October 31, 2008

Escape to the Library

I'm passing this information from my colleague and friend, Dana Maloney, who is coordinating this year's NJ Council of Teachers of English 2008 High School Writing Contest. She would like to reach as many teachers and students in New Jersey as possible, so I offered to post about it on several of my blogs.

It's a NJcentric contest, but the rest of you may be curious about the personal essay prompt and our model. It sent me back to a childhood memory that may be one you share.

The contest categories are: poetry, short story, and personal essay. More contest details at the end of this post. The personal essay submissions must respond to this year’s prompt.
Where do you live? Use descriptive language to give the reader a virtual experience of your world. As you do this, let us hear your voice. Share the thoughts, feelings, questions and concerns that arise out of your view of the world around you. Bring your space – your town, your school, your home, your room, your web - to life for your reader. Where you live can be interpreted in many ways, including both literal and metaphorical ways, and we encourage you to take liberty with interpretation.
Of course, you could use that for poetry too. As a model of a personal essay, Dana suggested an essay by another friend, teacher and poet BJ Ward. You might want to read his essay about his youthful home-away-from-home at his local library - it is available online. Escaping to books is probably something that many readers of this post can admit to from their youth.

"During the internet-less, video-game-less, and seemingly endless summers of my childhood, I could ride my bike to the Washington Borough Public Library and within one minute be transported to the world of Dr. Doolittle; The Hardy Boys; and Babe Ruth, All-American Hero. Each book was a planet with a spine. The librarian was an organizing star, keeping all those spheres in their places for future explorers to discover. The library itself was a universe—a macrocosm between paint-chipped walls, below a roof paid for by bake sales, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and halfway house. It was the most fecund place I knew—a greenhouse for my imagination, where fluorescence had to do with my mind’s branches spreading. O the joyful fire in the astronaut’s skull when divination led to apprehension. "

I was one of those people who had a corner of the children's section of my public library that I considered to be mine. A big, fat, old leather chair in a corner with a dirty window and a wall of books for protection. When they built the new town library - a bigger, brighter, glass-walled
version - I never found a special place there. (The modern chairs discouraged getting comfortable anyway.) Of course, by then I was out of the children's section which almost always is the more inviting part of a library anyway.

Newark Public LibraryI had ventured a few times to the "big library" in my part of New Jersey - the Newark Public Library. It was impressive. Too impressive. I felt lost. Too many echoes in the halls, though I did like seeing in pop up in books like in Phillip Roth's Goodbye Columbus that I was reading. (My own hometown, Irvington, had shown up in some stories and in Portnoy's Complaint and I rode that same bus as

Perhaps, some student will write an essay for the contest about some private place of escape in their world. Do kids still escape to the library? My office is within a college library and it seems to be the place to study and use computers, but escape...?

BJ Ward's poem "Filling in the New Address Book" was featured on National Public Radio’s The Writer’s Almanac. (listen to Garrison Keillor reading it). His latest collection of poetry is Gravedigger's Birthday. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Warren County Community College in New Jersey.

  • Each participating teacher may submit up to 10 entries in each category. Submissions must be accompanied by a signed entry form.
  • Entrants must submit four paper copies and one electronic copy of each submission.
  • Download the entry form which contains information on where to submit the entry.
  • The student’s name must not appear on the submission itself – only on the entry form.
  • Postmark and Electronic Submission Deadline: December 15, 2008
  • At least one student from every participating school will receive an award. Award categories are “Outstanding,” “Prize-worthy” or “Certificate of Merit.” Students in grades 10, 11 or 12 who are named “Outstanding” winners may be eligible for a New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education.
  • Winners will be announced by April 15, 2009.

October 30, 2008

A Poet Wish List

A friend of mine (not a poet) recently asked me, "Ken, you're a poet. What would a poet like to get as a gift?"

Well, my first thought was that they want the same things as everyone else. (Poets are not really that strange.) But, I know what she meant. What kinds of things with a connection to poetry or writing would someone who writes poetry enjoy getting?

I gave it some thought and emailed a list and a few suggestions. I added that list to this blog on the home page as the current poll.
  • poetry books (of poems, about poetry, about writing or poets)
  • poetry read on audio
  • blank books for writing
  • music that is inspirational
  • gourmet food (yes, that can be inspirational!)
  • coffee / tea
  • wine or other beverages
  • a writing getaway (pricey but very cool)
  • a Kindle book reader
  • writing tools (pens, notebooks, magnetic poetry..)
Now, I ask you - vote in the poll and, even better, post a comment with some specifics. What would make your wish list: music that gets you writing, a place you'd like to go and write, a blank book, special pen, beverage... What book of poems would you like to get this holiday season? Is there a movie that works especially well for poets?

October 9, 2008

Poets are made, not born

If you're new to this blog, you might not know that it is an extension of the poetsonline.org website. We offer a monthly poetry writing prompt and the opportunity to submit your poetic response for online publication. All submissions that address the prompt will be read and considered for posting on the site - but, we will only consider poems that are actually in response to the current writing prompt.

We receive many poems (good and bad) each month that have nothing to do with the prompt, and always a few poems that respond to one the many prompts in our archive.

I know that many of our readers write using the prompt with no intention of submitting the poem and that's a good thing. As much as we enjoy reading your poems and sharing them with he world, the intent is to inspire people to write.

Which brings us to the October prompt - one that addresses some of these ideals directly.

Our featured poet is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson who is best known by the pen name Lewis Carroll. I find it sad that Lewis Carroll has often been relegated to the classrooms of younger students. I deliberately chose his poem "POETA FIT, NON NASCITUR" because it's not a poem for children or one that they should or would read.

Carroll was an English author, mathematician, logician, and photographer. His most famous writings are the stories about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

Carroll published his first major collection as Phantasmagoria in 1869. His epic nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” was published in 1876. In 1871 the sequel to Alice appeared. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There includes the poem “Jabberwocky.” All of them might be considered part of the genre of literary nonsense. He is known for his word play and fantasy that appeals to children and the literary elite.

The title is a play on the Latin proverb POETA NASCITUR, NON FIT which means "A poet is born, not made." Carroll flips it over to mean a poet is made, not born which I have used for many years as the slogan for this website. Poets Online runs on the premise that we can all learn to be better poets by writing poems with a bit of guidance and by trying different forms and heading in new directions.

Unlike some of Carroll's other famous poems, this one is not all nonsense. In fact, you probably need a bit of help with some of the references.

In his advice to becoming a poet, he says:

First learn to be spasmodic -
A very simple rule.

"For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out

Spasmodic poetry was actually a form known in his time. It frequently took the form of verse drama and the protagonist was often a poet. The poetry was choppy, and, from the few samples I could find, rather difficult to comprehend. Of course, we might also take his advice as a dig at poets who take prose and "chop it small" in lines and stanzas and call it a poem.

Carroll does use some of his word tricks as when he splits "immature" to complete a rhyme:

Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im-
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

In other words, the "mature" poet will make sure the arrangement of those chopped sentences doesn't give away too much about what the poem mean.

And what better way to confuse things than to throw in some Latin - exempli gratia means "An example, if you please." Plus, the Adelphi is a London theatre and The Colleen Bawn is a play by Boucicault, and duodecimo is a book made up of twelve-page gatherings cut from single sheets.

So, Carroll's poem about how to be a poet is a model of how not to write a poem. Our prompt for the month is to write a poem either about how NOT to be a poet or how not to write a poem - and to use rhyme. Perhaps that rhyme will be a lesson in how a poet should not use rhyme. Maybe the poem will be Carrollish in its humor, satire, word play or fantasy. Maybe not.