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A Civic Voice: Linda Gregerson

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poet of lyric intensity and polyvocal narratives, Linda Gregerson is known for her "steely keenness" and ambitious range (Gilbert 360). The work of a Renaissance scholar and literary critic, Gregerson's poetry reflects a wide variety of subject matter: politics, science, motherhood, family, loss, environmental degradation, mortality, history, theatre, and art. In her exploration of these themes, Gregerson reveals power dynamics, overt or subtle, that underscore civic and private life, an approach consistent with the poet's belief that the lyric poem "is a form of social speaking" ("Life Among Others," 206). Celebrated for the "expansive reading" that underscores her poetry, Gregerson's poems are nevertheless firmly embedded in the natural and manmade world ("Linda Gregerson"). She is a poet who confronts life "as it is, not as she wishes it were," H.L. Hix suggests and, consequently, this quality "puts her out of step with our age" (201). Yet critics note that Gregerson's poems, deeply attuned to the divisions and afflictions of modern life, can be tender, too. Gregerson's work, both cerebral and compassionate, increasingly speaks on behalf of children and adolescents who suffer grievous physical and emotional affliction (Baker, "A Conversation"). As Rosanna Warren has observed, Gregerson's poetic "urges us toward an understanding born of breakage, and intent on healing. It is a poetry of deep attention, finding its linguistic and moral order in a broken world" ("Poet's Sampler").

Biography

Born and raised in Illinois, Linda Gregerson has produced a body of work shaped by the histories and people of the Midwest, whose landscape with its "sectioned-off flatness of farmlands and shopping malls" she considers her "unerasable imaginative home." Educated at Oberlin College and Northwestern University, Gregerson is also a classically trained actress who worked with Herbert Blau's company KRAKEN from 1972-1975. This theatrical experience taught Gregerson about the nature of "embodied thinking" that is an essential element of dramatic performance, a quality the poet seeks to bring to the process of composition ("A Conversation"). If a lyric poem is to be "alive in the present," Gregerson says, while she is writing, she must seek to find:

ways in which the poem can be porous to other voices, other insights, other impulses . . . ways in which it can allow itself be disrupted. It is a path of a discovery that should leave its trace on the poem. (Ferguson and Hoover)

Gregerson received an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1977 and a Ph.D. from Stanford University ten years later. Before she had even earned her doctorate however, Gregerson had already published her first book, Fire in the Conservatory, with Dragon's Gate Press in 1982. Through subjects as diverse as the Magdalen, Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, Barnum and Bailey, baseball and geometry, Gregerson's work, described in her own words, "meditates from a number of angles and in a number of moods on the question of possession, personal property rights, if you will." The conservatory, in Gregerson's metaphor, embodies the multiplicity of ways that cultural institutions memorialize events and individuals, and, to an equal extent, how we "presume upon those objects in a manner both necessary and perilous." In his encomium, Williams Matthews noted that the book's power lay in the poet's "raising to consciousness of the heart's many and often opaque concerns," a quality that continues to inform Gregerson's poetry.

From 1982-87, Gregerson served as a staff editor of The Atlantic, a "fabulous experience of reading" that provided the poet with "a sense of the spectrum of American poetry—what was being worked on" (Ferguson and Hoover). In 1987 Gregerson began a teaching career in Renaissance Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. For Gregerson, the demanding practice of literary criticism is an enriching complement to poetry. It affords what she describes as a "kind of reciprocal siphoning off that can happen when one works in more than one genre." Further clarifying her thoughts in a personal communication, Gregerson notes:

It's the scholar or critic in me," who needs to siphon off the too-idiosyncratically associational modes of thought, lest the criticism become belleletttristic or self-indulgent. Conversely, what gets siphoned off from the poems is the more extended analytical approach. I think some of the gestures and rhythms of analysis can find a place in poetry, but they need to be highly delimited or disrupted there, lest the poem gets bogged down in the wrong sort of making-all- the-connections-explicit.
Gregerson's critical books include Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry (2001) and The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (1995). With her second poetry collection, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996), Gregerson broke with the left-justified block stanzas that comprised her first collection, working instead in a flexible, indented triad stanza whose second "pivot" line, often a single metrical foot, created "a kind of skeletal resistance, something that syntax could work against" ("A Conversation"). Visually irregular, these stanzas reveal the poet's affinity for syncopated syntax: a line that "breaks and frays" (Woodford, "The Commuting Mind"). Reflecting on her process in an interview with Fiona Sampson, Gregerson describes this tercet as a "four- or five-foot line, then a one-or- or two-foot line":

I'd gone so far as to set the indents on my computer. Since syntax and the prison-of-the-iamb are my primary forms of momentum, I needed a stanza form that could introduce a little light and air, an additional register of speeding up and slowing down. (49)
For Gregerson, this lineation became a "generative proposition" rather than a kind of "packaging" ("A Conversation") one that helped her drive a poem away from predictable insights or pre-plotted fulfillment, a commitment to the idea that one "enters a poem to be changed" (Negative Capability 2). Gregerson's deeply indented margins convey a sense of the spoken voice, adding an additional visual dimension on page that suggests and guides the poem's unfolding. Form, then, for her, becomes the literal vehicle with which to embody thought and transcribe it onto the page.

With this second volume, Gregerson's poetic deepened considerably as she began to explore mortality and the abiding resourcefulness of the human spirit on a planet beset with its stark contrasts of staggering natural beauty and tragic destruction. Here, too, Gregerson turned her attention to motherhood, or rather, found in motherhood another lens for exploring the human relationship to time, to the divine, and even to the state. As she observes in an interview with Adam Day, "I knew nothing before those children were in the world to tell me what really matters," ("An Interview"). Praised for its gravity and artfulness, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep is an inspiration for poet-mothers seeking to resist literary fashions (over-reliance on autobiography and confessionalism among them) that can prove restrictive to a poet's range.

Continuing to work with the tercets she found so generative, Gregerson's third collection, Waterborne, was published in 2002 and was subsequently awarded the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Rhetorically lush and richly layered, the poems in Waterborne document the collisions of spiritual hunger and material ambition: class conflict, religious conversion, the emotional scars of immigrants' lives, as well as near-poisoned ginkgos on a father's farm, are among the many instances throughout the book that attest to the toxic legacy of human habitation in the New World (Satterfield 713). As Lisa Russ Spaar observed, Gregerson's sentences, with their "suspensions" and "parenthetical interruptions" create:

a self-wrestling syntax that celebrates its own tensions...turning on itself, flashing back, looking forward, making connections— so that we are allowed into the private workings of a very particular mind and are privileged to participate intimately in its discoveries. (149)

With the publication of National Book Award finalist Magnetic North (2007), Gregerson's style took a powerful turn. In poems whose subjects ranged from the science of magnetism to ekphrasis to the investigations of Nobel prize-winning physiologists, Gregerson found "the movement of hypothesis and revision" at the heart of the scientific method a compelling structural engine with which to trace more deeply the connections between science and poetry ("A Conversation"). Against the scaffolding of accentual syllabic verse, Gregerson's metrical variations accommodate a multiplicity of narratives, voices, and images to create a tightly woven music whose argument moves toward sonnet-like closure.

In 2008, Gregerson was named Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan. Beyond the university, Gregerson is an active literary presence whose interest in and support of emerging poets is noteworthy; Gregerson regularly serves on the faculty of several writing workshops including the Prague Summer Program and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. With Susan Juster, she edited Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic (2011), a gathering of essays by historians and literary critics that examines religion and empire, the "inseparable forces in the early modern Atlantic world." Collectively, the essays "demonstrate the power of religious ideas and narratives to create kingdoms both imagined and real" (upennpress).

Gregerson's abiding interest in the civic possibilities of the lyric remains a powerful source of vision. Reflecting on the title poem of her fifth collection, The Selvage (2012), Gregerson notes that the book's title seeks to:

address the question of oneness: that binding-at-the-margin that holds us all together and keeps the fabric from utterly unraveling. The rhetoric of division has become so naked in the United States of late (even the name of the country begins to sound ironic), so appalling in its coarseness, that of course the poem has red state/blue state, tea partiers and "birthers," the whole unseemly cacophony in mind. But these divisions are neither new nor exclusive to the flagrant talk shows. They saturate our every daily gesture. What is it but uncomprehending division that makes us take comfort in condescending to one another? (Q&A)

Using a dialectal argument structure1, the poet unfolds a chain of unexpected associations that lead to surprising insight. She reflects on the conversations of Obama campaign workers, and revisits the social awkwardness attendant at a dinner party where an un-named speaker unwittingly reveals a deep ambivalence about the nature of meritocracy and its role within the academy. Finally, her attention is turned to the astonishing sight of migrating geese flocking overhead in the winter skies as she drives home. In this poem, as elsewhere in the collection, the poet creates a powerful exploration of the narratives that underpin contemporary attitudes toward politics, history, race, ethnicity, and class in America. Losses and legacies (including that of English Renaissance poet Isabella Whitney) are viewed against the backdrop of human, historical, and geological time; poems exploring the effects of economic, political, linguistic, and environmental degradation coexist with poems celebrating American and European landscapes, as well as secular and religious art. A poet who finds in private moments the deepest manifestations of our civic drama, Gregerson's work continues to confirm her commitment to a poetic that to "earn[s] the attention of a reader who cares about the world first and writing second" ("How a Poem Happens").

Work

"With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath" underscores the elegiac approach that typifies Gregerson's poetic. Here, a mother's tender recollection of an impromptu afternoon swim with her eight-year old daughter simultaneously engages and resists sentimentality. Gregerson's sentences are grammatically dense: clauses and parentheticals seem suspended across the page, allowing the listener/reader to follow a voice to its vanishing.

The poem opens with the broad gesture characteristic of a dramatic soliloquy—a kind of whispered confession to a confidante where the poet/speaker hints at the power dynamics of parenthood. She admits that acceding to her daughter's impulsive request to swim is a kind of "payment" for all those mornings filled with adult impatience, the surely too-familiar "Hush / and Just stand still," that in retrospect, deserve "some small amends for every reg- / iment- / ed bathtime and short-shrifted goodnight kiss" (The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, 5-9). As the poem unfolds in tercet stanzas, the poet's recognition of the implicit tensions between mother and daughter, youth and age, deepens. Hers is a wry recognition that the necessary structures of their lives can and do become strictures. The radically enjambed lines underscore the poignancy of the speaker's subsequent decision:

I did as I was told for once
gave up
my map, let Emma lead us through the woods

"by instinct," as the drunkard knew
the natural
prince. (10-15)


Soon, the speaker reflects on the practical considerations—a lack of towels, of "bathing costumes,"—but such petty reservations fade:

. . . when
the coppice of sheltering boxwood disclosed its path and posted

rules, our wonted bows to seemliness seemed
poor excuse. (19-23)

With "Emma in her underwear and I / in an ill- / fitting borrowed suit," the speaker swims and reflects on the passage of time (27-9). She knows her daughter, now eight, "will rather / die than do this in a year or two" (33-4). Their momentary togetherness is weighted with recognition of its very transience: the daughter "lobbies, / even as we swim, to be allowed to cut // her hair" (35-7). This inevitable move toward autonomy and the complicated emotions it sparks are vividly captured in the poem's final, syncopated lines where a single sentence provides a visual analogue of hesitant admission and the desire to temporarily suspend time:

. . . I do, dear girl, I will
give up
this honey-colored metric of augmented

thirds, but not (shall we climb
on the raft
for a while?) not yet. (37-42)


A lovely and compelling portrait of contemporary motherhood, the poem celebrates its domestic origins and discovers a striking late twentieth century carpe diem.

"Sweet," another poem that emerges from a domestic setting, also broadens in scope toward a deeper social commentary. In this opening poem from Magnetic North (2007), we see Gregerson's ability to render a vivid and cogent drama through multiple plots and points of view. "Sweet" balances several voices: that of the poet's mother, a secondary interlocutor, and the poet herself, to reflect on the search for "likely narratives" in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (7). The poem opens with the mother's direct address, "We cannot / continue to live in a world where we // have so much / and other people have so little," a sense of urgency voiced by many in that historical moment (8-10).

This narrative, reported in another context, is viewed as "wrong but sweet," by a non-American interlocutor who notes that "the world // has never self-corrected," adding that "you Americans break my heart"(12-14). The use of irregular couplets and these broken lines accommodate pauses in thought, rendering correction, query and hesitation along the way, as when the speaker shifts from the contemporary historical moment "while we were still dumbfounded, still // bereft of likely narratives" to a private and, at first, seemingly unrelated observation (6-7). A possum, for example, hungry enough to emerge in broad daylight, "has found a way to maneuver on top of the snow" in the speaker's backyard, but as it hovers close to the edge of the woods, sometimes breaking the crust of the snow with her weight, the poet reveals its greater resonance as she considers the early origins of the Republic: the settlers named Virginia for their Queen, a name also reflected in the indigenous animal's binomen: Didelphis Virginiana (17-18).

Double-wombed, with thirteen teats, the creature's resourcefulness (it possesses the ability to guide "her all-but-embryonic // young to their pouch / by licking a path from the birth canal) and "commendable limberness" as she "ferries the juveniles on her back" (35-8) also seems "sweet": an unlikely analogue for a youthful nation's tentative beginning as a place "yet-to-be-written-upon- // by-us" (41-2). The laws of nature, and the laws of history, Gregerson suggests, often elude our thinking; the mind will seek, in loss or disaster, a reasoned explanation, insisting that

. . . some bringer-of-harm,
some cause, or course,

that might have been otherwise, had we possessed
the wit to see.

Or ruthlessness. Or what? Or heart. (49-53)

The notion that this impulse might alter the course of our history, the poet suggests, is "wholly premise, rather like the crusted snow" (58).

Moving fluidly between the private and the public, the contemporary and the historical, Linda Gregerson's poems embody the spirit of Renaissance humanism and offer readers what Sydney once called "heart-ravishing knowledge." Her branching and allusive lines, strongly rooted in accentual rhythms and surprising syntactical turns, illuminate the hidden currents of events and emotion that comprise our collective fate. This richly layered body of work reflects the poet's abiding belief in the lyric's civic reach, engaging the deepest human concerns even as they offer renewal and delight.

NOTES

1.

See John Beer's essay "The Dialectical Argument Structure" in Michael Theune's Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns. A form particularly suited to exploring conflict or investigating philosophical concepts, its success lies in the poet's ability to "inhabit incompatible points of view" (112). For the poet, this structure "provides [s] an exercise in building negative capability. It fosters "imaginative engagement" that results in a poem's becoming "a field on which the inevitable conflicts of history and life can play, finding by turns new possibilities of reconciliation and tragedy's stubborn pull" (112).

Works Cited

Baker, David. "A Conversation with Linda Gregerson." The Kenyon Review Online (KOR). Mar. 2007. n. pag. Web. 19 April 2011.

Beers, John. "The Dialectical Argument Structure." Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007. 99-121. Print.

Brodeur, Brian. "Linda Gregerson." How A Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems. 26 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 April 2011.

Burnside, John. "A Conversation with Linda Gregerson." PN Review, Vol. 190 (2009): 33-8. Print. 11 May 2011.

Day, Adam. "An Interview with Linda Gregerson." Memorious: A Journal of Verse and Fiction. Vol. 13. Oct. 2009. Web. 18 April 2011.

Ferguson, Michaelean and Sara Hoover. "The Frank Enthusiast: An Interview with Linda Gregerson," The Pinch Online. Vol. 27, No. 2 (2007). n. pag. Web. 19 April 2011.

"Linda Gregerson." The Poetry Foundation. n. pag. Web. 18 April 2011.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Of First and Last, and Midst." Essay Review of Black Series by Laurie Sheck, Waterborne by Linda Gregerson, Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander, The Other Life by Andrea Hollander Budy, The Long Marriage by Maxine Kumin, and In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone. Poetry. Volume 182. No. 6., Sep. 2003. 356-75. Print.

Hix, H.L. Rev. of Linda Gregerson's Waterborne. Ploughshares. Vol. 28, No. 1. (2002). 201-02. Print.

Gregerson, Linda. Fire in the Conservatory. Port Townsend, WA: Dragon's Gate, 1982.

---. "Life Among Others." Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2007. 206-18. Print.

---. Magnetic North. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

---. Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001.

---. "Re: hello + Mezzo Cammin Women Poet's Timeline." Message to Jane Satterfield. 13 Aug. 2011. E-mail.

---. "The Selvage." Poetry 197.3 (2010): 230-35.

---. The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. New York: Mariner, 1998.

---. Waterborne. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Pogue, Shaen. Rev. of Linda Gregerson's Waterborne. Missouri Review. Vol. 27, No.1. (2004): 175-76. Print.

"Q & A: Linda Gregerson." Poetry Foundation, 2010. Web.

Spaar, Lisa Russ. Essay Review of Waterborne by Linda Gregerson and What Do We Know by Mary Oliver. Shenandoah. Volume 52, Number 4 (Winter 2002). 148-53. Print.

Sampson, Fiona. "Linda Gregerson: Making a Poem." Mslexia 51. (2011): 49. Print.

Satterfield, Jane. Rev. of Linda Gregerson's Waterborne. Antioch Review 60. 4 (2002): 712-13. Print.

Warren, Rosanna. "Poet's Sampler: Rosanna Warren introduces Linda Gregerson." The Boston Review 19.2. 1990. Web.

Woodford, John. "The Commuting Mind of Linda Gregerson." Michigan Today Summer 2002. n. pag. Web. 18 April 2011.

With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath

In payment for those mornings at the mirror while,
at her
expense, I'd started my late learning in Applied

French Braids, for all
the mornings afterward of Hush
and Just stand still,

to make some small amends for every reg-
iment-
ed bathtime and short-shrifted goodnight kiss,

I did as I was told for once,
gave up
my map, let Emma lead us through the woods

"by instinct," as the drunkard knew
the natural
prince. We had no towels, we had

no "bathing costumes," as the children's novels
call them here, and I
am summer's dullest hand at un-

premeditated moves. But when
the coppice of sheltering boxwood
disclosed its path and posted

rules, our wonted bows to seemliness seemed
poor excuse.
The ladies in their lumpy variety lay

on their public half-acre of lawn,
the water
lay in dappled shade, while Emma

in her underwear and I
in an ill-
fitting borrowed suit availed us of

the breast stroke and a modified
crawl.
She's eight now. She will rather

die than do this in a year or two
and lobbies,
even as we swim, to be allowed to cut

her hair. I do, dear girl, I will
give up
this honey-colored metric of augmented

thirds, but not (shall we climb
on the raft
for a while?) not yet.

Linda Gregerson, "With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pool on Hampstead Heath" from The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. Copyright © 1996 by Linda Gregerson. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.?

SWEET

Linda,
said my mother when the buildings fell,

before, you understand, we knew a thing
about the reasons or the ways

and means,
while we were still dumbfounded, still

bereft of likely narratives, We cannot
continue to live in a world where we

have so much
and other people have so little.

Sweet, he said.
Your mother's wrong but sweet, the world

has never self-corrected,
you Americans break my heart.

Our possum she must be hungry or
she wouldn't venture out in so

much daylight has found
a way to maneuver on top of the snow.

Thin crust. Sometimes her foot breaks through.
The edge

of the woods for safety or
for safety's hopeful lookalike. Di-

delphis, "double-wombed," which is
to say, our one marsupial:

the shelter then
the early birth, then shelter perforce again.

Virginiana for the place. The place
for a queen

supposed to have her maidenhead.
He was clever.

He had moved among the powerful.
Our possum possessed

of thirteen teats, or so
my book informs me, quite a ready-made

republic guides
her blind and all-but-embryonic

young to their pouch
by licking a path from the birth canal.

Resourceful, no? Requiring
commendable limberness, as does

the part I've seen, the part
where she ferries the juveniles on her back.

Another pair of eyes above
her shoulder. Sweet. The place

construed as yet-to-be-written-upon-
by-us.

And many lost. As when
their numbers exceed the sources of milk

or when the weaker ones fall
by the wayside. There are

principles at work, no doubt:
beholding a world of harm, the mind

will apprehend some bringer-of-harm,
some cause, or course,

that might have been otherwise, had we possessed
the wit to see.

Or ruthlessness. Or what? Or heart.
My mother's mistake, if that's

the best the world-as-we've-made-it
can make of her, hasn't

much altered with better advice. It's
wholly premise, rather like the crusted snow.

Bibliography

POETRY

Fire in the Conservatory. Port Townsend, WA: Dragon Gate, 1982. Print.

The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.

Waterborne. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

Magnetic North. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

The Selvage. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

LITERARY CRITICISM

The Reformation of the Subject: Spencer, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Negative Capability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic World, co-edited with Susan Juster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Print.

AWARDS

Ingram Merrill grant, 1982

Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985 and 1992

Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine, 1991

Mellon Fellow, National Humanities Center, 1991-1992

Isabel MacCaffrey Award, Spenser Society of America, 1992

Consuelo Ford Award, Poetry Society of America, 1992

Michigan Humanities Award, 2000

Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, University of Michigan, 2000

Guggenheim Fellowship, 2000.

Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Waterborne, 2003.

University Press Book Award (University of Michigan Press), 2003

Elliston Poet-in-Residence, University of Cincinnati, 2003

Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2002

Senior Fellow, Michigan Society of Fellows, 2002-06

Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professorship, College of Literature, Science and the Arts, University of Michigan 2003-2008

John Rich Professor, Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan, 2004-05

Visiting Hurst Professor, Washington University, 2006

Finalist, National Book Award, 2007

Pushcart Prize (Poetry), 2008 and 2003

Creative Arts Residency, Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Bellagio, Italy 2008

Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English, University of Michigan, 2008-present

Bogliasco Fellowship, Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities, Bogliasco, Italy 2009

Visiting Mackey Chair, Beloit College, 2010

Michigan Humanities Award, 2011

Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Illinois Wesleyan University, 2011


































POET DATA
Linda Gregerson
Years: 1950-
Birthplace: United States
Language(s): English
Forms: Free verse, lyric, ekphrasis, tercet
Subjects: politics, science, American landscape, culture and history, motherhood, family, loss, environmental degradation, mortality, history, theatre, and visual art
Entry By: Jane Satterfield
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