Words on Fire: A Rundown of Richmond Releases During National Poetry Month

In Richmond hark a hidden trove of verse
To abstain may then prove to be your curse
Fear not elusive tropes and unknown words
But feel the iambs glide o’er fifths and thirds
E’er MFA or life’s trials be their guide
In words their stories’ incite and elide
Here now to print fair April’s reverie
To celebrate the month of poetry

Translation: April is national poetry month — its 20th anniversary. Some local poets have new books out and others are coming to town. Their poems will be better than mine.

Richmond resident Kenny Williams’ poem “About the Author” is the best introduction. From the freezer section of the grocery store to a backyard chicken coop, it frames the ensuing poems, which are sharp-edged, sometimes jarring and always fulfilling.

His collection, “Blood Hyphen,” is full of biblical themes and religious angst — and of Richmond. “Sugar Blues” sets its location at Park and Stuart avenues and “Dawn on Grace Street” I can only hope refers to Richmond’s Grace. “A thickset girl, in a satin dress / starts puking in the grass.”

Virginia Commonwealth University professor and poet David Wojahn writes that “Blood Hyphen” is “one of the most distinctive and self-possessed debut collections that I have read in a very long time.”

Michele Poulos’ March release, “Black Laurel,” is also the first full-length collection from the local poet and filmmaker. Her poems have a stilling quality that belie topics like house fires, the death of a child and drone warfare. She takes readers around the world — to Greece, Pakistan and Germany.

Poulos recently directed a documentary about the late Larry Levis, “A Late Style of Fire,” working on it concurrently with this book. You can feel Levis’ presence in images of reddened earth and blossoms of fruit and flower. In “Sirocco” she writes: “Each grain of sand is another open prayer.”

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s “Presentimiento: a Life in Dreams” is memoir told in a series of essays and poetic vignettes of memory — “a hybrid,” he calls it. The title refers to the Spanish word for “premonition.” And his stories of a dusty New Mexico childhood are almost supernatural — a family history, part imagined. Fletcher lives in Richmond now and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. He and Poulos will do a reading together at Chop Suey Books on April 20.

Lynchburg resident John Guzlowski comes to Fountain Bookstore on April 21 to read from “Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded.” His is also a family history told through poetry, following his parents from Nazi camps, through Ellis Island and to immigrant Chicago. He writes that he’s committed to telling their story after years of running away from his Polish heritage.

The prose and poetry are straightforward, desolate and, at times, heartbreaking. A short essay about the wooden trunk that his parents built out of a camp barracks will stay with you. It’s personal history in accessible verse.

Gregory Kimbrell’s February release, “The Primitive Observatory,” evokes a different era: America’s late-19th-century Gilded Age. Short stories in stanza, the poems have a fantastical quality to them: a menacing house, mysterious ailments and small-town miracles. Kimbrell is an events and programs coordinator at VCU Libraries, and this is his debut collection.

If you need a big name to get excited, here’s one with a Virginia connection. “Then Come Back: the Lost Neruda” is a collection of never-before-seen Pablo Neruda poems to be published in May. Translator Forrest Gander, an accomplished poet himself, is a Virginia native and College of William and Mary graduate. The book of 21 enveloping poems features pages from the Chilean Nobel Prize winner’s notes, the writing barely legible. It’s a reminder of the challenges — and epic rewards, in this case — of poetic translation.

Finally, National Poetry Month wouldn’t be complete without your own poetry. Bring your finely yellowed Moleskines to Crossroads Art Center on April 17, when local poet Joanna Lee will hold a free workshop called “Ekphrasis.” In a reference to an exercise in which the artist relates one medium of art to another medium, participants will take a “poetic tour of the gallery” to fuel creative verses.

Also, you can read your work at the monthly open-mic night at Café Zata on April 22, at the weekly Tuesday open-mic at Addis Ethiopian restaurant, and at Slam Richmond’s weekly Saturday open-mic at Artspace Gallery.

Have courage: Your poetry, too, will be better than mine. S


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