Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.


So I’m paging through my contributor’s copy of Measure and I come across this poem titled “Arrival” by Mike Carson. Now, I know nothing about Carson–never even heard of him before this poem, though he’s been published in some fine journals–but I can tell you who he’s been influenced by, just by reading these lines.

The riot of frog song, quivering the pond
With squiggle and hop of their screamed mating,
Suds of egg-sperm, thrum of the bulged
Necks, skin-shiver, as the green sog
Of the land seeps, thawing the dark
Grave-layer from which they croak up, snatch
And navigate the craze of their slick clutch

That’s some Seamus coming through.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

The assonance, the clotted rhythm, even the subject matter is the same. And you know something? I like them both.

April 29, 2008 Posted by | Measure, Mike Carson, Seamus Heaney | Leave a comment

New Issue

And I’m in it! Alas, not online, or even on the cover, but I have two poems in the latest issue of Measure A Review of Formal Poetry, and I’m in among some heavy hitters as well. My contributions to the issue are “Unhealthy Sonnet” and “i sing of Brian, born of God.”

Interesting side note–John DuVal, who runs the Translation program at Arkansas, is in here with two poems of his own and a translation of Charles D’Orleans. When I was in his French Poetry in Translation class a lifetime ago, he offered a version of that translation in class. I did one of my own–not so good–but it was cool to see that translation from so long ago in print, and in the same journal with my own work.

So check out Measure–the link is in the sidebar. Excellent journal of metrical poetry.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | I Sing of Brian, John DuVal, Measure, Unhealthy Sonnet | Leave a comment

"The War Works Hard"

Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi woman poet whose collection, The War Works Hard, should be required reading for anyone looking to get a sense of political poetry today. Most of the poems in this collection were written between 1985 and 2004, and so they cover three wars–the Iran-Iraq War, and both US-Iraq wars, as well as the period of the debilitating sanctions between the two US wars, and she writes with devastating honesty and a sharp wit.

My favorite of the collection is the title poem, largely because it is so painfully sarcastic. Mikhail has a simple metaphor at play–the war does so much for us and yet we give it no credit–but she holds nothing back in her descriptions.

It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
award medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters

And so on.

Part of the reason this, and the other poems that deal with the second Gulf war are so interesting is because they are ambivalent at best about the invasion. Mikhail was obviously no fan of the Hussein regime–she’s part of a Christian minority in the country and was so frightened for her life that she fled, first to Jordan and then to the US. And yet, she is critical of the US invasion. Another of her poems, “An Urgent Call,” addresses Lynndie England, best known as the soldier in the Abu Ghraib photos.

Hurry up, Lynndie,
go back to America now….
Don’t worry,
we will send an email to God
to tell Him
that the barbarians
were the solution.
Don’t worry.
Take a sick leave
and release your baby
from your body,
but don’t forget
to hide those terrible pictures,
the pictures of you dancing in the mud.
Keep them away
from his or her eyes.
Hide them, please.
You don’t want your child to cry out;
The prisoners are naked…

It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s worth the effort.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard | Leave a comment

Once more into the breach

Ah, the never-ending pursuit of book publication. I sent the latest version of Everyday Te Deum to a contest yesterday, and the waiting game continues. There has to be a better way to do this than the current contest system.

April 24, 2008 Posted by | Book contests | Leave a comment

Why do we read this poem?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been going through poems in dialogue with my 2nd year students–the post I did on Sir Robert Aytoun’s version of “To His Coy Mistress” came out of that. Funny side note–one of my students for that class came across that post while googling for some information on that poem. Seems few people have written about it.

So last week we jumped into the series that Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” spawned, and it occurred to me, yet again, that Marlowe probably owes every bit of fame that poem has to the fact that Sir Walter Raleigh responded to it, because it’s not very interesting on it own. I mean, formally it’s gorgeous–the rhythms are perfect, the rhymes are tight, it fits the pastoral mode to a tee–but that’s also the problem with it. There’s nothing really, I don’t know, kinky about it.

Marlowe’s got this shepherd, and he wants this nymph, and so he promises her the world and then some. And? And that’s the problem. There’s no and to it. There’s no reason why this would ever work, no matter how simple-minded the nymph. And that’s what Raleigh picked up on and pointed out so brutally in his reply.

John Donne did a reply as well, titled “The Bait,” and it’s a good poem as well, taking Marlowe’s initial metaphor and then setting off on a completely unrelated jaunt into the world of angling and all, but I don’t think it would have had the effect on Marlowe’s poem that Raleigh’s did, because Raleigh’s reply basically cuts Marlowe to shreds, while being a good, biting poem at the same time.

But even though I think Raleigh’s poem is far better than Marlowe’s, I don’t think it would have survived on its own either, assuming it had been written in the first place. “The Nymph’s Reply” needs “The Passionate Shepherd” as much as the shepherd needs to hear from his maiden. Neither is whole, and that’s probably why they’re nearly always placed in tandem in anthologies.

April 22, 2008 Posted by | Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh | Leave a comment

New poem

A week or so ago, I mentioned that I was working on one of the poem prompts that Robert Lee Brewer had set up on Poetic Asides, and that I might post it when I was done with it. Well, I can’t say I think it’s one of my best, but I’m as done with it as I’m going to get for the moment. Any suggestions?


I was born two days after Nixon won
the first time. Inauspicious beginnings
in a year of strife. Bobby Kennedy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. The Tet Offensive.
I am the same age as The ODB
and Lisa Marie Presley, as Ziggy Marley
and Vanilla Ice, and no wonder
we’re all fucked up because we
all came forth in a year of strife
and we’ve never gotten over it.
But I refuse to stay down. In ‘68
I also got Tommie Smith and John Carlos
in Mexico City, The White Album,
Cash at Folsom Prison and Lady Soul,
Of Being Numerous and North Central,
2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes
and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.
It’s not enough, but it is something,
a firebreak, a seawall that deadens
the hurricane’s storm surge, a shot
of whiskey to numb an abscessed tooth.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Headlines, National Poetry Month | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Christopher Smart

According to this, Christopher Smart was born on this day back in 1722. He’s best known for his poem “Jubilate Agno,” which is one crazy bit of poetry. The piece of it that’s most often anthologized is often called “My Cat Jeoffrey,” in which Smart finds God in everything Jeoffrey does.

When I was working on my poems about Jehovah’s Witnesses a lot, I decided to write about the difficult relationship I have with my father, and I did it using Smart’s form as a guide. I titled mine “Jubilate Patro,” and I’m posting it here, in honor of Smart’s birthday.

Jubilate Patro

For I will consider my father Sam
For he praises God in his mumbles and circular stories
For his left arm is crooked to remind him of original sin
For half his brain was cut off from blood when he was a baby
For it rewired itself
For his right arm is mighty in exchange
For with it he did not spare the rod
For he was an elder until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he was an accountant until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he praised God in his mumbles and circular stories before Alzheimer’s took his memory and thus it is a part of his soul

Continued below the fold…

For he is still a storyteller even though he gets lost in his stories sometimes
For with his right arm he taught me how to snap off a curveball
For with his left arm he taught me to drive a stick shift
For with his half-brain he taught me to praise God among strangers
For he never explained football to me, but made me learn it myself
For he is taller than me even with the curve in his spine that causes him pain
For I will never know another man greater than him
For his favorite animal was the porcupine, a creature of defense
For when I was a child and beaten by bullies he told me it was right to defend myself with a tree branch
For he taught me what a lie was by reading to me of Ananias and Sapphira
For I became a poet anyway
For I used that tree branch and knocked one boy silly
For he made me listen to Hank Williams even when I didn’t want to
For because of him I can still quote chapter and verse of the Gospels
For he can still dance
For when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he came to see me even though I had left the church and was an unrepentant sinner
For he taught me that there is no such thing as a fair fight
For when he accidentally bloodied my nose, he apologized in tears
For I still have his copy of Dick Clark’s 20 Years of Rock and Roll
For when Louis Jordan came on the stereo he would grab my mother and twirl her in the
living room of our trailer so that the floors shook
For he made me hold a nail while he hit it with a hammer and so taught me trust
For I learned to drive a nail myself at 7
For he drove a dump truck with one good arm and so taught me that while I may be able to do all things, some times I should not
For he has more hair than I do
For when I told him that I had been excised from the church, he hung up on me to praise God in the only way he knew how
For he took me to see Chuck Berry when I was 15
For because of him I worked shit jobs and thus built character
For because of that I appreciated college when I finally went
For he knew there is glorious music in a car engine even if he didn’t always know how to coax it forth
For he taught me to always carry jumper cables
For he went to his father’s bedside when it was time for him to die
For he stayed a month and helped build the coffin
For he would not let the funeral be held in a Kingdom Hall in order to protect the body of the church
For he taught me there are things more important than family and sometimes I hate him for that
For his father is Jehovah and he has no son anymore

April 11, 2008 Posted by | Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, Jubilate Patro | Leave a comment

Winter Bean

I took this while in Chicago over a year ago. That’s what happens when you stick with film and are lose track of the film canister. I’ve got to make the move to digital.

April 10, 2008 Posted by | Chicago | Leave a comment

Challenge Poem

So when I mentioned the April Poetry Challenge, I said I might post some of what comes out of that. Why not?

Here’s the second poem I wrote for the challenge–not the second challenge, mind you, but the second one I wrote. I’m not real sure how I feel about it yet, but here it is. I’m certainly open to comments on it.


I was born two days after Nixon won
the first time. Inauspicious beginnings
in a year of strife. Bobby Kennedy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. The Tet Offensive.
I am the same age as The ODB
and Lisa Marie Presley, as Ziggy Marley
and Vanilla Ice, and no wonder
we’re all fucked up because we
all came forth in a year of strife
and we’ve never gotten over it.
I turned 32 on Election Day, 2000
the day Fox News declared George Dubya
the 43rd President of the US.
I’ll be working that one out of my system
for decades—to be forever linked
with Nixon is bad enough, but to carry
the weight of the two worst presidents
ever is a bit much to ask of anyone.
But I refuse to stay down. In ‘68
I also got Tommie Smith and John Carlos
in Mexico City, The White Album,
Cash at Folsom Prison and Lady Soul,
Of Being Numerous and North Central,
2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes
and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.
It’s not enough, but it is something,
a firebreak, a seawall that deadens
the hurricane’s storm surge, a shot
of whiskey to numb an abscessed tooth.

Here’s his latest challenge. It just so happens I’m working on one about seeing la grande Jatte, so if it comes out, I might post that as well.

April 9, 2008 Posted by | Headlines, National Poetry Month, Poetic Asides | Leave a comment

Brain Surgery

When I go looking for stories about the writing process, I don’t generally hit up the New York Times, but there’s a piece today by Rosanne Cash that I found fascinating. There are, of course, major differences between writing poetry and writing songs–the music is an integral part of the effect of the lyrics, and does much of the emotional heavy lifting. All you need for proof of that is to listen to the ways various bands cover the same song, the way their musical styles infect the meaning of the lyrics. A classic example is “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Ringo Starr’s singing galumphs along, and the song has a jaunty feel to it, while Joe Cocker’s live performance from Woodstock reaches down into your cockles and gives them a good squeezing. Same lyrics–different interpretation.

But when it comes to inspiration, I get the feeling that really good songwriters and really good poets are coming from the same places. From Rosanne Cash’s piece:

The instrument has a lot to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes. And sometimes the fragment of a conversation, the color of the sky, the image in a dream, has everything to do with where the song begins….

On vacation recently, there were some Christian fundamentalists at lunch at the next table and I felt the tension and constriction of their religious beliefs wafting off them like a perfume. That is my own projection, I’m sure, but I thought of something a friend used to say about that particular brand of religion — that it was like “looking at the ground with a flashlight when the whole universe was around you waiting to be noticed.” Walking to the beach later, I was thinking about how my own idea of God was so mutable, and that even though I pray, most of the time I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying.

And I like it that way. Sometimes God is Art, Music and Children and that is more than good enough. Ruminating on these things, I thought of a phrase — “the pantheon of my religious desires” — and I wrote it in my notebook. That line is probably too sophomore-English-major precious, but this is how songs begin for me. Sometimes.

I can relate to that a lot, in part because for most of my life, I was one of those people looking at the ground with a flashlight instead of looking at the universe around me. And it’s no surprise to me that once I gave up hat view of the ground, I started writing poetry again. I’d written in high school, painful, angsty stuff like most poets, but had given it up once I’d gotten married. After my divorce eight years later, and after I’d left the church, about the middle of my second semester, I started writing again–bad, angsty stuff as well, but highly charged with a wonder of the universe that I had never experienced as a Jehovah’s Witness. Suddenly I had questions instead of answers, and poetry was a way of meditating on that.

I heard a dear friend and fellow poet once say in conversation that she felt that an atheist couldn’t be a poet, because there’s a need to be able to feel the sublime and the transcendent. At the time–and this was several years ago–I wasn’t sure how to take that. I was agnostic at the time, and pretty secular, and discounted the need to believe in something larger than myself. But now, even though I disagree with her statement, I know what she’s talking about. Artists do have to search for the transcendent in the universe if they are going to have a hope of reflecting and translating that into words or paintings or sculptures or music or dance or any other artistic form. Some call it god. I don’t, but I search for it all the same, and I find it at times, as Cash does, in “Art, Music and Children.” Oftentimes I find it on a road, or in my memories, especially those of Louisiana, in the smells of certain meals, in the vocal accents that echo through time, in headlines and textbooks. It’s there–you just have to notice it.

April 6, 2008 Posted by | inspiration, NY Times, Rosanne Cash | Leave a comment