Chapbook Review: Carey McHugh

As part of my directed study with Professor Smith, I’ve been reading and reviewing a few chapbooks. This is one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone!

Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c., Carey McHugh

Carey McHugh’s chapbook Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c. was selected by Rae Armantrout for the 2007 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. As an introductory chapbook from an up-and-coming young poet, who has since gone on to further her poetic repertoire, McHugh’s collection is a syntactic and sonic masterpiece that explores acts of creation and decay in nature, relationships, and self. The persistent crackling of the sounds and movement in McHugh’s poems create a work that can be appreciated for not only its narrative, but for its incessant and welcomingly aggressive ability to pull the reader from one poem to the next.

McHugh’s effortless manipulation of sound is prevalent throughout the collection, a true feat in light of its underlying sense of quiet. In lines like “stacked rattles stammering/ loose in the tail’s slow/ taper, scales also” and “newly embarked to carry crockery,” McHugh demonstrates an ability to use brisk sounds like t and c to create images that are alive in their vividity and repetition. Her line breaks create space between the stimuli of sound that allow sentences to carry over multiple stanzas without becoming overwhelming. In accordance with the sound conveyed by words themselves, many of McHugh’s poems utilize rhythm in a similar sense to create a similar effect. A balance of quick lines like “Tympanum among the excess.” and “A sackcloth calm.” in addition with longer, fuller lines creates a jolting rhythm that focuses the reader’s attention on certain moments within each piece. The combination of sound and rhythm within these poems creates a taught experience within pieces that can sometimes be uncertain in terms of narrative.

McHugh’s poems excel at what one could call an “element of choice.” Though many of her images are exact, in other places she chooses to create a slew of options and images that is almost symptomatic of the uncertainty of nature conveyed throughout the collection, and the repeated address to a “you,” who (whether one or many) seems to occupy many positions all at once. “Patient, eventual, brittle, misshapen/ and one fault lower than fear: your childhood/ is prarie-evident, delicate, waiting to leave” is an exercise on the ability of impreciseness to become somehow more precise than a direct image could have been. The inclusion of the “you” and “we” is sporadic, and serves to inject a sense of longing and loss into the subtle violence of the poems. Verbs like “scissored,” “blade,” and “knot” conjure their own underlying danger within the often serene passing of seasons.

Though the majority of McHugh’s poems occupy their own niche within the collection, missteps in structure and narrative in “Angling, A Catalogue” and “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight” serve only to tug at the fabric of what is otherwise an impressively woven collection of fear, danger, and reckoning in the quiet and solitary spaces created within the collection. Although “Angling, A Catalogue” serves as structural variety for the collection, the execution of the numerical list format was such that the poem itself seemed nearly unaware of its own structure. The flow of lines over numerical boundaries did not serve to inform each section, but rather made the numbers unessential to the operation of the poem. Similarly, “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight”, the final poem in the collection, worked against the rest of the collection by introducing new and seemingly unrelated images that would have been better served in the middle of the collection, or pared down to maintain the original intent of the collection. The rhythm that McHugh creates in the rest of the poems is somewhat buried in “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight”, as the gravity of the administrative tone and imagery, coupled with the overly-instructive structure of many of the sentences weighs down images like “humming limit/ of bees” and “individual lilacs” that would have served as a better end to the collection, as opposed to the opening of what could be a whole other set of ideas. Overall, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c. is a collection bursting with sonic ingenuity and the subtle violence of relationships, routine, and nature.

Someday My Prince Will Come And Rub Ointment On My Gills Because I’m Itchy

Dear Friends,

I’ve been listening to Bill Evan’s “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The overall feel and mood of the song makes me want to write something. I’ve been jotting a few things down and so far the only line that makes sense is, “someday my prince will come and rub ointment on my gills because I’m itchy.”

I usually am inspired by music. Sometimes, I’m inspired by the things that I see outside. Most of the time, I’m inspired by something I have read or have heard. I’ve never been inspired by a painting. I don’t think I’ve been inspired by a dance.

What inspires you to write poetry? Or what has inspired you to write a poem? A song? A family member? A planet? Tell me. I’m bored. It’s 4AM on 4/20/2015 and I have no idea why I’m still up.


db pena

“All poetry is thievery”

Hi everyone,

I’ve been thinking that I might have a cool idea for a poetry exercise.  Obviously a lot of our class time has revolved around looking at each other’s work, and regardless of the extent to which it is finished, I am continuously inspired by all of your poetry in workshop.  I often will come across pieces I really love in workshop that I sink my teeth into, start changing things around, leave ideas for ways to expand images, etc.  So I was thinking… what if we actually did this to each other’s work?  My idea is to exchange drafts with a partner, and with the draft you receive, revise it into a poem totally your own.  Change line breaks, punctuation, stanza formatting; add/remove images as much as your heart desires.  And then go back, comparing your peer’s poem with the one you reinvented.  I’m not sure if any of you guys think this would be interesting, but I’d definitely be down to try it.  We all have such different voices as poets that it might be really cool to see what happens when we take a poem written in our own voice and pass it to someone who will give it a completely different voice, and vice versa.  Let me know what you think!


The Feminist in Me Says The Personal is Political

I was thinking about how we were talking about politics and poetry the other day, how we sometimes get carried away in the social justice issues that rise out of poems in workshop. I’ve realized that this is what keeps poetry alive, if a poem doesn’t raise any issues that readers are passionate about or that are pertinent to their lives, they wouldn’t continue to be read. Every poem is political.

In my Leslie Marmon Silko class, we often chuckle about Silko’s intentions when writing a book. After finishing her nearly 800 page epic in 1999 that took her 10 years to write, Silko said she wanted to write a leisurely story about a girl and gardens, no politics involved. This however, turned into a nearly 500 page book centered around the hybridization and commodification of flowers. Silko realized that gardens were very political. One can just look around this campus and see how everything is planted for a (capitalist) purpose. The paths on this campus aren’t the quickest, straightest shot ways to get places, and you can often see footpaths students make over grass, mulch, and even flowers.

Anyhow, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the personal is always going to be political. And if the writer can’t find the politics in it, some reader out there is going to. Poetry does not exist in a vessel, we’re always going to treat poetry as both social commentary and a historical piece of the time it was written. Putting poetry into context, especially when so many poems have a myriad of interpretations, is going to end up with readers seeing the politics in them, regardless of if that was intended by the writer or not.

The Seasons, Sounds and Poetry

I can actually see grass outside, there is (somehow) no snow on the ground, and it’s finally warm outside-

Which, for some reason, means the tone of my poems completely changes. I know this doesn’t only happen to me, as I have read friends’ poems written at different times of the year and the same thing seems to happen. In case this does truly happen to anyone else, how does your tone shift? I notice that, when the weather is warmer, the lines on my poems become more center-justified and a little bit more structured than before. After wondering about this for what seemed like hours but was probably minutes, I tried to figure out what the root cause of my poetry shift could be.

Is it some sort of Seasonal Affective Disorder? No, I have no noticeable behavior changes between the seasons, and I feel no different in Summer versus Winter. Is it the sun finally being out? No, I don’t ever go outside, so the sun and I do not see each other much (sad, I know). I began to think that the answer lies in music.

I know we as a group have talked about the music we listen to while writing, and I thought, “Hey, I listen to different music in warmer weather versus colder weather, maybe that’s it!” So, I tried a small experiment: winter music versus spring music. I noticed that the poems I wrote during the winter music were much more broken apart, with a lot more space permeating the lines than the spring poems. Spring’s lines were more centered and structured.

Just as an example, here’s the kind of music I listen to in the Winter (ignore the obnoxious ads):

And here’s an example of Spring music:

I want someone else to tell me the kinds of music they listen to during the different seasons (if the style of music is different) and if the seasons change their style of writing, too!

Sound. Sound? Sound! Sound?! SOUND?!

With my hearing being not as good as when I was a younger man, I think about sound in poetry. I believe that sound is one of the most important things in poetry, if not the most important thing. Whenever I hear more than one S in a line, or more than one T, or ST next to TS, the sounds just start to dance back and forth in my mind. Sometimes they waltz and sometimes they break dance. Why is sound important? Because with sound you can create tension or you can create relief. Take the alliterative statement, “Charlie chased the chairs away,” as an example. There is tension in the statement itself, but the CHs create even bigger tension because of their quick and hard, almost crunchy, sound. To me the CHs sound like a fork being scraped against the E-string of an upright bass, but to others the CHs might sound like a wedding dress gliding against a glass coffee table. This is something else that I love about sound; the fact that a sound can have more than one meaning. Can you believe that? How can a sound have more than one meaning? It’s just sound. Sound is more than sound. Sound is an emotion, or various emotions. Sound is a scream, or a SCREAM. Sound is sound, or no sound. Just imagining what one can do with sound is overwhelming.

Music also uses sound, duh. Music can be fast, or slow. Loud, or quiet. Hard, or soft. But what happens when music and poetry are combined, specifically Jazz music and poetry? Whenever I think of poetry with music I think of the dog and cat that wore all black and performed poetry(?) on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. What do you guys think of poetry being accompanied by music, or music being accompanied by poetry?

I’ve attached Langston Hughes performing “The Weary Blues” to a Jazz accompaniment because it illustrates the power that combining poetry with music can have. Whenever Hughes pauses, the music continues. Whenever the music pauses, Hughes continues. And the calming tone of the Jazz juxtaposed against the content of the poem creates a feeling in me that I can’t explain.


Free Pluto,

db pena

Poetry meet-up 1!

Hi all,

I’d love to hear how all of your poetry meet-ups went today!  Pam, Diego and I were pretty productive in ours.  It was really interesting to do a study of one person’s works in progress and look at their interests, obsessions, struggles, etc.  Some of the conclusions we came to about each other’s work included our foci on interpersonal relationships between an “I” and a “you” (Diego and I had that in common about our poems) and who our speakers are (we talked about how Pam mainly uses a female speaker.)  I also got the chance to pick Pam’s brain a little more about slam poetry, which I know little about, and I learned about how her creative process changes based on whether she is writing for slam or for this class.  In reviewing my work, Pam challenged me to write a poem with a lot of natural imagery or something more scenic, because I usually am tempted to focus on the domestic/household sphere when it comes to creating images.  Eventually we got to talking about what kind of music we like to listen to when we write, and whether we’re team Spotify or Pandora.

Enjoy this rare semi-warm weather, everyone!


Getting in the Mood… (for Writing)

So I’ve been having trouble finding the right time/place/mindset in order to write, and I thought I’d bring my thoughts about my troubles here so we can talk about it. I’ll preface my post with a question, which I hope will send you guys to the comments to answer:

How do you start writing, at what time of day, where, in what mindset?

Continue reading “Getting in the Mood… (for Writing)”

Today’s poem on VerseDaily

In looking for things to post about, today I decided to check VerseDaily (which I really should just make a habit of–they always have great pieces.)  Today’s poem of the day, which I included below, is called “Human Atlas” by Marianne Boruch (WordPress did not preserve her spacing when I tried to copy/paste the text into this post, so check out the poem at  Although I am not familiar with her work, after reading this piece I’d definitely like to read more of her.

To start, I love the way she opens with “Because”.  I haven’t seen this done before and it’s a great way to launch your reader into the poem (note to self: try this!)  Something else that struck me is that she seems to pull off using a lot of body vernacular in the first stanza.  It seems like the use of vernacular is something we’ve struggled with as a class–trying to figure out how much is enough/too much–and although we are inundated with words used to describe bones, skin and bodies in general, it never feels like too much.  I also love the way the first stanza effectively uses commas to create pause and rhythm, but don’t halt the movement of the stanza.   The end of the first stanza is sassy in a way, with the line break followed by white space before the phrase “none of that.”

The first stanza of this piece really set up the rest of the poem for me, and begged for me to keep on reading.  As the piece goes on it almost reaches a “thesis” of sorts that can be backed up by the powerfully graphic images of the body.  “Complete, because / the whole body ends, remember?”  Reading over the piece again, I love that there’s not an immediate sound detail with “complete” and “compute,” but that there are a couple lines in between these two words; it made me feel like I should go back and enjoy the piece again.  Finally, ending on the idea of layers also leaves a reader with the conclusion that they should go back through to look at the poem again and what it has to say about bodies/the completion of bodies.

Poetry Overload

Hey Poetry friends!

With the onset of National Poetry Month, and given the fact that I just came back from CUPSI in Virginia Saturday night, I’m feeling completely immersed in poetry. Now this is not a letter of complaint by any means, but more a format for me to share my feelings in this particular entry, as well as a way to search for some kindred spirits in the hopes that we might band together and share tips on doing some epic soul-growing.

So CUPSI stands for College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. For four straight days, slam poets from across the nation hung out around Richmond and poured their souls out to strangers. We laughed, we cried, and we had some unforgettable experiences. I’m still reeling from my time at Virginia Commonwealth University even as I type, and I think I will be for some time yet. To make a long story short and skip over basically everything: while I was there in VCU, the poets had a few choice phrases they would shout out to any given poet as they walked up to the mic. Things like, “You got this!”, “Don’t be nice!”, and “Remember why you wrote it!” I want to focus on that last one, as it connects to the point I’m trying to make at feeling a little overwhelmed from all the poetry (see title). You see, for me, I’ve been coming to realize that writing all this poetry has helped me discover and define myself, and has helped to show me who I want to be. When asked to “remember why I wrote it,” the answer is complex and fickle, just how my poetry feels like it has been lately. There are so very many lessons and interpretations and suggestions in poems of any kind, and I find myself wanting to become the person I try to be in my poetry (when I write about being a happy, optimistic individual, that is). Perhaps understandably, I’m feeling overwhelmed because there has been a sudden massive influx of incredible words that I’m trying to not let slip away. You all ever have profound, life-changing experiences with poetry? Or the a littler kind of thing where you changed up your routine because of something pretty cool you heard or read? Has it ever happened a lot in a short period of time?

I’m interested to hear your voices if any of you are up to sharing. I know I could talk for hours on the topic of poetry and the effect it has had on my life, so I hope the above is comprehensive. If not, I’d totally be up to talk for hours.