Guest Post by Raymond Obstfeld: Poems That Move

I contributed to Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror with the exercise “When the World Turns to Shit, Why Should I Care? Character Arc in Dystopian Stories” (download here.)

I want to share a passion project: a poetry blog in which I analyze poems that have some meaning to me.

A completely useless project in the grand scheme, but I love it.

What is Poems That Move?

The goal is to introduce readers to an eclectic selection of poetry by offering some personal reactions and a line-by-line analysis that may or may not be accurate, insightful, helpful. It’s all very personal interpretations, with all the limitations that implies.​

Who Am I?

I’ve taught literature and creative writing at Orange Coast College since 1976. I’ve written over 50 published books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I’ve sold screenplays and a television show. I’ve written a graphic novel and was a writer on the reboot of Veronica Mars.
I love pop culture, which you’ll figure out soon enough through some of my eccentric notes on the poems.

How Did Poems That Move Come About?

Every other year since 1998, I have been taking a group of students to Cambridge University for a semester abroad program. During my 2016 trip, I found an anthology of poems, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.
The collection featured a wide spectrum of famous people introducing a poem that particularly moved them. The people presenting these poems included professional writers like John Ashbery and Billy Collins as well as actors like Daniel Radcliffe and Patrick Stewart and director J.J. Abrams. I was instantly struck by how heartfelt each of their introductions was, so much so that it made me eager to read the poem.
The poems didn’t always live up to the hype. Part of the problem was that some of them had a personal connection to the poem—a context that made the poem have special meaning for them. Like Kane’s sled “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, it’s just a sled until you get the context. Also, because many of the men selecting poems were older, a lot of the poems were about the detritus of aging: death, dying, loss of family and friends, aging, etc. So, while I very much liked most of the poems, I couldn’t read too many at once without my mood darkening considerably.
Nevertheless, I bought the companion book, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, which had the same mix of famous people (from Joyce Carol Oates to Vanessa Redgrave to Yoko Ono.)
My experience was the same with this book: the personal introductions made me eager to read each poem and I came away with an appreciation for a whole group of poems I might not have even noticed before. Even though there were many poems I didn’t care for in both collections, I was still affected by the contributors’ candid descriptions of why those poems moved them to tears. Sometimes, those introductions were more memorable than the poems.
Because I found that experience so enriching, I wanted to make use of my many years as a literature teacher and writer to introduce readers to some poems they might not know and offer some ideas about some poems they do know.

How Are the Poems Selected?

Most of my life, I’ve focused my interest on contemporary poetry. That’s because when I was first starting out as a writer of poetry, I wanted to listen to the voices of people my age. I was under the arrogant impression that only these younger poets spoke my language, understood my emotions —indulgent crap like that.
The older I got, the more my appreciation for poets beyond my own time grew. Maybe because “my own time” was expanding at an alarming rate.
Now I am excited to hunker down with poems from before my birth because now I understand so much better how there is no “my own time” when it comes to humanity.
The poems in this blog are selected purely based on whimsy. First, I have to be moved by it on some level, have some sort of emotional reaction. Second, I have to believe that I have something to say about the poem, enough to do it some sort of justice. Some of the poems will be old, mostly within the last hundred years. Some will be contemporary.

Who Is the Audience?

I teach my creative writing students that they need to be aware of who their audience is when writing in order to maintain some consistency in tone, language, and thematic depth. When I sent my first entry (“The Cool Web”) to Bill McDonald, my former college professor and friend for 48 years, he reminded me that knowing my audience was key for the success of this blog. He was right, of course.
However, my secret power is that I’m not concerned with its success nor with being consistent. Originally, I imagined compiling an anthology of my favorite poems and short stories with hand-scrawled notes that I would pass along to my children, now 20 and 15, so that they would always have some part of me to share. Sappy, I know, but age tends to bring the sap to the bark’s surface. This blog is some sort of hybrid of that anthology for my children extended to include a larger though untargeted audience.
One of my favorite plays and movies is THE HISTORY BOYS, written by Alan Bennett. A particularly poignant scene takes place when a student (Timms) sits in a classroom with his teacher (Hector) and expresses his frustration with poetry.

TIMMS: Sir. I don’t always understand poetry.

HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.

TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

HECTOR: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying. Smile! We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

I’ve always loved that exchange because literature has been a guide to me throughout my life. It has been the antidote to maladies I didn’t see coming. I pull those works out of my mental filing cabinet and they have comforted and instructed me. I try to make students see that it can do the same for them.
The big idea is that we are all going to die, but when that time comes will it be a Good Death (we feel happy and content that we were the best person we could be) or a Bad Death (we are filled with regret at having never made those human connections) Poetry can be that third rail that powers us to the person we want to become.
It’s become something of a joke in my classes that whenever we discuss a particularly challenging poem or story about marriage, parenting, death, or other topics they find far away from their own experiences, I proclaim,

“I’m making your deathbeds here, class.”

Now Write! Contributors: New Work

Now Write! contributors sure keep busy. As usual, there’s something here for everyone, including spooky scary short stories in time for Halloween from Elizabeth Eve King, a contributor to Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (Feb, 2014).

MYSTERY/THRILLERS

What A Mother KnowsWhatamotherknows
by Leslie Lehr (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Sourcebooks Landmark (May 2013)

How far will a mother go to protect her child?

An unsettling, emotional and suspenseful novel of the unshakable bonds of motherhood, in which Michelle Mason not only loses her memory after a deadly car crash, but can’t find her 16-year-old daughter, the one person who may know what happened that day. But the deeper Michelle digs, the more she questions the innocence of everyone, even herself. A dramatic portrayal of the fragile skin of memory, What a Mother Knows is about finding the truth that can set love free.

(Read Leslie’s guest blog post Wrecking Ball Revision – about writing the novel)

QuietDellQuiet Dell: A Novel (hardcover)
by Jayne Anne Phillips (Now Write! Fiction contributor)
Scribner (October, 2013)

Based on a real-life multiple murder by a con man who preyed on widows — a story that has haunted the author for more than four decades.

In Chicago in 1931, Asta Eicher, mother of three, is lonely and despairing, pressed for money after the sudden death of her husband. She begins to receive seductive letters from a chivalrous, elegant man named Harry Powers, who promises to cherish and protect her, ultimately to marry her and to care for her and her children. Weeks later, all four Eichers are dead.

One of the few women journalists in the Chicago press becomes deeply invested in understanding what happened to this beautiful family.

goodasgoneGood as Gone
by Douglas Corleone (Now Write! Mysteries contributor)
Minotaur Books (Aug. 2013)

A former U.S. Marshal, haunted by his own daughter’s disappearance, investigates a child abduction which becomes a terrifying international chase.

Former U.S. Marshal Simon Fisk works as a private contractor, tracking down and recovering children who were kidnapped by their own estranged parents. He only has one rule: he won’t touch stranger abduction cases. He’s still haunted by the disappearance of his own daughter when she was just a child, still unsolved, and stranger kidnappings hit too close to home.

Until, six-year-old Lindsay Sorkin disappears from her parents’ hotel room in Paris, and the French police deliver Simon an ultimatum: he can spend years in a French jail, or he can take the case and recover the missing girl.

badgirlsBad Girls (paperback, kindle and audio book)
by M. William Phelps (Now Write! Mysteries contributor)
Kensington Publishing Corp. (Sept. 2013)

A  tale of sexploitation, lust, and betrayal.  49-year-old Bob Dow shot execution-style in his own bed, his invalid mother locked in the next room—and a cache of homemade porn starring the town’s underage girls. The two accused killers—teen lovers Bobbi Jo Smith and Jennifer Jones—were on the run, intent on going out in a cross-country blaze of glory. Were both girls equally guilty of murder? Or was one merely a pawn in the other’s dainty, blood-stained hands?

LethalTreasureLethal Treasure: a Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery
by Jane Cleland (Now Write! Mysteries contributor)
Minotaur Books (June, 2013)

Josie Prescott pursues her newest source of inventory — the contents of abandoned storage units sold at auction. A crowd gathers at the storage facility, including local Henri Dubois, who bids against a man new to the local auction scene. The larger unit won by Henri has some exciting discoveries but when Josie receives a frantic call from Henri’s wife, the next morning, she learns that Henri never made it home after the auction. Police find Henri, dead in the storage unit. Was he killed over one of the objects? Is his wife hiding secrets that led to his death? And who was the stranger who bid against Henri? When the police turn to Josie’s antiques expertise, she discovers more than provenance—she uncovers a murderer.

 

STORY COLLECTIONS

AnotherHappyEndingAnother Happy Ending
by Elizabeth Eve King (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (October, 2013)

A collection of short fiction and a novella – Funny and dark, E.E. King offers a unique perspective on life, love and the meaning of the universe. These tales will have you up all night.

blackberriesBlackberries, Blackberries
by Crystal Wilkinson (Now Write! Fiction contributor – her exercise is available as a sample here.)
AmazonEncore (November, 2011)

An enchanting, haunting collection of stories by a self-described black country girl and poet from rural Kentucky. The stories explore the joys and pain of the women of “Affrilachia”.

NurseI Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse
Edited by Lee Gutkind (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
In Fact Books; 1 edition (April 9, 2013)

This collection of true narratives reflects the dynamism and diversity of nurses, who provide the first vital line of patient care. Here, nurses remember their first “sticks,” first births, and first deaths, and reflect on what gets them through long, demanding shifts, and keeps them in the profession. What connects these stories is the passion and strength of the writers, who struggle against burnout and bureaucracy to serve their patients with skill, empathy, and strength.

Youth

RiverMeet Me at the River  (hardcover and kindle)
by Nina da Gramont (Now Write! Fiction contributor)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers (October, 2013)

We can’t choose who we love…but can we choose to let go?

Stepsiblings Tressa and Luke have been close since they were little…and when they become teenagers, they slip from being best friends to something more. Their relationship makes everyone around them uncomfortable, but they can’t—won’t—deny their connection. Nothing can keep them apart.

Not even death. Luke is killed in a horrible, tragic accident, and Tressa is suddenly alone. Unable to outrun the grief and guilt and longing, she is haunted by thoughts of suicide. And then she is haunted by Luke himself.

SasquatchStreetball Crew: Sasquatch in the Paint  (hardcover)
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Disney-Hyperion (September, 2013)

Thanks to the six inches he grew recently, eighth-grader Theo has lost his invisibility. The basketball coach conscripts him, but Theo’s so uneasy in his new body that he’s uncoordinated and self-conscious on the court. He doesn’t want to quit, though, even when he’s nicknamed Sasquatch during his first game. The more he studies and practices the game, the more he loves it, but “to want to do something you weren’t good at was begging to be let down.” Meanwhile, he’s having trouble balancing other responsibilities, including the academic team that has been a huge part of his life.