December 27, 2007

The Conversation of Couples: Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman

I first realized that there was a new poetry collection from Robert Hass when I read online that it had received the National Book Award for 2007.

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 is his first collection to appear in a decade. The book's title has a date range such as we might find on a "selected poems" and the idea of "materials" suggests the things we build our poems from that we have collected over time. I have heard Hass read some of these poems over the last 10 years, and the book seems to me to be a kind of selected poems.

His materials are familiar to those who have read him before - California settings, art and literature, nature, desire, history and historic figures, domestic life and parts of conversations. The forms of his poems continue to range from prose to broken stanzas. You might also know him for his translations (see bio at bottom).

Maybe I'm reading into the poems, but more poems in this collection seem to be about memory and the failure of memory, or perhaps it's the failure of language to describe the passage of time.

You can listen to an interview with Robert Hass and hear him read at UC Berkeley and judge for yourself.

I know that Hass has done readings together with his wife, Brenda Hillman. I don't believe I have actually heard them read together, though I have heard both of them at Dodge Poetry Festivals.

Here's a link to Brenda's comments on Robert's poem “A Supple Wreath of Myrtle.” I caught on the lines where she says:

"The poem suggests that the daily and the heroic are always intertwined... The poem is one to live with; it captures something very powerful about human life, about the brevity of conviction, and about the individual’s relationship to his own story, to history in general, to reputation.

For this prompt, I have paired poems by them. One is Hass' poem "Futures in Lilacs" from his new book, and the other is Hillman's poem "Male Nipples" from an older book of hers called Loose Sugar.

I am imagining that the "she" of Hass' poem is Brenda, and that the man in her poem is Robert - though it doesn't change our reading of the poem or the prompt if I am wrong.

What I like about these two poems is that both contain some of the erotic conversation of couples. Those conversations, in words or not, exist within a poem of the present world around them and also connect with the past.

He writes:

"Tender little Buddha," she said
Of my least Buddha-like member.
She was probably quoting Allen Ginsberg...
She was taking off a blouse,
Almost transparent, the color of a silky tangerine.

And she describes male nipples, maybe the motorcycle boy's

convinced him to take only
his shirt off. They were, well, one
was brown and one was like the inside of a story--

and then describes someone perhaps nearby-

--So I told the little hairs
around his nipple: lie flat! and they did,
like a campfire, without the stories--

I see this prompt as a window frame. In the glass I see reflected this couple, but I also see the world outside. The window is framed with the past.

Tell us what this couple is saying and doing. Tell us about what is outside that window and how the past has framed it.


Robert Hass was born in San Francisco in 1941. He attended St. Mary’s College in California, and received both an MA and Ph.D. in English from Stanford University.

His books of poetry include Sun Under Wood: New Poems (Ecco Press, 1996); Human Wishes (1989), Praise (1979), and Field Guide (1973). Hass also co-translated several volumes of poetry with Czeslaw Milosz, most recently Facing the River (1995), and is author or editor of several other collections of essays and translation, including The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994), and Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984).

Robert Hass served as poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1951 and attended Pomona College and the University of Iowa.

Some of her books include Cascadia (2001); Loose Sugar (1997 - a finalist for National Book Critic's Circle); Bright Existence (1993 - finalist for Pulitzer Prize); and Death Tractates (1992). She was also the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems published by Shambhala Press in 1995.

Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the University of California, Berkeley. She currently holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary's College in California. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Robert Hass.

December 17, 2007

Into 2008

Things have been quiet this month on the blog and at our main site.
It's not just the holidays. You can add in some computer problems and those pesky day jobs that pay the bills. But, there will be new poems posted at the end of the month and a new prompt for the new year. Keep the ink from freezing.

December 8, 2007

Update: Palm Beach Poetry Festival

I'm just back - from sunny Florida to snowy NJ. I'm sure some readers would enjoy a trip to Florida in January to hear some of our best poets read and talk about poetry.

4th Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival
January 21-26, 2008
Old School Square Cultural Arts Center
51 N. Swinton Ave, Delray Beach, FL 33444

Workshops, Readings, Performances, Talks
Discussion and Social Events featuring:

Kim Addonizio
Roger Bonair-Agard
Claudia Emerson
Lola Haskins
Major Jackson
Thomas Lux
Marty McConnell
Campbell McGrath
Malena Morling
Sharon Olds
Spencer Reece
C.K. Williams

Tickets and information at
or at the Crest Theatre Box Office
51 North Swinton, Delray Beach
561 243-7922 ext 1

October 30, 2007

Terrance Hayes: Two Poems in The Same City

This blog post allows me a little room to expand on the prompt for November that uses Terrance Hayes' poem. I have to admit that I did not first read this poem. I had it read to me, which happens more and more these days. No, I didn't go to a reading (though I did hear him read at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival)

I heard him read it on a podcast from the Poetry Foundation. The podcast itself is called "A Straight Man's Epiphany in a Gay Bar" but it's really about Hayes exploring relationships between men - in the case of our model poem, a father and son.

You can listen to the poem online, but I'll put a recommendation in here to encourage you to subscribe to the entire series in iTunes.

Not that this is the "answer" to the poem, but I found what Terrance Hayes says about the origin of this poem on the podcast very interesting. It opened up the poem for me and inspired this month's prompt.

As I said on the site, I don't really care if Hayes ever really jumpstarted his father's car battery as he does in the poem, because I'm really taken with that image.

I also love the lines:

But to rescue a soul is as close
as anyone comes to God.


Think of Joseph,
raising a son that wasn’t his.

I decided to focus on the poem's 2 part structure. It's written to appear that the poet writes his poem and then decides midway to start again.

It's not just two poems linked together. The poem works because of the interplay between the two stanzas. The second echoes the first. They bounce images off each other.

This is not a totally unique approach in poetry. Many poets will do multiple takes on a line or question within a poem the way they have described something. Mark Doty comes to mind. He often asks questions in his poems, and sometimes questions himself.

So our new prompt is to write a poem that contains two versions of the same poem. I'm afraid that I'm going to get a handful of submissions that are just two conjoined poems that might easily stand alone.

You need to consider the reasons we might restart mid-poem and allow the original to remain. Hayes is partially reconsidering what he wants to say. I get the feeling reading the poem (and this happens when I write) that we are discovering something as we read (write) that forces us to reconsider whre we are headed.

Usually, when writing, you would go to draft#2, but might there be a case where a reader needs the "false start" to understand the new direction?

I'm not sure if this prompt is very easy or very hard. I'm sure that this might work with a poem that has more than two parts too.

And I admit that there's a more complex writing prompt in Hayes' poem that would involve fathers, sons, children, forgiveness and other themes. I hope you'll try that one some time too.

October 15, 2007

Haiku For Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day.

The theme this year is the environment and anyone with a a blog can join in by posting something today related to the environment.

Maybe it's a local environmental issue, or the beach cleanup nearby, or a poem or story with an environmental theme. Podblogs, videoblogs, and photoblogs count too!

The purpose is to have a massive hit on public awareness by sharing as many ideas in as many ways as possible.

Check out the Blog Action Day blog and read more about how bloggers can change the world. You can register your blog and join the 15,000+ other blogs (with 12 million readers) that are already signed up.

I clicked over to the excellent Poetry Foundation web site for inspiration, and using their search tool found some haiku.

I enjoy haiku for many reasons, but I do particularly like the close-up focus they often take on something in nature.

A few haiku from "After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa" by Robert Hass

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.

And two by Gary Snyder-

Hammering a dent out of a bucket
a woodpecker
answers from the woods

At the last turn in the path
—bending, bowing,
(moss and a bit of

Both of those poets are ones that I particularly enjoy reading and having met them both and heard them read, I know that their sense of nature and its influence on their poetry is quite - organic. Is that the word I want? It is within them, not something they take on in the writing. It is part of their practice of poetry.

Still, my favorite haiku still come from the masters.

In this one by Bashō,

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

you might say, "Where is nature?" I would have trouble answering you, and yet I am fairly certain that within that longing for place that is prompted by the bird's call is some longing for something lost from nature. Am I imagining that?

In this poem by Issa,

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.

the branch, river and cricket represent three areas of the natural world. I hear that cricket's sound as joyful (singing) and yet I also feel it may be doomed in its river journey. Is it singing like those on the Titanic going down? I might even convince some (especially without the author or time period being identified) that this small poem is a plea for our natural world (cricket) which is being carried away while we sing a song of ignorance is bliss or the song of the sirens or a sad dirge.

October 13, 2007

4th Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Miles Coon, Founder and Director of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, wrote to ask me if I would let you all know about their upcoming event. I've taken workshops with several of these poets (Thomas Lux at Provincetown was poetlife changing) and heard almost all of them read, and it sounds like a great event.

The 4th Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival - January 21-26, 2008

The 2008 lineup includes Kim Addonizio, Claudia Emerson, Major Jackson, Thomas Lux, Campbell McGrath, Malena Mörling, Sharon Olds, and C.K. Williams. The event will also feature Florida poets Lola Haskins and Spencer Reece for a special reading. Roger Bonair-Agard and Marty McConnell will grace the stage for performances at the annual late-night Coffee House event.

The deadline to apply for a workshop is October 31st

This sounds very tempting - workshops with some great poets in the Florida sunshine during January (while I'll be sloshing through snow in NJ). All festival events take place at Old School Square Cultural Arts Center, a national historic site blocks from the beach Delray Beach, Florida.


STEALING FIRE with Kim Addonizio
POETRY IN PROGRESS with Campbell Mcgrath


MUSIC MAKES IT HAPPEN with Major Jackson
TRANSFORMING POEMS with Malena Mörling

In addition, participants get free admission to two craft lectures and a panel discussion by all of the faculty poets, as well as invitations to the festival gala and to participate in workshop participant readings offered free to the public.

"The Palm Beach Poetry Festival was simply one of the best, most fun, and best-run poetry conferences I've ever been to—a very high level of student writers was one special feature; to be among all those sweet people brought together in the spirit of poetry, in the miraculously soft Florida salt air, was a sweet and very satisfying experience. "—Tony Hoagland

"This was a lovely and thoughtfully worked-out event, absolutely exhilarating fo be part of. I didn't want to delay any longer in thanking you for putting on such an outstanding festival/workshop and for including me in it. To you, Miles and Mimi, and all who made it such a great success, my gratitude and my warmest congratulations."—Jane Hirshfield

September 19, 2007

Prompt: Asking Questions with William Blake

Doubt by William Blake

When I was looking in my Norton Anthology for another poem, I came across William Blake's poem "The Tyger."Almost everyone who has sat through a few years of English literature classes in high school or college has come across this poem. Being that I do not have a good memory for poems, it surprised me that I could remember portions of this poem. I think that I was once assigned it for memorization.

When I reread it, I also remembered what I had liked about the poem when I first read it. It was filled with questions and, more importantly, the poet didn't seem to be able to answer them any more than I could answer them. You could write a poem that asked questions but didn't come up with the answers? This was something new to me.

Some teacher must have taken me through the poem and discussed how the questions are in themselves a kind of answer to the main question of "What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry." I doubt that God came up in my public school discussions, but then again it was a very different time - a time when having a Christmas tree in the classroom was considered the norm. In fact, would my teachers have suggested that some other method had produced the fearful symmetry?

For our September writing prompt at Poets Online, we are taking a shot at a poem that is almost all questions, but in the asking presents a kind of answer.

"William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) was an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's affection for the Bible was accompanied by hostility for the established Church, his beliefs modified by a fascination with Mysticism and the unfolding of the Romantic Movement around him."  excerpted from the Wikipedia entry on Blake

If you're interested in more about Blake's poems or artwork, try the Blake Archive.

September 1, 2007

Warren County Poetry Festival 2007

The Fifth Biennial Warren County Poetry Festival

FREE event
Saturday, September 29th
10 am-10pm

Blair Academy, Blairstown, New Jersey

Featured Poets

Linda Pastan (Poets Online writing prompts featuring Pastan poems prompt#1 prompt#2)
Eleanor Wilner
Kurtis Lamkin (writing prompt featuring Lamkin)

With readings by: Ron Block, Jean LeBlanc, Judith Michaels and Susanna Rich

Unofficial festival website

Kurtis Lamkin (left) with Sekou Sundiata at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

August 17, 2007

Charles Simic, Poet Laureate #15

Charles Simic was named the 15th poet laureate of the U.S. by the Librarian of Congress this monthly. He succeeds Donald Hall. Laureate appointments can be one or two years and come with a $35,000 annual stipend.

The same day it was announced that the American Academy of Poets had given him its Wallace Stevens Award for "outstanding and proven mastery" of the art of poetry.

Simic, 69, received a MacArthur Foundation grant of $500,000 for the period 1984-1989 and won the 1990 Pulitzer for poetry for his collection The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems.''

Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. with his family in 1954, was drafted into the Army in 1961 and received a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1966.

In 1967 he published his first full-length collection, What the Grass Says. He has published more than 60 books in the U.S. and abroad, including 18 books of poetry. He began teaching at the University of New Hampshire in 1973, where he is professor emeritus of creative writing and literature.

The actual title is Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He will actually officially begin his appointment as poet laureate with a speech at the library's National Book Festival on Sept. 29 and a reading of his work Oct. 17 at the library's annual literary series.

Conicidentally, the previous Laureate, Donald Hall, was also from New Hampshire.

Eyes Fastened With Pins

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors...
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.

Charles Simic

August 6, 2007

The Thirst of Mary Oliver

An evening of poetry with some friends this past week sent me looking into the poems of Mary Oliver again.

In Oliver's newest book, Thirst, there are 43 new poems. You'd expect to find poems about nature, and readers familiar with her work might also expect a kind of spirituality. As several reviewers have written, you will also find her exploring in this book grief and faith.

I returned to reading Oliver's poems after my friend, Leon, talked about how approaching her poems recently had been a kind of spiritual reading. Oliver recently lost her long time companion, and in this book she writes through and with her grief into a place that seems overtly spiritual, perhaps even religious.

Some of the poems sound like prayers-

Oh Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.
and in the poem, "Praying" she offers:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice can speak.

Patching a few words together into a prayer, or into a poem (I have long believed that almost all poems touch upon the writing of poetry) is, as she writes early in the book, her doing her life's work - "loving the world."

And the poems are still full of place: ponds, ocean and marsh full of "salt brightness," grass, fields and cattails occupied by herons, ravens, dogs, bees, hawks, snakes, turtles, and bears.

My other poetic companion last week, Susan, might call these Oliver's signature tropes (as Susan is currently deep into a thesis on the topic). That's not a bad path into the poems either, but I might have to walk down several definition roads to see tropes linguistically, as in music, philosophy or in the most obvious literary meaning.

As she spends a "Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond," Oliver writes:

Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective
For me, these poems are a kind of natural praying. They are natural in the sense of nature, full of wonder and admiration for the majesty of what surrounds us, and they are natural in their inherent sense of right and wrong and their higher qualities of human nature.

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

For August, we ask for our new writing prompt that you try to write a natural prayer. You may use any definition of natural, any form of prayer, whether that be overtly religious or spiritual without any religious attachments. This term, "natural prayer," is not my own invention - Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," so there are precedents for this type of poem.

If you have examples of poets who have written poems of this type, post a link in the comments below for others to follow.

Information on this writing prompt and poem submission is at

July 25, 2007

Reading Through the Summer of Love 40 Years On

It has been 40 years since the "Summer of Love" in 1967 when a cultural focus turned to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco and words like hippies and tie-dye entered the vocabulary.

The music of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, Janis Joplin and others became associated with that place too.

Scott McKenzie sang that, "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair."

I was only 13 that summer. My dad had been sick for four years at that point and California seemed very far away, but very appealing.

There was a Time cover story, and I recall looking at photo spreads in Life magazine. Maybe that was signaling the explosion of general consciousness in America - or it was the beginning of the end already. In March 1966 Life's cover article was on this new psychedelic drug called LSD. It would be by that October.

The Gray Line bus company started "Hippie Hop" tours - "If you look to your right, you can see 710 Ashbury, home to Jerry Garcia & The Grateful Dead."

I didn't make it there until I had doubled my age and my wife and I did a Tijuana, Mexico to Wine Country journey through California. I don't recall much about the Haight which was pretty rundown at that point - at least locals were telling us it wasn't a place to really walk around as tourists at night. There were panhandlers and ex-hippies (or pretenders) who had seen much better days. I did the obligatory tour to see City Lights Books and Golden Gate Park.

I went again with a co-worker in 2002 when we were at a tech conference in Silicon Valley. We also did Alcatraz - a nice contrast.

We walked past the mural done by Charles Lobdell on the side of the Methodist Church on Belvedere. It's a huh blend of hippies around a tree and the faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, Harry Truman (huh?), and Julie, Linc & Pete from TV's The Mod Squad.

The San Francisco Gate did a piece on all this and spoke to a few poets of the time & place. Here's Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"Before, up through the Human Be-In, the Haight was really sort of innocent, clean. I remember the early Jefferson Airplane, which was very lyrical. I was going to Fillmore quite a bit. (Poet) Andre Voznesensky and I performed in between sets of the Jefferson Airplane at the old Fillmore. Bill Graham generously offered us the stage. I was reading translations of Andre's poems. He was doing them in Russian. There was a light show going on.
I was onstage right next to Allen Ginsberg at the Human Be-In. I had an autoharp, which I was playing in those days. Luckily, they never allowed me to perform because it would've been a disaster. There was a sea of 10,000 faces. Don't know how many they actually counted. I remember, in the sunset, this lone parachutist descended on the crowd."

Billy Collins writes in The Trouble With Poetry

as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti --
to be perfectly honest for a moment --

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

(read the full poem at

In the late 1950's as Billy wandered those high school hallways, I can imagine him with his paperback of A Coney Island of the Mind. I like the image of the book as an amusement park (again, stolen from the poet himself) that might help a uniformed kid escape high school and the 1950's.

I didn't really discover poetry until college, so I was probably carrying a novel for protection (Salinger, Hesse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike or Vonnegut would be a good guess).

January 1967 was that Human Be-In. It was one of the "Gatherings of the Tribes" (see The Byrds, "Tribal Gathering"). That particular one was in the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park and brought together more than 10,000 people for music, poetry & Buddhist chants. Woodstock before Woodstock. No rain. The Hells Angels took care of lost children. (Pre-Altamont) Dr. Timothy Leary decreed the famous "turn on, tune in and drop out" and you listened. The guy was a professor from Harvard.

Another poet, Michael McClure: "I was sitting onstage next to Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Timothy Leary was up there, and Lenore Kandel. I sang one of my poems, "The God I Worship Is a Lion.'' It was the first great congregation of the young seeker people, known as the counterculture, who were drawing together to create their own huge family, and to celebrate it in their own huge tribe, and to celebrate it with music and dance and song and psychedelics and some real good political things."

Levi Asher has some great pages online about the Beat poets and that period. Reading it reminded me of a backpack full of books I read back then.

I recall John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (boy raised by goats battles an evil computer system on a college campus) and The Magus - John Fowles (innocent collegiate Brit who is subjected to an elaborate demonstration of ancient mythological references on an isolated Greek island) and
Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me - loved the title and by the time I read it Farina had been killed in a motorcycle accident during a party celebrating the 21st birthday of his wife, folksinger Mimi Farina.

Asher mentions that a big book of 1966 was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, who would famously mock Jack Kerouac's On The Road and his spontaneous writing technique - "That's not writing, that's typing". I couldn't get through either of those books. I also didn't have a copy of the little Quotations of Chairman Mao which was generally for wannabe revolutionaries. Revolution was appealing, but what Mao was doing to China was hardly Flower Power. Most people I knew who owned the book had never read it.

Michael McClure's The Beard and Lenore Kandel's The Love Book" were banned (sort of) books, but your mom might have been reading the "dirty" Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann.

I did read and love Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes which was later made into the movie Charly and about ten years later I would teach the book and show the film to my own students wandering down their own treacherous halls.

The book I probably carried as my freak flag was Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing In America which I didn't totally understand, but really liked.

I had to read for college classes a few years later Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test which was what I knew about The Merry Pranksters and that scene as told by Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House and Updike's Couples which I thought was a pretty hot book to have assigned (might have been the same class in 1973 where we read Jong's Fear of Flying). By the time I took the bus into New York City with some classmates to see Hair on Broadway it felt like the period was over and when the movie version came out in 1979, it seemed so old.

The free Summer of Love 40th party will be held September 2nd in Golden Gate Park. Performances include: Ray Manzarek (the Doors), Country Joe McDonald (Country Joe and the Fish), Canned Heat, Michael McClure, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and The Charlatans.

Supposedly it will be webcast too. Info at

(Link suggested by commenter below)
Music from the Summer of Love

July 6, 2007

Dodge Poetry Festival 2008

I received a survey about a month ago about the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and program. It seems that the funding for it was in doubt, and I had heard rumors that the usual location (Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ, USA) was not going to be available any more.

The survey was asking about how important I felt things like the teacher day, the student day, musical performers, ticket prices, locations (outdoors, indoors, at a college) etc. would be to my attendance.

I have always thought the festival is an incredible experience and a bargain (I might feel differently if I had to travel a long way to it), and I answered in that way (willing to pay a bit more, willing to have schools pay something, less music, another location).

Well, they sent out an email and it seems all seems well - though it troubles me that the Waterloo Village site seems to have been turned into an advertising launch page.

Thank you for taking the time to fill out and submit a Dodge Poetry
Festival email survey. The results of the survey were tabulated and
presented at the Dodge Foundation Board of Trustee meeting on June 12.
Responding teachers’ enthusiastic support for many features of High School
Student Day and Teacher Day as they are currently configured was an important
factor in the Board’s approval of a Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village
for September 25, 26, 27 and 28, 2008.

It was encouraging to hear from so many teachers who were enthusiastic supporters of the Festival, and to read so many articulate, often passionate testimonies to importance of the event for so many teachers and their students. Your words will provide much encouragement in the months ahead, just as your helpful suggestions,
recommendations and questions have given us much to consider as we work toward
mounting the 2008 Festival.

Have a rewarding and relaxing summer, and we look forward to seeing you at Waterloo in the fall of 2008.

canal at Waterloo

June 23, 2007

Tales of Stubborn Children

For July, we are looking at Peter Murphy's poem "The Stubborn Child" from his book Stubborn Child which was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. The poem has its inspiration in a fairy tale of the same name from the Brothers Grimm.

I never liked fairy tales as a kid. They scared me. I don't like them much now either. I still find them creepy, and I never felt they were stories well told. Someone gave my son a book of Grimm's tales when he was very small and I read a few looking for ones I might read him at night.

That was one of the few books in my life that I threw out. I didn't even want to give it to a used book sale.

Try reading this one to a kid before he goes to sleep. This is the Grimm Brothers' version of "The Stubborn Child."
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him and let him become sick.

No doctor could cure him, and in a short time, he lay on his deathbed.

After he was lowered into his grave and was covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out.

So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.

from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes, translator, 1987
The puns on Grimm and grim are just too easy.

The Brothers Grimm began collecting folk tales around 1807 and produced a manuscript collection of several dozen tales, which they had recorded by inviting storytellers to their home and transcribing what they heard. It wasn't an academic undertaking and there has been some highly critical re-assessments about their sources and methods. That doesn't affect us in our reading. Actually, I like that their collecting was not so different from someone today collecting the campfire horror stories of kids. That's what some of the Grimm's tales seem like to me anyway.

Sometimes the title of this particular little tale is translated as the "willful" child. I realize that willful is basically the same obstinate child, but I think the Murphy poem might be the willful rather than just the stubborn child.

In his version, the child emerges from the grave, lives on and has a daughter to pray over and protect. He resurrects the willful child who is more than stubborn, and who still loves his mother who he knows loves him.

Of Peter's book, Stephen Dunn has said: "Stubborn Child unflinchingly enacts and examines his own painful childhood, then moves to the often damaged and compromised lives of the high school students he teaches. Like the best delineators of unhappiness, he also brings humor to his task, the dark humor of a survivor. And indeed this is a survivor's book, both transforming and transformative — in the end, Murphy the man able to love and affirm, Murphy the poet able to raise the unruly and the tawdry to the level of art."

Transformation is a key word for this prompt.

In an email to me about the poem's creation, Peter said:
"I had a deprived childhood in that I never read a fairy tale till I was in my late 30's, and when I did, I fell in love with the surreal, violent and familiar families portrayed by the Brothers Grimm. This was not Disney. This was Cinderella's evil stepsisters lopping off their heels to squeeze their fat feet into that impossibly tight glass slipper. Perverse entertainment till I came across "The Stubborn Child," perhaps the shortest Grimm tale. "Damn," I thought. "That's my childhood!" And it was, so I proceeded to write 40 or 50 drafts trying to get it right. Somewhere in this frenzy, I realized my own stubborn child was asleep in the next room, and that's when the poem found its ending and its shape, the transformation of the speaker from abused child to wounded father, trying, perhaps too hard, not to repeat the mistakes made on him.

Many stubborn children of all ages inhabit my book Stubborn Child as the poems branch away from my childhood and adolescence to the students who taught me for 30 years in Atlantic City, to other stubborn children, friends and family, who ghost the adult years of my life."
Murphy is not the first to try this self-imposed writing prompt of starting with a Grimm fairy tale. One popular anthology, The Poets' Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales, is an entire collection of these poems. The poets use the themes, motifs, and characters from Grimm. (poets include Anne Sexton, Carol Ann Duffy, Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell, Denise Duhamel, Randall Jarrell, Jane Yolen and Allen Tate. (Here is the table of contents)

Our prompt for this month is to take the story, characters, title, theme (as much as you need) from one of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales and transform it for your own purposes. I would not be opposed to other fairy tales, but there's a lot of material in those strange tales from Jacob & Wilhelm.

If you want to try the prompt yourself, you can check a book of the tales, or Google a Grimm title that you know, but a good site to start with is It includes tales that we are all familiar with like "Goldilocks and the 3 Bears", and ones I had never read, like "The Girl Without Hands". The tales there are all annotated, so you get some good background information that might well serve as your inspiration. There's a list of the Grimm tales on Wikipedia too.

Here are 2 links where you can read several other poems by Peter Murphy, and hear him reading online.

June 17, 2007


Heading to California for mostly business; hopefully some pleasure.

Poets Online is still on vacation. At least, it says so on the prompt page now.

All is not lost. Hoping to work out a new prompt with Peter Murphy in the next few weeks for July.

There are a few new poems on the site from the rubaiyat prompt. By few, I mean 3. Not many more came in as responses to the Rumi prompt.

So maybe I am not the only one who has things other than poetry taking control of late.

May 6, 2007

Before I start knocking people's hats off

It's getting that time of the year when these words from Melville's Moby Dick come into my head...
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball."
I reread at least portions of Moby Dick every year. Been doing that probably since I first read the Classics Illustrated comic version ( as series that sent me on to many classics in the library) I always find something I missed. But that passage hits me when the weather in New Jersey finally warms up to the point that I think I can catch my beloved Jersey Shore on a breeze and I feel the need to drive south and just get my feet in the sand and watch the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you haven't read Moby Dick (ever or lately), you should give it a try. You can read it online at Project Guttenberg - though I can't really imagine anyone being able to do that, it's a great way to look at sections of the book.

If you don't want to pay for an audiobook version, you can also get download the free Librivox version online.

And if all else fails, at least watch the John Huston movie version with a script by Ray Bradbury instead of knocking off hats or the pistol & ball.

April 22, 2007

Wallace Stevens Audio Downloads

Just a brief post about some poems by Wallace Stevens which can be downloaded as podcasts (iTunes).

You can hear many of the most popular of his poems (Anecdote of the Jar, The Emperor of Ice Cream, Peter Quince at the Clavier, Sunday Morning, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird).

They were recorded for LibriVox by Alan Drake and all the poems are in the public domain.

And you may want to listen to another related podcast featuring the literary critic Harold Bloom from his Yale seminar on "The Art of Reading a Poem" (listen in iTunes or get the mp3). Bloom is walking students through his reading of Stevens' "Parts of a World."

April 15, 2007

Rubaiyat and Rumi

A public radio program that I always enjoy listening to, Speaking of Faith, did a program on Rumi last month thoat inspired me to move up a prompt I wanted to use about Rumi to April.

If you are interested in how mystic and poet Rumi has shaped Muslims around the world and more about the mystical tradition of Sufism, you should listen to it. You can (free) download an mp3 audio file of the program or listen to it now using RealAudio or, better yet, subscribe to the podcast of this program. The program is far more than about "religion" and the archive has programs on Einstein, the environment, politics and other issues with the thread of faith running through them. End of endorsement.

On the Poets Online main site, we looked at some Rumi poems that are grouped under the title (given to them by American translator Coleman Barks) of "Spring Giddiness."

I thought that was appropriate to April (which is also National Poetry Month here in America).

I mentioned that I'm no qualified judge of the translation, but I suspect them to be in the spirit (rather than to the word) of the originals. I have heard Coleman Barks read and sing them at several Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals, so in some strange way I hear Rumi as having a Tennessee accent.

Some of those model poems are quatrains. In Persian it would be rubaiyat (meaning 'four' or "quatrains" in the Persian language the singular being ruba'i or rubai). In their true form the rhyme scheme would be AABA (lines lines 1, 2 and 4 rhyming) but Barks has not attempted to maintain the rhyme in those translations.

That is a verse form best known (to English speakers) for Edward FitzGerald's translation of the collection of Persian verses known as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Here's a sample quatrain:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

In longer poems built in that rubaiyat rhyme scheme, sometimes it is extended so that the unrhymed line of a stanza becomes the rhyme for the following stanza. Then we have AABA BBCB CCDC etc. This is called "interlocking rubaiyat". You might even create a full circle by linking the unrhymed line of the final stanza back to the first stanza.

If this all sounds very foreign to you, look at the interlocking rubaiyat in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. (Here's a look at that poem in Frost's own handwritten manuscript. )

Our writing prompt this month starts with the uncommon theme of seasonal change and adds the rubaiyat form. Select any change of season, and use the rhyming quatrains of the rubaiyat (any number of quatrains you choose).

It would good if your poem could capture some of the joy that Rumi's poetry sings too.

There are many editions of this best-selling poet available. My suggestion for a starting place is either The Essential Rumi or The Illuminated Rumi both translated by Barks.

If you want to read more of Rumi online, a search will provide many other websites of his poetry - here's one to get started with 4 new translations by Coleman Barks.

March 31, 2007


A friend sent me a link to a video clip about dolphins being killed in Japan. He is someone I know cares deeply about the ocean, so I watched the video. Shocking. Even if you know what to expect.

From the website I clicked a link and eventually ended up on the site for the source of the clip. It is from a documentary film, Earthlings.

It's a feature length documentary about "humanity's absolute dependence on animals (for pets, food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research) but also illustrates our complete disrespect for these so-called "non-human providers."

The narrator is Joaquin Phoenix and features music by Moby (both are known for their support of related issues).

The film hits hard at pet stores, puppy mills, some animal shelters, factory farms, the leather & fur trades, sports and entertainment industries, and the medical and scientific profession.

I suppose that if you had to label it, it would be under "animal rights" but I think that slights the film (and probably turns away some potential viewers). Better to look at it as the filmmakers do - that its an issue we need to address as inhabitants of the Earth.

So where is the poetry in this? There isn't any.

I write online on several blogs and websites, but this site, with its audience of poets, seems to be the best place for me to pass on this information. I'm not going to analyze that choice, but perhaps it came when I saw the part of the film that listed:
The 3 Stages of Truth
1. Ridicule
2. Violent opposition
3. Acceptance

WARNING: This clip is tough to watch. If it hits you so hard that you can't watch it all, try this link from the film's website to a 7 minute excerpt that explains the intent of the film without showing any of the animal brutality.

Maybe you will write about it. Perhaps, not a poem, but an email, a blog post...

The film started as a series of Public Service Announcements by the writer/director Shaun Monson. After 5 years, in 2005, it premiered at the Artivist Film Festival, (where it won Best Documentary Feature), followed by the Boston International Film Festival, (Best Content Award), and the San Diego Film Festival, (Best Documentary Film, and the Humanitarian Award to Joaquin Phoenix).

The DVD came out in late 2005, but I had never heard of it before this email came to me. I hope that impression of the readers of this blog is accurate and that you will be sensitive to this issue, pass on the message, buy, rent, view the film and support the issues it addresses.

February 25, 2007

Didactic, rhyming, list poems. Tall order.

This month I chose the poem "How to Live" by Charles Harper Webb as our model poem.

Charles Harper Webb was a rock guitarist for fifteen years. He's a licensed psychotherapist. He's a professor at California State University. He has written five books of poetry. He uses three names because there are so many Charles Webbs in the world. (Full disclosure: I first looked at his poems a few years ago because I thought he was the guy who wrote The Graduate.)

I stumbled upon his poem "Bombs Over Everywhere" on the Huffington Post blog and I got excited because I thought he might be a blogging poet (he's not).

I suggested that because his poem begins with an epigraph that is a line from a poem by Sharon Olds: "I don't know how to live," we can read the poem as a response to her. Advice on how to live.

It's also a list poem, a form that has often been used. It's a form that I believe many readers and writers dismiss as too easy or less "poetic." It's a form teachers use with students to get them into writing poetry because it is easy.

Then, what makes a list go beyond list to poem? It's worth noting that Webb has a book of prose poems, Hot Popsicles, and that form deals with the same question. If you read other poems by Webb, you know that it's not a question about his ability to write poetry.

The poem has a structure of 5 line stanzas, but the stanza breaks seem arbitrary. Even the line breaks seem to be controlled more by the physical length of the line than by a meter or syllabication. Do you find it full of figurative language? I don't.

There are literary moments in his advice - "Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka, Shakespeare, Twain." - followed by "Collect Uncle Scrooge comics." One theme that does run through the advice is contrast - "Don't think TV characters talk to you; that's crazy. Don't be too sane." and "Work hard. Loaf easily."

I have long been a believer in the ars poetica all-poems-are-about-poetry school of reading. Can we look at this poem as not only advice for living but as advice to poets? Should poets try forms that go against their own sense of what is poetry?

At Poets Online, we have gone down the advice path before: advice to poets, and advice to poets in a poetic form, good advice gone bad, so we don't need to try that again.

To make it more challenging, we want it to be didactic poetry, and put in that pesky rhyme in the way of several poetic games. Ever heard of bouts-rimes (boo-REEM - literally "end rhymes") which is an 18th century parlor game. Partygoers get a list of rhyming words and then have to make a poem from the list keeping the rhymes in their original order. There's also crambo where one player gives a word or line which is matched in rhyme by the other players.

Didactic poetry gives instruction (often moral instruction), so your poem should instruct.

An example often used is Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism."

Here's the opening stanza:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!

And it is a list poem we are writing. Sometimes you hear that called catalog verse - a list of persons, places, things, or abstract ideas which share a common denominator. It's an ancient form.

Your working set of rhymes (in the way of bouts-rimes) is:
surprise/rise, white/bright, mind/behind, rock/lock, head/bed, share/hair, way/day, place/embrace.

I ask that poets use them in any order or scheme. You don't need to use all of them, but it does suggest a line limit of 16 lines (yes, there are ways around that - internal rhyme is one possibility). There are 8 couplets suggested; use 7 and you have a sonnet form.

I feel that that creates a box for your poem, but leaves lots of room for your own decoration.

Check the Poets Online Archive for responses to this prompt and others

February 23, 2007

I Know You're Out There (I Can Hear You Breathing)

"I Know You're Out There, I Can Hear You Breathing," is one of those old stand up comedian lines to throw out when the audience gets real quiet. Well, in this case it was Poets Online that got quiet.

There hasn't been an update to the site (new poems or prompt) for January or February. The past week I received 5 emails from site regulars asking if everything was OK. There were a few last month too. Mixed concern for the site and for me, which is very thoughtful.

I had a similar situation with a blog I do as part of my job. The server had problems, the blog went offline and suddenly I started getting emails from folks saying, "Hey, your blog is down." More email response than we ever get in comments as a response.

It reminded me of my college days when I had this late night radio show where you suspect that no one is actually listening. No one calls in. No requests. Then the transmitter goes down. And the phone starts ringing. There really were listeners out there.

So, I do know that you're out there. And I do hear you breathing.

The submissions are pretty consistent for the site prompts. There are usually 20-40 per prompt, though a good portion have nothing to do with the prompt.

Interestingly enough, during the past weeks when there was no active prompt, I still received 23 poems.

So where have we been? Well, right here. With the computer still on every day. It's just that work and family have grabbed a tight hold on this one man operation and the part that got squeezed out was the poetry.

But I'm going to give it some time this weekend. Planning to get up a new prompt, the poems from the December 'heroes" prompt and (since January just disappeared) I think I'll put together a page with some of those submissions "unprompted" or sent late or whatever that have come in the past few months as a January page.

I'm hoping the site will return (along with work, family, the weather & life in general) to normal.

Keep those cards and letters coming.

January 2, 2007

Free Billy Collins!

No, Billy is not trapped or jailed.

It's his CD, The Best Cigarette. It's a great CD of him reading. There are 33 tracks that are now available for free. No more CDs available.

We gave Billy some grief here about his expensive little haiku book, but then he goes and gives us this freebie.

This work is now licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. That means you can download, share these, burn these, give these away for non-commercial purposes - you just can't make money from your efforts. Hurray for open culture! (Geek Talk: All mp3 files on these sites are at least 192 kbps)

Go to Internet Archive and download the whole album or get the tracks selectively one by one.

It's also available track by track at

Both sites will also lead you to some other great free downloads.

You can download, share these, burn these, give these for non-commerical puposes (you can't make money off it).