Booked Up

Masters of Poetry

Six new books of poetry include one by a local writer and one by a Hollywood star.

By - Apr 24th, 2014 02:47 pm
Directing Herbert White

Directing Herbert White

April is National Poetry Month, so this week seemed the perfect time to celebrate the art form and introduce you to six poets whose newly published volumes are currently at book stores. They are a varied group. One of them is dead, one is a movie star, and one lives in Milwaukee. All are worth buying and reading often. Our rogues’ gallery includes James Baldwin, James Franco (the actor), Barbara Hamby, Susan Rich, Carmen Tafolla, and Robert Vaughan (not the actor).

Before we launch into the reviews, a few words about the state of poetry in America: Americans write lots of poetry and, surprisingly, buy lots of it. The sale of poetry in all its various formats amounts to millions of dollars every year. Anthologies outsell individual writers; the dead poets beat the living. The majority of sales are to schools and libraries, but many of us buy poetry on a regular basis. Sales continue to rise, with the greatest increase in electronic formats. Some believe that e-books and audio books now make up 10 percent of the total sales each year. (Four of the six volumes I’m reviewing were read in e-book format, for expediency’s sake.) The majority of poetry today is published by small, independent presses. Buying poetry is a great way to support them!

And they need it. As my father used to say, “If you want to starve, be a poet.” A few very famous (and long-lived) poets make substantial incomes, but much of it comes from foundations, grants, and prize money. (American poetry lovers are extravagantly generous in their wills!) Only a small handful of poets sell many copies of their books. Often, they have been designated our Poets Laureate by the Library of Congress or have been named the Inaugural Poet by an incoming President.

So let’s start local with prose-poet, Robert Vaughan. I wouldn’t have known that he lived in Milwaukee, but for Boswell Books’ placement of his volume in the Local Authors section. His first poetry collection, Addicts & Basements (Civil Coping Mechanism, 2014), has no biographical information, but its witty and moving poems and prose pieces speak for themselves. The Addicts section has many short scenes from imagined lives, often seamy and poignant. The “&” section is a miscellany of short poems with stand-outs among them: “On the Wings of a Dove” (for Matthew Shepard) and “Seven Shades of James.” The Basements section has short fiction mixed in with a few poems. All of these works are original, thought-provoking, and heart-felt. The line between poetry and prose is highly permeable in this gifted writer’s hands. Vaughan leads writing roundtables at Red Oak Writing in Milwaukee. [See “Book Events” below]

Also local, but to San Antonio, Texas, is their first Poet Laureate, Carmen Tafolla, author of This River Here: Poems of San Antonio (Wings Press, 2014). One of my favorite types of poetry is bilingual. Poetry is an ideal medium for exercising a second language. Ms. Tafolla sprinkles Spanish throughout her evocative poems, even providing a Glossary for the monolingual. If you have visited San Antonio, you know this beautiful city lives on its river walk. Ms. Tafolla weaves lovely descriptions of the water with engrossing stories of her family, generation upon generation. She includes some heirloom photographs and illustrations to give faces to the people she so strikingly describes. Especially moving to me were “Both Sides of the Border” and “La Llorona’s Tattoo,” a poem based on the Mexican legend.

Susan Rich, author of Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press, 2014), is also new to me, although this is her fourth book of poetry. Her publisher, however, is not a stranger. Because I have always enjoyed the poetry they put out, I follow their authors. This, I call “camp following” because I will buy whatever they produce. Ms. Rich does not disappoint. Her verse is lean and colloquial and her subjects vary widely, from paintings and photographs to travel and travail. Especially haunting is the sequence entitled “DARK ROOM.” These poems are all based on the photography and life of Hannah Maynard, a turn-of-the-century woman living in Victoria, British Columbia. As she works out the grief over the death of a teenage daughter, Hannah’s photos (and these poems) illuminate and develop ever more depth.

My next pick is Barbara Hamby’s joyous collection, On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). This is another result of my camp followings. The Pitt Poetry Series is one of the best sources for poet shopping, new or established. Ms. Hamby is another celebrated poet and this is a perfect introduction. Collections are excellent ways to sample poets. They usually take poems from several previous publications and add some more recent work. This way, you get a clear picture of the author and whether you would want to buy her other books. Ms. Hamby gives us samples of her last twenty years’ output and it is spectacular. She writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that is both exhilarating and hilarious. Her mixture of the sacred and profane is delightful in such poems as “Ode to the Messiah, Thai Horror Movies, and Everything I Can’t Believe” (yes, that’s just one poem) and the wonderful title poem.

The name James Franco may be familiar to you from his film work, but he is also a talented writer. His first book of poems, Directing Herbert White (Graywolf Press, 2014), is imaginative, self-indulgent, and always entertaining. This I call my “curiosity” pick, a poetry purchase made because I am interested in the author, but know little about his writing. Many of this famous polymath’s poems are autobiographical and often based on films he’s made or been in. That added “gossip” factor makes these poems work on many levels. I especially enjoyed “Hart Crane’s Tomb” and his elegy for “Ledger.” Franco’s poems may make you think long and hard about what is real and what is imagined, but you’ll be convinced you’re dealing with a very creative spirit.

My final choice is a posthumous collection from James Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Beacon Press, 2014). Nothing is more bittersweet than reading the final works of an author you’ve loved and admired most of your life. I had read many of Baldwin’s poems over the years, but this new memorial compilation is like opening a treasure chest, with both surprising and satisfying results. It’s wonderful to finally have all of the stunning poems together in a definitive edition. His searing “staggerlee wonders” is like a black “Howl.” He also writes poems about film stars, including Lena Horne and Simone Signoret. Black, gay, and a leftist, Baldwin made many enemies during his life. But, it is comforting to know, he also found love. It is the tender odes to his lovers that are the real revelations here.

I hope this little guided tour makes you want to go directly to your local book store and stock up on poetry. You can keep this art form a vibrant part of America’s culture. Buy, read, and give poetry and reap the rewards!


Upcoming Book Events: 

Saturday, April 26 (7:00 PM): “Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series” – Susan Firer and guest poet, Dorothy Lasky at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. $5-$8 admission. (414) 263-5001


Monday, April 28 (7:00 PM): “Boswell Book Company’s Fifth Anniversary Celebration” featuring Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181


Monday, April 28 (6:30 -8:30 PM): “Middle Coast Poets Anniversary Reading” with Lee Ann Roripaugh, Brittany Cavallaro, John Walser, Larry O. Dean, Paul Scot August, and Robert Vaughan at Riverwest Public House, 815 E. Locust St., Milwaukee. (414) 232-6399 Free.


Monday, April 28 (7:00 PM): “Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum Event” with Tim Corrigan, author of An Invitation to Château Du Grand-Lucé: Decorating a Great French Country House. Villa Terrace is at 2220 N. Terrace Avenue in Milwaukee. Admission is $5 and tickets can be purchased at the museum on the night of the event. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.


Tuesday, April 29 (7:00 PM): Floyd Skloot, author of Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir at Boswell Book Company.


Wednesday, April 30 (7:00 PM): “Pizza Party with The Gentleman’s Tour” featuring John Corey Whaley, author of Noggin, Brendan Kiely, author of The Gospel of Winter, and Jason Reynolds, author of When I Was the Greatest at Boswell Book Company. Please register in advance for this event on their Facebook event page.


Wednesday, April 30 (7:00 PM): Reading by Stephanie Young & Alli Warren at Microlights, 2541 N. Bremen St., Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Woodland Pattern Book Center. Free.


Thursday, May 1 (7:00 PM): Christopher Moore, author of The Serpent of Venice at Boswell Book Company. Ticket cost is $28 (plus taxes and fees) and includes admission for one person and an autographed copy of The Serpent of Venice. Event is co-sponsored by Theatre Gigante, who will present a short play at 6:45 PM. There is a $20 gift card option in lieu of the book, available on the night of the event only.


Friday, May 2 (7:00 PM): ““Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series” – Brenda Cardenas and guest poet, Douglas Kearney at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $5-$8


Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!


Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us