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Gwen Head and Dragon Gate Press

September 30, 2018

I learned recently that the poet and publisher Gwen Head died in April of this year. It’s a sign of the times that I found out through amazon. I’d ordered a Laura Jensen book I’d lost somewhere along the way, Memory, that was published by the press Gwen founded, Dragon Gate, in 1982. It came from an independent seller, and when I saw the return address, Dragon Gate, my eyes filled with tears. The press had long been shut down, and I’d been out of touch with Gwen after we’d both moved away from the northwest and Gwen’s own memory had begun to fail. I contacted the seller, who has most of what’s left of the Dragon Gate inventory, and he told me about her death. My online search for mentions of Gwen and her own poetry books, and of Dragon Gate and its publications, confirmed how quickly the poetry universe I’ve known is disappearing under the avalanche of the present.

There will be a memorial for Gwen at Open Books in Seattle next February, but for those of you who don’t know her or the press, I want to offer a little introduction here. I’d be grateful if those of you who did have a connection to her would pass along any stories you have.

Gwen published four volumes of poems: Special Effects (1976) and The Ten Thousandth Night (1979) in the Pitt Poetry Series; Frequencies (University of Utah Press, 1992, which included selections from the first two books in addition to new poems); and Fire Shadows (LSU, 2001). Amazingly, you can find them all for sale online.

Gwen founded Dragon Gate press in the early eighties, to publish poetry and short fiction. She did an enormous amount of research in advance, and set it up in her home in Port Townsend, Washington (Scott Wolf’s Gray Wolf was once in part of that same house, so it must be embedded with poetry). She published books by Laura Jensen, Linda Gregerson, Richard Blessing, Henry Carlile, Joan Swift, Richard Ronan, Jim Simmerman, Katharine Hake, John Woods, Jeanne Murray Walker, Anthony Piccione, and many others. All small presses are labors of love, and Dragon Gate was no exception: she provided a home for good work that might not have made its way into the world without her generosity.

Here’s Gwen’s poem “Rain” from Frequencies. I also recommend a beautiful pantoum in the same volume, “The Swans of Saigon.”


Rain is the original stereotype,
billions of identical units, each intent
on the din of its own tiny bit of information:
about ice crystals, say, at forty thousand feet,
wind shear, or the pollen count
on the Siberian tundra.

It begins like a sprung nerve, twitching.
An invisible junco lands
on the laurel. Then a flock of them.
Something plays the ferns like a marimba.
It continues, in Satie’s directions, monotonously, whitely–
like a nightingale with a toothache.
But this is more accurately rodent weather:
a clatter of nails and tail-tips on roof and walls,
the sour smell of a sickroom,
fear of bites while sleeping.

Awake and needing something, I go downtown.
Rain draws the maimed in thunderous masses
out into the slick streets as if to a shrine.
The dwarfs, the obese, the amputees, the mumblers, the dropsical
old women whose feet would make fine umbrella stands
crowd stupefied beneath the gray fountain
to be healed or drown,

and my taxi driver, taking a wrong turn, asks, “Lady
why do you look so sad?
You must be some kind of artist.”

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Book-Length Poems: The Sequel

August 27, 2016

I got so many responses to the previous post I set out to make a list for easy reference, but you can do that for yourselves simply by reading through them.  I thought of many more myself: Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll,  Steven Cramer’s Clangings, all of Linda Bierds’ books.  I would also add a book labeled fiction, Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic: each of its stunning eight chapters is really a prose poem.  People listed the classics, epics, novels in verse, character portraits, books driven by obsession, books driven by research–of course these categories overlap.  Book-length poems are a way to have our cake and eat it too: the intensity of lyric combined with time to meditate, ponder, go through a range of emotions.  I think the hardest part of writing out of research is transforming the results into music, into poetry.  I’m deeply wedded to the 20th-century idea that a poem is not a description of the world, but a world in itself, so the modern and contemporary books here that most compel me are the ones that transform their raw material into something else, that spin straw into gold.  I’m less moved by the ones that don’t accomplish that alchemy, that are closer to social commentary or history than to poetry.  Long or short, I want the music of poetry, I want to feel as if the top of my head is taken off.  My uncle, a mining engineer, described the process of assaying for gold that my great-grandfather would have followed: First he would have heated an ore sample (the raw material) and reduced it a lead “button.”  Then this would be heated in a little dish called a cupel that would absorb the lead and leave just a bead of whatever gold and silver had been in the raw material.  I think my favorite poems of any length are the ones that have done that refining and reducing, getting rid of the dross, until only the essence remains.  My own list of favorite book-length poems would feature those that have the same tautness and economy as a short lyric, where the white space between lines is as eloquent as the lines themselves.  Any thoughts about the possibilities and difficulties of writing good book-length poems?

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