from Main Street Rag Press )