Review of Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy


by MaryAnn L. Miller              

Review Excerpted from an Essay

Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy

            Tupelo Press, North Adams Massachusetts, 2012


Lee Upton begins Swallowing the Sea by citing Tomas Transtromer’s poem “The Name” about the momentary panic of a man who has forgotten his name upon waking from a nap. (3) Upton states “The writer writes against panic…reclaiming…ambition.” (4) Upton makes clear how the fear of not knowing who we are drives us to create identity from our writing. Upton recognizes conventional definitions of ambition such as money, fame, and power, but more important is the goal of making work that is “itself more powerful.” (4)

Upton’s second topic of boredom can also be a cause of panic. The fear of boredom, and of being boring pushes us to work and guides us to avoid those who bore us. This sapping of life is a fearsome thing because it is a physical reaction felt as an unquenched restlessness. Upton says, “A writer must rinse out the trough of expectation and turn boring moments into functional ones.” (55) She remembers her mother enlivening dull conversations by saying “I once saw a man completely covered in warts.” (60) Upton guards against any possible boredom in her writing by punctuating her barrages of citations and good sense with the same kind of sudden humor. Her chapter titles are full of wit and there’s even a riddle buried in the book.

She makes a sly comment “ …our temporary defeat of boredom and our capitulation to boredom are recorded in the fossil records of our books—and on our blogs, too: endlessly.”

Upton speaks of M.F.K. Fisher whose writing is sensuous, direct, and replenishing. She cites Fisher’s ability to “bring her obsessions with food into literature—to make food into a narrative, and to make narrative into something like food.” (75) And she hadn’t even been born French. (76) Ordinariness can be replenishing.

Upton slips into examples of purity from history, culture, and literature. We want to avoid writing “pure poetry” although she admits to trying to purify her poems in the past. There is an unheralded section between Purity and Secrecy titled Bigamy for Beginners that deals with cross-genre writing.

“…writing across the major genres can be a sign that a writing life may require more apertures, more outlets, and that for some writers the most fruitful ambition can best be realized on multiple fronts…” (101) When a poet writes prose she leaves behind compression and engages in a slower unfolding of a vision.

In the last section on Secrecy Upton says, “We probably never entirely grow out of burying and unburying what’s valuable…” (119) “Literature is the province of the secret…” (121) “So much of life is a secret that wants to be expressed and can only be approximated.” (123) We keep trying through panic, boredom, misplaced ambitions, and the struggles Upton acknowledges along with us.

New Poetry Series at Hunterdon Art Museum


By Chara Kramer:

MaryAnn Miller, a poet and an artist, has been involved with teaching and school counseling for 28 years. Recently, she has put together a poetry series at Hunterdon Art Museum. This series will begin this April 5, 2013 in honor of National Poetry Month. Lucky for me, I got in touch with MaryAnn to get some specifics:

Kramer: What exactly is a Resident Book Artist, and how did you get involved with it at the Experimental Printmaking Institute?

Miller: As the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, my job is to collaborate with artists to design and construct an edition of handmade books using the prints they have created in the studio. I help them decide on the format for their books, for instance, should it be a traditional case-bound book, an accordion book, or I might innovate a form just for a particular project. I have been doing this since 2001 when I took a Digital Book Arts Workshop at EPI and the Director asked me to stay on and teach the next session. I should add I have been a visual artist all my life and taught art in Public School and Museums.

Kramer: In what ways have you seen poetry change because of the use of technology?

Miller: My experience with poetry and technology started with Book Arts. Photoshop, scanners, and wide format printers allow poets to integrate their work with the visual arts in new ways. Poems can be arranged on the page so easily with text being bent and stretched, copied and pasted. My experience has been more on the making end of it, but the disseminating function of technology has obviously made it possible for poetry to be published and read in a flash! The very slow hand-made low-tech side pf artists’ books is at one end of a continuum and the almost instantaneous on-line publication is at the other end. There are many more choices for poets because of technology. What that does to the quality of writing is a question for each writer to consider.

Kramer: Was there one significant piece of writing that gave you the idea for this Poetry Series at the Hunterdon Art Museum? Why did you choose the Hunterdon Art Museum as the location?

Miller: It wasn’t a piece of writing that gave me the idea for a poetry series at the Hunterdon Art Museum. It was that there is no series in the area and Clinton is actually an easy town to get to situated at the junction of Routes I-78 and 31.  The HAM is a beautiful renovated stone mill and is a center for art, craft and design. It sits on the banks of the South Branch of the Raritan River, has a gorgeous new terrace. The town comes alive on Friday evenings with people strolling, listening to live music, eating dinner on the river, and boating in warm weather. The HAM is a perfect spot to enjoy some poetry, see some art and sense the relationships among the arts and the environment.

Kramer: What kinds of things should audience members expect to see and hear each month?

Miller: Folks who come should expect to hear fine poetry from well-published poets from the Tri-State area. We start on April 5 with JC Todd and Mark Hillringhouse, both Dodge Poets. The Galleries will be free and open to the public so you can wander through or get a tour from a member of the Museum. There are activities planned for after the readings, everything from Tango lessons, a cash bar, cooking demos, to art talks, and mini-workshops.

May 4: Lois Harrod and BJ Ward

June 7: Scott McVay and Grant Clauser

Kramer: Will your book artist books be on display at these monthly events?

Miller: My artist books won’t be on display, but the Galleries will be loaded with contemporary fine art. I will be hosting and coordinating.

Kramer: How important do you think it is to have a poet read his or her work to a live audience?

Miller: When poets read to an audience a dynamic interaction is created that the poet doesn’t have when working in isolation. People tell us things we never imagine as we write. I don’t think about audience when I write so it’s always interesting to discover how your work is received. It’s fun and clarifying: and although it doesn’t influence how I write it feels like a reward to be with people who like words as much as I do.

The event:

Hunterdon Art Museum Poetry Series

7 Lower Center Street, Clinton NJ 08809

First Fridays: 6 – 7:30 pm


Brief Bio

MaryAnn L. Miller taught art, reading and was a School Counselor in NJ public schools for 28 years. She has an M.Ed. in School Counseling from the College of NJ and an MFA from Rosemont College. She has recently completed a Postgraduate semester with the poet David Wojahn at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been published in Philadelphia Poets Anthology 2011 and 2013, Certain Circuits, The International Review of African American Art, The Fox Chase Review 2013, Rathalla Review, and forthcoming in Kaleidoscope magazine and MuseHouse Journal. Miller’s book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books. She has been the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College for twelve years, where she teaches and collaborates with artists designing and constructing artist books. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and in many corporate and private collections. She publishes hand bound artist books pairing artists and poets through her press:

Poetry Round Table Part 1


Imagine a nice, spring day. It’s a coffee shop somewhere in Center City. There’s a garden outside and four local Philadelphia poets come to sit at a table. Five questions are waiting for them on the table. Each poet begins to talk about those questions.
While that didn’t happen, in my mind it did happen just that way. I wanted to have some poets come to the table and ask them all the same questions. I am thrilled I was able to get Ben Heins (Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press, MaryAnn L. Miller (Locus Mentis, , Iain Haley Pollack Spit Back a Boy- U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and J.C. Todd(What Space This Body to indulge in my coffee shop fantasy and answer my questions. Here is part 1.

Wittle: When I started seriously learning about poetry, a dear friend of mine took me to Borders and placed a dictionary, thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary in my hand and said, “Now you can start to be a poet.” What books do you think a poet should have within arm’s reach at all times?
Heins: None of those. To find the books a poet will need before writing, the poet must first connect with other poets’ works that he or she admires most. Even if this admired poet isn’t necessarily called a poet by society – such as singer-songwriters – the artist must be influential. The poet should then read and listen to those authors, study them, maybe even steal their rhythms – then, finally, the poet should write. No books. Maybe some music, if it helps. If the poet has focused on the inspiration, the words will likely flow naturally.
 Miller: Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry is one book I can’t do without. One look at the table of contents will tell you that much of what you need to know is contained in this little handbook. Also, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Another is Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction to Anthology goes beyond craft and structure into universal themes and purposes. It is a well and the water all in one.
Other helpful printouts, I found online are a Glossary of Poetic Terms from the Poetry Foundation and a Table of English Tenses from English Grammar Online. It’s so easy to find these resources for handy reference especially for revising.
 Pollock: The books you listed are finishing tools in my process. Having at hand anthologies has been much more useful to me when I’m in a generative phase. I keep returning to I Am the Darker Brother, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, and a condensed version of the Norton anthology.
 Todd: I began with a few dictionaries, at hand but now also on-line. My preference is at hand, except when I’m traveling; then I’m grateful for on-line apps: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and a second good English-language dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary or two—my two favorites are organized differently from each other: Clement Wood’s The Complete Rhyming Dictionary and Bessie Redfield’s The Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary. A dictionary of synonyms is handy. Later, a luxury was added to my home shelf, one volume at a time: the five volume set of the Dictionary of American Regional English.
In addition to dictionaries, I often reach for an encyclopedia or use encyclopedic internet sites and search engines. In addition to general encyclopedias, I depend on more specialized encyclopedic references, such as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols and Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. I have a few dictionaries of literary biography, one general and one dedicated to women authors. As for general style manuals, I’m stuck on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and a Harcourt Brace grammar book from the 1960s.
Over the years, I’ve added poetry-specific references to that shelf, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook and Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry. Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary also contains a brief but comprehensive handbook. Graywolf Press has initiated a series of essays on style, edited by Charles Baxter. I’m currently reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Syntax, James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, and Donald Revel’s Attention! Casting the reference net wider, for the practicalities and nuances of sound, I like Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and for received form, her Rules of the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. For sonnet form, I’ve downloaded Tony Barnstone’s amazing essay on sonnets published in the on-line journal, The Cortland Review. I’ve used, but don’t (alas) own, Annie Finch’s The Poet’s Craft and The Poet’s Ear.
The most important references, however, are not this array of books and essays but rather poems themselves whose structures I study, deconstructing and reconstructing their sonics, imagery, diction and tone, references to received form, lineation and, and, and. An essential aspect of this study is reading them aloud, although I draw the line at a solo reading of Spencer’s Fairy Queen. Poems and their makers have been my best mentors and guides.

Wittle: What writer do you feel has had the most influence in changing the craft of writing poetry? Why?
 Heins: Ooh, excellent question! Highly subjective, I suppose, but since I’m a free verse guy, I would have to say Walt Whitman. He single-handedly did away with the accepted forms of poetry and said, “I’m doing this my way.” In turn, he created these beautiful, flowing, sonic masterpieces that laid the groundwork for people like Allen Ginsberg or the current slam poets to further shake up the accepted poetic traditions.
I’ll read Whitman, even now, and his music echoes in me for days. It’s so inspiring – like a really catchy tune you can’t shake.
 Miller: I think poets like Walt Whitman, t.s.eliot and Alan Ginsberg have had a tremendous influence in changing craft, but having just come back from Ireland and listened to Irish writers and poets read their own work, I have to think James Joyce and W.B. Yeats have impacted the syntax and downright beauty of the language. Those Irish really know how to use the words. Each writer/poet in his time has moved poetry along and some have blurred the boundaries between prose and poetry. One of the important questions of today may be: Is this poetry?

Pollock: That’s a difficult question to answer; as I understand it, the craft of poetry has changed gradually. The introduction of free verse, obviously, was a major change that still carries influence today. For my money, as an American poet, Walt Whitman has most influenced the craft of poetry. I appreciate that he wrote the American idiom into poetry. His innovation led to the fecundity of poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, he might not have made this change without the ideas of English Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I study the history of poetry, I see how each advance lead to the next.
 Todd: “Unless there is/ a new line, there cannot be a new/ mind,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Thus the writer who is most influencing the craft is the unknown poet who at this moment is nudging her language into new territory by grafting onto it bits of syntax, colloquialisms, words from other languages and neologism in order to say what she sees, imagines and thinks. In other words the most influential change-agent is a poet working at the borderlands, at the interstices of languages, cultures and personal vision. “Every force evolves a form,” said Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers. To my mind, that’s how poetry and language evolve.

Wittle: In your own writing, what form of poetry do you find to be the most challenging? How do you overcome the challenge?
 Heins: Any poetry writing that involves form is most difficult for me. Anything that dictates a certain cadence or limitation, to me, feels constricting. If I had to pick a specific form in poetry that is most challenging, I would say nothing is as difficult as writing a really good anagram.
I love contemporary free verse. There are rhythms, there elements of form present; but not all the time, and certainly not in an orderly manner. This is where I am most comfortable, and where I find the most room to explore my voice and style.
But, of course, I need to shake it up every now and then. I’ve written a haiku, a Shakespearian sonnet – you name it – and every time I challenge myself with a form, I find the poem comes out either terrible or terrific. If I’m frustrated with the form and the material, the poem will be garbage. If I’m really into the material, the form is an obstacle that I must overcome to convey the message, and the poem takes flight.
So, instead of focusing on forms that often frustrate me, I try other methods of restriction that are more fun. Recently, I did an erasure project with four of my poems and the results were spectacular. I wrote two things in 2011 that I like to call “choose-your-own-adventure-poem” pieces. Essentially, the words in the poem intersected and led the reader on a different reading every time.
 Miller: Probably poetry without a narrative, and I’m not sure what to call that. I try not to tell a story EVERY time I write a poem. I try to focus on the content of the theme and let the language reflect that rather than creating a story arc that must come together in the last line.
 Pollock: I find free verse most challenging because of its capacious set of possibilities. The danger of free verse is that is becomes prosaic, and I’ve found that the antidote to this is to embrace some lessons from verse, such as the repetition of a villanelle or the volta of a sonnet. I try to meet the challenge of free verse by writing as much of it as possible.
 Todd: One way to respond is to say, the poem I’m writing now is the most challenging. But you are asking about form, not the poem itself. Forms with a patterned recurrence of lines are the most challenging for me, specifically the villanelle and pantoum. The challenge is to write a line beautiful and true enough to be repeated and for that repetition to open new resonances of meaning and tone.

For Part 2, tune in tomorrow.
Bios of Poets:
Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (, set to be released this spring.
 MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.
 Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize. Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo. Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.
 J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.