word choice

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If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting


Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.


By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.


By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh


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How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”


It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:

Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…

Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

Random Wisdom for Writers: Part Two


Here are a few more gleanings from Chuck Palahniuk’s estimable “writer advice” book, Consider ThisYesterday’s post featured the first group of ideas that might make you better at the trade. Today, the final set. Enjoy!

  • “If you can identify the archetype your story depicts, you can more effectively fulfill the unconscious expectations of your reader.” — CP
  • Readers relate when authors tell what’s known as an “awful truth.” Imperfect characters making mistakes are a reader’s delight. For one, the reader feels, “I’m not alone,” and for two, the reader feels, “Better him than me. What a train wreck! I can’t take my eyes off this!”
  • Or, as CP puts it: “People love to see others suffer and lose.” (If it helps, think politics, 2020.)
  • “Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction.” — Ira Levin
  • Know the difference between a story’s horizontal and its vertical. “Horizontal” = sequence of plot points, whereas “vertical” = pausing to deepen risk and tension because it is a key scene worthy of extra details and action. Too much of one (particularly horizontal) over the other will lose your readers’ interest.
  • Your plot should have a metaphorical (or sometimes real) “clock” or “gun” that readers are aware of. These may disappear, but readers should, in the back of their minds, be worried about time running out or the threat of some weapon. There are many variations, but these “plot drivers” keep the writer honest and the reader on her toes. Think James Bond movies.
  • For tension, use unconventional conjunctions sometimes for a whitewater-rushing effect that carries the reader through a particularly suspenseful scene.
  • Tension can also be harnessed through the use of an object the author recycles throughout the plot. When it reappears, the reader says, “A-ha!” or becomes nervous and wary, or begins to sleuth a bit to figure matters out. Reappearing objects are tension devices.
  • Avoid tennis-match dialogue.
  • “Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do not use dialogue to further the plot.
  • No dreams! Ever.
  • “You don’t write to make friends.” — Joy Williams
  • To mix things up in a novel, change the setting. Take your characters on a “second-act road trip.”
  • Use joy and humor as occasional relief when the going gets rough or the plot gets particularly frightening or suspenseful.
  • It is OK to depict questionable behavior in a book. Just don’t endorse or condemn it. This is the reader’s task.
  • “Any time you deny a possibility, you create it at the same time.” — CP
  • “If you can’t be happy washing dishes, you can’t be happy.” — CP
  • One troika of character types frequently used by writers: a.) the character who follows orders, is shy and agreeable, is an all-around good boy or girl; b.) the rebel who bullies, breaks rules, brags; c.) the quiet, thoughtful one who often acts as narrator observing the conflict of the first two.
  • Do not let death resolve your story. Who do you think you are — Shakespeare?
  • Reject humdrum, believable material in favor of the actual wonders surrounding you in this world. This comes under the category of truth being stranger than fiction, so make those truths PART of your fiction.


Of course, there’s a lot of fleshing out of these ideas with examples from many books, so if the list piques your interest, pick up a copy of Palahniuk’s book.

Oh. And get yourself in a writer’s workshop group. Although Ken Kesey said, “All workshops suck at some point,” they do force you to write when it’s your turn to make copies and get critiqued.

Plus you learn from the writers around you—both better ones and worse ones.

Random Wisdom for Writers


When it comes to reading how-to books on writing, I always make sure the author is a success him- or herself before diving in. If it’s an unknown, you’re left to ask, “If this chump knows so much about writing the world’s great novels, why isn’t he doing it himself?”

Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This, certainly fills the bill, though highbrows might sniff because he writes for the masses more than posterity. I’ve read only Fight Club, but I knew  he was prolific, so I picked it up and began reading.

When I read books like this, I like to highlight random pieces of advice or quotes. This book offers a rich trove and so might be worth your while. Granted, it focuses on novel and short story writing, but writing advice is writing advice, and there is always cross-pollination when it comes to effectively working among the genres.

Here’s a sampling:

  • There are three types of communication: description, instruction, exclamation (through onomatopoeia).
  • Little voice trumps big voice. “Little voice” refers to moment by moment events, facts, objective information. “Big voice” refers to musing, meaning, a character’s subjective take. Keep big-voice philosophizing to a minimum.
  • “Action carries its own authority” — Thom Jones
  • Use physical action as a form of attribution.
  • Use actions and gestures that go against the words a character says. The contrast can speak volumes.
  • “Dialogue is your weakest story-telling tool.” — C.P.
  • Keep a journal of people’s sayings, tics, gestures. Embed them in your writing.
  • Use lists now and then to break up the action. Readers love lists, for some reason.
  • Make up rules like little kids do when they play games. Home base. Poison patch. Time limits. Requirements. Exceptions. Author Barry Hannah says, “Readers love that shit.”
  • Put your dialogue in quotes, use attribution (readers skip over “he says, she says,” so don’t worry about variations so much), and embed gestures with the attribution.
  • Avoid Latin words, abstractions, received text.
  • If you get the small stuff right and use it up front, you can get away from some pretty crazy stuff after the fact because you’ve bought the readers’ confidence (or impressed the hell out of them).
  • Use your own magical aphorism early on and win the readers’ hearts. Think Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. It sold like hot cakes.
  • Answer these questions about your protagonist before you start: “Who’s telling this? Where are they telling it? Why are they telling it?”
  • Do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.
  • Write from within character. Instead of writing “He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall,” a character might say, “He was too tall to kiss.”
  • Write via the characters’ experiences and descriptions.
  • Don’t be afraid to be outlandish, provocative, challenging.
  • Subvert the readers’ expectations. They’ll love you for it.
  • “No two people ever walk into the same room,” said Katherine Dunn. Think of that the next time you describe a room or tackle any setting, especially with point of view in mind.
  • Answer these questions before beginning or continuing your writing project: “What strategy has your character chosen for success in life?” What education/experiences does he bring? Will he be able to adopt to a new strategy or dream?”
  • “Going on the body” means describing through the five senses. Make your readers experience the senses your characters do.


Of course, Palahniuk expands on all of this and makes it much more entertaining with anecdotes, but some of this gives you an idea of wisdom he’s gleaned from the writers’ workshops he’s attended and from writers he’s met along the way.

My next post will offer Part Two of CP’s pearls of wisdom.

Simplify to a Few Poetic Ingredients


Simplicity. It was Henry David Thoreau’s word to live by, but it sure wouldn’t hurt a few poets to borrow, too.

Sometimes would-be poets make something simple overly complicated when all they need are a few basic ingredients. Then let these stew so the flavors can take hold.

Description, our old friend, is simplicity’s right-hand man. What does it look like, for starters? Choose the most prominent details and become the artist’s brush. A few specific nouns, a splash of color. Simile. Metaphor. But lightly. Lightly.

Just be sure your last piece of description is the most important. And waste no time ushering your reader into the poem in line one. Too often the opening lines of our early drafts are dispensable. Throat clearing before the speech.

Take care of that off stage.  Then boldly step forward to the mic and deliver, getting to the point. Making your point. Simply, but powerfully.

Exhibit A today is Robert Bly’s description of a dead wren in his hand. Imagery. Metaphor. There’s no reason to make it more complicated than that, is there?


Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand
Robert Bly

Forgive the hours spent listening to radios, and the words of
gratitude I did not say to teachers. I love your tiny rice-like legs, that
are bars of music played in an empty church, and the feminine tail,
where no worms of Empire have ever slept, and the intense yellow
chest that makes tears come. Your tail feathers open like a picket
fence, and your bill is brown, with the sorrow of a rabbi whose
daughter has married an athlete. The black spot on your head is
your own mourning cap.

14 Rules for Writing from Tim O’Brien


In Dad’s Maybe Book, author Tim O’Brien spells out some rules for writing intended for his sons, Tad and Timmy. They are equally intended for the reader, who is serving as a vicarious child of the O’Briens reading along.

Below are 14 Rules O’Brien shares, directly quoted from the book, and though he says “story” now and then, I daresay the advice works for poetry, novels, plays, and essays as well.

See if you agree:


1.  Review the difference between “lie” and “lay.” A good number of TV personalities, politicians, poets, recording artists, newspaper columnists, pediatricians, and crime writers should do the same.

2.  Do not be terrified of emotion. Be terrified of fraudulence.

3.  Stories are not puzzles. Puzzles are puzzles.

4.  Information is not story. Information is information.

5.  Pay close attention to the issue of simultaneity. In life, as in a good story, numerous things occur at the same time, even when your attention might be riveted on a rattlesnake coiled to strike. In other words, when you’re writing stories, do not juggle only a single ball. (Single ball jugglers rarely get hired twice to entertain at birthday parties.) Fill your stories with “nice contradictions between fact and fact.” Fill your stories with food and drink, the weather, tired feet, dental appointments, phone calls from out of the blue, upset stomachs, flat tires, pens that run out of ink, undelivered letters of apology, traffic jams, swollen bladders, and spilled coffee. These and other intrusions must be endlessly juggled as we make our way along the story lines of our lives. Therefore, don’t insulate your characters from the random clutter that distracts and infuriates and entertains all of us.

6.  Similarly, do not let excessive plotting ruin your story anymore than you would allow it to ruin your life.

7.  Bear in mind that stories appeal not only to the head, but also to the stomach, the back of the throat, the tear glands, the adrenal glands, the funny bone, the nape of the neck, the lungs, the blood, and the heart—the whole human being.

8.  You are writing not only for your contemporaries. You are writing also for a seventeen-year-old student who might encounter your story two hundred years from now, or for an old man in Denmark in the year 2420, or for a lonely widow sitting at a futuristic slot machine in the year 4620.

9.  Also, believe it or not, you are writing for those who have preceded you— for Thomas Jefferson, for the children of Auschwitz, and for a father who may no longer be present to read your story.

10.  Surprise yourself. You might then surprise your reader.

11.  Do not fear (or deny) your own ignorance. It makes for curiosity.

12.  Do not fear (or deny) ambiguity. Though the prose itself may be crystalline, good stories almost always involve people snagged up in confusing moral circumstances. Think of Raskolnikov. Think of Charles and Emma Bovary. Think of your dad.

13.  Pay attention to every word. There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, plus a few punctuation marks. Those twenty-six letters, if poorly arranged, will result in mediocrity, infelicity, or plain gibberish. But from those same twenty-six letters, well arranged, come the sonnets of Shakespeare. The letters of the alphabet can be likened to the four chemical bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—that constitute the building blocks of all plant and animal DNA. The precise sequence, or order, of the bases determines whether an organism becomes a polar bear or a dachshund or William Shakespeare. Therefore, along the same lines, I suggest you do all you can to arrange the letters of the alphabet in exacting sequences.

14.  Read your writing aloud. Does it make sense? Does it make music?

“Boredom and Disruption Are Healthy…”


Why do so many avid readers not read poetry? Why is there such resistance to its inherent challenges? Rattle editor Tim Green, in his interview with the poet Kwame Dawes, opines that people who don’t ordinarily read poetry are put off by its difficulty. In a lengthy response, some of which I’ll quote here, Dawes takes a different trajectory on the question of difficulty:

“I disagree with that vehemently, I think. I’ll tell you why. I think there are reasons why people may resist poetry, and it has less to do with it being transformative and has to do with practical things like language. Things that we think are okay—for instance the simile. The simile is a contract. It’s the similitudes. So when we think of a book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, those are similitudes: ‘This is like that. Those are like that.’ The safe and normal functioning of similitudes requires a contract between speaker and hearer; it’s a way to say the thing that cannot be said of itself using the knowledge that we have of the world.

“So if I come and I say, ‘What is this?’ [holds up hat] ‘What color is this? Describe this.’ What do you do? So if somebody can’t see it, then you say, ‘Black.’ That means we’ve coded into our culture a relationship between something that looks like this and the word ‘black.’ But if you say you can’t use the world ‘black,’  inevitably the only way you can get there is through the simile, and beyond that the concretizing of the simile becomes the metaphor. But the point I’m making is that it is part of language, and language is about finding the words within our pool of understanding to help articulate the thing that seems difficult to articulate. This is the deal. It is a contract, or what we often call a convention.

“The poet masters that capacity over time, but there’s a logic to it. What has happened often in periods of poetic change and innovation is boredom with the order, and therefore an effort to unsettle things even more, by creating things that, frankly, don’t make sense. I don’t call that heightened poetry, I just call that a time when people are bored and they do this kind of thing. Boredom and disruption are healthy, but not necessarily holy or brilliant. They are healthy because they disrupt the cliché, which amounts to a certain kind of presumption of meaning around what can be closed societies, closed cliques, closed sites of resistance, can lead to fresher engagements with the world and can force us to see our biases and our prejudices. This is not comfortable. But these disruptions, I must add, are best when they are predicated on some kind of principle. At least that is what they are for me. But too often in poetry, these disruptions quickly become closed systems that can be as oppressive and as lazy at the thing they claim to be disrupting. Because here’s the thing—you’re disrupting an existing line. You’re not making up anything; you’re just disrupting it by throwing it into relief. And this is great, and exciting, but you’re not that smart. I can make a poem crazy, because, if I’m walking along here, I can just choose not to walk along here. If I say, ‘This is like a crow [raising the black baseball cap]. It’s the color of a crow,’ we say, ‘Okay, a crow is black, and this is black.’ If I say, ‘This [raising the black baseball cap again] is the color of a seagull,’ you go, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ but that’s not profound. I’m fascinated by disrupting the mystique that we create around making those choices, because I think they are technical choices.

“I think most people are moved by a fresh way of seeing something, and it does disrupt things. I think Pope is onto something when he says poetry is ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ I think that appeals to everybody. That sounds very conservative, but show me otherwise. Bring all your weird stuff and I’ll talk you through it to show you that we’re all still doing the same thing. I don’t know why we think we’re making up new stuff. This poetry thing goes back so far. I think it’s a youthful enthusiasm to think otherwise, but all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. We’re going to be dust again, and if we are lucky, for a period, a memory, and that is it.  Perhaps chasing reminds us that we are alive. I suppose that might be part of it. We’re just adding to what has existed before—this is the best we can hope for, and as it happens, it’s a lot. So there is a sense that part of what keeps us going is the idea that we’re retaining our unique DNA, but there is very little new under the sun. So I find a great satisfaction in seeing myself as part of a long tradition and practicing that tradition until I feel I have a mastery of that tradition. And if, in all of this, something new, something that marks me as meaningful, is there, then good. But in the meantime, I’m not inventing anything new in poetry, except in that grand and necessary belief that we are each uniquely formed. Holding onto this faith—even for those who claim faithfulness—may very well be the grand poem that staves off despair. There is a fine line between accepting that we are mere specks in a consuming and overwhelming universe, and our capacity to hold to a sense of our intrinsic value.

“I like to think that poetry rests at that fissure between those two existential extremes. So what Emily Dickinson said, I don’t think she’s saying there’s dissonance…”

Nota Bene: These last words reference Green’s earlier remark: “…poets are drawn toward cognitive dissonance. What poetry does that ‘takes the top of your head off,’ like Dickinson said, is that it reconstructs your worldview in a way that’s really shifting. And I feel like there’s some percentage of the population who loves that feeling, and others who hate it.”

The complete interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.

“The Water Turned Her Skin Sky.”


While reading the November 2019 issue of Poetry, I came across a poem that lends a bit of magical realism to its grammar. Though some readers might object to using words in unusual ways, I find it refreshing to read and one of the chief joys of poetry.

The poem is “América” by Sarah María Medina, a newcomer to the magazine whose work has appeared in Prelude, Black Warrior Review, and Poetry Northwest. I will only share the first third or so of the poem to illustrate a few moves that look simple but are actually not (if you’re the one trying to think of them, anyway).

Alas, the HTML does not allow me to reflect the visual aspects of the poem, as each line is indented by various degrees in double-spaced succession. See if you can pick out the words that come across as more “poetic” than most:


From “América” by Sarah María Medina

The river was deep & wide.
Wild girls grew along
the riverbanks. Wild strawberries grew
among the wet grass. A girl tramped barefoot.
Her tips arrowed. The tracks wept
in the distance. She scavenged
wild strawberries. The river water stung her mouth.
The water turned her skin sky. Alone
the girl knelt to sift water
through her fingers. There was once a dock
with a wooden boat. Once a general.
Once a sister. Once a mother who hid
behind the general. Once a machete.
Once a girl who swallowed salt.
She held the resonance of chromatic
harmony. The quiet of faded mist…


The first unusual word is “arrowed” in L5. Arrow is a well-known noun, but less often seen as a verb. That said, Merriam-Webster provides three definitions of “arrow” when used as a verb, the first being the intransitive version, “to move fast and straight like an arrow in flight.”

What I like about the usage is its subject “tips.” This word immediately brings arrows to mind, even though it is referencing the tips of the girl’s feet. Good poetry enlists words in refreshing ways. It gives the reader pause, and any time a reader pauses for a good reason, the poem can be said to be “working.”

Directly thereafter we get “The tracks wept / in the distance.” (L5/6)  Personification works best when it works twice. Yes, it is a poetic device, and yes, we don’t often think of tracks as weeping, but when you consider looking back at your own tracks over any damp grounds and how the soft the imprints look wetter due to your weight, you see the appropriateness of “wept” as a predicate for “tracks.”

Finally, in L8, we get “The water turned her skin sky.” Again, the reader pauses at the unusual word pairings. Water? Turning skin “sky”? You might first fear that the poor girl is turning blue, but it makes more sense to see the girl as one with the natural world she apparently lives in each day. River water, sky, girl. And a “double” is scored in that we get alliteration “skin” slides into “sky.”

At this point in the poem, a narrative tempo begins to pick up. Anaphora is used in a series of “Once…” lines presaging story. And story you will get. One that might help answer the accent aigu found in the title.

If you’re interested, you can find the complete poem in a copy of the magazine for sale or at the public library. Meanwhile, as a reader and a writer, note and consider how language is used in unusual, thus effective, ways as you read poems. Grammar is important, yes. But it is never a tyrant in the Kingdom of Poetry. Poetic license and creativity provide the checks and balances. And thankfully, the rule the realm.


Billy Collins, Animated


Billy Collins, one of the most recognized among American poets, did a wise thing years ago. He harnessed the power of video to many of his poems. This not only helped poet-writers with the art of imagery, it also gave reluctant poet-readers (often known as “students”) a door into the not-so-bad-after-all genre of poetry.

Given the amount of technology available to writers, teachers, and students alike, Collins’ example can lead in multiple directions. As readers, you can read, reread, discuss, reread, enjoy, reread, analyze, reread, and then view a poem.

As a writer, you can write your own. For some writers, wondering what your words would look like if animated might inspire the specific nouns which give birth to imagery.

Finally, as an animator, you can create a video for your own poem (or one for someone else’s poem that inspires you). The tools are there, even in the classroom in the case of many tech-savvy schools.

But whatever you do or don’t do, seeing and hearing accessible poems like Billy Collins’ will prove (once again) that poetry is meant to be read aloud, whether it be yours or someone else’s.

Here is Billy Collins’ TED Talk, which introduces animation for his poems “Budapest,” “Some Days,” “Forgetfulness,” “The Country,” and “The Dead.”

And here are words to the poems used in the video:


“Some Days”


“The Country”

“The Dead”

Searching “Billy Collins Poetry” on YouTube will lead you to even more of his poems set to video.

Happy reading (and rereading) and viewing (and reviewing) and finally writing (and revising).

Notice the important of re-‘s. Then go have some fun.

Rebecca Solnit on the “Astonishing Wealth” Called “Writing”

faraway nearby.jpg

Montaigne would be proud. This week I have been reading more essays, specifically Rebecca Solnit’s in her 2013 collection, The Faraway Nearby.

In an essay called “Flight,” she devotes a few paragraphs to the act of writing and, as is only necessary, reading (because what’s one without the other?). I thought it was interesting. Maybe you will, too:

“Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

“I started out in silence, writing as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away—first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud, another voice, one I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not yet born, the unknown, and the long gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

“Sometime in the late nineteenth century, a poor rural English girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy, ‘You will be loved by people you’ve never met.’ This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way. It was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.”

You see the words “faraway” and “nearby” popping up here, how perfect they are for the lonely sharing that is writing and reading, yet the source of the title is alluded to in another essay called “Wound.” Georgia O’Keefe, the great artist who once lived in New York City, moved to the desert boonies (read: Taos, New Mexico), and when she did, she signed letters to friends with the closing “From the faraway nearby.”

Thank you, Georgia, for a theme! One which Solnit stitches like a thread through the collection is this wide-ranging book. Thank you, too, for a metaphor. One elastic enough to cover writing and reading and many other paradoxes afforded by daily life.

As for her pearls of wisdom re: writing, you can see Solnit’s point all too well if you write. As I am the nearest writer at the moment, let’s use me as an example.

Why am I writing this? I could just sip this wonderful first black coffee and passively read emails (easy) and news of the world (not-so-easy). Instead, I’m milling away at this keyboard, watching letters do the ant-crawl thing across this screen.

I’m not writing strictly for myself (though I gain from it, surely). I’m doing it for intrinsic reasons, because I’m compelled to as part of a “odd compact,” as Solnit puts it, an assumption that people I will never know are out there (in the “faraway nearby”) reading words I only recently strung together, enjoying them, relating to them.

Scary, I know. But think of it: Some may start this piece and not finish it. Some may dig all the way to the other side (the end, or what Solnit might call “China”). Some may even return to this webpage regularly to see what I write again.

Almost mystical, isn’t it? But without each other (writers, readers), the magic would be gone. The faraway wouldn’t be nearby at all.