August 30, 2015

Elizabeth Alexander's Memoir Connects to Readers

via NPR
You may know the acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander from her reading at President Obama's 2009 swearing-in ceremony.

Alexander, who teaches at Yale, published a new book earlier this year — but it's not poetry. The Light of the World is a memoir of the 16 years she shared with her husband Ficre, until his sudden death a few years ago.

He died of cardiac arrest while running on a treadmill at home, just before his 50th birthday, leaving behind Alexander and their two sons. Since the book came out, Alexander says, she finds herself in the role of collector; people present her with objects as a way of responding to her loss — pictures, letters, stories and more.

She tells NPR's Michele Norris that nothing had prepared her for this. "I never imagined — in fact, I was quite certain I would never write a memoir. My own sense of privacy was too powerful," she says. "When I sat down to write, I didn't sit down to write this. I simply wrote as an extension of my hand, as an extension of my body, trying to stay absolutely grounded with my hand on a table, with my feet on the ground, planted on an Earth that had so suddenly seemed unstable."

August 15, 2015

Prompt: Directions Home

Years ago, I was interested to see a feature in The Saturday Review each issue that was called "Writer's Desk." The idea was simple. It showed a writer's actual desk and explained a bit about how they worked there. I always thought that I might gain some insight into writing or writers by knowing about the how and where of their writing. It is a questionable theory, but when I visit a writer's home I am still interested in seeing their writing space.

Thinking about Charles Bukowski's battered desk looking over the Los Angeles harbor or Raymond Carver staring out his Port Angeles, Washington window across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and thinking about going fishing, did give me a bit of a sense about their writing.

So, I looked at Emily Dickinson's home and Wallace Steven's house looking for clues. I walked through Walt Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey looking for signs of his ecstatic poems, wandering spirit and curiosity.

I was interested to see that a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, was used during National Poetry Month as a writing prompt about home.

Juan Felipe Herrera reads “Five Directions to My House” as part of National Poetry Month 2014.

Five Directions to My House

1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance
2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds
3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor
4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets
5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now
6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.

Actually, I was more interested in the responses to his poem by students. Here are two of the poems written in response to Herrea's poem.

Six Ways to the Sky by Leyla, age 9

Turn around go to the end of the long bridge
Into the wave of clouds under the colorless arch
Under the heat of the center core.
Over the peregrine falcon flying fast as the race car
Out of the endless underwater cave
Around the wheel of fortune, around, around, around the wheel.
I said six, said six like a rainbow says seven.

Five Minutes to My House by Ilyssa, age 18

the mountain cradles the rising sun as it leaves
a warm pink collection of colors in the air.
Bright, brutal sunlight turns the sky on
like an electrical switch and the sky becomes

the staccato of a wood pecker tapping on my roof
in the morning stirs me awake.

an endless stretch of rocks and dirt, harsh
to the eyes, a barren desolate land.

a dead bunny carcass lies on the newly
paved road, it ran towards the wheels of a
car. Now, it’s left behind a sore sight
for all except hungry lone scavengers.

time, time slips through the fingers like
yellow grains of sand left behind on a beach.
Even time moves slowly in this eternal home.

Your writing prompt is to write a poem that gives directions (in any format) to your house or any particular house - including the home of a poet - take a look at my earlier post about writer's homes.

Submissions to this prompt are due by September 6, 2015.

August 13, 2015

At Home With Poets and Writers

Does Robert Frost's Franconia, NH home fit his poetry?

The Saturday Review used to include a Writer's Desk page with a photo and brief piece about where a writer did their writing. Those writers included Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. That led me to explore both in person and online the homes of other writers. Perhaps, looking at a writer's writing space gives some clues to what they wrote or how they wrote. Perhaps.

Take a peek at the homes of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Paul Dunbar and Walt Whitman.

President Abraham Lincoln had written a poem about his home, which opens with this stanza

My childhood home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

and ends with this:

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.

The boathouse in Wales where Dylan Thomas spent the last 4 years of his life. did a feature on the home in poetry in which they say the home can be a "mythic, imagined place, the location of childhood memories, or the brick-and-mortar remainder of a broken relationship. It can represent the proverbial 'room of one’s own,' the simple pleasures of eating and gardening, or hold the drudgery of chores."

Stanley Kunitz said in an interview that, “There was a cloud that hung over our house in Worcester, Massachusetts and it took me almost fifty years or more before I could face it in a poem [The Portrait].”

The "cloud" was formed by the deaths of his father who publicly committed suicide weeks before Kunitz’s birth, and the death of his stepfather and both of his sisters.

W.H. Auden wrote a collection, About the House in which the home becomes an extension of the self.

I suppose I must be quite at home in the world of poetry, because I got 9 out of 10 correct on The Guardian's quiz about poets' houses.Any guesses about what writers used these homes?

I used to believe that I could be a better and more productive writer if I had an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. I suspect many of you have fantasized about having a place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.

There is no good evidence that those places actually do inspire writers or allow them to focus, and there are plenty of writers who work in cities and at home surrounded by distractions. 

If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work, American Writers at Home and Writers' Houses.

We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing. I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Pad and paper, or fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer? I like seeing where writers work.
John Updike at his desk - from Jill Krementz's The Writer's Desk

July 18, 2015

The Letters of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and a 40-year Friendship

The letters of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti chart a 40-year friendship and two storied careers.

"The story now feels nearly inevitable. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg moved into an apartment in the San Francisco North Beach area, just a few blocks away from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Bookshop. Ginsberg showed the fledging publisher his work, and Ferlinghetti was intrigued. He attended an event at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, where Ginsberg recited part of “Howl” for the first time. A few days later, Ferlinghetti sent the poet a telegram: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he cabled, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary note to Walt Whitman. “When do I get the manuscript of ‘Howl’?”

So began a decades-long relationship between the two men, as writer and publisher and as friends. From 1955 until Ginsberg’s death in 1997, they exchanged letters on matters large and small, from the 1957 obscenity charges that Ferlinghetti faced as the publisher of Howl to Ginsberg’s precarious finances (“I’m broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere. Send on royalties as soon as you can,” wrote Ginsberg in 1958). They sent each other thoughtful editorial notes and breezy accounts of their far-flung travels. In the early years, letters were their principal mode of communication, and their correspondence tracks not only the arc of their storied careers but also the palpable affection and respect the two men had for each other..."

continue reading at

July 14, 2015

Prompt: Haibun Combines Prose and Haiku

This month we look at a short Japanese poetry form called the haibun.  The haibun (translated as "haikai writings" is a form that combines prose and haiku.

Matsuo "Basho" Kinsaku 
Haibun poems are used to write autobiography, diary, essay, prose poems, very short stories. It was used as a kind of travel journal when it was first used by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. It was a form he popularized. He wrote haibun as travel accounts. The most famous are in  Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).

Haibun continued to be written by later haikai poets such as Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. 

Not all of Bashō's haibun are devoted to travel. They also are character sketches, landscape scenes, and occasional poems to honor a specific patron or event. His "Hut of the Phantom Dwelling" is a quite long prose essay followed by the haiku:

Among these summer trees, 
a pasania- 
something to count on 

(A pasania is a tree species of Asia, sometimes called in English a "stone oak" because of its very hard acorn-like nuts.)

Traditional haibun typically took the form of a short, precise prose description of a place, person or object, or a diary of a journey or other events in the poet's life, followed by a related haiku.

Haibun is now wriiten worldwide and the form has been adapted into different variations. The basic rules for the haibun are simple.
  1. Unlike haiku, they begin with a title. 
  2. The prose portion is terse, descriptive and written in the first person singular. 
  3. It is in the present moment. Imagine the experience is occurring now, not in the past.
  4. Although this is prose, it is poetic, understated, with all excessive words eliminated. 
  5. The accompanying haiku follows the traditional rules of that form. 
  6. The subject of the haiku does not repeat, quote or explain the prose, but reflects some aspect of the prose with a detail that is more juxtaposition - different yet somehow connected. That connection can be a surprising revelation for the reader.
    I was in a workshop this past year with the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil where we wrote haibun, Aimee has written several articles on haibun and gives a more detailed look at the rules of haibun - although she admits that she is "not one to stay close and straight to any particular poetry 'rules' (the haibun form especially and brightly lends itself to experimentation if one desires)."

    She told us that although Bashō coined the word haibun for the form as it is today, it already existed in Japan without that name as a kind of preface to poems and as mini-lyric essays. He wrote a guideline for the form and Aimee points out that he was quite concerned with aware (pronounced ah-WAR-ay), a term for the spirit of haiku or the "quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy."

    In "Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, we have a modern day haibun. I discovered Gailey's poetry in an article Nezhukumatathil wrote which includes another one of her fox-wife poems.
    Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks

    They hurt my ears, make me run in circles. Under their chemical light you might see my non-human face, the tail I hide beneath skirts. In the city, under mercury vapor, you never see me clearly. I prefer the woods, the quiet howl of mosquitoes, of cicadas. Build me a hut of mud where we never see the stars, too bright. Bring me fans painted with cranes and peonies, poetry folded into birds. Don’t leave me in the crowd, my nose assaulted by too many scents. Let us stay far from others tonight, my love. Our celebrations will be fur and paw, hand to chest. Let the fireworks with their dizzy ghost spiders whine in the distance, keep me here, bring me silk kimonos the color of bark and dirt to nest in.

    Keep the copper smoke
    and saltpeter, the dim trails
    of chrysanthemums in the sky.

    That poem is from Gailey's collection, She Returns to the Floating World, which explores motifs in Japanese folk tales:, persona poems spoken by characters from animé and manga, mythology, and fairy tales. The story of the kitsune, or fox-woman, is one that occurs throughout the book.

    This month's prompt is a haibun following the simplified and traditional six rules stated above.

    The submission deadline is the night of the New Moon, August14, 2015.

    Further Reading On Haibun

    July 13, 2015

    James Tate

    James Tate died this week at age 71. His death came just before the publication of his new book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion: New Poems.

    One of the most popular poets of his generation, his work was often seen as a more accessible and entertaining version of poetry.

    The new book is his 17th full-length collection.

    An NPR piece on him by poet Craig Morgan Teicher describes his poetry this way:

    "A Tate poem often features a hapless protagonist (usually a well-meaning man) who stumbles into a set of ridiculous circumstances that nonetheless don't seem particularly ridiculous to him. The tone is airy, bemused — "Some things don't deserve to be contemplated" — hiding profundity beneath a relaxed surface. This man might meet a few townsfolk, each of whom will make some remark on the circumstance, which will get weirder with each remark, and then the poem then ends with a clever zinger. Usually, the action turns on increasing communication difficulties. Tate may be the only poet whose main subject is the benefit of misunderstanding."

    His poem "Like A Scarf," opens this way:

    The directions to the lunatic asylum were confusing,
    more likely they were the random associations
    and confused ramblings of a lunatic.
    We arrived three hours late for lunch
    and the lunatics were stacked up on their shelves,
    quite neatly, I might add, giving credit where credit is due.

    This is his short poem "Goodtime Jesus":

    Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
    ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
    A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
    back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
    tiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
    ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

    In Teicher's tribute to Tate, he wishes that "what follows for him be as odd and pleasant as the scene in his new poem, "The Afterlife," in which a dead man — a ghost — falls into the speaker's backyard."

    I just float
    around," he said. "Well, I've never met a dead man. I'm
    pleased to meet you," I said. "I think you're supposed to
    scream or something," he said. "Oh no, I'm really pleased,"
    I said. "It's really kind of you to drop by." "I didn't
    drop by. It was the wind," he said. "And then the wind stopped
    and I fell into the tree." "How lucky for me," I said. "You'll
    be going with me, of course, when I leave. You'll never be
    coming back," he said.

    June 2, 2015

    Prompt: His Master's Voice

    We love our pets. Writers love their pets, and they often write about them. I see more and more books about dogs and cats, and that includes poetry.

    I recently went to a reading with Billy Collins who has a good number of dog poems. In two of those, he  introduces us to dogs "whom have taken the command 'speak' quite literally."

    One of those which has the dog contemplating his relationship to his owner, is titled "A Dog on His Master" - a title that makes me recall an old advertising slogan from the RCA Victor company used for early phonographs.


    As young as I look,
    I am growing older faster than he,
    seven to one
    is the ratio they tend to say.
    Whatever the number,
    I will pass him one day
    and take the lead
    the way I do on our walks in the woods.
    And if this ever manages
    to cross his mind,
    it would be the sweetest
    shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

    (from Ballistics: Poems)

    Beau & Arden on the UK edition of Dog Years
    In Dog Years: A Memoir, poet Mark Doty decides to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner. Beau is a large, malnourished golden retriever in need of love. He joins Arden, their black retriever. These two companions accompany them on the sad journey and teach lessons about love and loss.

    I loved Doty's poem (or is it Beau's poem?) "Golden Retrievals" the first time I heard him read it. Like many of Collins' poems it hits you as light and funny, especially in his reading of it. But, also like Collin's poems, there is something more serious going on in the poem.

    The dog starts off with his joy in his dog world, rejecting the people world of:

    Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
    seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.

    He is far more interested in:

    Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
    joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

    I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
    of any thrillingly dead thing.

    But his poor owner is:

    Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
    thinking of what you never can bring back,

    or else you’re off in some fog concerning
    —tomorrow, is that what you call it?

    The dog knows that his work here is part Zen master and part physicist trying:

    to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
    my haze-headed friend, you.

    Mark Doty's “Golden Retrievals” (from Sweet Machine: Poems) is this month's model poem for our writing prompt. And who would have guessed that Beau was a formalist, writing a kind of sonnet.

    Your assignment this month is a poem that comes from the mind, heart or mouth of a pet or animal. Let your dog or cat at the keyboard or have them channel the poem to you in that sixth or seventh sense that we know they possess.

    Submission deadline: June 30, 2015

    I also recommend that you give a look and listen (below) to Billy Collins reading "A Dog on His Master" and one of my favorites, "The Revenant." The revenant (one who has returned, especially from the dead) dog speaking the latter poem is not in love with his master - the person who put him "to sleep" - in fact, "I never liked you - not one bit."

    Garth Stein credits "The Revenant" for being the inspiration for his novel The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel, written in the voice of a dog.

    Like Beau, Collins' former pet also loves those outdoor smells encountered on walks, "but only because it meant I was about / to smell things you had never touched."

    This dog's only somewhat kind remark is to confirm something about the afterlife that the poet had hopefully assumed: "that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose."

    bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow

    Mark Doty's website is   He blogs at

    May 31, 2015

    Walt Whitman's Birthday - "I Celebrate Myself"

    It's the birthday of Walt Whitman (books by this author), born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819). Whitman worked as a printing press typesetter, teacher, journalist, and newspaper editor. He was working as a carpenter, his father's trade, and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet," which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman later said. "Emerson brought me to a boil."

    Whitman began work on his collection Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, "I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air." He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.

    Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing the eighth and final edition in 1891, saying it was "at last complete — after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace and war, young and old."

    Today, most scholars agree that Whitman was likely gay. When he was asked directly, toward the end of his life, Whitman declined to answer. But he did say, shortly before he died, that sex was "the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world."


    I celebrate myself;   
    And what I assume you shall assume;   
    For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.   
    I loafe and invite my Soul;   
    I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.             5
    Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes;   
    I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it;   
    The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.   
    The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation—it is odorless;   
    It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it;      10
    I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;   
    I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

    There are many editions of Whitman's poems, including the free to read online Leaves of Grass at

    May 21, 2015

    Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

    In reading a post online about some Emily Dickinson trivial curiosities and the one that struck me again (because I heard Billy Collins talk about it years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

    If you want to sing most of her poems (and I could imagine myself doing this with students), use the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island.

    Give it a try with the first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death":

    Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me;
    The carriage held but just ourselves
    And Immortality.

    If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen:

    And the why of it working is that Emily usually used the "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

    You could play the same game with other songs, but imagining Emily on the beach with Ginger and mar

    March 31, 2015

    Prompt: Epistles to the Poets

    It is National Poetry Month 2015 in America. The Academy of American Poets has many special features on its website for this month. One is called "Dear Poet." It is a multimedia education project that invites young people in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on their Board of Chancellors.

    Poets Online asks you this month to join the students. You can read and watch a group of poets reading and discussing their poems. The students are being asked to write letters to the poets to express their thoughts, ideas, or ask any questions they may have about the poems. I wonder why they didn't ask students to write poems to the poets - which is what we we will do.

    Epistles, or epistolary poems, comes from the Latin “epistula” for “letter," are poems that read as letters. As poems of direct address, they can be intimate and colloquial or formal and measured.

    On our main site, the prompt includes two of the poems and poets from Dear Poets. One is Naomi Shihab Nye's "How Do I Know When A Poem Is Finished?" which itself is addressed to someone - perhaps a student who has asked the poet that question, though all poets ask that question to themselves.

    The second example and video is for Edward Hirsch's poem "Cotton Candy" which looks back to the candy and a grandfather.

    What would you write to Nye or Hirsch about their poems?

    Our prompt is much wider. You can choose any poem on the Academy site or any poem at all. The only requirement is that you address the poet by name and that you include the title of the poem you are responding to in the poem.

    Your poem might be titled "Dear Mr. Hirsch" or Dear Elizabeth" for a poem to Elizabeth Bishop, whose own epistle "Letter to N.Y." begins:
    In your next letter I wish you’d say
    where you are going and what you are doing;
    how are the plays, and after the plays
    what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

    taking cabs in the middle of the night,
    driving as if to save your soul
    where the road goes round and round the park
    and the meter glares like a moral owl
    I might write to W. B. Yeats during this Easter week 2015 about his poem "Easter 1916" to let him know that this year:
    I am sitting at the start of day
    looking out the window
    at my desk at a sky gray
    above twenty-first century homes
    that I have passed on my way,
    like you, nodding and saying
    polite meaningless words...