Discover more from The Weekly Dirt with Jessica Damiano
Poetry contest, giveaway and Q&A with editor Tess Taylor about her new book, "Leaning Toward Light"
Plus, the best Amazon Prime Big Deal Days bargains of 2023
After I published my Amazon Prime Day preview in July, dozens of you wrote to thank me for doing the legwork, so I scoured through Amazon’s thousands of upcoming sale items this week and sorted out what seem to be the best gardening (and other) bargains of their upcoming Prime Big Deal Days sales event.
The 24-hour sale starts this Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 3 a.m. EST, so you can scoop up some end-of-season bargains and get a jump on your holiday shopping.
Just like last time, the sale is just for Amazon Prime members, but if you’re not a Prime member, you can sign up for a free trial membership. If you’re not interested in retaining Prime, there are no rules against canceling before the free trial period ends to avoid a charge.
Garden poetry with Tess Taylor
Some of you might remember my “Garden Detective” days at Newsday here in New York. I wrote the gardening column there for nearly 15 years, and for many of those years, I ran an annual garden poetry contest among my readers.
So, I was excited to learn of a new anthology called “Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens & The Hands That Tend Them,” edited by Tess Taylor, who’s a gardener, activist, author, poet and poetry reviewer of NPR’s All Things Considered. And it got me thinking: Why not resurrect my garden poetry contest here on The Weekly Dirt?
I got to ask Taylor about her book and how she pulled it together, and she was happy to offer a copy as a prize for the winner (entry details below).
JESSICA: You’re a poetry critic and a poet in your own right, so why an anthology of other people’s poems? And why gardening? What inspired the idea?
TESS: As the wonderful poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil notes in the introduction, the word anthology actually means bouquet, or gathering of flowers. An anthology is a chance to present a vision of beauty—in all its rich seasonal color—to the world! I am a poet, yes, but I am also a community gardener and activist. I’ve gardened and farmed my whole life—from my parents’ graduate school community plot to urban farms and even a rural farm in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. So when my friend Hannah Fries, the tremendous editor at Storey Press, called me and asked if I’d like to take on this project, my heart leapt. In fact, if I remember correctly, my hands were even then a bit dirty from being out planting tomatoes in our front yard.
JESSICA: Did you set out to publish a book for poets or for gardeners?
TESS: All of the above! This book celebrates the way gardens and poems are each dense spaces that reroute us and allow us to enter a beautiful and rich ecosystem (of language or of plants) and come out renewed. You’ll love this book if you’re a gardener or a poet, or both, but I can imagine that you might just want some “green shade,” as Andrew Marvell once put it. There are poems for houseplants, like one by Laura Villareal for a celery plant that she’s coaxed to grow from an old supermarket celery root on the kitchen counter, and another by Andy Eaton for a potted cherry tree on a rental deck, and one by Mariana Goycoechea for the kind of care even our indoor plants remind us to take— not only of them but of ourselves. There are poems for grief, for reverie, for the turn of seasons. How might that imaginative moment of connecting with the green and growing world help each of us have deeper empathy with our own lives? This question runs through the book.
JESSICA: What was the process like, and how long did it take?
TESS: The process, as it happened, began early in the pandemic. I was spending a lot of time in our front yard, which is also our garden. We garden everywhere—all the way up to artichokes on the strip between the sidewalk and the street. And during the pandemic, I actually filled our driveway with planter boxes and made a huge food garden with blueberries, favas, and tomatoes there, too! It had become an impromptu community gathering space—people dropping off starts and seedlings and talking at a distance. I really thought how our gardens were emblems of our friendship with one another, and that our plants were close, even when we couldn’t be. As it happened, my life was very full homeschooling my kids. One of the only times I had to work on the anthology was for a few hours each day in a neighbor’s converted shed. That was sacred time, reading old gardening anthologies and imagining a new one. I loved the journey. The garden poem is as old as literature itself. We have a deep literary tradition of praising plants, singing their seasons, describing their care. I wanted something that honored that tradition but also gathered the diverse authors working today in an era when we are looking for food justice and facing down the threat of climate change. I wanted to document this moment of gardening on a fragile and imperiled planet.
JESSICA: Which classic poets did you include (and why)?
TESS: If I had been able to include our whole deep history of garden literature, my work would have been thousands of pages long! Instead, I just picked a few lovely older poems to season the book, as it were! There is some Keats, a little Virgil, Lorca, a wonderful Japanese poet called Nanao Sakaki, a dash of Rumi, a little Basho, snippets of Frost and Hopkins. There are two poems by the poet Thom Gunn that are particularly rich in sensory detail. These poems bear witness to the deep substrate of plant poetry in which our contemporary poems root and grow.
JESSICA: How did you go about finding contemporary poets who write about gardening?
TESS: I wrote, first off, to friends and colleagues I admire in the poetry world. I put the call out slowly. I wanted not to be overwhelmed but to savor as I read. I am so delighted to have poems by Ada Limón, our poet laureate, and Ross Gay, a poet of gardens and joy, and Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman and Jane Hirshfield and Ellen Bass, who each write such beautiful and rich poems of savoring. There’s a wonderful poet named Danusha Lameris who astounds me with the way she accesses tenderness—she writes a beautiful poem about worms and another about grief. Mostly I wanted poems that helped me to slow down and savor. I wanted each page of the anthology to feel like a gateway, a door.
JESSICA: Which poem resonates the most with you personally, and why?
TESS: I imagine that each of the poems in this book can be a window to joyful attentiveness— and what might speak to me might change according to the day.
This is a book that moves through various seasons—literal seasons like planting and sprouting, but also life seasons, like grief and reverie. We go to gardens to participate in the seasons of life writ large and to excavate the seasons of our own lives. We garden because when we do, we learn again and again we are neither totally free of responsibility for the earth nor wholly in control of it. Anyway, different poems have echoed with me greatly during different seasons of building the book!
But since you’re asking me to choose: I love the poem GIFT by Czeslaw Milosz, which is about the sense of deep fulfillment one can feel in a garden. It’s a poem about contentedness in a culture where we are often encouraged to be discontented, to think we need to buy or do or be more. There’s a beautiful ode by Keats on the very last page, which I keep reading to people. It starts “the poetry of earth is never dead,” and then it talks about the grasshopper and the cricket. I keep thinking, “hello, earth! each cricket is a poem!” There’s a poem by Jason Myers that says, “I do not want to be any busier than my basil plant.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, too, because—well, how busy is a basil plant? There’s a mystery there which slows me down, even in a frantic time, and reminds me to absorb light, to be still, to wait.
JESSICA: What pleases you most about the way the book turned out?
TESS: When I was gathering poems on looseleaf sheets in my friend’s garden shed, I had no idea we’d make such a beautiful hard copy book with illustrations and a ribbon bookmark. The book has an incredibly beautiful design, with gorgeous places to stop and look at the colorful pages. The illustrator, Melissa Castrillon, is a genius! It really is so beautiful to hold as an object. That is a delight.
JESSICA: What do you hope the takeaway will be -- what would you like readers to get out of reading the book?
TESS: We have lived and continue to live through some incredibly hard years, when it often feels that we are facing intractable problems; when we can despair of our ability to heal the many breaches we see around us. Yet there are always pathways toward repair, toward more radical abundance. Many of these paths start by cultivating and building richer ecosystems for the human and non-human worlds. Gardens and art communities each help us build the diversity and richness and resilience we need now. I honestly believe that the way forward is for all of us to become gardeners—of community, of food, of healthier ecosystems, of well-fed children, of kindness, of wetlands, of greater justice. Pick your garden! Tend it! Sometimes, that work ahead can feel very daunting. Gardens and poems also offer us places to rest along the way. They remind us that when we are reciprocal with the earth, it tends us back. They model and teach us compassion and grace.
Enter to win a copy of “Learning Toward Light”
Compose a garden-themed poem — it can rhyme or not; be free verse, sonnet, limerick, slam; an ode to your lawn, your pruners or your blight-stricken tomatoes; a poignant reflection on gardening as a metaphor for your life or whatever moves you when you put pen to paper (or strike those keys) — it’s up to you, just keep entries to a maximum of seven lines.
A selection of the best submissions will be published here in The Weekly Dirt, and my absolute favorite will receive a copy of the “Leaning Toward Light” anthology, edited by Tess Taylor (Storey Publishing).
Email your poem, along with your full name and full mailing address (only your name and hometown will be published), to jessica@jessicadamiano with “Garden Poetry” in the subject line.
Submissions must be received by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15.
Here, for inspiration, are some of my favorite poems from “Leaning Toward Light” (just remember, your entries must be 7 lines or less).
TESS TAYLOR: Green Tomatoes in Fire Season There is smoke in the air when I go pick them. I go despite panic, also because inside I’ll make chutney. For an hour or so, I unlatch them. It is late fall. They will not ripen. Firm pale green skins, fine-coated in ash. Our fire season goes all autumn now, though today’s fire is not yet near to us. But the green tomatoes: I love their pale lobes. Tonight, god-willing, we will fry some with cornmeal & fish. Inside the air purifier whirs: I will boil them with molasses & raisin. Jar them for friends & the winter. Disaster, we say, meaning bad star. These are good green stars, this is also their season. Mask on, I bend & bend to the vine: I bend & salvage what I can.
ROSS GAY: A Small, Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, which means, perhaps, that with his very large hands, perhaps, in all likelihood, he put gently into the earth some plants which, most likely, some of them, in all likelihood, continue to grow, continue to do what such plants do, like house and feed small and necessary creatures, like being pleasant to touch and smell, like converting sunlight into food, like making it easier for us to breathe.
ANNA V. Q. ROSS: After All Even when the garlic crop is good, something else is always dying— the peas withering in the afternoon we hoped for rain instead of watering, the tomatoes over-shaded. It should teach us something about pathos or fate, but really couldn’t we have tried harder? Predicted the week of heat when the spinach bolted? The trouble with gardening is there’s rain and wind and sun to blame, like the woman in the buffer zone outside the clinic who spat at me and screamed What kind of man is he to bring you here? while I held your hand, and our daughter curled in her crib at home with the sitter. Afterward, I dozed against you on a park bench overlooking the city until I was ready to go back to work. But that’s not gardening. And still there’s the garlic— those round, paper-skinned heads you pulled this morning and carefully laid out to dry on the driveway’s warm flat bed below our window
ROSANNA WARREN: Season Due They are unforgiving and do not ask mercy, these last of the season’s flowers: chrysanthemums, brash sultan dahlias a-nod in rain. It is September. Pansy freaked with jet be damned: it takes this radiant bitterness to stand, to take the throb of sky, now sky is cold, falls bodily, assaults. In tangled conclave, spikyleaved, they wait. The news is fatal. Leaf by leaf, petal by petal, they brazen out this chill which has felled already gentler flowers and herbs and now probes these veins for a last mortal volley of cadmium orange, magenta, a last acrid flood of perfume that will drift in the air here once more, yet once more, when these stubborn flowers have died.
Excerpted from Leaning toward Light © Edited by Tess Taylor. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.
📰This week in my Associated Press gardening column
I write a weekly gardening column for the AP, so you might have seen my byline in your local paper (or news website) — wherever in the world you happen to be. In case you miss it, I’ll post the most recent here every week.
BEFORE THAT: Easy houseplants for neglectful gardeners
You can read all my AP gardening columns here.
📚📺🎵 Random things I enjoyed this week
🎃 I took a quick trip to Boston with some dear friends and took a detour to Salem, just in time for the beginning (and not yet out-of-control crowded) “Spooky Season” and the Haunted Happenings Marketplace.
🎤 I gave a double-feature lecture to the Lifelong Learning Program at Molloy University in New York, presenting two programs in my History & Horticulture series: “The Gardens of France” and “Old Westbury Gardens & The High Line.” It’s always such a pleasure to get out and meet my readers.
📺 I’m a bit late to the party, having just discovered this 12-year-old BBC television series, but I’ve really been enjoying Call the Midwife on Netflix. It’s not the type of show I’d ordinarily be drawn to, but I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
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