Saturday, November 22, 2014

Prompt #209 – List Your Blessings


“Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”
   French Proverb
   
Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving will be celebrated this week on Thursday, November 27th. Our Thanksgiving has a long history beginning in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is considered the first Thanksgiving celebration. For over 200 years, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as the official day for a national Thanksgiving observance. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, and in 1941 Roosevelt signed a bill that designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving is also celebrated in certain other countries, including Canada, Grenada, Liberia, The Netherlands, and the Australian external territory of Norfolk Island.

Gratitude is a developmental emotion, and books have been written on its psychology. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” There are times in our lives when we feel more Grinch than grateful, especially when the stresses of every day living gather momentum and all but overwhelm us. However, acknowledging and expressing our gratitude can have a beneficial effect on our lives, relationships, and work.

What are you grateful for? This week let’s write a list poem about the blessings in our lives and things for which we’re grateful.

A list poem is one in which each line may begin the same way (repetition or anaphora).

The French proverb above tells us, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” Our first step in writing this week will be to remember—to look into our memories to identify a list of things for which we’re grateful. (A couple of years ago, we did this same prompt but focused on a single thing.)

Guidelines:

1. Make a list of blessings in your life or a list of things for which you’re thankful—be inclusive, try to get as many items on your list as possible (things for which you’re truly grateful, even small things that are sometimes taken for granted).
2. A list poem is typically one in which each line may begin the same way (repetition or anaphora). You may start out using this kind of format and either keep it or change it when you begin revising.
3. Your poem may be stichic (one stanza with no line breaks), it may be a formal poem (ode, sonnet, villanelle, or a kyrielle as we worked with in Prompt #32, November 20, 2010); you may choose to write a prose poem or your poem may take the form of prayer or a letter.
4. As you write, think about the reasons for your gratitude and show (without telling) what those feelings mean.

Tips:

1. Pay attention to the order of your list. Is there a beginning, a middle, and end. You may want to move your list items around. Remember that you’ll need a good dismount—perhaps the last line in your poem won’t begin as the others have.
2. Dig deeply to reach beyond the specifics of your personal experience to the underlying universal subject with which your readers will identify.
3. As an alternative to a list poem, you might address or dedicate your poem to a person for whom you're thankful, or you might go to the flip side and write about a challenging time (or a time of adversity) that somehow led you to feelings of gratefulness (my mom used to say that good always comes from bad).

Examples:




Saturday, November 15, 2014

Prompt #208 – So ... Who's YOUR Hero?


Without heroes, we're all plain people, and don't know how far we can go.

   Bernard Malamud


This prompt was inspired, believe it or not, by an old picture of the actor Fess Parker dressed as Davey Crockett. As a child I had a large poster of Fess/Davey that hung in my bedroom. My cousin Eddie and I had a coonskin caps and, along with other neighborhood kids, we played “Davey Crockett” in the woods across the street—Davey Crockett was our hero.

I think we all have heroes of one stripe or another and, of course, our heroes change as we advance in age and experience. I think it's safe to say that we all need heroes. 

Some heroes nurture and inspire us (parents, relatives, friends), some give us hope (those who are successful, those who have been where we are, survivors), and others provide us with examples of justice and morality (those who do good, those whom we admire and wish to emulate). For most of us, heroes are enlightened spirits, noble souls, courageous people who have the same frailties and shortcomings we do but who rise to overcome them. They tell us that what’s possible for them is possible for us. They give us hope, they feed our dreams, they encourage us to try harder to be better tomorrow than we are today. Even if our heroes are imaginary figures, otherworldy, or lived in another age, our admiration for them holds for us an invitation to achieve.

That said, who’s your hero or heroine? Your role model? Someone you respect and admire with all your heart?

Historically, literature includes the epic poem, which is a long, narrative poem that focuses on the deeds of a heroic person. The ancient epics of Homer and Virgil are among these, as are more modern versions by such poets as Hart Crane and Alice Notley.

Don't panic, we’re not going to write epic poems this week! Instead, let’s just write a tribute about, or to, a personal hero or heroine (past or present). Here are some ideas:
  • a comic book or movie superhero
  • a parent, foster parent, or relative
  • a husband or wife
  • a child or young person
  • an elderly person
  • a unique friend
  • a mentor or confidant
  • a person who has given something special to the world
  • a veteran of the armed services
  • a religious or spiritual leader
  • a courageous person
  • a person who has enriched your life
  • someone who saved your life (actually or metaphorically)
  • a heroic animal

Guidelines:

1. Think about people you’ve admired (from your earliest memories to the present).
2. Select one person as the subject for your poem.
3. Begin by making a list of that person’s special qualities.
4. Jot down some ideas about your experience of, or with, that person.
5. Decide whether you prefer writing a poem addressed to your hero or a poem about your hero.
6. Alternatively, you might write a poem about heroes in general (why heroes mean to us, why they’re important).
7. Another possibility is to write a poem about an anti-hero (a flawed hero or heroine with underlying complexities of personality or experience that set him or her apart from the typical heroic person.
8. Still, another poem possibility is to write about how you have been (or tried to be) a hero or heroine to someone. A comic hero might work well with this option.

Tips:

1. When you begin writing your poem, avoid over-use of complimentary adjectives. Show rather than tell why the person you’re writing to, or about, is special to you.
2. Be aware that if you “go overboard” with praise, the effect of your poems may be lost in that applause. Gratuitous back-patting never works in a poem. Again, show, don’t tell.
3. Increase the energy and immediacy of your poem by bringing it into the present tense. Even if you’re writing about a past hero, try to work through the present.
4. Work toward ways in which your poem honors a particular hero or heroine by exploring, plumbing, illuminating, and situating the human condition.
5. Don’t try to be lofty or overly laudatory. It’s important to be genuine and humble. Honor your hero through connections, revelations, and surprises. 

Example:




Saturday, November 8, 2014

Prompt #207 – What on Earth Is Spiritual Poetry?


This week’s prompt was inspired by a Facebook post a few weeks ago that was written by my old friend and fellow poet (and my godson’s father), Joe Weil.  

 ____________________________________________

By Joe Weil

In the middle of being busy, I grew distracted (I have that talent), and soon forgot to be busy, and I was four years old and sitting under the sweeping arch of a large forsythia bush that used to border our back yard. There were no blooms yet, but it was late winter, the beginning of March, and sparrows were puffing up their little bodies, perching close together to stay warm. I started to pray to God though I did not know any prayers yet or how to pray. I kept saying, “God, God, God.” God, and laughing. I was silly with the word. I made a song out of it. I said God in a deep voice and a high voice—very, very slowly, then very quickly. The sky was cloudy, the color of old oatmeal. The rich and slightly damp soil beneath the forsythia was on my hands, and it smelled vaguely of root beer. I heard my mother call my name, but I did not answer her right away, “Joseph! Where are you?” I blessed myself the way I saw my grandmother do a hundred times, and I shouted, “Ma!” I came out of this reverie stained with the grief of knowing even my most sophisticated prayers, all the work I do, can never make me feel that alive and intimate with God again. I thought, “I peaked at age five,” and then I realized the longing I felt to return to some interior life like that was a gift—perhaps my only gift, a genuine prayer given to me while, as Auden said, the dog goes on with its doggy life.

 ____________________________________________


What struck me about this prose poem is its intense spiritual nature and its sense of wonder and awe. It is, in my reckoning, profoundly spiritual. It isn’t self-consciously religious and it doesn’t stand on superficial pretension. It’s spiritual, not because it mentions God, but because it affirms God’s presence in the poet’s life, the importance of the poet’s family members, how childhood’s innocence is something we all lose, and how we long for communion with the sacred.

To me, Joe’s words read like a prose poem; but, more importantly, they do what Joe is noted for: they approache the “sacred” through the here and now—an important component of spiritual poetry.

As poetry editor of Tiferet Journal, I’m often asked what spiritual poetry is. My first answer is always that spiritual poetry isn’t necessarily religious, a statement of faith, or about an “ism” of any kind. For me, it is:

  • poetry that approaches the sacred through the here and now,
  • meditative poetry that doesn’t just skim the surface of experiences,
  • poetry that avoids the sentimental, the corny, and the obvious while reaching toward deeper truths,
  • poetry that incorporates silence, awe, and humility,
  • poetry that may or may not include reference to a deity but somehow affirms something larger than humanity at the core of existence,
  • poetry that, without being overtly mystical or obscure, understands it has touched something that is unknowable and holy.

According to poet and translator, Jane Hirschfield, “The root of 'spirit' is the Latin spirare, to breathe. Whatever lives on the breath, then, must have its spiritual dimension—including all poems, even the most unlikely. Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams: all poets of spiritual life. A useful exercise of soul would be to open any doorstop-sized anthology at random a dozen times and find in each of the resulting pages its spiritual dimension. If the poems are worth the cost of their ink, it can be done.” (Source)

I realized when writing this that “spiritual poetry” is hard to define, but I know it when I read it, and I suspect that you do too. I thought you might be interested in reading other poets’ thoughts on the subject, so I consulted a few poet friends, and their thoughts follow.


From Renée Ashley www.reneeashley.com

I tend to think of spiritual poems as those that address the state of the inner being in the context of the long now as opposed to the lyric moment. Perhaps another way to say that is, those that address the condition of the soul over the long term, though I’m not certain what soul may be. Brigit Pegeen Kelly is very much a spiritual poet, I think. For example, her poem “Song” builds brilliantly and elegantly throughout and culminates with its reveal of the ongoing state of the boys’ inner lives after their murder of the goat. "Song" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly


From Priscilla Orr www.priscillaorr.com

For me, spiritual poems reach into the numinous.  What I mean is that the poems may be anchored in the natural world or even the human world, but they also reach into the ether.  They take the poem into territory, which is inexplicable to us but that we somehow all know or recognize as a place where we move beyond rational knowing to pure intuitive knowing.  We may not understand or comprehend in that rationale way, but we recognize the place we've entered as sacred in some way.  And sometimes it's the collision of these two worlds that reveals what we typically miss.  Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" is a good example. The last stanzas illustrate the sense of wonder.  "The Moose" by Elizabeth Bishop


From Penny Harter www.penhart.wordpress.com

Spiritual poetry is poetry that celebrates life with a sense of wonder and humility, poetry that finds the most simple moments of our everyday experience revelatory and radiant with meaning. Also, it is poetry that searches for understanding as it probes the eternal questions of time and mortality, exploring our place in the mystery of the cosmos. Among contemporaries, Jane Hirshfield, Barbara Crooker, Julie L. Moore, Therese Halscheid, and Adele Kenny come first to mind as spiritual poets. And of course James Wright, and the late Galway Kinnell ...whom we will sorely miss! Many poets write "spiritual" poetry, too many for me to keep naming. It's an essential part of who our best poets are, I think.


From Gary J. Whitehead www.garyjwhitehead.com

It seems to me that there are many ways of defining spiritual poetry. Some see spiritual poetry to mean religious verse. Others think of it as poetry that deals with New Age topics or the occult. I've always thought of it in the metaphysical sense—as poetry that attempts to examine one's own place as a living, breathing (think of the Latin meaning of spiritus), mortal being in the world. Spirit, separate from soul, then, is that unique breath of life of the individual. Stanley Kunitz comes to mind as a good example of a spiritual poet.



The word spiritual often gets in the way. Its connotations are usually that of uplift or wisdom or nature writing that seeks to induce "Serenity" on the part of the reader and to cater to easy epiphanies. There is an enormous market for serenity—countless self help books, and inspirational tales of affirmation, but I think serenity without some sense of ferocity is always a bit of a cheat. Miguel Hernandez was a deeply spiritual poet as was St. John of the cross and they didn't tidy things up to look like sunsets on a lake. George Herbert's pains and contradictions, and the absolutely sexual heat of much mystical writing also factor in. I think the best spiritual writing proves that uncertainty and trouble are not diametrically opposed to a peace that surpasses all understanding, or more importantly to joy. Joy can exist beyond the conditional without being in denial. Happiness is far more precarious and those who lust for easy transport often misunderstand that the spirit goes where it will, like a wind, plumbing and testing even the depths of God. It’s raucous, and rippling. The spirit has energy and ferocity to spare, and so does the best spiritual poetry. To me, it is not spiritual to sit on a lake at the end of the day feeling all blessed-out if your fanny gets to sit there because thousands of others are suffering and far from any lakes. We cannot make a heaven of others’ misery, but we can try as poets not to make misery the end all/be all. Spiritual poetry is kind, compassionate, in love with the physicality of life, and deeply wise, but it is not polite. It is not a "seeming."

__________________________________________________________________

Guidelines:

1. Begin by thinking in terms of awe-filled moments you’ve experienced. Remember that these moments may be the simplest and seemingly unimportant but are moments through which your awareness of something special and good in the world was enhanced.

2. Pick one moment and free write about it for fifteen or twenty minutes.

3. Come back to your free write several hours (or even a day or two later) and read what you wrote. Cull from your free write images and ideas to work into a poem.

4. Begin writing—think in terms of form (free verse, pantoum, sonnet, haiku, haibun, etc.).

5. “Direct” your poem: to a particular person, from the first person, in narrative form.

6. Create a mood or tone.

7. Consider the spiritual insight you hope to share. What exactly is the point you want to make?


Tips:

1. Spend time on your line breaks. Remember that how you break your lines (scansion) can help the reader pause exactly where you want pauses to occur. Line breaks can also be used to accentuate content and meaning.

2. Keep in mind that the best poems make their points by showing and not telling.

3. Beware of becoming self-consciously “religious.”

4. After you’ve written a couple of drafts, put the poem aside for a while and then come back to it. Try some reorganization; that is, move your lines around (sometimes the first line of a poem should become the last line and vice versa).

5. Look for adjectives and adverbs that are unnecessary. 

6. Drop articles when possible and remove prepositional phrases.

7. Create an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.



Examples:

1. For a wonderful article and numerous example poems with commentary, click here.

2. My personal all-time favorite when I think of spiritual poetry. (Note that this is a poem about God; that notwithstanding, how does Hopkins use language to empower the poem?)


God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

3. Here's another personal favorite (first published in Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Issue 19, 2011).

A Valediction to the Horizon by Robert Carnevale

I marvel at friends who believe
that they will see loved ones again
face-to-unmistakable-face.

The Earth falls forward without belief,
and no struggle, no anguish of ours
can begin to deceive it.

It seems the most I could believe in
was how some grace brought us
together in ways no god would imagine.

But plots thicken beyond believing.
Nothing is still there where we knew it,
no one, still there where we knew them.

   Whose leaving was our arriving?
   What did they have to take with them?
   What will grow from our going?

But even to question is to believe
in what makes the question conceivable
over here in the impossible. 

Here, now, we can only be
on one side of a door or the other.
That is not how it is where we’re going.




Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ruthlessness by Guest Blogger Douglas Goetsch



This week, I’m happy to introduce you to distinguished poet and guest blogger Douglas Goetsch, the author of three full-length collections of poetry and four prizewinning chapbooks. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review and Best American Poetry. His honors include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, the Paumanok Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He is an itinerant teacher of writing, and founding editor of Jane Street Press in New York City. Visit him at www.douglasgoetsch.com. In this guest blog, Doug shares with us a personal reflection on process and offers insights into his theory and method of fine-tuning our poems.


From Douglas Goetsch


Ruthlessness

Lately I’ve been inspired by something the poet John Berryman said to a young Philip Levine: “Be ruthless with your poems, or someone else will be.” I’ve got a sense that ruthlessness, more than talent or skill or inspiration, gives me my best chance of distinguishing myself from my peers, and gives my poems their best chance of being read and remembered.

I don’t think Berryman’s advice had anything to do with nastiness (though Berryman did some nasty things). It had more to do with love, the love required of a drill sergeant preparing young soldiers for combat, loving them with every barked order—“Get down and give me 10!”—and eliminating the weak ones, who pose a danger to themselves and to the group. Berryman wanted Levine to cultivate standards higher than any critic, so that his poems might stick around.

How does ruthlessness translate to my own work?—how do I make a poem get down and give me 10? One practice I’ve adopted comes in the beginning of the creative process. If I look at a first draft of a poem and understand everything in it, I’ll set it aside as an exercise and never look at it again. That goes especially for when what I’ve written seems like it’s pretty good. I know that feeling from early on in my writing life: “Hey, this is pretty good,” I’d tell myself, then show it to a few friends who concur: pretty good. It looks like a poem, it’s eminently competent, even smart. And it’s a waste of time.

When William Packard once told me that a poem of mine was good, he also said, “You know, the enemy of the great poem isn’t the bad poem, it’s the good poem.” I’ve since learned that, while bad poems are harmless, in that they would never deceive us, “good” poems are inherently limited and dangerous, in that they were made to please our egos, and are very difficult to come away from. Conversely, if I look at an early draft of a poem and don’t quite understand it—can’t even tell if it’s good or not—I know it has a chance, and I become interested in it.

The other thing I require in a new piece of writing is that it bear no resemblance to the last thing I’ve written, even if the last thing was groundbreaking. Art is demanding: as soon as you break the same ground twice, you’re in a rut. How many poets, even well known ones, wind up writing essentially the same poem, making the same moves, repeatedly? Maybe I’m destined to do this too, but ultimately that’s a concern for readers and critics, if I’m fortunate enough to have them. In the meantime, I owe it to myself not to be hoodwinked by the familiar, and to steer toward the strange and new.

Another form of ruthlessness comes at the other end of the creative process, when I’m putting together a manuscript. Periodically, I’ll pull up the table of contents and employ the tab and delete keys like machetes. Any title of a poem that I don’t then and there consider top notch, I’ll tab over half an inch from the others. I can’t tell you right here what “top notch” is—just to say that certain titles cling to the left margin, and others can’t, for whatever reason, hold on anymore. They’re asking to be moved, and I need to listen. These are cousins of the poems from previous books I never read in public, and wish I’d deleted when I had the chance.

Then I look at the poems I’ve tabbed over half an inch, inspecting for weak wolves in this pack, and I might tab some of these over another half inch. So now I have three ranks. The “one-inchers” get deleted—immediately, and regardless of where they may have already been published. The “half-inchers” might eventually make it, but they need time. The most ruthless move of all is when I decide to wait another year before sending out a manuscript that, earlier in my writing life, I’d be too hungry to resist submitting. Now I’m hungry for the time to revise some of the “tabbed” poems, and compose some better ones.

All of us have bought poetry books, or record albums for that matter, knowing there’s plenty of slack in them. I’ve got a Cheryl Crow album with two and a half good songs on it, and I don’t regret the purchase. It’s what most artists do. All the more special, though, when we behold Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Carole King’s Tapestry, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, or the Beatles’ Abbey Road. In the world of contemporary poetry, there are those rare collections with zero slack—Galway Kinnell’s Imperfect Thirst and Stephen Dobyns’s Cemetery Nights immediately come to mind. And I’m especially inspired by the poets, such as Marie Howe and Jack Gilbert, who had the capacity to wait, while publishers would gladly publish earlier, inferior versions of their volumes.

There are 34 poems in my newest collection. At some point, 31 other poems were included in the manuscript, then subsequently deleted. The collection is called Nameless Boy, it came out this July, and I’ve never been happier about a book. I’m not claiming it’s Abbey Road, just that I was able to keep improving it, ruthlessly.

____________________________________

Thank you, Doug!



Saturday, October 25, 2014

Prompt #206 – Trick or Treat

Here is the U.S., and in other countries as well, it’s long been a common practice for children to dress up in costumes on Halloween and to go from door to door saying “trick or treat.” In other words, “Give us treats or we’ll find ways to trick you. The treats typically mean candy while the tricks (usually idle) suggest mischief of some sort.

In North America, trick-or-treating has been a popular Halloween tradition since the late 1940s. The custom of going from door to door and receiving food existed early on in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of “souling,” where children and poor people sang and said prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising, in which children dressed in costumes went from door to door for food and coins, also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895. Back then, masqueraders in disguise carried lanterns made from scooped out turnips and visited homes asking for cakes, fruit, and money.

Today, trick or treating remains popular in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Puerto Rico, and northwestern and central Mexico. In Mexico, the custom is called calaverita (Spanish for “little skull”). Instead of saying “trick or treat,” children ask “¿me da mi calaverita?” (“can you give me my little skull?”)—the asked-for calaverita is a small skull made of sugar or chocolate.

This week, let’s write about a Halloween memory, a treat or a trick that stands out for some reason.

Guidelines:

1. Begin with a list of some of the Halloween costumes you’ve worn (as a child or as an adult).

2. Select one of those costumes from your list.

3. Make another list of details (things you remember) from the time you wore that costume.

4. What made that costume (or that Halloween) so memorable? Was there a trick or treat involved (something that you didn’t expect that was either a trick or a treat for you)?

5. Write a poem about the experience.

Tips:

1. Avoid over use of details, adjectives, and adverbs.

2. Pay attention to craft.

3. Enliven the poem with effective use of language and figures of speech.

4. Re-create the experience by showing, not by telling.

5. Create a strong mood or tone.

Example:

Living Room
         by Catherine Doty

Remember the Halloween night
I was sick with migraine
left alone with you
while the others went out
and we took your nap together
after the beer
you on the couch and me
on my back on top of you
I could smell the painted flames
on my devil costume
the devil’s starchy mouth hole
damp with beer
I could see the car lights
stripe the living room ceiling
hear Halloween banging
at the door
hear your breathing
turn to sleep breathing
as I lay full-length
on that bony, crabby daddy
the man who never touched
who hardly talked           
I was happier that I had ever been
I was petting a sleeping lion
I though of turning five
the next day
I though of the cake
the paints and paper
I’d asked for
a picture I’d make you
of two red devils sleeping
of bowls of candy
safe and untouched in the dark

Reprinted by permission of the author. From Momentum, CavanKerry Press. 
Copyright © 2004 by Catherine Doty. All rights reserved. 



Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prompt #205– Creating Tension in a Poem


This week, in keeping with our October Halloween “theme,” let’s take a look at tension in poetry. Most of the time, we look to eliminate tension from our lives, but there are times in poetry when we want to create it!

Arguably synonymous with “suspense,” tension in poetry is a way of building and keeping interest throughout the poem. Simply creating tension in a poem doesn’t mean writing about a mysterious or haunting subject. More importantly, tension in a poem is the direct result of skillful and intentional craft. 

Tension is defined as the act or process of stretching something tight, the condition of being stretched, a tautness. How do we create that in our poems? A poem’s “tension” is a combination of poetic elements that work together within the poem. For example, repetition used well can add an element of tension as in Poe’s “The Raven” with its famous repeated line “quoth the raven nevermore.”

Here are a few other tension-creating pointers:

Writing in the first person and in the present tense enhances tention in a poem by placing the reader close to the suspense, or mystery.

Line breaks that create disjunction can generate and control tension by causing readers to pause or stop, even if only briefly, to reflect upon meaning.  Pauses can also add to a sense of foreboding, of something about to occur.

Short sentences that contain active (dynamic) verbs enhance tension in a poem.

Deliberate fragments can help create a sense of confusion and mystery—incomplete statements can serve the same effect.

Unusual imagery, restrained as well as intentional language, connotative and denotative language, rhythm and sound, subject matter, alliteration, and assonance all add to the tension in a poem.

Changes, twists, and surprising juxtapositions of images also add tension—the unexpected can unsettle readers.

Anticipation and expectation enter the mix—don’t give away your ending before you get to it.

Guidelines:

1. This week, write a narrative poem in which you create tension through the story you tell, the scene or experience you describe, or the emotion you suggest. Think “Halloween,” “scary,” and “mysterious.” Work with the following:
  • A compelling opening line
  • Subject and symbols
  • Language
  • Unusual imagery
  • Form and meter
  • Effective line breaks
  • Mood
  • Sound (alliteration, assonance, internal or external rhyme)
  • Repetition (anaphora)
  • A nod to the supernatural
  • A dismount that does more than bring the poem to obvious closure

Tips:

1. If you need a jumpstart, select something from the following (you don’t need to include the line or phrase in your poem but may if you wish). Give your poem its head, and see where the starter leads you!
  • a shutter slaps the side of my house
  • a shadow in the corner behind the staircase
  • footsteps in the hallway on the other side of the door
  • mist hung between trees, between shadows
  • deep night and a sound inside the silence
  • when nothing is what it seems
  • a full moon risen on the cusp of my fear
  • nothing but darkness and the rustling of small animals
  • his/her face framed by a dark hood
  • only the sound of a clock ticking
  • a white deer standing between tombstones
  • silence and then the scream
  • something floating beneath the water’s surface

2. Write in the first person and in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy.

3. Don’t lose sight of the this week’s goal: creating tension in a poem. Keep the stakes high—show, don’t tell.

4. When creating tension (suspense), be sure to create “breathers;” that is, tensions needs to ebb and flow throughout your poem. The number of breathers you incorporate will depend upon the length of your poem and your subject’s needs. In a shorter poem, you may only need a single breather.

Examples:



Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prompt #204 – "There Is Something In the Autumn"



It’s autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere, my favorite time of year, which always reminds me of the very first poem I ever memorized, “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carmen. At age 7 or 8, the poem appealed to my young sense of wonder—I decided that what I wanted most was to be a vagabond poet. I loved the way the lines looked and the way the words sounded. I still do and share the poem with you below.
  
A VAGABOND SONG by 
Bliss Carman
There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each vagabond by name.
  
October also means Halloween! This year I plan to offer two season-appropriate prompts, starting this week with one that deals with Halloween but, more importantly with nouns and verbs in poetry.

The great poet Marianne Moore once said, “Poetry is all nouns and verbs.” Writing a memorable poem can be a matter of  strong nouns and verbs. To use some Halloween language: nouns and verbs are the skeleton of a poem. Adjectives and adverbs are the costumes—if you use too many, they hide the deeper meanings of the skeleton.

Guidelines:

1. Choose one word from the nouns list for your subject (of course, if you have another Halloween-related noun, feel free to use it).




Nouns

autumn (fall)
October
moon
moonlight
mask
wind
footsteps
cauldron
visions
haunted house
bats
graveyard
night
pumpkin
Jack o’lantern
darkness
crows
shadows
otherworldly
trees

Verbs

haunt
hide
howl
knock
drag
hear
whisper
creak
scare
frighten
scream
run
disappear
glow
horrify
terrify
shock
disguise
dread
rustle


2. Free write about the word you’ve chosen for your subject.

3. After free writing for a while, go back and read what you’ve written. Is there an emerging theme or idea?

4. Using your free write material, begin writing your poem, making sure that you use a few words from the verbs list.


Tips:

1. Think Halloween.

2. Be creepy if you like.

3. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

4. Create a tone or mood that appropriate to your subject. Remember that the verbs you choose will give your poem momentum and a sense of trajectory.

5. As you develop your poem, move away from the obvious and work toward deeper meanings.

Examples:

“Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern”  by David McCord

“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg

And … by way of sharing, here’s a Halloween prose poem from my forthcoming book, A Lightness, a Thirst, Or Nothing at All

Halloween

Trick-or-treaters come to the door repeatedly—little ones early, older kids into the night until she runs out of candy and turns off the outside lights. The wall between worlds is thin (aura over aura—stars flicker and flinch). The woman buttons her coat, checks her reflection in the mirror, and stands cheek to glass (eye on her own eye, its abstract edge). She leaves the house (empty house that we all become)—shadows shaped to the trees, crows in the high branches.

(Acknowledgment: US 1 Worksheets, Volume 59, p. 51)


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Prompt #203 – "The Art of Losing"


I recently read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for about the thousandth time and thought that, this week, we might take a very concrete approach to something lost. We’ve all lost things from time to time, and by “lost things” I place the emphasis on “things.” This week let’s write about things that we’ve lost—actual objects, not loves, not feelings, not friendships, not people, not pets.

Guidelines:

1. Begin by making a list of things that you’ve lost (a favorite book, a piece of jewelry, an old photograph that meant a lot to you, a family heirloom, a treasured memento of a special time).

2. Select one item from your list and begin making a new list of what that lost item meant to you. What were the conditions or circumstances that made it important to you?

3. How did you feel about losing the item?

4. Begin your poem with a statement about the object and then go on to explain how it was lost. From there, let the poem take you where it wants to go.

5. Another option you might consider is to write from the lost object’s point of view (adopt the lost object’s persona).

Tips:

1. Think in terms of a narrative poem in which you tell the story of your lost item, but be sure not to over-tell. Remember that the best poems show, they don’t just tell.

2. Your obvious subject will be the lost item, but you should work toward another subject that goes beyond the simple act of losing something.

3. Use language that’s engaging and accessible.

4. Avoid clichés and sentimentality. Evoke emotion through images.

5. Try to create a “dismount” that doesn’t sum up your particular loss as much as it sums up the universal feeling of something lost.

Examples:



Saturday, September 27, 2014

Prompt #202 – Postcard-Sized Apology by Guest Prompter Peter E. Murphy


This week’s prompt comes from Peter E. Murphy, founding director of the highly-praised annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway and other programs for poets, writers, and teachers in the U.S. and abroad.

Peter is the author of Stubborn Child, a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize, and three chapbooks of poetry. His essays and poems have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Green Mountains Review, The Journal, The Lindenwood Review, The Literary Review, The Little Patuxent Review, Rattle, Witness and elsewhere. He has received fellowships for writing and teaching from The Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Folger Shakespeare Library, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars.


From Peter

Assignment: Write a postcard-sized poem in which you apologize for or argue against something or someone for an offense, real or imagined.

Requirements: Choose three postcards that attract you and one that disgusts or confuses you and incorporate one or more of these images into your poem.

[Note: When Peter uses this prompt at his Getaways, he provides participants with postcards from which to choose. He also offers a site for postcards at which you’ll find several postcard examples:


Alternatively, Peter suggests that you might choose from your own postcards or even old photographs or letters.]

Variation: Have someone apologize to you instead. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Challenge for the delusional: C’mon, do you really need any more stimulation? Oh, all right. Integrate some writing from one or more of the postcards into your poem.


Note: Speaking of “challenges for the delusional,” be sure to check out Peter’s book Challenges for the Delusional: Peter Murphy’s Prompts and the Poems They Inspired (“a selection of Peter Murphy’s infamous and eccentric poetry-writing prompts. For 19 years he’s shared these prompts at his writers’ conference, the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, and this collection features a sampling of the many diverse and wonderful poems that they’ve inspired. Contributors include: Stephen Dunn, Kathleen Graber, Dorianne Laux, James Richardson, and more.” Click Here to Order

Examples:

"Sorry" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (Though this one is definitely not postcard-sized!)


Thank you, Peter!
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This prompt calls to mind one that was posted in August of 2012 . If you missed it first time around and would like to try a different spin on the apology poem, here's the link.