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Feb. 16th, 2011



Recently I issued a challenge on this blog--to buy a book of poetry (or a magazine with poetry in it, or a verse novel). My own assignment for the challenge was to purchase and read John Grandits's book Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems.

I was taught in school that concrete poems are poems written in a shape that reflects their topic. A poem about a circle would be written in circular form, to give the simplest example. And I thought Grandits's concrete poems would be that simple.


If you read this book, get ready to turn it every which way in your hands. It starts with the poem on the cover, which is written around the edges of the book cover (mimicking the frame of a mirror. The background on the cover's center is a silver mirror finish, though you can't tell from the above picture). There's a poem about volleyball in which the poem's lines zoom back and forth across a net. There's a poem about going all over town that follows a meandering path reminiscent of Family Circus cartoons. There's a poem in the shape of tangled hair.

This book isn't just about being dazzled by the wild shapes Grandits comes  up with. The poems' narrator, Jessie, is a teen with a vivid voice--sometimes snarky, sometimes enthusiastic, and every emotion in between.

The unusual design, the shortness of the book, and the strength of Jessie's voice make this book a good candidate for reluctant readers.  It's also good for inspiration--even for us non-reluctant readers--because it's fun and different. Something about engaging with this collection made me want to try new things. Best of all, it reminded me of the bottom line about creative writing: It can be fun!

To play a bit more: the book contains a "name-your-rock-band chart." I figure it could apply to book titles too, right? Here are three I came up with, using the title generator:
Magic Coathangers of Death
Muscular Eyeballs in Love
Quiet Onions of Justice

Whatever else you do today, find a moment to play.

Feb. 4th, 2011


Poetry challenge

On this Poetry Friday, I'm issuing a challenge:

Buy a poetry book. (Or a magazine full of poetry, or a verse novel.)

Although there is tons of free poetry floating around the internet, and you may have poetry books sitting on your shelves now that are ripe for rereading, I'm encouraging you to buy. The point is to show the kind of economic support that poetry doesn't often get. Of course, if you really can't afford to buy, then I suggest checking out some poetry from your local library, because library circulation statistics are also helpful in supporting poets.

I issue this challenge to all readers and writers, even if you don't think of yourself as a poet or a poetry reader. There are three reasons:

--There are wonderful experiences waiting for you in poetry. And if you've never tried a verse novel, they are so much fun to read--it's an exciting format right now, especially in YA.
--Poetry changes the way we look at language.
--Poetry changes the way we look at the world.

My choice for the challenge (because of course I am taking my own challenge!) is Blue Lipstick by John Grandits, which is on its way to me right now.

Happy reading.

Jun. 4th, 2010


The Great Santa Barbara Oil Disaster, OR:

On this Poetry Friday when the TV news is talking about oil globules washing up on the coasts, a poem I read years ago has been nagging at me. "The Great Santa Barbara Oil Disaster, OR:" was written by Conyus in 1969.  I read it while in high school, so many years after the oil spill it describes that, if not for this poem, I would not have heard of the Santa Barbara oil slick.

Apparently, Conyus has revised the poem, and the new version appears in its entirety at the blog of Al Young, Poet Laureate of California emeritus (you have to scroll down a little to where the poem begins). It's interesting to see how Conyus changed the poem: the new version uses capital letters in places, where the original was all lower-case. Also, the newer version has more words, more explicit descriptions. I wonder if this is because when the Santa Barbara spill was current news, spare wording could evoke more, based on images seen in the media.The order of the verses has also changed a bit, and the poem, previously divided into sections labeled just with numbers, is now divided into numbered days.

From the original version*:

"a white gull
floats face upward
in the greasy water.

i watch the tide
push the gull
against the rocks
in my silence."

That same image, from the newer version:

"A white gull
floats face upward
in the murky surf;
i watch the tide
push the gull
against the rocks,
again & again,
& again & again."

And I leave you with another image from the new version:

"All night you can hear
the ocean cough
& spit-up oil,
like a young child
lying on its back
with pneumonia."

*original version from The American Poetry Anthology, 1975, edited by Daniel Halpern, Avon Books.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at The Cazzy Files.

Apr. 23rd, 2010


Poetry Friday: Sunflower Sutra

In keeping with National Poetry Month and Poetry Friday, today I'm reading Allen Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra."

Ginsberg is best known for his poem "Howl," which has one of the best (and certainly most quotable) openings out there:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ..."

In Michael Schumacher's biography of Ginsberg, Dharma Lion, the author discussed how Ginsberg's use of very long lines in poetry was a breakthrough.  It seemed to enable Ginsberg to find his true rhythm, to dig into the guts of his subject matter.  "Howl" is an example of that long-line poetry; the first line that I quoted, in fact, doesn't end there, but finishes with the words "starving hysterical naked."  And that isn't even the true end of the sentence.  The lines in "Howl" end with commas, and that one sentence goes on for pages

"Sunflower Sutra" is another long-line poem, and I prefer it to "Howl."  I won't reproduce the poem here--I believe it is still under copyright, and also it's on the long side for a blog post--but I encourage you to hunt up a copy of it.  To me, this poem captures the essence of Beat writing: it's rhapsodic, a cri de coeur, full of joy and pain, ecstasy in the middle of dinginess.  I suppose my love for Beat writing in general is based on these two things: its breathless prose rhythm, and its finding beauty even in the unflinching description of things we usually think of as ugly--the grime and rust and dust and soot, the candy wrappers and cigarette butts and crumbling brick of the world most of us now inhabit.   The lines in "Sunflower Sutra" are long--but I would not say rambling, because the words spurt out as if from a fire hose, then unfurl in a lyrical ribbon.  It reads like a poem that's meant to be shouted or sung at the top of one's voice.

Ginsberg piles on the adjectives until you almost can't stand it ("busted rusty iron pole," "bleak and blue and sad-eyed," "weeping coughing car"), and then cuts through with the occasional simple, direct phrase ("I loved you then!" "you were a sunflower!").  The range of nouns is dizzying, mixing the celestial (soul, sky, glory, crown) with the earthy (roots, grime, sphincters, Hells, muck, dust). 

And then Ginsberg punches us right in the eye with the climactic line: "We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread black dusty imageless locomotive, we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed ..."

And here's the whole Poetry Friday roundup.

Apr. 16th, 2010

tsy cover

Poetic prompt

I was pleased and proud to discover a few years ago that my Pennsylvania county, Montgomery, has a Poet Laureate program. A previous holder of this office, David Simpson, once posted a challenge on his blog for people to write poems about their first memory.

As it turned out, my first memory was not something I felt like sharing publicly. But that feeling itself formed the foundation for the poem. This is how my poem started:

"My first memory is a lie,
A shadow, the smoke that ghosts are made of. ..."

So, if you feel like celebrating Poetry Friday during National Poetry Month and are looking for writing prompts, I pass this one along to you.

Apr. 9th, 2010

tsy cover

Poetically speaking

In observation of National Poetry Month, I've upped my poetry reading. I recently finished a verse novel, Lisa Schroeder's haunting Chasing Brooklyn. I can't recommend Lisa's verse novels highly enough, especially for reluctant readers: I just tear through them.  Right now I'm reading Jeannine Atkins's Borrowed Names, a book of poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie. The book covers the women's accomplishments but has a special focus on their relationships with their daughters. All three women were born in 1867, which is one other thread tying them together.  I wanted to read this book not only because I follow Jeannine's blog and took a poetry workshop she taught, but because I've read biographies of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and Marie Curie (special interests of mine).  I'm thoroughly enjoying the poet's skill with language.  For example, there's a phrase I've been rolling around in my mouth ever since I read it: "the crack of brass hinges," from a poem called "The Second Secret."

I especially admire the verbs Jeannine Atkins chooses. Writers are told to use strong verbs, and here are just  a few that she uses: stamps, smooths, presses, crimps, jams, scoops, plucks.  These verbs work well not only because of where they fit in the poems (rhythm-wise and sound-wise), but because they are both specific and vivid. 

A final poetic note: I'm linking to a poem over at Lee Wind's blog called 6th Date, by Steven Reigns. I love the way Reigns captures the feeling of a sixth date: when there have been enough dates that it's clear there's an attraction, and yet it's still early enough in the relationship for the tension of unanswered questions, for the partners to stumble a bit in their search for a connection, and for all of that to intensify the yearning.

On a separate note, please visit, and contribute if you can, to the Guys Lit Wire and Operation Teen Book Drop Event for Apache and Navajo Teens.

Source of recommended reads: bought.

Dec. 4th, 2009


The Great Villanelle Challenge

Today, I'm providing a link, but that link will lead you to several other places, and I encourage you to take the whole journey.

As Kelly Fineman explains in her blog, Liz Garton Scanlon led a group of writers in a special villanelle challenge: "The challenge was not simply to write any villanelle, but to use the words thanksgiving and friends in the first and third lines."

A villanelle is a specific form of poetry (you can read more about it on Kelly's blog), and just reading the rules of this challenge made me sweat with anxiety. My mind was blank: how could anyone pull this off? And then I read Kelly's poem, and then I followed the links to all the others. (You can find all the links on Kelly's post.) And it was a revelation. Not only can this be pulled off, but it can be done in a nearly endless variety of ways.

Starting from those prompts and following (more or less) those rules, seven different writers produced seven very different poems, with different narrators and a wide range of voices. Go forth, read, learn, and enjoy.

Oct. 23rd, 2009


More of something new: Poetry Friday

I haven't done Poetry Friday in a long time, but all week I've been talking about trying new things and stretching creatively and generally not getting stuck in a formulaic rut. So I decided to share an original poem, which actually appeared in a small online magazine called Tookany Review in 2007.

I don't write much poetry, but a few years ago I took a couple of poetry classes because I wanted to try something different, to strengthen my use of description and imaginative wordplay. I wrote this poem after taking the second class, which was led by Deborah Fries.


You battle back brambles that arch over
the lawn, always reaching, stalks creeping everywhere.
Their tendrils snake along the ground
to sink roots, to grip the earth.
They sting you when you harvest. Thorns
prick pearls of blood from your skin.
The pebbly seeds catch in the cracks
between your teeth, burrow under your gums.
Birds strip the berries when they’re sour,
just before they’re ripe enough for you.

But you bake them in cobblers oozing
purple syrup, crush hot berries with your tongue.

The complete Poetry Friday roundup today is at Big A little a.

Nov. 23rd, 2007


Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt

I've mentioned this book before, in passing, but it's time for a fuller discussion of PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS FOR A QUILT by Marge Piercy.  For books about writing, I rank this one right up there with Stephen King's ON WRITING and Anne LaMott's BIRD BY BIRD.

PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS first appeared in 1982, and at first glance, today's writer may find all the references to the Women's Liberation Movement dated.  Also, the book was part of a "Poets on Poetry" series, and those who write prose may be tempted to pass it by for that reason.  Not so fast!  You don't need to be a woman or a poet to find much of value here.  After all, Piercy is a novelist too, and she does not slight prose in this collection of essays on writing.

As for the issue of feminism; it raises several questions for today's interested reader: Which battles that Piercy describes have finished, and which are still going on?  Are women less marginalized in today's publishing world?  If so, who is marginalized now?  How does being marginalized affect one's writing?

Ultimately, however, it's all about the writing.  There is much here of use: interpretation of poetic symbols; discussions of how to conduct a reading (including an amusing true-life example of why it's important to speak clearly, loudly, and slowly); a guide for critique groups; and so on.  But there are three aspects I want to focus on more specifically: politics, writing for fun, and nuts and bolts.  

One point Piercy makes several times is that art is never divorced from politics.  She claims that in artwork that supports the current cultural paradigm, the politics become invisible and such works are reviewed on their artistic merit.  But artwork that challenges the dominant political view is often judged on its politics instead.  Question for readers: Do you agree with this?  If so, what viewpoints are likely to be "outside the mainstream" of today's culture?

Another issue Piercy addresses is the importance of amateur practitioners of an art.  She believes that art should not be practiced exclusively by a professional elite: "A healthy amateur substratum in any of the arts produces people who understand what's really involved in that art.  Studying the piano or the violin may not lead you to perform, but it may give you pleasure and it may help you appreciate someone who has spent the necessary years and passion learning how to use that instrument to capacity."  In the world of writing, this means we must encourage people to read books, write poetry, take classes, attend open-mike events, keep diaries, and write for their friends and family, even if they don't intend to become professional authors.  Writers need a literate environment in which to thrive.

Finally, and most importantly, Piercy addresses some of what I call the "nuts and bolts."  Not only does she discuss the importance of revision, she follows a couple of her own poems through several drafts, so we can see the poems being "built."  She critiques her own work and that of others to explore what works and what doesn't, and why a writer might choose this word or that rhythm over another.  She helps to demystify poetry.  Furthermore, the amount of work that goes into crafting a piece of writing becomes evident.  When I first read this book several years ago, and read that she continues to revise her work even after it's been published, I looked extra hard at my own revision process and saw that I could stand to do a lot more.

If you're in the mood for a good book about the writing process, I encourage you to take a look at this one.

Nov. 2nd, 2007


Poetry Friday for the Poetically Challenged

Once upon a time, I wrote poetry. First I was a child writing verses about the cuteness of kittens; then I was an adolescent dripping angst and dark imagery. Even after discovering the joys of prose, I still wrote poems. Especially when I was breaking up with someone. There's nothing quite as satisfying for a bruised heart as ripping a good, gut-twisting clot of poetry out of your soul.

Then something happened. Although I loved the short stories in literary quarterlies, I could no longer make sense of the poems. Three words in, I would flounder, clueless. I concluded there had been a revolution in poetry, a revolution that had left me behind. Unlocking poetry now seemed to require a password I didn't possess. So I dove deeper into prose, and reveled there for years.

I skipped over the poems in my literary journals. I never picked up a book of poems. Although I still jotted down poems during stressful times in my life--"therapeutic" poems fit for nobody's eyes but my own--I had officially given up on the form. My serious writing, the writing I polished and sent out, was all prose.

My reawakening happened gradually. After reading the works of Jack Kerouac, I was willing to try his friend Gary Snyder, who lit a spark with the poems of THE BACK COUNTRY. Those poems are like a good hike through a Northwestern forest.

Marge Piercy lit another spark. In her book, PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS FOR A QUILT, she discusses the craft of poetry, the elements of sound and meter and rhyme and imagery and how they work together. She shows drafts and revisions of poems, so the reader can see poems being "built." (I plan to discuss this book at greater length in a future post, because it's so chock full o' great stuff.)

I began to find poems I could understand. I began to appreciate the richness of poetic language. By this time, I had achieved a certain competence with prose; I needed to stretch a little, to keep myself fresh. So I took night classes in poetry at my local adult school. I approached poetry as a playful novice, an experimenter. I gave myself license to write poetry that was awkward and unpolished and amateurish, in the service of learning something. I was fortunate in my supportive teachers, Lynn Levin and Deborah Fries, who helped continue the demystification of poetry. I went to my local bookstore's poetry group. I started to use poetic elements in my prose.

My education continues via writer/blogger/poetry-guru Kelly Fineman, whose Poetry Friday posts are tutorials on the art, each lesson opening another door in the wall of the once-inaccessible castle. Best of all, her posts make poetry seem exciting and essential. It was her blog that introduced me to the whole concept of Poetry Friday, a weekly cyberspace festival that I've never joined until now, because I still consider myself "poetically challenged." But at least nowadays, I'm open to learning.