writing poems

7 posts

Spinning Gold with Navel Lint


There’s no shortage of “poet’s workshop” books so, instead of buying new ones as they come out, I occasionally dip into old ones. After a few years between readings, the old becomes new, proving once again that the author of Ecclesiastes (“There is nothing new under the sun”) knew of what he spoke.

This week I’ve been poking around Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop. Portable workshops are good things for a guy who’s never attended a real one (hand in the air). Cheaper, too.

One chapter that caught my eye was the one called “Flying Into Oneself.” In an earlier chapter, “Awful Poems,” Kowit cautions against “navel-gazing,” or self-indulgent writing that really interests only you and yourself. But in “Flying Into Oneself,” he assures us that the navel-point-of-view can still work IF it takes its lint and weaves a creative cloak.

Ordinary (your world), meet surreal (an “out there” world), in other words.

As an example, and we all love examples, Kowit gives us David Ignatow’s poem “The Bagel.” You don’t get much more prosaic than a bagel. Ho-hum and pass the cream cheese. But Ignatow takes his self-indulgent, perhaps daily ritual of bagel-eating and takes it places the reader would not expect. Suddenly, self-indulgence gets off with a warning because reading police officers are intrigued by events. Witness:


“The Bagel” by David Ignatow

I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as if it were a portent.
Faster and faster it rolled,
with me running after it
bent low, gritting my teeth,
and I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.


If the prompt were to write a poem about dropping a bagel and a classroom of workshop students went to work, the results would be rather crumby. Yeah, you’d have variations on a theme: cream cheese, butter, jam, even lox, but overall, it wouldn’t get much further than the 5-second rule.

Ignatow’s example can be liberating for writers who think they lack for novel subjects. If you feel stymied by the quotidian obstinacy of everyday life, consider breathing new life into the ordinary. For starters, don’t restrict yourself. Forget the laws of physics. You’re not Isaac Newton. You’re a poet. If you want to have fun by somersaulting like a bagel chasing a bagel, be my guest. Readers will be happy to laugh at you, be charmed by you, cheer you, even.

Kowit sees some parallels between thinking like this and using dream imagery, but you don’t need a dream journal on your bedside table to engage. Day dreaming is much easier. And escapism via fanciful notions may just be the charge your “so what?” topics need.

Give it a go. Is it self-indulgent and ordinary? The answer’s no. It all depends upon the angle (and the spin)…






Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You


In Maine we are going through another hot and humid stretch. In town, people will complain of the heat. But on Saturday, the high is forecast to be 68. In town, there are bound to be people who will complain of this coolness in August. 

Contrasts. They’re everywhere and, as a catalyst, they generate interest and irony.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Charles Simic:


My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard


Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love? And, if not, what are you waiting for?

What a contrast the songs of the morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.

Word Up!


Aspiring poets always think it’s all about the poetry. Read poetry. Write poetry. Study poetry. Buy poetry (via those expensive stores, M, F, and A). But, no. There’s more to it than that. There’s the simple stuff, often overlooked. Let’s start with words.

I can hear you now: “Words? What do you mean by words. I use words all the time! What do you think my poems are made of–broccoli stalks?”

Well, first of all, that would be pretty cool. And nutritious. But I mean word choice–or, as the French call it, le mot juste–and word choice depends upon a solid store of words, one that has a loading dock out back where trucks marked Brains R Us can bring in more supplies each day.

School didn’t end with school, in other words. You need to boost your vocabulary, mostly so you can understand as many words as possible when you read poetry, but also so you can avoid using these words in your own poems.

Ha-ha. A little curveball for you. I say avoid using them because, like thesaurus-itis (that dreaded disease), strutting-your-vocabulary-itis can be life-threatening to poems. Occasionally you will use a new vocabulary word, but mostly you will take a pass on it, especially if it’s a fancy, Latin-based word.

Don’t get me wrong–the dead language will have its place in your poems now and then, but the lion’s share will be Greek and Anglo-Saxon based. Plus, you want the nuclear option to use any old (or new) word you know because that’s power, the kind found in your pencil or keyboard thanks to the cauliflower pulling the strings (we’re back you your brain via vegetables, you see).

So, how do you do it? One simple way to boost the number of words available to your poems is to sign up for Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day. I look forward to my morning word-in-the-inbox. Yes, it’s often familiar (like today’s “malign”), but its roots, related words, and etymology are often not so familiar. What’s more, M-W gives you two examples of the words from the real (vs. the one in Washington D.C. right now) world.

How cool is that? Ask your air conditioner, then word-up



Call Your Mother. Tell Her About the Animal Crackers.


Waking to the sounds of rain on a Sunday morning is one of life’s gifts. The wrapping paper is the roof and walls of your house. Of course, in my case, I shed the coziness right away as I don rain gear to walk the dog. His thick black coat pearls up with drops. He’ll shed them inside, near a wall preferably.

I drink a cup of coffee, listen to Gregorian chant, write a new poem. A new poem is a gift, too, only with a smaller gift box inside, meaning the present is more mystery, mouth closed, secret intact.

Sudden first drafts are seeds. The farmer sews them knowing that some will sprout, others will grow heavy with rain and rot in the soil. Some will reach fruition, others will be cut down by wind, deer, disease. The creative process is organic. No amount of pesticide will help.

My poem “Self-Portrait” appeared on Poppy Road Review  this week. I call poems like this snapshots. There are countless snapshots when it comes to any self-portrait. This is just one part of me in few words: The good intentions part of me. The lost resolutions part of me. The concrete trophies of guilt part of me.

It is Mother’s Day. I will drive to the grocery store first, call my mother and tell her about the rain later. The crisp sound of paper bags filled with food, their symmetry in the back seat for the ride home, like well-behaved children, can send me back. And make me sad. But that is the essence of nostalgia, a heady drug indeed.

Rest assured, I won’t say to my mother when I call, “Remember our trips to the grocery store, when you sat me in front of the carriage and gave me the small, stringed carton of Animal Crackers? And the single piece of baloney from the man at the deli! I’d bite eyes, nose, and smile into it before finishing it off!”

Or maybe I will say it.

Happy Sunday. Happy Mother’s Day. Happy small, under-appreciated gifts.


The Good (Poetry), the Bad (Poetry), and the Ugly (Poetry)

good bad ugly

What is “good” poetry? What is “bad” poetry? Will you always know it when you see it? Or are the answers to such questions automatically suspect due to the “you” in the latter question?

It’s a conundrum even Socrates would have trouble beating–we know good poetry when we see it, supposedly, but what happens to the ticker tape parade when Person B comes along and proclaims your “we hold this goodness to be self-evident” to be so much wishful thinking or, worse, garbage?

From the opposite tack, we often feel sure when we come across “bad” poetry. We scrunch our noses, shake our heads, perhaps abandon it halfway as if it were Joyce’s Ulysses. But what if this obviously bad poem appears on the lofty pages of Poetry magazine, say, or the loftier still pages of The New Yorker? Is it time to look in the mirror and start wondering about ourselves as judges?

I was left to contemplate such philosophical mysteries yesterday when I experienced a first. A poetry journal accepted one of my poems and, when I consulted my manuscript slated for publication around the new year to ensure it hadn’t undergone a title change (I hadn’t seen that title for awhile), I noticed the poem was no longer in the manuscript.

Data malfunction, you ask? Accidental deletion, maybe? Not quite. As I’ve been combing over the manuscript, tightening poems and, in a few cases, replacing “weaker” ones with new blood of a stronger strain, I’ve placed the cut poems if a file called “Pulled from Ms.”

It so happens that the accepted poem–one that I obviously decided was “bad” because multiple editors had given it the form e-mail boot, in so many words telling me it was bad–was lurking in this “out bin” with some other sheepish poems. Only now it looked less sheepish and more indignant.

“See?” it said. “You doubted me. You doubted yourself and decided I was bad. Ugly, even. Now what?”

I’ll tell you now what. I moved it back into the manuscript. Lines between the good, the bad, and the ugly had blurred dramatically. And all in the electronic flash of an acceptance.

What abstract point does this concrete experience make? Is it the old saw which states that we are the worst judges of our own works? And if so, how does that explain our negative reactions to other writers’ poems that find their ways into the most highfalutin’ of poetry journals and magazine glossies?

We’re told to judge not, but we can’t help but judge. We’re only human (which is, ironically, equal parts good, bad, and ugly at times).

My theory, subject to ridicule by Socrates and heirs to his cause, is that the great middle ground is impossible to pin down with such adjectives. There are extremes at either end–unquestionably good because they’ve stood the test of time and still thrill new generations of poetry readers, and undoubtedly bad because, well, the poet in question assaults the senses and a few other innocent bystanders, when his poetry is inflicted on them.

Still, taking out, say, 20% of poems on either end of the spectrum, we’re left with that huge DMZ: 60% of what we read or maybe even write ourselves. Is it good? Bad? Ugly like a duckling with ambitions?

Good luck deciding. Yesterday’s e-mail has me reaching for a poetic white flag.

December, Tinseled Traitor Month


Just like that, it’s December. You remember him, looking like a page of artwork out of Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Past. Big and bearded and jolly in his sumptuous and colorful robes as he overlooks scenes of joy and fellowship. This would be old (and impossibly green) tannenbaums , plum puddings, heartfelt carols and (wait for it!) gifts.

Silver. And sold (as in “out to capitalism”).

Writing prompt: Write about December. Free verse (though nothing’s for free in December, not even stocking stuffers). Write about the holiday, the anticipation, the tidings of comfort and joy. Write about 24/7 Christmas carols on radio stations driving carols into the clichéd ground. Write about lists a mile long, money a mile spent, stress a month hiked.

Write on this: “Christmas Magic: Strong as Ever or Hiding Out in Amazonian Jungles with the Dodo Bird?”

C. Clement Moore made his mark writing about Christmas, as did many song writers. For writers of poetry and prose, this means there’s money in them there hills. Lots. You just have to go out, 49er-like, and mine it.

The financial opportunities are even greater in the once united States this year. With a president-elect who scares the bejesus out of the majority of voters who chose his opponent, the numbers are legion among those seeking succor. Christmas as comfort food, then. In the key of ka-ching. If you write it, they will read.

Or you can be an Eeyore, a downer, a Christmas curmudgeon. Rail against it or write your dirges to it. “On the twelfth day of depression, my not-so-true love gave to me…” and so forth.

Any way you look at it, Christmas and the much-dreaded new year are sources of inspiration for writers. And whether you cheerlead or satirize the beast, writing about it will be therapeutic. So think of your screen or notepad as a much cheaper therapist. And stop eating so much sugar, else you begin to look like a well-rounded plum with no dancing skills (or a right jolly old elf with no Weight Watchers chapter in his town).

31 days. We can do this. Just don’t take a leave from writing, whatever you do. To be left to the mercies of the holidays is against the Geneva Convention, I’m more than sure.

Page 489, column 2, footnote 3b.

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 1)


I had a chance to visit an oft-published (now there’s an infrequent modifier) poet of late, a calm and reasonable man who sipped Kusmi tea (French? Russian?) and tossed bon mots (French!) with gentle abandon. As a newly-published, newly-perplexed acolyte, I had plenty of questions. He didn’t lack for opinions. Here are a few:

Q: I don’t want to go all chicken-and-egg on you, but which should it be–write for yourself or write for prospective readers?

A: It is a non-question. You write for yourself and, if it speaks to the human condition that is in you, it will speak to the human condition that is in your readers. We are all unique, yet the same. Life flourishes on shady banks of paradox and irony.

Q: Why is the reading of poetry declining?

A: Is it? Poetry hides in fiction. It has even infiltrated non-fiction, or what we sometimes call “creative non-fiction,” perhaps. I don’t see it declining so much as assimilating.

Q: But poetry packaged and sold as poetry in books. The sales are dismal. The readership is anemic.

A: With few exceptions, it is as it always has been. Veneration of poetry is also cultural, more prevalent in some countries and languages than others. Schools have done poetry no favors, either. In some cases, poets themselves are guilty of self-inflicted wounds.

Q: Meaning?

A: Meaning when people compare a poem to “modern art” in a scoffing tone, they feel the work is purposely impenetrable and meaningless. If it is so obtuse it can mean anything to any reader, it becomes the punch line to a joke in the public eye. If it is a secret shared by an elect few, it becomes the poetic equivalent of the 1%.

Q: Some argue that poetry, both writing it and reading it, is too precious for its own good. Your thoughts?

A: Labeling is too precious for its own good.

Q: Why do you write?

A: Expression is by nature imperfect, and just as man is driven by the desire to know, to destroy all mystery with his curiosity, the poet is driven by the desire to capture nameless feelings in writing that has a name. It can never be, really, but the desire to make it be is what makes writing worthwhile, beautiful, and human.

Q: Do you reread your own work?

A: (laughs) If not me, who? I read my work aloud to myself, a separate me. Of course, I read other poets’ work aloud, too. I must nurture my ears as much as my eyes.

                                      …to be continued