March 29, 2008

Prompt Action: Protest Poems

I am continuously delighted by the contacts that I make from around the world by doing and this blog. One such contact inspired me to use the protest poem as a writing prompt for the site in April. It was an email I received from Ren Katherine Powell, the founding editor of Babel Fruit.

Ren is a native Californian, now living on the southwest coast of Norway and has "seriously invested in wool socks." She is a member of the Norwegian Writers' Union and Norwegian PEN's Women Writers Committee representative. She helped to establish the International Cities of Refuge and worked as the project coordinator. She is a dramatist, poet and translator currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. Her performance work has been staged in the US, Canada and Norway. She has two volumes of poetry and nine books of translations to her credit. (More about her on her website and her blog, Sidestepping Real.)

Here's my initial contact from her:
I hoped that you would consider adding two links to your links page. I am the founding editor of Babel Fruit online journal: We publish award-winning writers of prose and poetry.

We also have an associated project called It is a writing prompt/protest letter project. Writers do writing exercises anyway. We provide a specific theme and do the grunt work of putting them in the mail. We post the compilations on the website, and all poems contributed to ProtestPoems are considered for Babel Fruit.

Babel Fruit is an independent initiative first established in cooperation with the International Cities of Refuge. Each issue of Babel Fruit presents a previously persecuted or exiled writer.

Poets Online has been offering a monthly poetry prompt for about a decade. But if you feel the need for writing prompts that have more impact, try the monthly poetry prompts at They have asked for "poems to fight censorship, satire against those who silence satire, acrostic poems to spell out support of free speech." All poems are sent along with the protest letters, and all poems are also considered for publication in Babel Fruit.

How's this for an editorial policy: "These unedited compilations are serious protest actions - an ode to your ant farm will not be included unless the writer wrote about, lived in or liberated an ant farm."

March 12, 2008

If American Idol Was For Poetry

I read an article on The Times of London website recently that describes an Arab TV show called Millions's Poet that looks like American Idol (or the British Pop Idol show), but the singing is replaced by poetry.

What do you think the ratings for a Poetry Idol show would be in the United States?

It has the lights and video screens and look of our shows but many differences:

  • the studio audience is segregated according to sex
  • the judges hold doctorates
  • the hostess wears a abaya (though it might be pink)
  • most contestants come from poor Beduin villages where the ancient art of Nabati poetry exists but is disappearing
  • the winner gets one million dirhams (about £140,000 or $280,000)
If you want to run your own version, here's some information to get started.

Nabati poetry is a form similar to an ode and dates back to 4th-century Arabia. That was a time when poets were revered as messengers inspired by God and their poetry added to the pride of their tribal group.

Get five judges with doctorates (I'm not sure literature degrees are required though). Give them a scoring rubric for novel language, difficulty in rhyme, and passion.

Round one: contestants recite free verse. Round two: judges give a subject for inspiration. (Feel free to use the show's subjects - camels, coffee, respect for parents - or select your own.

No harsh Simon-styled critiques. Think poetry workshop. Praise what you can. Be kind. On the show they like to end each comment “God bless you”.

If there's something funny in all this to me, it's not the show, but only that such a show wouldn't even make it on the air on C-SPAN in the USA. Poetry and poets just don't get that kind of respect/attention. If any version could get decent cable ratings it would have to be total performance poetry, uncensored, raw and probably featuring semi-nudity.

The qasida poetic form with its 60-100 lines and end rhyme may be a bit much as a prompt for the audience, but....

Continue your studies...

"Native Bedouin poetry, known as nabati, is extremely popular. It has similarities to the classical qasidah, or ode, of which the central and eastern regions of the country are the traditional birthplace. Many of the great masters of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry dwelt in what is now Saudi Arabia, and the two styles, qasidah and nabati, differ largely in the former's use of Classical Arabic as a medium. Nabati poetry is composed in the vernacular and has a strong musical quality."

March 3, 2008

What You Can Not Be

Our March prompt uses two poems with similar titles that seem like they might have been written from the same prompt.

In Molly Peacock's poem, "Why I Am Not A Buddhist" and Billy Collins' poem "Why I Could Never Be A Buddhist, we have poets trying to convince us that they couldn't be a Buddhist.

Their reasons differ for Peacock, the problem is desire. For Collins, it's being unable to empty himself.

In Peacock's poem, the things that get in the way are very material things that she desires: houses, clothing, food. It's a basic Buddhist teaching that desire leads to suffering.

The distractions for Collins are less "material" - a squirrel, the mirror, his feet, Catholic teachings from childhood - but he has problems with another Buddhist basic. He cannot "empty the bowl" of his busy mind.

We're not interested in submissions about your problems with Buddhism. For our prompt, look at what you can not be.

Can you be a teacher, soldier, politician, swinger of birches, or a husband? Why can you not be satisfied, finished with a poem, yourself or faithful?

As many-faceted as you are, there are certainly more things you are not. A poem that starts in this approach of negation will often be one that tells, less overtly, what the person in the poem is.