Naughty Words

Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of A Dictionary of the English Language,
often visited two sisters in London.


Mrs. Digby and Mrs. Brooke commended him 
for not including naughty words. What! my dears! 

then you have been looking for them? One of them, 
when she was ten, looked for the Latin word for lips 

in a lesser book. At twenty she blushed at clitoris. 
Decades later, now seventy—she looked for them again 

after pulling a white nightdress over her bonneted head, 
setting dentures in their place on the small bedstand 

& stiffly climbing into bed. Searching, but still not knowing          
biblically what she could have known beyond 

her tidy dreams—wild pleasure to her had been 
sieving bechamel that had separated from its cream.


Source: Subtropics, Issue 33, 2023. Edited by David Leavitt and Ange Mlinko.

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Local Library

I have worked in a library
and let me tell you this: my job 
was vital. Not just fielding 
people’s questions, lending 

books, but smiling, lending 
an ear, or sharing quiet 
conversation with society’s 
most isolated and vulnerable.

One time, a young medical student 
arrived overwhelmed by her new life 
and she found solace among 
stacks while her baby slept.

Another time a widower, so shy 
that he could barely speak, whispered 
to me that he loved the beauty 
of his old-fashioned alarm clock. 

If he were here today I like to think 
he’d have set it for this hour—
this minute—to wake us up, to rattle 
our bones with its annoying sound

to make us jump out of our skin 
to do everything we can to quickly 
save this library that’s been a haven 
to our community for years. 


I wrote this protest poem for friends in Aberdeen, Scotland. March 2023. They read it, and other poems, during an outdoor public protest against permanent closure of a local library.

Our Town

Horseshoe Mountain—draped in a snowy
kitchen apron in spring times—rests her back
against the blue sky. She’s propped up reading
the landscape of old paths nearly filled in
with mounding swards of Baltic rush,
a few telephone poles, and ancient lilacs so tall
and wide that an outhouse could fit inside
hidden by purple. It’s where
you lie down in green rushes near dry cow-pies
because the conk-la-ree of Red-wing blackbirds
was too beautiful to hear, and a bee with saddlebags
of pollen buzzes in a poppy near your ear.
You see flashes of crimson épaulettes when
blackbirds all swoop from the blue to perch
on long lines of matriarchs: grey, weathered
fence poles shorn of branches and buds, how
they play a lazy game of red rover, too old to run—
their barbed wire arms lifted—holding hands
with an iron grip on memories breezing through
of pioneer women in faded dresses
planting lilac cuttings in dark and watered holes.


Source: Sisyphus, Issue 9.1: The Hope Issue. Hip Pocket Press. “Our Town,” by Gwendolyn Soper

Voetica, Berkeley-based site dedicated to spoken poetry. To hear the author read this poem, click here.

What Injures the Hive, Injures the Bee

Naval gazing? So passé.
The Me Generation? Over.
That find-your-passion frenzy—
so yesterday. There’s a lifting
of vision now, a looking around
even for those
who hadn’t noticed
that outsized selfishness is dead.
Today there’s a tending to hives
but it’s not just bees, hives
and wax that buzz. Heads on our shoulders
are turning slow motion-like.
Thoughts hum. It’s making sense:
the rain, the breeze, the scent
of nectar flowers, reciprocity: the active
creative    individual    collective world
on the way to healing—
being one.


Source: Sisyphus, Issue 9.1: The Hope Issue. Hip Pocket Press. “What Injures the Hive, Injures the Bee,” by Gwendolyn Soper

Voetica, Berkeley-based site dedicated to spoken poetry. To hear the author read this poem, click here.

Chapbook: A Portable Paradise Prom(pt)

FREE e-chapbook [DOWNLOAD BELOW!]:
collected poems from a writing workshop led by me, for Swiss-based Pernessy Poets. The chapbook was inspired by Roger Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,’ and I’m delighted it includes two of my poems. I urge you to read Roger Robinson‘s book, A Portable Paradise. It won the coveted TS Eliot Prize in 2020 and is available from indie booksellers and major booksellers.

The idea for this workshop prompt came to me after I tweeted a photo of a handwritten copy I’d made of his iconic poem, which I gifted to my family to carry with them in their pockets or purses. Mr. Robinson saw my tweet and replied,

You should write a poem based on it. Use the framework and add in your own biographical details. Try it!!!

I took his advice and wrote my own Paradise poem. Soon afterward, I led workshop participants through this prom(pt). The founder of these online workshops is the delightful poet, Elizabeth Boquet.

There was magic in the air that day. The prom(pt) took off like fireworks and, as a group, we decided the direction our Paradise Project must take: a chapbook, and Mr. Robinson kindly gave me permission to proceed.

I challenge you to write your own Paradise poem. You’re welcome to DOWNLOAD the FREE E-BOOK BELOW to get an idea how much freedom you can find writing yours as you read each person’s take on the prom(pt). When you do write it, please post: #PortableParadisePrompt and #ParadiseProject on social media. We’d love to read it!

A Portable Paradise, by Roger Robinson, is available at indie booksellers, and Amazon. Published by Peepal Tree Press.

-E-book design & format: Gwendolyn Soper. Author photograph, used with permission of Roger Robinson.

NOTA BENE: All roads lead back to the poet Billy Collins and his Poetry Broadcast. I learned about the book, A Portable Paradise, from Ian Aitken, a minister in Aberdeen, Scotland (and viewer of said broadcast). Thank you, Ian. He is also the founder of The Lockdown Poets, a wee weekly writing group to which I’ve belonged since early 2020. I also met Elizabeth Boquet via Billy Collins’ broadcast.

**I got the idea to call it a prom(pt) from the Southampton Writers Workshop I attended the year before when I took a class from Billy Collins. The workshop concluded with a Prom(pt) for all faculty and students. I suspect Christian McLean had something to do with it. We dressed up for the event and had a blast.

The Rain in Utah

We used to lay on the hot cement shivering
after we swam. A quick lick of the concrete 
confirmed it hadn’t changed since 
the last time we stuck out our tongues — 
it tasted like scorched Utah sand 
under the branches of the apricot tree. 

Don’t eat the apricots before you swim, 
you’ll get cramps! Mom calls 
us in for hot dogs and potato chips, 
and we peel off running to eat, grabbing towels 
because we only use them for capes. 

One black night the lightening illuminates the pool 
again and again like a glowing blue kidney bean. 
The thunder rattles the plate glass windows— 
and my little brother and I—we watch
from the tv room on our stomachs. We learn
some things are as good as cartoons.


“The Rain in Utah” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: Nine Mile, Spring Issue 2022, Vol. 10, No. 1. Click here to order a copy.

Voetica, Berkeley-based site dedicated to spoken poetry. To hear the author read this poem, click here.

The Legend of John Dory

For Nives & Niksa. Split, Croatia

It’s a sign of intelligence to try new food
and the salty Balkan air made me bolder
with every wave that brought us here
with the thrum of the old boat—I felt reckless
as a Puritan walking out on the sermon
about The Fall and the imminent dangers
resulting from desire.

The eyes are the best part, the waiter said
after he set our plates down on the table
beaten by hot island sun.
This is how you suck them out.
So, we picked up the fish and slurped—
my tongue, that wet salty shore
where a fisherman once cast his net
into the sea for one last time
before dropping it to fish for men.

When he left his boat, Saint Peter saw a fish—
a remarkable flat fish with a coin in its mouth
to pay temple taxes. When he picked it up
to retrieve the money, he left a thumbprint
on its side. These fish from the family of Zeus
still carry the oval mark.

Still thinking of salt & water, apostles
& knotted nets, still feeling an inner fire,
I look up and see the way you are looking
at me. Soon, I am swimming with desire.


“The Legend of John Dory” by Gwendolyn Soper

Nine Mile, Spring Issue 2022, Vol. 10, No. 1. Click here to order a copy.

Billy Collins, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, reads “The Legend of John Dory” on The Poetry Broadcast. Click here to listen to him read it. [12 April 2022].

Voetica, Berkeley-based site dedicated to spoken poetry. To hear the author read this poem, click here.

To Tyrants: Enough!

how our own speech acts for justice may lead to fruitful and sustaining outcomes

by Gwendolyn Soper. Originally published on Substack, 16 March 2022

Right now, I sit in a heated home. It’s bitter cold outside. It’s painful to observe how our fellow humans are suffering unimaginable horrors in Ukraine, or the many locations to which they’ve fled. I feel helpless, angry, and full of despair. I know I’m not the only one. I’m overcome by the kindness of Poland’s President Duda “everyone is let in.” 

How may we cope with these strong emotions effectively, and at the same time possibly make a difference? One of my acquaintances has three refugees from Ukraine living with her in Austria—a mother and two teenagers. The father has returned to Ukraine to fight. Many of us donate to legitimate charities like World Central Kitchen and UNICEF that supply necessities to Ukraine. What else can we do to help provide for their immediate needs, and demonstrate solidarity?

Pádraig Ó Tuama, a well-recognized Irish poet, theologian, and group mediator, educated people recently online about conflict resolution in conjunction with the Columbia Climate School. He teaches that ‘speech acts’—and other acts of artistic expression like poetryart, dance, or music—can be acts of “co-creation” that often have “fruitful and sustaining” outcomes. The following examples may reflect what he was talking about:

Putin’s actions makes the hate speech reflected in a recent poem by Ukrainian poet, Oleksandr Irvanets, understandable, “I shout out to the whole world. I won’t forgive anyone!” It makes the book, Deaf Republic, by hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-American Ilya Kaminsky, an important act that questions our potential for collective silence in the face of atrocities. 

Suddenly, I’m seeing speech acts everywhere like those of Garrison Keillor, and Simon Armitage, poet laureate of the UK. They validate how I’ve been feeling, make me more aware, and increase my feelings of solidarity with those under fire in Ukraine. Our own speech acts may also be effective through writing our own poems, moving our bodies to music, creating art, even if only in our homes to reduce anxiety.

Ó Tuama recently shared a poem by Joy Harjo titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.” I want to look at the individual words in her title. Conflict: what does it mean? It means to clash. Or to be in a serious disagreement or argument—typically a protracted one. It is at the root of war. Resolution means to find a solution to a problem, dispute, or contentious matter. 

Holy Beings means different things to different people. Right now I see every Ukrainian, living and killed in this attack, as a holy being. British-Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, wrote a poem titled, “The Missing.” It’s a speech act as well. It’s about human souls ascending during the deadly Grenfell Tower apartment building fire in West London (2017). Holy beings. 

My poem, “War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood,” is a reflection of a speech act by the musician Benjamin Britten. His was in the form of music he composed. He titled it War Requiem. Over twenty years ago I had the privilege of performing his War Requiem many times from memory with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Britten composed it so that the baritone and tenor sing text written by World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action only one week before Armistice, 1918. Britten’s goal was resolution in the aftermath of war. 

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral after German bombing, Nov. 1940

In order to emphasize the universal desire for peace, Britten made the symbolic gesture of assigning solos to artistic delegates of former, or current, German, English, and Eastern European decent who had borne the brunt of the horrific conflict during World War II. The soloists in our performances were Thomas Quasthoff (German-born bass-baritone), Ian Bostridge (British-born tenor), and Christine Goerke (soprano).

In the title page of his War Requiem, Britten quoted these words by the WWI war poet, Wilfred Owen:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.

A little information about the origin of this requiem:

After WWII, many cities in Great Britain and elsewhere were rebuilding churches, homes, and places of business—many of which had been razed to the ground. Ukraine will be facing this same challenge of rebuilding.

One of those cities that rebuilt itself was Coventry. The city decided to preserve the ruins of their bombed Medieval cathedral. And, next to the remains they would build the new Coventry Cathedral.

After their new cathedral was built, The Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee was looking for ways to celebrate its consecration. The spirit of the enterprise was one of reconciliation after conflict. It was then that Britten was asked to participate. He agreed to compose a musical piece. In his own words, he offered War Requiem as ‘an act of reparation.’ 

Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot of experience with acts of reparation and reconciliation. He was a former leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community, a country with a long history of conflict. 

During one of his recent poetry labs I asked Mr. Ó Tuama, “Can we do more than just warn of war?” 

He said, “First, the machinists of war need to make much better decisions.” 

Then, referring to Joy Harjo’s poem he said,

“Harjo is trying to take [her speech act] further in her poem. She’s using the imperative in many of her words, that you must speak in the language of justice. She’s not only bearing witness, she’s also trying to enact change. In a certain sense she’s trying to, by the language, create a way of moving forward.”

As all of us observe what is happening in Ukraine and other war-torn parts of the world—I hope we may each consider how we might co-create speech acts with others—whether it be creating (or sharing) poetry, art, dance, or music, in person or via social media—to uplift, speak for justice, and move forward in solidarity with our fellow humans who are in this moment suffering unimaginable violence, loss, and displacement. 


The flower is made of non-flower elements.
We can describe the flower as being full of everything.
There is nothing that is not present in the flower.
-Thich Nhat Hanh 

The governor asked us to pray up a storm.
A local told my husband that tree rings show
it’s the worst drought in five-hundred years.
From the pulpit, Brother J. Watson prayed,

That the rains may come in a gentle manner
beneficial to our valley.

Our stream is dry. The alpacas
are licking the mud, so my husband is off
to buy a huge stock tank at IFA.

There’s not water to grow enough alfalfa
in the pasture for our neighbor’s cows.
It’s real bad, he said, I’ll have to order
extra bales from Idaho.

I look at the milkweed—wilting in simmering
shade, a few caterpillars escape the gaze
of hungry wasps, and I wonder out loud,

where has all the water gone
if every flower contains a cloud?


“Megadrought” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: Utah Life Magazine, March/April 2022 issue