December 9, 2005

Being in the moment

This month's prompt is to write of an occasion when you were "in the moment" completely. We often hear of this from musicians, artists, athletes - but it occurs often enough for all of us, if only for that moment, in our everyday lives.

In his always interesting "American Life in Poetry" column, Ted Kooser talks about our model poem, "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning" by Jane Hirshfield (After - Harper Collins, 2006).

His words: "the speaker discovers that through paying attention to an event she has become part of it, has indeed become inseparable from the event and its implications. This is more than an act of empathy. It speaks, in my reading of it, to the perception of an order into which all creatures and events are fitted, and are essential."

Hirshfield gives workshops in this - "Poetry as the Practice of Attention" If you want to read a bit more about Jane, try or to read a few other poems by her, go to

There is a term "zanshin" which means “the remaining mind” and also “the mind with no remainder.” I think this is related to our prompt too. This is the mind of complete action - the moment in Zen archery after you release the arrow, in painting after the brush stroke when hand and brush lift, that moment after you release the ball... it's complete follow through.

There's a book by Brenda Ueland, If you Want to Write, that talks about being "in the moment" (but not being lost in it) to maximize creativity - to be fully present in an intuitive activity, not an intellectual one. Ueland compares this kind of creativity and connection to playing a musical instrument - sometimes you play at it and sometimes you play in it. Great musicians play in it (even if not always technically perfect). Perfection of technique may not be obtainable, but a kind of "perfect" connection can exist between the reader and poet.
It's interesting it was originally published in 1938 because it sounds contemporary.
A few bits:
"Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say."
"The imagination needs moodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering."
"Think of telling a story, not of writing it."
"When you revise, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. The problem is that it is not yet deeply enough imagined."
There's one chapter called "Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing."

Of course, Zen is often used very loosely (or incorrectly) as a way of describing other practices - like being in the zone in golf, tennis or yoga.

Better to stay with the literary - read "On Poetry and the Reallocation of Concentration: Learning to Forget" by Beth Ann Fennelly who asks " What exactly is happening in our brains when we cease to become conscious of time? "

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953. She graduated from Princeton University in 1973. Hirshfield has been a lecturer in creative writing at the University of San Francisco, and a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She serves as a member of the faculties of numerous writers conferences and in-school programs, including California Poets in the Schools, 1979-85, and the Port Townsend and Napa Valley Writers Conferences.
Her books of poetry includes The October Palace , Of Gravity & Angels and The Lives of the Heart. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is her excellent book of essays on reading poetry, writing and her approach to life.

December 3, 2005

Poetry Competitions and Scams

Unfortunately, there are a large number of publishers, websites, and competitions for poetry out there that are scams.

They accept & "publish" poems without any thought about merit. They accept everything. They make money on accepted poets buying copies of the book their poem is in, and in some cases they run workshops and competition readings that you pay quite a bit of money to attend. Of course, they play off our vanity and desire to be published and known to others. Moreover, no one forces you to send in a poem or pay the fee. (Likewise, you CAN just throw away the Publisher's Clearing House winning entry you get every other week - but many do not) However, you need to be aware of this industry.

I especially would warn new poets and young poets AND those who teach them. When I was teaching in a secondary school, I knew of a fellow English teacher who had her students enter the poetry contest at as an assignment. When I told her that it was a vanity press scam she got very angry with me. She felt that ANY recognition the kids could get for their writing was good. I disagree strongly.

Basic rule to follow - though many very legitimate competitions charge a "reading fee" to enter a poem, no legitimate contest that I know of will charge you to receive the award, get it published, or get at least one author copy of your published piece.

There's a guy named Charlie Hughes who has a good page on all this literary scamming at . There's a list here of scam offers - some of these publishers go under 20 different names. Check before you enter.

He really hits the nail hard several times on the head for (I give them a point for being smart enough to buy a great URL first) by showing just how how dreadful a poem can make it to the semi-finals in their competitions. They are AKA "The International Society of Poets" -you have probably seen their ads. (I've had two good-hearted relatives give me their information and say, "Enter this - maybe you can actually make some money at this poetry thing you like to do.") Hughes' says that they are bad poetry sites, not necessarily bad poems, and he's correct. There are some good poems there sent in by the unknowing.

Like him and others, I sent in a poem a few years back that I wrote on the spot just to see what how they would respond. (Others have sent in telephone listings, cereal box text, newspaper articles - some formatted "poetically,” some just cut and pasted - doesn't matter, all accepted) Fastest reply I ever got from a publisher (OK, give them another point) Not only did I make it into their newest "Anthology" but I later received a nomination for "Poet of the Year 2000" and an invitation to attend their "Tenth Anniversary International Society of Poets Convention and Symposium" to receive my accolades and read my poem (this was the actual competition for poet of the year - Grand Prize being $5,000 and a book contract) in Washington, DC. I didn't go. But, I bet some people did - at $595 a pop.

Want more info? Someone created a whole website on this particular publisher at

Enough free (bad) advertising for them...

November 24, 2005

Blogs and Freedom

A plug here for the Electronic Freedom Foundation-
Besides their other causes,EFF has a goal to "give you a basic roadmap to the legal issues you may confront as a blogger, to let you know you have rights, and to encourage you to blog freely with the knowledge that your legitimate speech is protected."

Though the Poets Online blog is not intended to be controversial or political, you never know where the winds will send you...

If you blog, check out the Legal Guide for Bloggers, a collection of blogger-specific FAQs.

Bloggers are entitled to free speech
Bloggers have the right to political speech
Bloggers have the right to stay anonymous
Bloggers have freedom from liability for hosting speech the same way other web hosts do
Find out more about EFF

November 13, 2005

Moderating Comments

This blog has "moderated" comments. This means that I have to approve or reject a comment that someone posts.


It took only a week after I started the blog for it to begin getting comments that had nothing to do with poetry (including people trying to link to all the same crap that you get in your email - Cialis, cheap drugs, moneymaking schemes and a few obscenity-filled rants on politics).

This week there was an anonymous post about the blog being moderated. It said:
"I feel this blog is rubbish, moderated by either a foolish and whimsical comment nazi or a lazy sod, rarely updated and no good for discussion."

Comment nazi is an interesting term. Perhaps it's too many years of teaching that makes me want to organize and put a format to the blog. I think it's still a valid forum for discussion - about poetry. The main site (Poets Online) is similar I suppose. We offer a writing prompt. We consider only poems that address the prompt. I regularly get more poems that DO NOT address the prompt than do. (Large numbers of religious poems, for example, and - sadder to reject - poems that appear to be earnest poems by young people.) But that's the caveat that comes with the package. (Double checked that - a caveat is "a modifying or cautionary detail to be considered when evaluating, interpreting, or doing something")

The comment continues: "There will be no discussion."
That would be unfortunate, since discussion was half the intent. (Expanding on the prompts was the other half.) Still, if you survey the blogosphere, you will see that there are many blogs that allow no commenting at all. " A weblog or blog is a web-based publication of periodic articles (posts), usually presented in reverse chronological order. It is an online journal with one or many contributors, " says Wikipedia. And I think I fit safely in that definition.

Caveat lector.

November 7, 2005

About Peace

I used the poem "Peace" by C.K. Williams this month as our writing prompt model. (You should be able to read it here.)

That poem looks at a kind of peace - first by looking at its absence - in a relationship fight that wears on even into sleep and dreams. (Look at "Peace" by Lesley Ullman for some contrast.)

However, "peace" holds different meanings for each of us at different times. In times of war, the absence of war is likely to be the first definition to come to mind. When "we fight for hours", as in his poem, I would guess that tranquility, quiet and harmony in our relations would better fit the bill. We even use the word at times to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell.

I like that this poem takes a different take on the meaning and, in fact, doesn't use the word within the poem, and yet it does arrive at a kind of peace.

Having grown up in the 1960's, peace was frequently a symbol both literally & more figuratively. I knew a number of people who went off and joined the Peace Corps. There is a Nobel Prize for Peace. We can do a meditation for peace and it can be to bring our own inner peace or as part of a group's efforts to bring peace to the world. There are plenty of organizations working for peace - like

In "Peace, after Long Madness" by Ned O'Gorman, peace is an assassin. And I suppose that reading poems about war might actually be a way to approach peace too.

November 1, 2005

Proustian Memory

Reading "The Lanyard" from Billy Collins' newest book, The Trouble with Poetry we find the line "No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly"

So, in our October writing prompt we addressed Marcel Proust's madeleine cookie, which I said was once a rather snooty literary reference that has worked its way into pop culture.

The prompt is to "try writing a poem that begins with or concentrates on this Proustian Memory experience where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings forward a series of memories."

Here's some more on that Proustian memory info for you to use...

read the original passage by Proust at

A novelist I enjoy reading is Umberto Eco - his newest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, has a protagonist who has forgotten who he is.
"All that he can remember are the things he's read or seen in movies. He has no personal identity; his memory is just a torrent of novels, cartoons, ads and poems. Let's call such a narrowly focused amnesia the "Umberto Eco Syndrome," given the famous novelist's seeming ability to remember everything he's read. He has more than 50,000 volumes in his two libraries back home in Italy, and sometimes, in such works as "The Name of the Rose" or "The Island of the Day Before," he seems intent on citing, quoting, parodying or reflecting on all of them... Marcel Proust famously claimed that all art is distilled and ordered memory. The term "Proustian memory" refers to the way a single stimulus -- the taste of a sweet cake -- can unfold a world of personal associations. As Eco says, "Memory is identity. Memory is the soul. You cannot be punished in hell without the memory of your sins."
read more about the book at

The science of memory & smell
and the psychology

Look at an earlier prompt from Poets Online on childhood memory where Ellen Kaplan addressed this idea

Any thoughts on Proustian memory or useful links? Perhaps you want to add to our discussion but it's not coming out as a poem...

October 14, 2005

The Trouble With Poetry and Billy Collins

I first encountered the poetry of Billy Collins in 1990 when I bought THE APPLE THAT ASTONISHED PARIS. Someone had given me a photocopy of "Schoolville" at a workshop (it's a good poem for aging teachers) so I checked out his books in a store - that was the only one. The poems were fresh, enjoyable to read, and it was rare at that point in my life that I actually read a poetry book cover to cover.

I recall being surprised how many poems were about death in the collection (though why not - it's of of the 2 big themes). I liked that in "My Number" he wonders about Death coming by for him, getting the scythe out of the car trunk and thinking about ways to talk your way out of the meeting. ("Did you have any trouble with the directions?" he asks Death at the front door.)

I recall thinking when I reread poems or passed them on to others that there was more going on than I had picked up on the first reading.

That's a reason why I was and still am surprised when someone says that his poems are "funny, but there's nothing to go back to later."

When I was able to spend a week workshopping poems with him at the writer's conference at Long Island University in the summer of 1999, it all came together for me.

In the workshops that week, and even more so in the nightly gatherings with him at a Southhampton pub, I could see that he was the poems and the poems were him. The "voice in the poem" who was chopping parsley & listening to Art Blakey was Billy. And I don't mean that I assume that he actually did chop & listen - anymore than I believe that he actually shoveled snow with the Buddha - but he has chopped, listened to that Blakey, and shoveled snow with the Buddha and a poem in his mind.

One thing he talked about in poems we wrote that week was looking at how many cards were revealed in the poem. Look at your poem as a deck of cards spread on the table for your reader. How many do you turn over, how many do you leave face down for the reader to turn? It's an artful balance. One of the troubles with poetry for me is that some poets have achieved some fame by just not turning over many cards. They are obviously "serious" poets, worthy of study. A few don't even put the cards on the table for the reader to turn. And then some turn over so many cards that the poems are very accessible (once a complimentary term, now a curse - like being a liberal) so that they can be dismissed as lightweight.

When I introduced others to his poems or talked about how much I enjoyed his work, I sometimes found myself defending him/it.

His poems of a world in and around a suburban home - at the kitchen table, or the desk, looking out the window, walking and sitting out back, the dog, dinner, driving on the roads nearby - fit right in to my life. No, nothing about politics or poverty, no confessions or eroticism, obscenities and not much about the natural world. (SIDEBAR: Billy was on a panel at a poetry festival concerned with "Poetry & Nature" and he started off by saying that in his poems nature was pretty much only what he saw out his back window.) This is some of the same real estate that John Updike works in his novels and poems and I believe it has similarly cost him some serious attention (though there are plenty of critical studies of Updike and probably scads of theses written & in revision on both of these writers by now).

Donna Seaman writes in Booklist: "Collins is one of the most popular and most disarming of poets. He draws you close with his swinging lines, twirling metaphors, homey imagery, and coy self-deprecation. But he is as likely to be hiding a cudgel behind his back as a bouquet of flowers."

I'm not sure a Dickensian-sounding cudgel would be my weapon of choice in arming Billy (perhaps a record album, a nice solid book, a pint glass recently drained of its Guinness, and you can actually do some damage with a good shot to the face from a bouquet), but I agree with her - it's certainly not all surface polish.

I'll also say that I appreciate the fact that Collins will do some poems that are playing with all of this. His poem "Paradelle For Susan" was for me on a first reading just a goof on formal poetry. I figured the paradelle was a form I had never encountered. When Billy revealed in class (under our oath of silence - an oath we all broke ASAP) the "truth" of his form-invention and the subsequent responses to it by readers and critics, I realized I had been correct. He was goofing. Of course, in a classroom or workshop, the poem can lead to some great discussions on form and how it can free or trap the poet or the pretensions of formal poetry, or on why no one seems to be writing in form - you know, all those troubles with poetry.

I used that poem as a prompt for the site and tried to write a good paradelle myself (which is work) and you can see all our results at http://poetsonline/archive/archparadelle.html

Of course, it became much easier to be a Collins fan when he was appointed Poet Laureate, and it was very easy when you were talking with people at one of his readings. The best of those is certainly at the biannual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey. He's loved. The autograph line winds round and round. It's the Woodstock of poetry, "poetry heaven" as it has been called.

Well, Billy Collins' new book (released 10/18/05) is THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY. New poems, but some of them are poems I have seen in periodicals or heard him read.

One of those poems is "The Lanyard" which is both a tribute to his mom (yes, yes, ALL our moms, all our parents, all those we can never repay) and a brief study in what we do for and to those we love. The poem is, like his lanyard, "two-tone."

I made a number of those lanyards myself when I was a boy killing time over the summer at the rec program at Orange Park in Irvington, NJ. And I know that I was just like the boy in the poem - convinced that "this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even."

I'm surprised to see in the poem an allusion like " No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly" since Collins is generally not much of an allusionist. Sure, it might send a reader to investigate the reference and discover Proust, but it's more likely to just float by a reader. [Writers who visit Poets Online will explore this idea a bit more in the October writing prompt.]

So what is the trouble with poetry? Snobbism? Is it becoming (as Ezra Pound warned) prose with line breaks? Too many allusions? Allusion-less? Too many Collins types of poets or too few? Maybe just too many poets.

Your comments on that are welcome here...

More on Billy Collins

October 10, 2005

What is Poets Online - the blog?

POETS ONLINE is a website that offers you the opportunity to try your hand at writing a poem to the current writing prompt. This prompt usually remains posted for at least 3 weeks, during which time our online participants work on a poem and, if they wish, submit that poem for possible online publication.

Some people write for themselves with no intention of submitting it. They use the site as a source of inspiration. Those who submit have the chance of seeing their poem online for the (online) world to read. We only post responses to the current writing prompt.

I would suggest that you read some poems in our archive which goes back to 2000 to get a feel for the types of responses people have had to previous writing prompts. The archive also provides a rich selection of writing ideas and models for your writing.

Hopefully, this blog will allow us to extend the usefulness of the main site at, and help us communicate with our regular visitors in a more constructive manner.