The PK Featured Poet 8– Gary Blankenship

"I workshop nearly 100 percent of what I write, and am convinced I would not be writing today without the support and teaching that workshops provide." Gary Blankenship

It would appear that whatever internet list you join, at some point you will read Gary's mail which is always supportive and full of helpful comments. Through the Interboard Poetry Competition he has brought a lot of the lists together in a spirit of healthy competition and enabled some very good poets to be more widely read. But you do not become a Featured Poet because you are a good administrator, you become a Featured Poet because your poetry is outstanding and deserving of a broader appreciation, and Gary's poetry is outstanding and at times daring and challenging as you will see from the selection below. (Jim Bennett)

Featured Poet 8 – Gary Blankenship

Please briefly outline your life and career.

I was raised in a small town in the foothills of the Washington State Cascades, about forty miles west of Mt. Rainier. Like nearly every other farm boy in the US, my life was average enough not to bore you with the details, but contained enough angst and turmoil for more than a few poems.

After high school, I joined the Navy and landed in Bremerton, WA where I married (twice, widowed once), raised four children (3 natural, one stepson), and landed a job at the naval shipyard. During my forty years at the yard, I finished a shipfitter apprenticeship, moved on to engineering technician, administrative office, budget officer and chief financial officer. Along that journey, I was an union official, completed a BA, and irritated my share of DC brass. In April 1999, I retired and took up writing full time. I live on a one plus acre plot hid on the edge of the city with my wife, Chris, who still has four years before she can retire, two very old dogs, and the ever present evil cat.

How/when did you start writing? Was there anything that particularly influenced you?

I wrote off and one since school, nothing today I can remember and most of it lost to water damage. In the yard, I wrote boring technical stuff. There was very little poetry in all that. Before I retired, I decided I needed an avocation to keep the wheels turning during my twilight years. I started with prose, fantasy and science fiction, but with thanks to Mary Hazen-Stearns, Ryfkah Horiwtiz, and others, quickly graduated to poetry.

The first serious workshop I entered was one of those hard crit places, where I spend some months being the equivalent of a plebe, but learned enough to improve my scribbles and to move on to other workshops. I immersed myself in a few good ones, that is places where they teach and gradually moved from scribbler to poet.

In the process of working the boards, I became an editor at the workshop, WDS Writers Block, managing editor of the InterBoard Poetry Competition and Poetry Editor at Writer's Hood. (All of which may only prove once a paper pusher always a paper pusher.)

Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?

Web-induced poetry has been a strong influence; but at the present time, the strongest in fluence comes from a mixture of minimalist and oriental poetry. The translations of Kenneth Rexroth (for Chinese and Japanese poetry), Arthur Cooper (for Chinese classical) and Lucian Stryk (for Zen poetry) are major influences in my work. With the addition of R.H. Blyth's essays on Zen, I believe my work has turned an exciting new corner. (And the thing about new corners is we do not know what lurks around them.)

In the end, however, the greatest influences remain my fellow web poets. I workshop nearly 100 percent of what I write, and am convinced I would not be writing today without the support and teaching that workshops provide.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing – time of day?

I write nearly every day, something even if a scribbled notes for later. Once I get the germ for a poem, into it in a few lines, I generally finish the first draft in one sitting.

When I write, I look for form. Does the poem have a feel to it that might be enhanced by set line lengths, set stanzas or some other form? I'm often a fair way into a work and I will go back and reshape the poem to fit a stanza form, though I usually make the line length decisions early.

I write tanka, which I consider the highest form of poetry, so placing a work into form has become natural to me. For me, there is great pleasure in finding the look of a poem,sometimes even more than finding the voice.

In the last few months, I have been experimenting with threaded forms, poems within poems, where both are often able to stand on their own, though when I looked back at some older pieces I found I have been on the edge of threaded for some time.

Finally, I enjoy writing what I call "conceits," - little works taken from the very simple things around me in this plot hid on the edge of the city.

Why do you write poetry?

Let me answer in verse. The poem was in answer to a challenge to do a poem answering the question in one of the forums.

The Unreason of All the Becauses
I see the wind dance with pear blossoms.
I hear band tailed pigeons startle cock pheasant.
I smell applewood fires in July.
at one
and two
and three
in the morning,
Sarah Jane
Aunt Angie
came to me with their stories
a title -
a line -
a suggestion -
a book -
a news clipping -
a breath
and the words
tumble and pop
drop and mumble
and falter
Across the ages,
Tu Fu drank wine,
Mumon called Buddha a shit stick,
Basho saw the Isle of Pines;
I hear
the silence of their words.
In the morning, the cat brings dead birds to the back door.
In the morning, the sheets smell of sweat.
In the morning, rain falls and tulips open.
I drove along Washington State Highway 4,
from Seaside by the coast route,
five hours to Gates in the dark,
to the super market.
I walk to pick up the mail.
A fair sister suggested wordplay,
Mi-sister asked for conversation,
Ruth’s sister smiled at my words.
(where is the poem to Ruth,
my mother,
Isaiah cried in the wilderness,
Buddha saw a flower,
Paul was misquoted,
Einstein played dice with the universe,
Gandhi is still dead.
I do not want to shave,
the sink is full of dishes,
it is Friday,
I can
I must


Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for the honor of being featured among the outstanding poets you have included before me and for the opportunity to show off a bit.

And thank you, readers.

The Poems

Sarah Jane Passed Through

(This is my favorite poem - one of three written at about the same time (and the oldest here), I consider among the best I have done. This was penned while I was in the high crit workshop. I made the mistake of saying I did not like abuse and suicide poems and was challenged to write one. I’ve done several since; this is the first.)

When Sarah Jane was three,
she saw a camel in a cloud and a horse in a rock;
and when she told her mother, Mommy said
"Don’t be silly. Rocks are rocks and clouds are clouds."
(and thinking of Emily, went back to feeding Baby Alice.)
When Sarah Jane was five,
she went to kindergarten dressed in her sister Dora’s dress
which had been preworn by her sister Clara
and Bobby Mills pinched her and made her cry,
calling her white trash and saying she smelled.
(Only Sarah’s socks and underwear were new.)
When sarah jane was nine,
Bobby offered her a quarter
to go under the bleachers and lift her dress;
when she said no, he told Tommy she wanted a dollar;
and when she told her mommy,
her daddy belted her for leading the boys on
(and saying he was sorry, comforted her later that night.)
when sarah jane was fourteen,
bobby asked her to the homecoming dance;
but her mother said she was too young
and her sisters wouldn’t let her wear their old dresses.
instead bobby took Mary Ann Witherspoon
from over at the trailer park.
(while sarah jane sat on her bed
and wrote in her special book.)
when sarah jane was eighteen,
she married bobby mills
and they moved in with his stepmother,
next to Mary Ann’s parents in the trailer park
(and her momma cried for her baby alice
and losing emily.)
when sarah jane was nearly twenty
and expecting Little Donna’s sister
they buried her in a cardboard casket
bobby smashed her head for asking him
why he was out all night with mary ann nelson
(and alice’s mother buried the special book with her)
When Donna was three

Dreadlocks Explains His Find

(I believe this is the best poem I’ve written, though technically it is narrative and mostly straight reporting. In January 1999, I visited New York City to hear my daughter sing at Carnegie Hall and at this place found the truest voice I’ve ever heard.)

The reading to start at 3 p.m. South
of the projects on the Lower East Side.
The reading room was a nearly empty chamber with white
walls and lit by portable lamps overhead. Benches and old chairs
lined the walls. The room was unheated. The
outside temperature was about 24 above.
In the back was a long crate used as a table, lockers,
stacked chairs and a toilet stall open to the room.
Periodically, someone would come through a side door and pee.
On the side walls were several displays: Tools, lighters
and other items found in buildings squatters used, clothes,
old newspaper clippings, eviction and other
city notices, and drawings reproaching City authorities.
Just as you would find in the Smithsonian, each was protected
by plexiglas and was explained by a neatly typed sign.
The display included sheared dreadlocks and a placenta stain
on paper, celebrating a birth by a squatter.
In front was a small stage holding only a pile of bricks,
a sign above them stating "Fuck it. Put another brick
on the pile." and a two foot long spike.
In the middle of the room was another square crate table,
festooned with graffiti as was most of the room.
Sam, who was caretaker, sat in the back. We were making
light conversation about the reading, weather and where
I was from when "Dreadlocks" came in carrying a bicycle.
Dressed in a messenger’s costume, he had reddish brown locks
and no upper front teeth.
He was delivering a brass plaque he had found several years ago
in a squatter’s building along with the material to hang it.
The plaque read "This Animal is Dangerous." Sam hung it
high on wall where "it is less likely to be ripped off."
As Sam worked, "Dreadlocks" talked.
"When did I find it? Let’s see. She was conceived in 84 or 85.
No, she’s 15, so it had to be 84."
"I found it in garbage I was cleaning out of the room. It was probably
wall debris. You know, the stuff left when walls start to crumple."
"I had a room on the fourth floor, looking directly
at the junkies who lived in the building next door. They never bothered us.
They used to watch us having sex. My wife never knew that,
but I did. I married her a couple of years after that."
"On the other side of our building was one we never went in
unless we were together. You know the buddy system.
A man and his son lived there. The place was locked,
but they got in through a hole in the walls of our building.
It burned down. The junkies’ building fell down."
"Our place wasn’t locked. A free building should be free
to everyone. But just anybody couldn’t get in.
You had to turn the knob a special way
and most people couldn’t figure it out."
"Later after I moved out, they put on a lock, mostly to keep
DOH from dumping their stuff. I had been there long enough
to be considered the building leader. I wouldn’t let them put
on the lock while I was in charge."
"Don’t stay anyplace too long, or they will put you in charge.
"I woke up one morning and there was six inches of snow spread
across the room. I woke up frozen even though I slept under several
blankets. They had told me to winterize. You know, put Visquine on
the windows and newspaper the walls; but I didn’t listen."
"Back then, I drank all the time."
"No one had electricity. Well, there was a couple living on
the top floor. He stole electricity, but he didn’t share. He had a cast
iron cauldron and used electricity to heat that."
"We light with candles, but you really have to be careful with candles.
You know, fire hazard."
"The place was full of cats. We got some old vegetables from a market and the
cats were so hungry, they ate the vegetables."
"Paying rent makes me crazy."
"Pay rent and do without some of the things I want. I would just a soon
do without some things - showers, cooked food - as pay rent."
"Back then there were real absentee landlords. Most of them
disappeared to keep from being hassled by the City. Now,
real estate is so valuable, we can find out who the owner is."
"I’m a bicycle messenger. Friday, I took my gloves off for a few
minutes and it took all day for them to get warm again."
"No, I’m not reading. I just came by to give the plague to Sam.
I gotta go. I got an appointment."
He left. I never learned his name.
I helped Sam put out some more chairs. Four people came in for the reading and Sam left. At three, there were only six people attending. One said, "You used to be able to get 100 or more, now you’re lucky to have twelve."
At 3:15, the hosts hadn’t showed up. I also left.
I walked several blocks to Lexington to catch a cab. The next night
the temperature hit a low of 2 degrees.

Overheard at Paradise

(This is the lead-off to my Chapbook, Autumn Reflections. I come back to the theme of the difficulty in our search for the answers to is there a God often.)

Can you see the mountain
hidden behind folds of mist?
As the crisp scent of cold damp
bites the back of your throat,
you know without setting foot
on those ice covered mounts,
if you trek up the peak
until the low clouds clear,
the flare of light
will leave you mindblind
and you will not return
to the green gray lands below?
Equipped with the best,
climb and rope your way
towards that remote summit.
The wind yanks and clutches,
the screech so earsplitting,
your brain begins to dissolve;
hoarfrost bites deep
your stomach curls in on itself,
nose going red to black.
Can you see the mountain
from the bottom of that crevasse,
your empty pallid suit
locked in a river of ice
to be discovered decades later
among the glacier’s flotsam,
for you dared
to look into the face of God
ill equipped?

Weep Not, Willow

(Here as an example of a threaded poem, and how I look for form.)

Weep not, willow, bent over the flood.
Weep not - the waters that lap your roots
will recede, clouds and rain will pass by
and leave you delighted with new growth.
Pick her a sprig of quince,
blooms as lively as her lips,
lay them gently in her arms
as she may lie in yours.
Weep not, willow, trailing in the stream.
Weep not - frogs that sport among your roots
will go; shrew and mousechild will return
and leave you elated with their games.
Gather her a bunch of daffodils,
blossoms sun-bussed as her hair,
lay them carefully to fill her lap
as she may overflow yours.
Weep not, willow, hair now river wet.
Weep not - the driftwood piled on your roots
will float; lovers will lie on your moss
and leave you pleased with their quiet talk.
Pluck her bouquets of spring beauties,
flowers milky as her skin,
wrap them in rings around her neck
as she may drape around yours.
Weep not, willow, winter’s storms far off,
you will forget days of clouds and rain.
Weave a belt of ivy,
a pine cone for a buckle,
sew a skirt of fresh rush
and jerkin of willow leaves.
Cover her in spring’s fresh foliage
as she may cover you with her hair.

Such Small Comforts

(I really enjoy the tanka form, which I usually do in 2 3 2 3 3 count. This poem combines the poem with a journal entry in the manner of Basho.)

There are special places in the world, places where the land seems to vibrate.

Starlings cry
as winter arrives
on hawk wings.
I rebuild the fire
to prepare soba.*
Drive east of Salem into the North Santiam River canyon, past towns each smaller than the last, and you will begin to feel that you’ve arrived at the center of the universe. You haven’t, but you will expect you have.
Apple tree limbs
crack from heavy snow
and silver thaw.
I listen for footsteps
before I make noodles.
Arrive on a clear day (long odds in this wet country), take time to get out of your car and walk along the river’s bank. You feel the energy, the land teeming with life. Eden must have been like this.
Even crows
seek out dry shelter
from freezing rains.
Wake to an empty bed,
dry rice and cold saki.

Be still, hear the rustle of small animals, the call of birds, glimpse a fox, deer, or if you are very lucky, elk. Listen carefully for the slap of trout or salmon beneath the rush of the river’s rapids.

robins greet the sun
with frigid song.
I huddle in my quilts
and cry from worry.

Arrive on a wet and windy day in November or March. You may not even get out of car.

Cat whiskers
wake me with their touch,
gentle as dew.
A key rattles the lock,
I start from the sound..

But with care, you may still feel the land, accompanied by the river and an occasional crow or jay. If you do, you will come back.

we watch the snow fall
into the night.
Morning may mean cold rice
but you will have hot tea.

Of course, bored with nature poems, you may read these words and say what does all of this jabber have to do with this faux oriental poem. I may answer, "Nothing. Nothing at all."

*Soba is a buckwheat noodle.

"He isn’t an altar boy!"

(Everyone has an agenda, something which pushes their button. Mine is the shooting of innocents, and the proliferation of guns in the UStates. Here I give a set of three on the theme.)

Another yellow chalk line
etches New York concrete,
blue bullet finds another target.
NY City is a candy dish,
sour lemon drops,
jelly beans,
orange slices,
party mints,
all day suckers,
peppermint sticks.
But this one deserved to be shot,
after all, he "isn’t an altar boy"
"arrested at 13"
"his adult life spent punching"
(fill in a quote from the mayor)
Don’t expect licorice.
Oh, you can find red ropes and wipes,
fancy party kind,
white on the outside,
covered with pink sprinkles,
but not the black.
They keep getting spilled
on the sidewalk--
as for chocolate,
best go to Jersey.

Listen If You Want to Hear
hear the blow and bluster
TV sitcom fiddle-faddle
programmed mantra of the cult:
the law can’t be
enforced…are we going
door to door…they want
to take our guns…so
the liberal media…when
the tanks are in
the streets…what if you
forget the combination
my right,
my right,
my right,
to protect
my house
my property
my dog
(against Them)
Hear another mother cry.
Hear another father clench his teeth.
Hear this preacher tell us how she always had a smile for everyone.
Hear a teacher apologize because she forgot Sally was no longer in her class.
Hear the heavens cry.

From the Sunday Supplement

pearl handled
teflon coated
chrome plated
coffins for sale
discounted Saturday night
automatically delivered
memorial packages extra

To Be Found in the Last Place You Look

(Perhaps, we can end on a bit of fun, another threaded. This one triolets and almost haiku. The poem was written for a dialogue I share with 4 other much better poets and I would be remiss if I did not include at least one in that conversation, now at number 90 plus.)

Misplaced like forgotten grains of sand,
missing in a desert, where did I go,
since your salt and tears have left the band?
Misplaced like forgotten grains of sand,
what do I do with these empty hands,
my music now sped to less than slow?
Misplaced like forgotten grains of sand,
lost in a desert, where do I go?
flooded bottoms,
too dry days,
year round storms,
a limb dies
Forgotten like faded raven songs,
echoes in the forest, what was I
when your sap and sass quit fast the throng?
Forgotten like faded raven songs,
who sets right our unremembered wrongs,
my voice now drenched to less than dry?
Forgotten like faded raven songs,
echoes in the forest, what am I?
moss and lichen,
birds and beetles,
invaders at home,
a branch dies
Faded like empty waves on near shores,
flattened by the sea, can I forget
when your lust and love locked loose our doors?
Faded like empty waves on near shores,
why continue to dance musty floors,
steps muffled as if we never met?
Faded like empty waves on near shores,
flattened by the sea, did I forget?
tap root ripped,
earth disrupted
a maple dies
Whether misplaced or simply forgot,
we let salt, sweat and lust’s illusion
drown us in sand, wave and wooded lot.
Whether misplaced or simply forgot
the time’s ripe to forget what we bought,
when young and full of self-deception.
Whether misplaced or simply forgot,
we loved salt, sweat and lust’s illusion.
nurse log,
fir and cedar
saplings prosper
in the new found sun