Sunday, April 11, 2010

Music and Magic: A Conversation about Poetry

One of the joys of serving as a panelist on the 2009 Cybils Poetry Award committee this past year was meeting others who were passionate about poetry, and then getting the chance to share ideas about what makes a poetry book work and what it is about poetry that we love so much.

Over the months that the five of us evaluated books for the award, we kept in touch almost daily, sending e-mails to announce the arrival of another box of books from a publisher or, as the deadline neared, exchanging a flurry of notes eliminating some books and sending others to the final round. When our job ended with our submission of a handful of finalists for the judges to consider, I felt as if we’d discovered a rare collection of jewels to share with other readers.

After the awards were handed out, I started thinking about how we might continue our conversation about poetry, and these thoughts led to a few questions which I shared recently with my colleagues. The questions were my attempt to keep alive our conversation about poetry, as well as an attempt to share our love of poetry with others, an invitation to whoever loves poetry to share their thoughts (and feelings) about poetry, too.

I’m so grateful to fellow panelists--Kristy Dempsey, Kelly Fineman, Sylvia Vardell, and Tricia Stohr-Hunt--for offering responses to my questions and for helping to nourish my love of poetry over the past few months.

Enjoy the conversation below, and feel free to jump in at any time and join us.

Bruce: At some point in our discussion, Tricia wrote: "I love poetry that surprises, and makes me see things in a new way. I love the rhythm that moves a poem. I love it when a poem takes me somewhere and allows me to see through the poet's eyes." What about you? What is it about poetry that you love or makes you fall in love with it?

Kristy: I do so love when poetry surprises me, when it reminds or reveals for me the way I already feel about a particular subject. When reading a poem, I want to say, “Yes! That’s it” and “Oh, I didn’t know I felt that way but I do.” There is so much of poetry that provides a snapshot of a subject and shows us how it fits into a bigger picture of this wide world. And I think I love poetry because it gets me thinking reflectively about myself and how * I* fit into this big world. I am continually amazed by how poetry winnows an idea/subject to the core, yet expands the meaning and my understanding of it. It is this contraction of the lens vs. the expansion of my world that fascinates me in poetry. When I am reading a poem and that contraction/expansion happens, I am captured.

Kelly: I agree with Tricia, of course. Poetry is the world made new, either through symbol or metaphor, through image or alliteration or the hundreds of other details that go into its creation, putting, as Coleridge said, "the best words in the best order." It is a way of seeing life and all its facets through someone else's prism, and when done right, it creates a splendid rainbow or an array of wonderful fractals, each making you pause, even if only for a few seconds, to think about things in a way you had not perhaps considered them before.

Sylvia: Yes, I like surprises, too. Surprises in arrangements, in word choices, in distinctive rhythms, in odd topics, in great endings. But of course if you ask for it, it's no longer a surprise! That's what poets do. They use what we all know and then turn it inside out to help us see things in new ways.

Bruce: Sylvia suggested that a book’s memorable if it contains “music and magic...” and that was a phrase that I kept in my mind as a guide to selecting books for my final list. Did the words create music in my ear? Did the book make me feel something magical had just taken place? What about you? Did that phrase resonate with you, too? In the end how did you decide on the books to nominate as finalists?

Kristy: Music and magic certainly sway me. Deciding on my final short list was excruciating, because there were excellent books that we had to leave out of our top five. In the end, I was pleased that we chose the best representation of all the books for a variety of target audiences, but on any given day I might have been moved to “fight for” a different book to be in our top five because there were some really excellent poetry books published this year. (To be clear, we weren’t trying to choose the best representation of a variety of target audiences. We were trying to choose the best poetry books. I was just personally pleased that there were books for several different targets in our selection. Kind of a “something for everyone” philosophy.) But again, there are books that didn’t make our top five that I personally responded to in a deep way and are among my favorites of the year.

Kelly: "Music and magic" completely resonates with me. I look for the music of the words, the magic of their meaning, and that indefinable something that makes a book shine. I was quite pleased with the list we forwarded to our judges. Four of the five were in my top five.

Tricia: Music and magic did resonate for me, largely because I don’t just read the word on the page, I read them aloud. And yes, they do need to sing for me. Poems that were awkward or didn’t flow hit a sour note right away. But ultimately, the books I kept finding new magic in and rereading without ever growing weary were the ones that stood out.

For more information about the Cybils poetry panelists who contributed to this discussion, you can visit:

Kelly Fineman:
Kristy Dempsey:
Sylvia Vardell:
Tricia Stohr-Hunt:

And for more about the Cybils, visit:


Tricia said...

Thanks so much for doing this, Bruce. It's wonderful to revisit these conversations again.

Bruce Black said...

Many, many thanks for your contribution... and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks for pulling this together so nicely, Bruce, and for keeping our conversation going! It was such a pleasure.

Kelly Fineman said...

What a lovely job you did winnowing this down! I sent the link to Anne and Sarah at the CYBILS, and rather expect they'll post about it at the CYBILS blog - they are so great that way!


SWK said...

Just found your fab blog/Your love for language is clear/Can't wait to follow. (Have written much better poems but have to comment quickly and back to work!)

Sara said...

Thanks, Bruce. As a poetry judge this year, I knew we'd be getting a stellar final list when I saw the names of the nominating panel. It's lovely to read the particulars of how each of you is passionate about poetry.

Bruce Black said...

Kelly...You were wonderful as organizer of the panelists, a job that seems much like herding cats at times.
Sylvia... what a joy to join you in the water, swimming through assorted poetry titles.
SWK...Thanks for joining the conversation.
Sara... I'm a Joyce Sidman fan and was so pleased that you and the other judges selected her book for the award this year.

Jeannine Atkins said...

I enjoyed reading about the surprises, music, and magic. Thank you!

Bruce Black said...

Jeannine... Glad you stopped by and found the water such a delight. Thanks for joining us.