Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
Happy New Year! May your 2015 be filled with happiness and poetry. We lost some wonderful poets in 2014, most recently Claudia Emerson. Before I learned of Claudia's upcoming surgery, I came upon the video that's included in this newsletter. It became even more meaningful as I followed her medical updates. Please be sure to watch it. That and her poetry preserve her memory.
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Poem and Prompt
This month's poem is by Michael T. Young, from his new book The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost.
The Hospital of His Wounds
I take a kind of nourishment from water sizzling in a stream
or autumn leaves boiling in the street as wind stirs the pot.
I am a body sustained by lean meats, consoled as I wait
to see what remains after everything I’ll forget
and have forgotten. It will be a natural monument,
like a canyon or mountain, something weathered into existence
by the slow powers of erosion and subterranean pressure.
Although, even now certain gorges and passages take shape.
For instance, that night at about 2:30 a.m., a jagged wailing
as if a newborn had been bludgeoned by a blackjack
startled us from sleep to find a possum in the dogwood
and a raccoon testing his boundaries, like me with memories,
wondering what kingdom they circumscribe, and my role there,
and why I should be tickled to recall your fascination with roadkill,
or why I can’t forget a crow that pinned a pigeon
and pecked the meat spilling from a wound in its neck,
and now a headline that has never left me, which read
that a man was “in the hospital of his wounds.” I remember
thinking how, by this odd syntax, he would convalesce
in strange pulsing rooms, deep in his lacerations and bruises,
healing at the root of marrow and lava and memory,
halls and corridors that could not be photographed
like anything of real passion but where he would wake
as the first man to know who he was without looking back.
Young’s multi-layered poem pulls me right in with its double metaphor. The poet likens Nature to “a kind of nourishment” or food, then to a cook as water sizzles, leaves boil, and wind “stirs the pot.” The speaker fuses with Nature as he anticipates becoming “a natural monument.” This leads him back to a memory of having been awakened by the shrieking of animals which he compares to the cries of a newborn being bludgeoned—horrific but effective. Now Young skillfully brings in an auditor, someone with a fondness for roadkill. The speaker recalls having seen a crow devour a pigeon from “a wound in its neck.” This leads to the recollection of an odd newspaper headline.
The speaker now imagines a man who enters the hospital of his own body, a hospital with rooms and hallways. Such a man would have no need of memories for he would already know himself in the deepest way possible.
Consider the form and structure of the poem. Its one fat chunk of a stanza makes sense as one metaphor touches off another and one idea leads seamlessly to the next. Metaphors and ideas accumulate and the poem grows increasingly dense. Similarly, the sentences get progressively longer as the poem develops. How cleverly the poet links content, form, and sentence.
Notice, too, the poem’s use of sound devices, e.g., the assonance of the repeated long e sound in the opening lines: stream, leaves, street and the repeated long a sound in sustained, wait, remains, subterranean. Consonance is also abundant as in the repeated s sound in convalesce, strange, pulsing, rooms, lacerations, bruises. Finally, alliteration contributes to the poem’s music as in the hard-hitting b sounds of been, bludgeoned, blackjack.
Scour the newspaper or a magazine for an odd, intriguing headline. Do not read the article. Free associate with your headline. Quickly write down your thoughts. To get yourself thinking metaphorically, ask yourself, What does this remind me of or What does this look like?
Now begin the first draft with a few related metaphors (if they don’t come now, you can add them later—or not). Let the metaphors lead to a related memory or two. Feel free to make up your memories. Bring in your headline and let it work its magic. Tip: Don’t run away from darkness. Let it enter your poem if your poem calls for it.
As you revise, feel free to change the order of your material. Try working with progressively longer sentences and long lines. Try for a single chunky stanza. Let it be dense.
Then work on sounds. Tune up the poem until its music is something you hear and feel as you read your poem aloud. And do be sure to use oral reading as part of your revision process. Try using a voice recorder.
The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood is poet Richard Blanco’s memoir about his early years. I loved this book, more so as I moved through it. Blanco was born in Spain but moved as a child to Miami, along with his parents, older brother, and grandparents. There they lived among many other Cuban immigrants.
As a child Richard finds himself placed in the odd position of being his parents’ and grandparents’ translator, a position that instills in him an appreciation for the nuances of language. He longs to be fully American, but his family and neighbors cling to Cuba and all things Cuban. One of the aspects of the book that I most appreciated was Blanco’s increasing understanding of the longing for home, of what it means to be a refugee, of the deep sorrow of those who can never go home again or see the family and loved ones they left behind.
While Richard loves his grandparents, as a child he is often bullied by his grandmother who berates him for his feminine interests, such as coloring and hooking rugs. As his parents have lost part of their identity, he searches for his own, as an American in the midst of Cuban Miami and as a gay young man in a male-dominated culture. He tries hard to be attracted to girls, but isn’t. Fortunately, he meets several people along the way who love him for who he is and encourage his artistic inclinations.
The book ends as Blanco is coming to grips with his identity. The closing pages of the book are exquisitely written and foreshadow the poet Blanco would become.
David Kirby is the author of more than two dozen volumes of criticism, essays, children’s literature, pedagogy, and poetry. His poetry book The Ha-Ha (2003) was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and The House on Boulevard Street: New and Selected Poems (2007) was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Florida Book Award and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Award. His other awards include several Pushcart Prizes, the Guy Owen Prize, the Kay Deeter Award, the James Dickey Prize, the Brittingham Prize, and the Millennium Cultural Recognition Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Florida Arts Council. His poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies, including several issues of Best American Poetry. He teaches at Florida State University, where he has received several teaching awards. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, poet Barbara Hamby.
One Brick at a Time
The best thing a poet can do is keep a bits journal. A bits journal is just that; it’s a collection of random images, childhood memories, dreams, snatches of overheard conversations, quotes from books you’ve read or lectures you’ve heard, bathroom graffiti, mistranslations, thoughts that come out of left field, notes to yourself (“Start using longer lines”), and so on.
You can’t write poems every day, but you can write in your bits journal every day. This really takes the pressure off: you don’t have to write memorably in your bits journal, you just have to write.
For that reason, you should never censor yourself. If you’re trying to write a poem, you might say, “Oh, that’s not appropriate” or “No one could ever make a decent poem of that.” But when you’re writing bits, you throw in everything. Will a particular bit start moving toward poemhood? If so, fine. And if not, that’s fine, too. A bit might not be useful to you for a couple of years. Or it might never be useful, but that’s okay as well. It’s not as though you wasted any time on it. It’s not a poem, after all—it’s a bit.
If you don’t keep a bits journal, start today, and if you do, go back and have a look and see what you can use and what you might add. How you handle your bits journal is up to you, but I know I get antsy if my bits journal grows beyond twenty pages or so.
When that happens, it’s harvest time: I’ll look for bits that speak to each other, maybe three or four that might coalesce into a poem. It’s said that Walt Whitman had a box of a certain size that he filled with scraps of paper on which he’d written, and when the box filled, he’d pull out the scraps and look to see which ones would become a sequence and which he might use in another poem or return to the box.
If this method is good enough for Whitman, it’s good enough for us, right? The only difference is that, instead of a box, you’ll be using the bits file on your computer. I used to let students keep old-fashioned paper bits journals, but now I insist that they make them Word documents. That way, when one bit wants to cozy up to another, you just cut and paste.
Occasionally, someone will say they have writer’s block, but that’s a fictitious disease. The phrase suggests that there’s an immense warehouse of materials you can’t get into, but the fact is that people who say they have writer’s block have an empty warehouse. The bits journal is your warehouse, and it’s easy to fill. If you add three or four bits a week, in a couple of months your journal will be five or six pages long, which is more than enough material to make several poems.
List of 50 Poetic Forms for Poets, by Robert Brewer
Ploughshares: All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts
New Review of The Crafty Poet by Christine Swint at Balanced on the Edge.
New Review of The Crafty Poet by Christina Veladota at Maybesopoetry.
Lynn Domina reviews The Crafty Poet at Lynn Domina, Poet.
Check out Vicki Hudson's review of The Crafty Poet at Three by Five.
Carol Berg interviews me about The Crafty Poet in Ithaca Lit.
Grace Cavalieri reviews The Crafty Poet in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Check out Martha Silano's review of The Crafty Poet at Blue Positive.
"I read this book, first page to last saving the exercises for later. Just reading it propelled me into stimulating new territory after which I wrote, rewrote, and revised my work. It helped me read other poets with new attention. A very valuable resource."—Carol Levin
Sunday Poem Feature at Gwarlingo
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