November 20, 2006

Good Advice Gone Bad

"You Should Avoid Doctors", says Diane Lockward in our model poem for November. Diane takes it a step further and provides our writing prompt.

"Take a piece of good advice and write a poem in which you argue for its opposite. As in my poem--we're told to go for the yearly physical, to stay in touch with the doctor, but the poem argues just the opposite--stay away from the doctor! There seems to be a bit of a tradition in poetry for this approach - Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" or Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night". As a writing strategy I find it liberating and exciting to be on the opposite side of the fence. I call it playing Opposite George--after a Seinfeld episode in which George announced that henceforth he'd be doing everything opposite; he'd be " Opposite George". Of course, my beginning point is not of the size that Donne or Thomas used, but I like taking something seemingly insignificant and escalating it. You might choose something like: chew with your mouth closed, don't make waves, play by the rules (you'll come up with better than these, I'm sure). Bonus challenge: Use a body part in the poem."
A first for us - extra credit!

I last saw Diane when the two of us were greeting busloads of high school students and their teachers at this year's Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She mentioned during our down time that her new book would be out this fall, so I contacted her last month about using something from the collection on Poets Online.

Diane and I met years ago when we were both teaching secondary school English. We have both left those noisy but wonderful hallways, but she still works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

She also conducts writing workshops for young and old poets, inexperienced and experienced poets, and for teachers on how to teach poetry, so writing prompts are a part of her repertoire.

I like her wit and wordtwisting - what Thomas Lux calls on the book jacket, "humorous and sometimes heartbreaking...plain-spoken and rich, lush."

Another one of her poems opens this way:

The Missing Wife

Wife and dog missing.
Reward for the dog.

—bumper sticker on a pickup truck

The wife and the dog planned their escape
months in advance, laid up biscuits and bones,
waited for the careless moment when he’d forget
to latch the gate, then hightailed it.
They took shelter in the forest, camouflaged
the scent of their trail with leaves.
Free of him at last,
they peed with relief on a tree.

I have heard Lux, Billy Collins and other poets say that they like "to learn something new" in a poem. I agree. Look how Diane gives us a fact and then sets it ablaze in this stanza from her poem, "Pyromania":

And now I learn that silicone in the breasts
must be excised before cremation
or it blows up, liquefying to a dangerous substance,
destroying the crematorium.
I’d like to have breasts like that—
round and full, earth-tipped and tilted
heavenward, the kind that ignite and explode.
I’d like my breasts to burst into flame,
spreading like wildfire,
tongues of scarlet licking the walls.
I’d like breasts just that white-hot
as once they were under the touch
of my lover, so recently departed.
I’d like to burn the crematorium down.

Have you got some good advice that you think we could turn around for poetic purposes? Even if you can't write the poem, post your advice below in the comments and let someone else take a crack at it.

Diane Lockward is the author of Eve's Red Dress and What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2003, 2006). Diane has also been a featured poet at a number of festivals, such as the Warren County Poetry Festival, the Inkberry Festival, the Long Branch Poetry Festival, the Walt Whitman Poetry Festival, and the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She was a featured poet at the 2005 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and a workshop presenter at the New Jersey State Council of Teachers of English Conference in both 2003 and 2006. Her work has recently appeared in The Seattle Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore,and Prairie Schooner, as well as in the anthologies Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times.

Diane's Website is at

November 16, 2006

The Poet Laminate Becomes a Poet Laureate

Jack Prelutsky, a popular children's poet, met then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky in 2000.

Prelutsky said, "I'm something you're not."
"What's that?" Pinsky asked.
Prelutsky visits hundreds of schools and libraries where his poems are laminated and posted on the walls. "I'm the poet laminate."

Now, at 66, Prelutsky has been named the nation's first children's poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation.

I know that children's poetry doesn't get much respect from the "grownup" poetry world. They don't get invited to the Dodge Poetry Festival.

But my boys really loved Shel Silverstein and Prelutsky when they were new readers, and even wrote their own imitations, and for that I thank them.

He has published more than 40 books, including Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems, and has more than 1 million copies in print. The folk singer turned poet recites and sings on the audio version of his latest books.

In his 2 years as laureate, he will give speeches, recommend other poets online and, something I don't recall any laureates doing, he plans a contest to give away part of the laureate's $25,000 award. (He'll ask children to write why their school libraries need more books.)

Jack Prelutsky's web site (a work in progress as of now)

November 3, 2006

Donald Hall: Poetry of Illness and Disease

Read a piece about the current Poet Laureate, Donald Hall that had some interesting thoughts on his more recent poetry.

Much of his recent poetry is about the illness and death of Jane. She died of leukemia in 1995 when she was 47 and he was 66. Much of that writing is in his book Without.

"The only time of the day I was actually happy was when I was writing these miserable poems. Because I felt a connection to her. People seem to be reaching for a connection with poetry."

On writing poetry about illness and death:
"All I can say is that they reconcile in certain poems. And other poems that have no relevance to disease and death have spirit in them. And they're tutoring schools for the spirit, for the education of the emotions. I have come to admire many members of the medical profession for what I would call their spirituality. Their empathy in the face of suffering."

In a lighter spirit, he said that the duties of the New Hampshire poet laureate "could be accomplished by Gus the dog." Hall was that Laureate before he recently was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate. On that new position he said, "I think Gus the dog would find it more difficult. His line breaks weren't so good."

He lives in Wilmot, N.H., in the farmhouse where his mother and grandmother were born since 1975 when he moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan with his late wife, the poet Jane Keynon. He was on leave from teaching and Kenyon said she'd chain herself in the root cellar rather than leave.

"It was the second smartest decision we ever made. The first was marrying each other."

His mornings at the farm typically are:
  • wake up at 5 or 6, to write poetry ("I felt best early in the morning and wanted to do what I loved best.")
  • do a domestic chore, like chopping wood
  • focus on his cardboard file box that contained other writing projects - a children's book, a review, an anthology.

Information on Donald Hall and audio of him reading is currently at the Library of Congress web site.