Monday, December 14, 2009

Featured Poet #4

Seven Poems From Scott Owens

One Man’s Trash

Who would have ever thought
I’d pay for them. Growing up
near Sanford, breezy autumn days
welcome relief from summer heat,
we raked them from our yard to burn
with other unwanted things,
igniting childhood pleasure as orange
flames erupted from orange piles.
No one minded the big leaves
of oak or maple, but these too thin
to catch in the tines of metal rakes
were hated by all, and if left there,
they made the ground too slippery
for running, made grass impossible.

Now, needing the impossibility
of grass, I hand over $3.75
per bale to put down the baleful
things around trees and garden,
protect the wooden walls of house,
and show once and for all

the absolute relativity of value.


He never ran with us at practice,
counted laps, hit flies
with one hand, threw batting practice
without a glove, fielding anything
he didn’t have to bend over to get.

In games he stood on one baseline
or the other, middle-aged paunch
tightening only to yell, “Run,”
“Pick your pitch,” “Eyes on the ball.”

He wore a camelback beneath
his Dodger jacket, sucked the tube-end
between innings, after strikeouts,
errors, botched double plays.

Nobody knew where he came from,
whose relative he was. Not the kind
anyone was likely to claim. He seemed
mostly to belong to the field itself,
a fifth base, a spirit of baseball.

He taught us everything we knew
about the game and some things about life,
picking up the spin of the ball,
going for the extra base, using
both hands on every catch,
how to push the voices into corners,
use your relays , know the count
and the number of outs, how to keep

the bases filled, the bottle hidden.

Instructor’s Manual 2009

In case of emergency, do not panic.
If you don’t stay calm the phones
in every room will scream out alarm.
Do not incite panic in others.
Do not endanger yourself to help others.
Do not use the elevator or cellphones
(known to detonate bombs).
Do not attempt to flee
as you may block traffic.
Do not walk alone.
Do not get in the car.
Break glass, aim at the base, and pull trigger.
Do not attempt to disarm.
Do not speak unless spoken to.
Do not make the attacker feel stupid,
ashamed or otherwise insecure.
Do not stare.
Do not look into the attacker’s eyes.
Do not talk down to him
or speculate on outcomes or causes
or how he feels about his mother.
Avoid argument.
Avert temptation.
Request identification.
Do not leave those who are suicidal alone.
Do not attempt to play therapist or priest.
Do not attempt to convert, exorcise, or revive
unless properly trained.
Do not put your hands in blood or vomit.
Do not attempt to clean up a spill.
Do not touch the suspicious package.
Do not remove writing on the wall.
Stay away from windows.
Avoid flying debris.
Assume the fetal position
and hide beneath the heavy desk.
Do not turn on or off the lights,
light matches or use computers.
Do not open the door.
Do not attempt to retrieve valuables.
Do not lose this manual.
Do not leave this manual where those
who might wish us harm could find it.
Do not write poems in this manual.
If you survive and seek publication,
do not mention the school
or the writers of this manual,

and change the names to protect yourself.

Smells Like a Man

Do you have a body that sweats,
sweat that has odor,
odor that smells,
smells like a man?

Do you want to change
what you are,
what you were,
what you were
meant to be?
Do you want to be
something more
or less than you are,
something more
or less than you were,
something more
or less than you were
meant to be,
something more
or less than human
wanting to be something more
or less than this?

Do you want to be
the perfect semblance
of something human
that never smells
like something human,
or always smells
like powder,
like cool rush,
like desert spice,
like something human
always smelling
like powder,
like cool rush,
like something
not quite as bad
as something human?

Do you want a body
like this one,
like that one,
like almost anyone
except your own,
a body that’s perfect,
the perfect semblance
of something human
without the flaws
of something human?
Do you want a body
big in all the right
places, so big
in all the right places
that someone thinks
it’s perfect,
so perfect
that someone thinks
they shouldn’t touch it,
that someone thinks
they might leave smudges
in its perfection
or cause it to sweat,
sweat that has odor,
odor that smells,
smells like a man?


In my grandma’s world view
there were only six kinds of birds,
most simply named by color:
bluebird and yellowbird, blackbird
and brown, redbird and buzzard.

When I asked her about the birds
I’d seen that were purple or green
or orange, she said anyone
who looked at birds that close
had too much time on their hands.

An accidental conservationist,
she was just as frugal with containers
as she was with words, every glass
a jelly jar, bread bags and coffee cans,
foil and feedsacks always emptied
and saved, rinsed out and reused.

At meals, too, little was wasted.
We ate the sweetbreads of animals,
the fancy parts, livers and hearts
ground or fried, pressed into loaves
and baked. Even chicken bones
were crushed and buried in the garden.

All scraps were saved for the dogs,
scraped into the bowl by the sink
and set out at dusk. Only eggshells,
corn husks, potato skins were thrown
over the fence for cows and chickens
or any of the six birds she named.

She never bought a new piece of furniture.
Everything, she said, could be repaired
or covered. She used the same beds
her family had owned before her, and we slept
two boys each in two single beds,
back to back and feet to head.

Clothes, too, were passed from one
generation to the next. Hand-me-downs
never so worn they couldn’t be mended
or patched or at last stitched into quilts
whose squares felt as familiar

as anything saved from oblivion.


How is it possible I still remember
the green shirt Frank Ellis wore
the day he pushed me down on the playground
in first grade and then, with Everett Jackson
in his orange tee with a brown collar
sitting on my back, proceeded to scoop
handfuls of dirt in my mouth without
remembering why Frank disliked me so?

Was it that I was poor, and he
was frightened by the mere proximity
of such poverty, that Mrs. Olson
liked me better than him, that I knew
my alphabet, my left from right,
could count to a hundred, and read
stories he could only stare at?

Did he really care that the shirt
I wore, simple, pale blue oxford
with a stiff collar, still too big
for me, had once been his,
taken from the poor box
in Ms. McCabe’s office?

I still remember Blake Elementary School,
the color of bricks, playground,
chain-link fence, children desperate
for hope, a place given to easy wounds,

this one the one thing I never remember.

Work of Art

The potter’s shoes are molded
through labor, baked on
in the heat of creating, splattered
with unformed parts of pots
and vases, plates and cups,
the living pieces of earth
he rubs from mud and clay,
magically pulling shapes
from his open hand, pinching
art in his fingertips,
pressing their bodies in his palm
casting his pulse
and the wheel’s pulse

into new beings of fire.

Biography Note:

Scott Owens has received awards from the North Carolina Poetry Society, the North Carolina Writer’s Network, the Academy of American Poets, and the Poetry Society of South Carolina for his four collections of poetry and more than 400 poems published in various journals and anthologies. He is co-editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, Chair of the Sam Ragan Poetry Prize, author of “Musings” (a weekly poetry column), and founder of Poetry Hickory. He teaches creative writing at Catawba Valley Community College and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes.

Q @ A with Scott Owens

CH: How long have you been writing and why did you start in the first place?

SO: That's a tougher question than it might appear. I first wrote poems in grade school as a way of getting positive attention from my mom and teachers. They were, of course, horrible poems, very derivative, imitative, cliched and predictable. Then sometime during my late teen years I started writing darker poems that cautiously revealed some of the uglier details of my childhood. I didn't show those to anyone, but they helped me move out of pure imitation in poetry, and I wrote more in that style throughout college and up to the publication of my first book, The Persistence of Faith in 1993. Shortly after that, the reality of needing a consistent paycheck led me to stop writing for about a dozen years. I started back just two and a half years ago when my daughter started going to school in the mornings. So I guess I'd say I started in high school, around 1980, but I've only actually been writing for about 15 years. As for why, initially for the pats on the back, later because I needed to get some things "out," and now because when I'm not writing I just don't feel very satisfied.

CH: Who or what were your inspirations?

SO: Obviously, that is something that changes as a writer changes, but my first role model in poetry remains one of my current role models. I've always admired Robert Frost's work, and while I wouldn't say I emulate his style any longer, I do still hear occasional echoes in my work, and I'll probably always identify with his perspective on place and human existence. The next great teacher for me was Galway Kinnell. I still consider his "Book of Nightmares" the greatest book of poetry ever. A poem I wrote just the other day, in fact, began with a line from his poem "Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight." And I suppose my third vital influence was and is Donald Hall. His theories on organic form helped me find a range of voices that I've become quite happy with. And, of course, there is a laundry list of others whose work has inspired and influenced me in various ways, going all the way back to Donne, Browning, Keats, Whitman, Housman, Hopkins, Williams, Stevens, Baudelaire, Berryman, Roethke, Creeley, Plath and Sexton, Wendell Berry, Tim Peeler, and a number of international writers including Yehuda Amichai, Yannis Ritsos, Neruda, Cavafy, Seferis, and Robert Desnos.

CH: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing?

SO: Two things, and to some degree they're the same thing. Time and keeping one's mind relaxed enough and undistracted enough to allow a complex series of associations to play out and actually attend to that play well enough to get it down on paper. There is a sort of zone I enter when I'm writing successfully. I'll think of a line or image or idea that will stick in my head, and as I go though my day or several days, that germinal element seems to collect other elements from memory, experience, perception, history, literature, wherever, and all those things that were not consciously tied up into one thought before become so. It's tough to stay in that zone when you get up running to get everything else done and never get the 2 to 3 hours needed to just sort of immerse yourself into an open state of mind that lets things happen.

CH: What advice would you give to a new writer who is struggling to find his or her identity?

SO: Read and write, Read and write, Read and write some more. Immersing oneself in language is probably the best way to help things that use language to start happening. At the same time, I would say achieve some balance. Ivory tower writing is often pointless. If you work 8 hours a day, sleep 8 hours a day, spend 4 hours of quality time with your loved ones, and 1 hour taking care of yourself (food, bills, travel, email, etc.), that still leaves 2 hours a day to read and another hour to write. And finally, I would say be patient. During my first career as a writer, the roughly 7 years in the late 80s and early 90s, I labored over every poem. Then after a 12 year hiatus, things seemed so much easier. So, if you think it's meaningful to you that you write, then I'd say just keep doing it and eventually you'll likely hit your stride.

End of Interview


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