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a heart-touching visit with irene latham

#8 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2011.

Irene with her debut middle grade novel, Leaving Gee's Bend.

When poet and author Irene Latham was at a booksigning for her debut novel Leaving Gee’s Bend last year, she spied a postcard book containing pieces from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She decided to use some of the paintings as prompts for the poem-a-day-challenge she usually does every April. Twelve of those poems are included in her second book of poetry, The Color of Lost Rooms (Blue Rooster Press, 2010), which explores the themes of love and loss within the context of history, nature and art. 

I find ekphrastic poems fascinating, a kind of triple treat. There’s the work of art itself (something we might encounter for the first time or be invited to ponder anew), the poet’s response to the art, and then the pleasure of comparing our own reactions with the poet’s. Irene says she really responds to visual art on an emotional level, and that the paintings she eventually wrote about chose her. I know just what she means. It's wonderful wholly entering the world of a painting that speaks to you.  

Today, Irene's sharing one of her favorite ekphrastic poems from the book:

You gotta love fruit, if for no other reason than the fact that it manages to thrive in a world that throws it in a pit with "forbidden" to create one of the most often used clichés ever. What human has not craved forbidden fruit? What artist has not painted at least one still life with fruit?

Which makes writing a poem about fruit loaded with the potential for failure. (How to be original, how to write the unexpected?) But I love fruit. And I love this painting by Lilly Martin Spencer. So I used it as a jumping off place for a love poem.

            ~ after the painting by Lilly Martin Spencer

And for a time
we lived our lives as gods:

when we were hungry,
we found feast.

We devoured the world,
we challenged all limits.

We took joy in naming
and claiming,

we marveled
over odd shape and contour,

the unexpected prickle
on tongue.

We celebrated all bodies,
not just our own,

exclaimed over the raw strength
clothed in such tender skin.

We believed the sweetness
would sustain us,

so we set our hearts
on the stone slab.

There we discovered bitter
seed, tough rind.

We were not brave enough
to call it regret

until many years later.

~ from The Color of Lost Rooms, © 2010 Irene Latham. All rights reserved.

Irene: Speaking of fruit and the unexpected . . . I've seen fruit kabobs and fruit folded into gelatin. But my favorite way to serve fruit is to make a salsa and bake some cinnamon chips. When I bring this dish to book club, the Book Club Babes swoon! It's pretty and tasty. Enjoy! And thank you, Jama, for inviting me over. Happy Poetry Month!!


1 cup finely chopped fresh strawberries
1 medium navel orange, peeled and finely chopped
3 medium kiwi fruit, peeled and finely chopped
20-30 grapes, chopped
3 T Smuckers Simply Fruit strawberry preserves


10 flour tortillas (8 inches)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon


In a small bowl, combine the first five ingredients. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

For chips, brush tortillas with butter, cut each into eight wedges. Combine sugar and cinnamon; sprinkle over tortillas. Place on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes or just until crisp. Serve with fruit salsa. Yield: 2-1/2 cups salsa (80 chips).

Irene Latham is a poet and novelist who writes heart-touching tales of unexpected adventure. Her debut midgrade historical novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010) is set in Alabama during the Great Depression and was awarded Alabama Library Association's 2011 Children's Book Award, and has been hailed as "authentic and memorable" by Booklist, and "a tale that will stay with the reader forever" by BookPage.

A resident of Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 26 years, she has published over 170 poems in various books, journals and anthologies, including a full-length collection, WHAT CAME BEFORE, which was named Alabama State Poetry Society's Book of the Year and earned a 2008 Independent Publisher's (IPPY) Award. Her newest volume of poetry, THE COLOR OF LOST ROOMS, was released by Blue Rooster Press in late 2010, and her next contemporary midgrade novel, DON'T FEED THE BOY, about the son of a zoo director mother and elephant keeper father who struggles to escape the confines of zoo life, will be released by Roaring Brook/Macmillan in 2012. Irene loves exploring new places and often uses "research" as an excuse to travel. Her favorite characters in books and real life are those who have the courage to go their own way.

Irene has wanted to be a writer since she was eight, and hoped to train a horse that her sister would ride to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Could still happen ☺! You can find Irene online at her 
official website and lovely blog, Live. Love. Explore!, where she's hosting a Poetry Party all month long, featuring poetry quotes, craft tips, publishing resources, and free books!


Thanks for coming to the Potluck, Irene!

♥ Previous Potluck Poets: April Halprin Wayland, Carol Weis, JoAnn Early Macken, Heidi Mordhorst, Diane Mayr, Jessica Swaim.

♥ Full list of Poetry Month events at Kidlitosphere Central.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan's alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2011 11:48 am (UTC)
tanita says:
The richly evocative poem, with its hints of the sweetness of memory, and the bitterness of wisdom -- that was meal enough. And, then the recipe!!! Another feast for the senses. One word: yum.
Apr. 13th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
Re: tanita says:
Indeed a very rich and evocative poem -- it captures the powerful rush of falling in love, when all things seem possible, feeling invincible. The first few bites of something sweet and luscious are intoxicating, and then . . .
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
Re: tanita says:
Thanks, Tanita! I love love poems... appreciate your comments so much.
Apr. 13th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
Oh my that is one luscious poem.
Thank you, Jama and Irene.
Apr. 13th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome. Thanks for stopping in :)!
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
Yes, thank you for reading! And Jama! You're THE BEST. xo
Apr. 13th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, now I just want to meet you two at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and look at paintings and talk poetry. But I guess I must be content with rereading some of Irene's poems. Still, someday, maybe?: we've got to dream And those chips and salsa, yum!

And how did I not know the term ekphrastic poetry? Now if I can just remember it, as I love that sort of homage. Learning every day here, Jama.
Apr. 13th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Oh good. I didn't know that word either but now I'm so glad I do.
Apr. 13th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
Haven't been to the National Museum of Women in over a decade. To think, looking at postcards prompted such wonderful poems (12 in Irene's book?). Have you written any poems in response to paintings?

I think I first heard the term "ekphrasis" from Laura Salas. Her 15 Words or Less photographic prompts fall into this category. :)

Apr. 14th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
Oh, Jeannine, how awesome would that field trip be?? let's go. xo
Apr. 13th, 2011 01:45 pm (UTC)
Yum - I will definitely make that fruit salsa! My kind of thing!!

I need to get one of Irene's poetry books - I loved LEAVING GEE'S BEND.
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
I just purchased both of Irene's poetry collections and am enjoying them. The Color of Lost Rooms contains some very interesting poems about historical figures -- Babe Ruth, Abe Lincoln, Irene Curie, Audrey Hepburn, in addition to other ekphrastic poems. Jeannine Atkins reviewed this book on her blog not too long ago.
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
Thanks, Lisa... and seriously, you CANNOT go wrong with that fruit salsa. I am so excited about THE DAY BEFORE! What a fantastic concept!!
Apr. 13th, 2011 04:52 pm (UTC)
I'm a huge fan of Irene's work. Loved Gee's Bend. And LOVE the title of her new poetry book--The Color of Lost Rooms. That's a poem in itself.

Fruit salsa is a great idea! I'm adding this to my Easter take-along (the ice cream dish in your other post is for me!). Looking forward to her next children's book, too.
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:04 pm (UTC)
Irene's so talented -- great books for kids and poems for adults! I can see why Gee's Bend appealed to you :).

The fruit salsa sounds like a nutritious as well as delicious light appetizer/snack. Never had cinnamon chips before. Yum.
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:45 am (UTC)
Candice, thank you so much! The phrase "the color of lost rooms" actually is taken from one of the poems in the collection. We juggled a number of titles, and when this one was in the air, we just KNEW. Glad you like it too. :)
Apr. 13th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
Oh those cinnamon chips look so yummy!

I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know what ekphrastic meant and had to go look it up. What a great word!

I loved the line

We celebrated all bodies,
not just our own,

And the ending...perfectly dead-on. Thank you.
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:07 pm (UTC)
Does sound good -- cinnamon chips, who knew?

"Ekphrastic" is a funny word -- I wouldn't have been able to get its meaning by the sound or appearance of the word. As I was telling Jeannine, Laura's 15 Words or Less is an ekphrastic poetry exercise.
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
I really don't care for the word "ekphrastic." I'll never forget the first time a poetry group leader used it -- I thought he had something caught in his throat!
Apr. 14th, 2011 08:15 pm (UTC)
LOL. Yes, it does sound like a choke-y word!
Apr. 13th, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
Love that Irene! She is so talented!
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:39 am (UTC)
love you too, Kathy (Who Has a Poet's Soul). xo
Apr. 14th, 2011 01:23 am (UTC)
Irene is such a precious lady. I love her work and her sweet spirit. This is a beautiful poem. And I learned a new word today, too, Jama! I blogged today about your month of poets and recipes. I've enjoyed reading. I'm not much of a cook, but this fruit dish looks like something I might like to try. Thanks to both you and to Irene.
Apr. 14th, 2011 08:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for blogging about the potluck! Appreciate it :).

Irene is a wonder. I'm savoring the poems in her new book one by one.
Apr. 14th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
What a tasty post!

I, too, wrote some ekphrastic poems after visiting the National Museum of Women in the Arts - it's just that sort of place, I guess!
Apr. 14th, 2011 08:26 pm (UTC)
I visited the museum years and years ago -- it's a little haven from the hustle and bustle. Interesting to hear that some of the paintings have inspired good poems :).
Apr. 18th, 2011 12:46 am (UTC)
Thank you Jama and Irene
After reading your poem about that luscious painting, I'm going to view art in a whole new way, searching for the poem inside. And when I went shopping this week, I came home with a bag full of fruit to make your salsa, Irene. I, too, loved reading "Leaving Gee's Bend."
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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