Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.
I hope that everyone is happily back to work after the nice months of summer vacation—or weeks for those who don't teach. Trees already looking pretty naked here in NJ. Thanks again to all of you who forward this newsletter. Each month my list grows as a result of your recommendations.
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Poem and Prompt
I came across this poem by Cecilia Woloch on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. That was back in 2009. I stored the poem in a computer file called "Poems I Like." What a pleasure to rediscover it from time to time. Read the poem. The prompt follows.
And these are my vices:
impatience, bad temper, wine,
the more than occasional cigarette,
an almost unquenchable thirst to be kissed,
a hunger that isn't hunger
but something like fear, a staunching of dread
and a taste for bitter gossip
of those who've wronged me—for bitterness—
and flirting with strangers and saying sweetheart
to children whose names I don't even know
and driving too fast and not being Buddhist
enough to let insects live in my house
or those cute little toylike mice
whose soft grey bodies in sticky traps
I carry, lifeless, out to the trash
and that I sometimes prefer the company of a book
to a human being, and humming
and living inside my head
and how as a girl I trailed a slow-hipped aunt
at twilight across the lawn
and learned to catch fireflies in my hands,
to smear their sticky, still-pulsing flickering
onto my fingers and earlobes like jewels.
The first thing that strikes me about the poem is its long list. I love list poems, so let's do one this month. For the first draft begin as Woloch does with the words, "And these are my ____________: In the blank space substitute the topic of your list poem, e.g., virtues, wishes, sins, secrets, transgressions, dreams. Then to get started, brainstorm a long list. Work quickly. Let the list be varied.
Begin drafting the poem. You might want to just begin at the beginning of your list, or you might want to first think about order. Save the best for last (but make them all good, of course). Notice the contrast in the last vice. Such a lovely image of destruction.
Notice the syntax. We have another poem that's one long stanza and one long sentence. That adds intensity. Consider using the same strategy. And the varied line lengths. Or you might want to go in just the opposite direction and use stanzas and multiple sentences that are fairly even in length.
An alternative approach. Begin: "And these are your _______________:
This month's book is Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. This is an unusual book, sort of a treatise on artmaking. I found it thought-provoking, and I enjoyed reading these ruminations about art and discovering that some of the concerns I sometimes experience are not unusual.
For example, the authors discuss the issue of how we proceed to do successfully that which we are afraid to do at all. They also cover the doubts artists typically have about themselves and the need for acceptance and approval. How do we artists deal with competition, both with other artists and with ourselves? I underlined this: "The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars." A good reminder that it's okay to do some bad work.
On risk-taking: "And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding." And "to require perfection is to invite paralysis."
How often we think that what we need to know comes from outside, from someone else, some expert. But the authors suggest that "expectations based on the work itself are the most useful tool the artist possesses. What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece."
Certainly one of the fears many of us experience is the fear of trying something new. What if it bombs? What if it invites ridicule? As the authors point out, ". . . the world offers vastly more support to work it already understands." Something new and revolutionary might not even be regarded as art. And yet, unless we are willing to take that risk, we eventually become stagnant. They offer this bit of cowboy wisdom: "When your horse dies, get off."
There's a lot more territory covered in this modest-sized book, but this should give you an idea of the wisdom it holds.
This month's poet is Baron Wormser, our first male poet here. It is a special pleasure to have Baron as he has been very important in my poetry life. I first met him at The Frost Place where I twice took his Seminar in Poetry. He is an absolutely amazing teacher of poetry as well as a wonderful poet. He is the author of two books on craft, the most recent, A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day; a book of short stories, The Poetry Life: Ten Stories; a memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir of Living Off the Grid; and 9 books of poetry, most recently, Impenitent Notes from CavanKerry (2011). A former school librarian, Baron has for years lived "off the grid," that is, as a poet. He created and still runs The Conference for Poetry and Teaching at The Frost Place and he visits different schools to teach students how to write poetry and teachers how to teach it. A former Poet Laureate of Maine, he now lives in Vermont and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University.
One of the questions that faces any poet is “Where do I find fresh words?” Shaping the language to one’s own concerns always has been a hallmark of poetry, what a friend of mine calls “owning the dictionary.” Nonetheless, there are moments for any poet when the dull word stares back at the poet and mocks her or him. What to do?
For decades I have practiced what I call “sonic imagination,” which is to say I let sound lead me into word choices. I write, for instance, “Snow falls.” It’s serviceable but to say that I have seen it before would be an understatement. What I do is take the letter that the dull verb begins with—f—and start writing down verbs that begin with that letter. I don’t make any judgment as I make my list. The whole point of inviting random words into one’s poem is to not make any judgments, to allow the unconscious to go wherever it goes. Hence float, flutter, flit, flap, flicker, feint, fly, fumble, fake, flounce, fail, present themselves. I can write ten words, twenty words, thirty words, forty words. Almost inevitably some word appears that I never would have reached otherwise, some word that scintillates but fits in the poem. Since the whole endeavor is based on trusting the unconscious, there is nothing suspect about doing this sort of mining. It’s not so much brainstorming as imagination storming. There are a lot of verbs, adjectives and nouns out there, to cite the three main parts of speech. I might as well access them.
One of the difficulties in writing free verse is that the rhythmic and sonic demands on the poet are less than in formal verse. One needs spurs to take poems to the places where they might go. Simple self-expression is not going to do that. Pushing sound is one way to get to those places. The soil of poetry is sound and rhythm. That applies mystically—the aural spell that poetry can weave—and practically—finding a better word than “falls.”
updated with 13 additions
Creative Writing Opportunity
Truth and Beauty
A Poetry Workshop with
Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe & Ellen Bass
May 29 to June 3
Carter Hall in Millwood, VA
For further information, see the Flier
Have a Kindle Reader? My new book, Temptation by Water
, is now available in a Kindle Edition
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