introducing Dawn McDuffie: “Where do you find these ideas?”

Dawn McDuffie is a wonderful woman whom I’ve had the good fortune to know since the mid-1990s; we met at a YMCA Writer’s Voice workshop in Detroit. For the past twenty years (!) or so, we’ve corresponded about applications, books, church life, dolls, eats, and a good many things beyond. This is her first post for Vary the Line; please check back each month for more insights from Dawn (and the rest of us).

Where do you find these ideas?

I spent an hour or so this afternoon watching a pair of monarch butterflies flit from yard to yard. The four households own tiny city lots, but the homeowners have stuffed them with flowers and tasty milkweed. It seems unfair that the grace of butterflies, the changing of colors as one perennial blooms and another dies back — that all these riches didn’t inspire a new poem, although I did write a haibun last year during a terrible drought. In the same way, the current political state has sparked a sense of dread, but has not given me any poems. I’m grateful that somewhere between pure beauty and total distress I find possibilities lining up, waiting to be written. Here’s the haibun from last summer’s heat wave:

Detroit, summer 2016

7:00 A.M. and it’s 80° in our back yard, a small space surrounded by a high fence, and most years, the green of shade and sun, regular rain. Tangerine day lilies, pink lilies, coral bells with their sparkle wands tolerate the dry part of summer, but none of our plants can stay healthy with no rain at all. Summer thunder storms have passed us by. I go to bed with a glass of water on the night stand, just in case I’m too thirsty to sleep. In the morning I pour what I didn’t finish into a black plastic watering can. Seedlings, I’m sharing my drink with you.

Thirsty hummingbirds,
I have watered the bee balm,
cool gifts quickly gone.

At Bay

bay leaves and book

The leaves my sister
told me to throw out
reminded me of books
I hadn’t read in years

but then I saw
that only the veins
matched the antique pages.
So much for spinning

some spiel about stories,
spices and sauces —
how almost everything fades,
dries out, flickers

into dirt and dustbins. Yet
to greet this morning
with such abundance —
how immense, how marvelous

to sit for a while
with obsolete leaves
and then to cast them
upon last year’s wreaths

amid the scraps
of ordinary meals. What
a luxury, this space

to not need what’s at hand
and time to study it anyway —
a few final minutes
of not yet moving on.

old and new bay

again with “Still I Rise”

It’s not every morning that my tennis Twitter timeline greets me with multiple tweeps urging the world to listen to Serena Williams narrate a BBC montage with Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (a poem I posted about here back in December, that time because Twitter had let me know about Williams reciting it on receiving an award).

The BBC has been roundly criticized for its feeble and at times astounding gormless coverage of women’s tennis this past fortnight (h/t @MBDigital001). Here’s hoping that it does better going forward. While this clip neither mitigates nor addresses the deep-seated attitudes and assumptions undergirding the coverage issues, it was nonetheless lovely to glimpse hundreds of people thrilled and moved by this new rendition of an almost-forty-year-old poem — one barely older than the woman who today tied Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slam singles titles, and then won doubles with her sister, both of them significantly older than the majority of other elite WTA players.

crowd craning to see Serena
Crowd craning to see Serena Williams in Cincinnati, 2014

“What is a poem?” – index

April 4 – Lisa Dordal

April 6 – Joanne: What is a poem?

April 8 – Joannie Stangeland

April 11 – Dawn McDuffie

April 13 – Joanne: Power in that quiet space

April 15 – Pat Valdata

April 18 – Joanne’s Facebook friends

April 20 – Mary: You can lead a horse

April 22 – Jim Seavey

April 25 – Sherry Chandler

April 27 – Joanne quotes Rebecca Lindenberg and some other writers

April 29 – Peg: Running out of bras before knives

Running out of bras before knives

for Mary

A poem
is a twenty-dollar bill
folded into
a bayonet

slipped behind
the bra without
a secret compartment

left beneath
a mattress in Prague

next to a crumpled napkin

formerly perched
on top of a tray,

a swan set next
to the butter that hasn’t
melted under my tongue

even as
I serenely slice
half-truths to be served
with dinner’s red-eye gravy.


Guest post: Jim Seavey

I’m tempted to offer the tautology that a poem is what a poet claims as a poem. One of my all time favorite poems is a “found object” poem by Charles Olson: “Barbara Ellis, ramp.” That’s it, the whole poem, taking up a whole 8 x 11 page in Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (Cape Goliard, London, 1968).

Jim Seavey is an artist and teacher in Nashville. View some of his creations at

Guest post: Dawn McDuffie

What is a poem?

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.

    — Dylan Thomas, A Few Words of a Kind

I wish I could define the quality that makes me realize I’ve just read a poem. Honestly, my mind doesn’t always know why, but my body always recognizes true poetry. I read a set of well-chosen words, and I feel I’ve been hit by verbal lightning. The hair on my arms stands straight up. Is it clarity, depth of image, language choices, or unity? A poem has all of those qualities, but a piece of persuasive writing could also claim identical poetic qualities. I’ve never memorized an essay for the joy of claiming it as my own, but I have memorized poems when I had no other way of holding them. I took a standardized test in third grade. What made the test special was that it included a complete poem with comprehension questions following. I sat there among my classmates, and I memorized that poem before the testing period was over. The following year we took the same test, and I checked to see if I remembered the poem correctly. I still know it by heart.

Snow Toward Evening

by Melville Cane

Suddenly the sky turned gray,
The day,
Which had been bitter and chill,
Grew soft and still.
From some invisible blossoming tree
Millions of petals cool and white
Drifted and blew,
Lifted and flew,
Fell with the falling night.

I could say I was only eight years old, but I can’t deny its hold on me, sixty-two years later. A poem is a crafted collection of words that travels from one heart to another, a treasure that can last long after other collections of words have lost their charm.

Dawn McDuffie has an MFA from Vermont College and has taught creative writing at Detroit’s Scarab Club and Opera House. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Driftwood, Diner, The MacGuffin, Feminist Studies, and the anthology Mona Poetica. An essay, “Humor in Poetry,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her books include People in My Head (1997 Heartlands Today Prize), Carmina Detroit, and Flag Day in Detroit. She taught high school English in Detroit for twenty-five years.

Guest post: Lisa Dordal

What is a poem?

A poem is the inside of one person becoming the inside of another. Words together, not words alone. Words alone can’t make a poem, any more than a sacred text can make the divine. A poem is strangers talking across centuries. A meal shared between two people who’ve never met. The past breaking open the present. The present breaking open the past.

A poem is not about something but is something. An experience or emotion that passes holy into cell, sinew and vein, changing us with its dark, abundant breath. A poem is a rage at bombs and the odor of death; or snow geese, lovely, coming out from every page. A poem is the eggs of monkfish knitted into a gauzy shroud, buoyant, built for dispersal. A poem is gods in low hills holding thunder and flame. A poem is one eye, round as a coin, fixing fear upon you, the other, half shut.

A poem is sound and breath and feeling, rising from the page like the heat of summer rising from a road. A poem is fear braided into the strands of sinew connecting good-girl muscle to good-girl bone. A poem is atoms, quarks, and auras and all the love that lies between.

A poem is a door through which we move and are changed. A poem is the world aware of itself, alive to its own being. A poem is the gentle pressing of heat, the perfect distance from flame.

A poem is a sudden flock of birds across a blue wake; an eye that rises and falls. Wisp of seeing and being seen. A poem is quarrel, confusion and descent. Fragment of exaltation. A poem sings about the eye, billowing as if body and sky are one. A poem dreams of birds. Dreams of rain and ruin. Wisp of seeing and being seen. A poem dreams of itself dreaming of rain, its muscle sweet to its skin.

Lisa Dordal (M.Div., M.F.A.), author of Commemoration from Finishing Line Press, teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University. A Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including Best New Poets, Cave Wall, CALYX, The Greensboro Review, and Nimrod. For more information about her poetry, please visit her website at

the what of His countenance

William Billings’s As the Hart Panteth is a wild ride of a hymn that is once again in heavy play on my car stereo. I looked up the lyrics tonight, since His Majestie’s Clerkes were singing something other than “light” during an iteration of a phrase I’d learned as “the light of His countenance.”

Turns out there are quite a few variations-interpretations of that verse. It’s “help of His countenance” on the CD, but BibleHub shows an array of others. They include:

my Savior
my salvation
the health of my countenance
his presence
his saving intervention
the salvation of his countenance

As it happens, I am more in need of comfort than precision when I sing along to Billings, so “help of His countenance” and “light of His countenance” are in fact the best of the lot where I am concerned. I was struck anew tonight by the association of light with God’s presence; in “Praise, O My Heart, to You,” which is another hymn I turn to for solace, the first verse includes the statement “you are … my field of sky with stars that never set,” and the final sentence is “I will sing praises to you while life fills my flesh with breath; as long as life shall stream from you within me, I will sing your light.”

The mention of stars in turn brought to mind Richard Hundley’s art song “Astronomers,” which I first heard at a group recital at Glimmerglass Opera (sung by Rosemary Barenz, if I’m remembering right). It’s a very short song that blends fact, fiction, and poetry: according to several sources, the name of the female astronomer in the lied is a tribute to Hundley’s grandmother; the dates, however, are not hers. The epitaph celebrated in the song does indeed correspond — with two key word changes — to a memorial plaque in Pennysylvania ; the declaration on the plaque was adapted from a poem by Sarah Williams.

And here, too, the version that first dazzled me — the soaring song I heard in Cooperstown — is the one that remains most “true” for me.

Williams’s original (1868?): I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

On the Brashear crypt (1920?): We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night

Hundley’s lyric (1959): We have loved the stars too deeply / to be afraid of/ the night.