poetry writing

5 posts

A Sunday Stream of Consciousness


  • It’s Sunday, but there are no Sabbaths for the monkey mind.
  • “Monkey mind” being the enemy of Buddha-like meditation and the friend of poet-like brainstorming-without-a-banana.
  • I kind of like the “free” subscriptions you get when you enter a poetry publication’s annual contest. It kind of makes up for the expense of missing first place by kind of making you deceive yourself about the meaning of “free.”
  • In poetry, you cut to the bone, taking a scalpel to expressions like “kind of,” for starters.
  • While drafting poetry, I have found that many bad long poems are hiding good short poems. Ones in the second trimester or so.
  • I proved this to myself by rewriting a long poem Dickinson-style. All I needed was a few random dashes and capital letters (found in Aisle Emily, bottom shelf, at Ocean State Job Lot).
  • The cover of the October issue of Poetry reminds me of the BeatlesWhite Album.
  • Speaking of, I wonder how Jorie Graham feels about being the centerfold.
  • There’s a new sheriff in town (starring Kevin Young) at The New Yorker. Too bad they had to close submissions on July 3rd. The good news? The market reopens on Nov. 1st, and just because your poems were sent home before doesn’t mean they will again
  • Which reminds me: Poetry is subjective. A lot rides on particular editors’ eyes. If it gets that far.
  • Which is not to say there’s no such thing as “bad poetry” (I often send it to its room without supper).
  • Still trying to get over my prejudice against form poems by reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax.
  • Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who warned about two sure things in life: death and syntaxes?
  • As usual, the list of National Book Awards for Poetry includes books and authors a.) I haven’t read and b.) I haven’t even heard of. Guess I need to listen better.
  • Does anyone still write poems with pencil and paper? I do. But it’s ideas for poems only. Once I start writing, it’s on the trusty word processor.
  • When a poetry manuscript is accepted for publication, the toughest part is starting the next poetry manuscript. Especially with so many laurels lying around, waiting to be rested upon.
  • Poets need more patience than doctors. Can you say “wait time”? As a submitter of your work, you’d better be good at it. The competition is fierce and the numbers are legion.
  • My first love in poetry is predictably Frost.
  • I do not think “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening” is corny. So sue me.
  • If you call yourself a reader but don’t read poetry, are you really a reader?
  • If a tree falls in the wilderness, does it make a sound?
  • No and yes.

J. Crew Poetry Clues


My daughter, once a huge fan of J. Crew clothing, introduced me to the wonderfully-entertaining (if you like words) J. Crew catalogue. Heck with the clothes. There one would find color names that looked more at home in a biosphere than a coloring book. What would I do to be employed by J. Crew, my job not to model clothes and look good (not on my résumé in either case), but to invent creative and sales-inducing names for colors!

This all rushed back to me as I was reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, part of Graywolf Press’s “The Art Of” Series. In that book, Doty ventures on a side trip–a Huck Finn-like raft trip, if you will–devoted to poetry writing and the use of color. All poets use colors as part of their descriptive toolbox, but do they keep J. Crew (that famous Lake Poet manual) in mind?

“How does color get onto the page, into the reader’s internal eye?” Doty asks. “Certainly not by naming it,” he concludes.

And yet, as writers, how often do we do just that? In fact, if we use the Word function to search and highlight words we tend to favor (read: overuse), most of us are likely to see a color. For me, it’s green. Yes, I use it creatively at times, but the fact is, it remains your garden-variety GREEN.

To make his point, Doty starts with the term “the red door.” He shows how adding modifiers for different textures as a dimension can improve the description: “the rough, scraped red door.” Then he takes it another step, calling on J. Crew for some how-to:

“Readers may remember when every mailbox in America sported the J. Crew catalog, with its nouveau prep clothes, every T-shirt or sweater available in a range of colors with memorable names: pool, pine, sierra, stone. It’s marketing kitsch, but those writers knew what they were doing; the word not only makes us see the color in a way that a more straightforward name never would, but also invokes an inviting world of associations, the aqua spells of pool, the scented cool of pine. It’s an indirect way of naming, and it avoids the problem of color words that can seem as flat as Crayola hues, and tend to lead to lying anyway. When we refer to leaves as green or bark as brown, we reduce language to a debasing perceptual shorthand. Every leaf is made up of a complex interaction of shades, tones that shift as light does. Watch a Russian olive toss in the wind in sunlight!…What you see is as far from “green” as the appallingly named “flesh” of the crayon boxes of my childhood is from the beautiful variety of human skin. Even to say the phrase “Russian olive” is to bring something of the flashing, always-moving aspect of those leaves with their silvery undersides into speech, if only by association.”

This riff also brings back the basic color rule of never being obvious, repetitive, and insulting to our readers. You don’t say “green leaf” or “white snow” or “blue sky” when that is a reader’s normal association anyway. You employ color only when it defies expectations.

Or at least that’s step one. As Doty (J. Crew catalogue in hand) proves, it’s more subtle than even that. Careful modifiers and associations that might make your readers do the equivalent of clicking “Add to Cart” come into play.

Pretend you have that dream job from J. Crew, in other words. Next time you write a poem, put that cool scent of pine strategy to work!


Scraps of Summer Blowing Across the March Sky


This morning, while walking the dog at 4:30 a.m., a trio of old friends greeted me. Yes, it’s an odd hour for such meetings, but not when you consider that darkness is essential to these three. There, low in the east, was the Summer Triangle, making itself comfortable in March. The Three Celestial Wise Men, I call them. The ones who appear each summer night as Altair, Deneb, and Vega (you were expecting Mechior, Caspar, and Balthasar?).

It helped that this was the last 40-degree Fahrenheit morning before polar air returns to New England this weekend. And it certainly was a cheerful sight. I’d forgotten that the constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra appear as a trailer this early. Catch them by night in July and August, but preview them by the pre-dawn skies in March and April.

Life is fond of hiding surprises like that. You just have to look for them. Just like looking for inspiration. Or a poem. Or a break from bad news on the doorstep. Sooner or later, from the periphery of your eye, a sparkle of something nice in the darkness before your dawns.

I got eye-greedy after that. As the dog enjoyed long and leisurely sniffs of tree trunks, wind- fallen limbs, and every seventh grass blade, I took in the Big Dipper, its tail arcing toward Arcturus, the tiara we call Corona Borealis, and the pulsing red jewel known as Antares on the Scorpion’s back.

Is there anything more poetic than stars? From this remove, they seem ever peaceful and even immortal and beyond aging or ugliness. False, false and false, I realize, but perception is everything and, trust me, they are a lot more peaceful than planet Earth and will prove more immortal and pretty in the end, too.

From the mundane comes the sublime, writing-wise. Scraps of summer blowing across a dark March sky. Yeah. I like stuff like that. But then, it doesn’t take much to make my day. Even before it begins.

What? I Can’t Write About This?


One of the most enjoyable aspects of publishing a first book of poetry is–what else?–readers, but less obviously, it’s readers’ reactions to poems.

Here’s irony. Reading a lot about poetry, I often come across comments from experts, critics, and even other poets, spreading rumors like, “When writing poetry, you should never write about nature because it’s hackneyed. And certainly not love. Too Hallmark. And dogs? You must be crazy. Death? Only if you want to send your readers running while waving their arms over how depressing a poet you are.”

Yeah. Something to that effect. And then, just when I begin to second guess my work, readers of my book will tell me some of their favorite poems from are ones about nature, love, death, and DOGS.

The moral of this story is clear. As a poet, you write what you want to write. If it moves you or warms up your Muse’s harp strings, play it loud and proud! The naysayers apparently haven’t read Ecclesiastes about nothing being new under the sun. The secret is taking what’s always been there and finding personal magic in it. If it’s how the sun rays hit the boulders and cast their shadows, so be it.

Here’s a poem with strange inspiration, a combination of quotidian and quirky. It notes the way my dog always leaves a single nugget of dog food in his bowl each morning. It’s from my book, The Indifferent World, and it breaks the experts’ rules. So don’t tell the poetry police, will you?

“Dog Religion”
by Ken Craft

Each morning he rises and bows
before me–parable of humility,
maw yawning, paws splaying.

The hollow rattle of dry meal
raining on his aluminum bowl
pops his ears. Every day,
novelty in the ritual of repetition;
every day, the Pavlovian ear perk.
Like heartbeats and bad breath,
autonomous tail and tongue.
Just so.

Waiting for me
to move, he approaches the orb
demurely, noses in, crunches the bland
and the brown. That lovable greed.
Those stained, pacifist teeth.

He feeds, license and rabies tag
keeping time at bowl’s edge. And always,
in the end, one dry kibble
is left in a bowl cirrus-streaked
with spit: his offering
to the food gods, his prayer
answered each miraculous day.

— from The Indifferent World by Ken Craft, copyright 2016, Future Cycle Press

One Box, Two Box, Mailbox, Inbox


Once upon a time addictions were so innocent, no one thought to call them addictions. Yes, children. We would sit down for a leisurely hour or so and write long letters to friends and family, tri-fold the lined paper into a business envelope, affix a first-class (styling!) stamp, and away she went.

The reward for this long-attention span work? Every day we would check the raised red flag on the mailbox to see if it had been lowered by the friendly postman (what do dogs know?). Walking to that mailbox was, for writers who love to read (but what else?), the highlight of the day.

Maybe a long missive would be harbored in that tiny tunnel of tin darkness. If so, we’d find the right spot, grab the right drink, and enjoy another long-attention span activity: reading and re-reading a long letter from a fellow enthusiast of the screed trade.

Such, such were the days! And, as we became writers (read: supporters of the USPS) who constantly sent out submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), the trips to the mailbox became all the more thrilling. Who would’ve ever believed that waiting for rejection would be such a high for young writers? But it was so!

Now we’ve supposedly increased the odds of feel-good hits via the mailbox stand-in, the e-mail inbox. Yes sirree Bob, writers can now get rejected at any hour of the day! And each time we do, we give a Whitmanesque yawp, saying, “Yes! I am a writer!” That’s what rejections do. Give us credentials. But only if aided by the element of surprise. What would that be? Acceptance. Publication. It happens. And it happens more and more with time and practice, increasing a writer’s inbox addiction (sigh).

The moral of this tale? For me, it’s this: I can pat myself on the back all I want for avoiding the ubiquitous and ridiculous spectacle of e-mail and, worse still, texting addiction by not owning a cellphone, but the truth is, as a writer, I’ve had to face the technological music of addiction, too. Only the hardcore writing warriors manage to get so lost in their work that they don’t worry about the marketing aspects of the trade by checking that secret inbox.

One box, two box, mailbox, inbox. It’s all one. Keep your checks to a concrete number a day (the magic number three, say) and count that as a victory. The rest of the time? Though rejections and acceptances may be washing ashore, writers have work to do, and it doesn’t fare so well with constant interruption.

As Aristotle said too many times, “I write, therefore I am… boxes notwithstanding.”