December 27, 2013

Prompt: When You and I

white on white, on Flickr by Ken Ronkowitz

I was paging through an anthology of poems looking for inspiration this past weekend. Sometimes, anthologies will index poems by author, title and first lines. I noticed little groupings in the titles and first lines - ones that a number of authors have used.

A poem that I memorized for a class many years ago was in such a group of "when" poems. "When You are Old" by William Butler Yeats is a poem I have loved for a long time. I imagine it as a great dedication for a book of poems - a book to be picked up by the woman who inspired the poems many years later.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Another poem in the group is also an old favorite:

"When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be" by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

And that led me to another poem from the period - a poem sometimes titled "Song" or just known for its first line "When I am dead, my dearest" by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Sometimes, the simplest prompt can set you to writing. I attended a poetry retreat this month and the two poets leading us, Maria Gillan and Laura Boss, hit you with a shotgun blast of prompts. They might give a half dozen suggestions or opening lines and people write for twenty minutes and return with some unbelievably good first drafts that use one or a combination of those prompts, or start with one and turn unexpectedly in another direction.

And that's all we should expect from a prompt - a little push to set our boat into the water.

For this month's prompt, as an opening line, begin with "When you" or "When I" and start paddling. You might choose to use use both openings for different lines or stanzas or blend the two into "When you and I."

There are plenty of modern poems that use that opening too. Listen to "When You're Lost in Juarez in the Rain and It's Easter Time Too" by Charles Wright which starts with that title which is tangled up in some lines by Bob Dylan.

In "When I Am in the Kitchen" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, she uses the line as her title and moves on like this:
I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter...
Submission deadline: Sunday, January 19, 2013

December 24, 2013

Christmas Light

via the

Christmas Light

When everyone had gone
I sat in the library
With the small silent tree,
She and I alone.
How softly she shone!

And for the first time then
For the first time this year,
I felt reborn again,
I knew love's presence near.

Love distant, love detached
And strangely without weight,
Was with me in the night
When everyone had gone
And the garland of pure light
Stayed on, stayed on.

by May Sarton, from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993

December 20, 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Solstice Evening


Robert Frost called "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" the poem that was his "best bid for remembrance" and it is one that almost every American student encounters.

I'm thinking about that poem on this solstice evening before Christmas which was part of its inspiration.

Robert Frost was a character and he built his own kind of image as a poet for the public. He had said that the poem came to him in one quick rush, but biographers have found drafts of the poem that show revisions. No matter. I am sure it was a poem that came to him in a rush. It has happened to me that way and no matter how much I play with the words and lines later, it will always feel like it came in one piece.

In Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, a story is retold about a conversation Frost had with an audience member about the poem after a reading at Bowdoin College.

The poem had been around for 24 years and was a part of his reading repertoire. During the Q&A,  a young man named N. Arthur Bleau asked that standard and unanswerable question - Which poem is your favorite? Frost replied that he liked them all equally. But after the reading, Frost invited Bleau up to the stage and told him that really his favorite was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And, according to Bleau, he told him the poem's back story.

It was on a winter solstice when Frost and his wife knew they were poor enough that they probably wouldn't be able to buy Christmas presents for their children. Frost was a farmer, but not a very successful one. He took whatever produce he had and took it into town with horse and wagon to see if he could sell enough to buy some gifts.

He didn't sell anything. He didn't buy any presents. He headed home as evening came and it began to snow. Imagine that journey. He had failed as a farmer, but right then he had failed in some way as a father and as a provider.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Perhaps, he was in his own head and not paying attention to the road. Maybe his horse sensed his mood or inattention because it stopped in the middle of a wood that wasn't near home. Frost told Bleau that he "bawled like a baby."

They were still. The snow continued to fill the woods. They were in woods owned by someone who lived in town and might have been a wealthy landowner. The horse shook and jingled its bells. A reminder of Christmas and a reminder to go on and get home to his family.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
In the book, Roads Not Taken (page 127), Frost's daughter, Lesley, confirmed the story told at the reading. She said her father told her that "A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time."

I encountered the poem a few times in school. I recall being told it was about responsibility, about taking time to see the beauty around us, about depression and suicide. There's some of all those in it. It's also about going home.

I took my big volume of his poems, The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, off the shelf this morning. I may go for a walk in the little woods near my home today. I do that a lot anyway. And tonight, when the night is dark and deep, I think I will read some Frost poems about winter, snow and going home.

There is also a very nice picture-book edition of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" illustrated by Susan Jeffers

Cross-posted from Weekends in Paradelle

November 20, 2013

Fragments of Marilyn

Plenty has been written about Marilyn Monroe, and yet, she still remains something of a mystery. She had a spectacular and sad life. She was treated like a dumb blonde and she played into that image at times. She also wanted to be considered a serious actress. She wrote poetry and journals that never appeared during her lifetime and that, perhaps, she never wanted to appear. She married a high profile baseball legend, Joe Dimaggio, that only turned the wattage on the spotlight even brighter. Then she married an intellectual playwright, Arthur Miller, who must have been attractive for very different reasons.

 A few years ago, I bought a collection of her own writing—diaries, poems, and letters—  titled Fragments.

It is fragments. Never meant to be a book. It shows many of the scars of her sexual abuse, psychotherapy, betrayals, her fears of madness in her genes, and someone who wanted to really master her art.

Marilyn also wrote (or had ghostwritten by Ben Hecht) an autobiography called My Story when her career was peaking, but it was not published until over a decade after her death. In the book she describes herself as "the kind of girl they found dead in the hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand."

There are a number of photos online of Marilyn reading. A few seem candid. Some seem staged, as if trying to promote that other Marilyn.

A famous one is by Eve Arnold showing her reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her reading and looking casual curled on her sofa in front of her real personal library. Another photograph shows her reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

The book of her fragments shows that she was serious about writing and that poetry was a way she tried to understand herself and her very strange place in the world.

Her marriage to MIller, like all her marriages and relationships with men, went bad and he was a real betrayal for her. But when her love for him was new, she wrote a poem imagining him as a young boy.

my love sleeps besides me—
in the faint light—I see his manly jaw
give way—and the mouth of his
boyhood returns
with a softness softer
its sensitiveness trembling
in stillness
his eyes must have look out
wonderously from the cave of the little
boy—when the things he did not understand—
he forgot

but will he look like this when he is dead
oh unbearable fact inevitable
yet sooner would I rather his love die
than/or him?

I don't put the poem forward to say she was an important poet. She wrote, as many of us do, because we feel we must write, even if the audience for our poems is small or non-existent. The poem would not seem out of place at a workshop or open reading or coming from one of my students.

My own boyhood crush on Marilyn the movie star turned in a very different direction when she died the summer of 1962 at age 36. I heard terrible stories about her - the difficult and spoiled diva, drugs and affairs with the Kennedys.  When I was a teenager, I read her autobiography and read about her life and each new sad revelation made me feel sorry for her.

I know that she probably didn't want pity, but I definitely went through a phase when I fantasized being the man that might have really understood her - and saved her.

"Goodbye Norma Jean, you lived your life like a candle in the wind," sings Elton John and I'm sure that my fantasy and his were not so far apart. "I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid.  Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."

Elton John's lyric sums up pretty well the short arc of her career that didn't really end very far from where it started in the eyes of the press and public.

Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
Even when you died
Oh, the press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude

Reading her personal writing again this past weekend reminds me of why we write and what writing can do, and not do, to help us deal with our lives and those lives that are tied to us.


November 12, 2013

The Gorgeous Nothings of Emily Dickinson

image via

I just came across The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems (New Directions, October 2013) which is the first full-color publication Dickinson’s complete envelope writings. The book is in facsimile edition.

This presents her experimental late work exactly as she wrote it on scraps of envelopes. I had never heard that part of Emily's process. There are 52 poems reproduced life-size in full color, front and back, with an accompanying transcription to aid in the reading.

Conceived by the artist Jen Bervin and made possible by the extensive research of the Dickinson scholar Marta L. Werner, the book gives readers another way to view Emily Dickinson's work.

The Poetry Foundation has done several things to celebrate the publication including an interesting audio slideshow of these poems with voiceover commentary from the book’s editors and a visual artist from the gallery show - Forever— is composed of Nows— : Artworks Inspired by Emily Dickinson (Oct. 15 – Nov. 30) which highlights Emily Dickinson’s influence across artistic mediums. 

The November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine includes an excerpt from The Gorgeous Nothings, including editor Bervin’s introduction to the book. 
On Nov. 14 at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, editors Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, will present text and images from their new book. 

There is also an exhibit at the Drawing Center in New York.

November 10, 2013

Visualizing Eliot's Prufrock

Not everyone is fan of moving art from from mode or medium to another. Take any Shakespeare or beloved novel made into a film and you will find plenty of criticism.

So, I am sure that there will be critics of a comic book version of a great poems Comic artist Julian Peters (who has already adapted Poe, Keats, and Rimbaud) now is completing a graphic version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He revealed the first nine pages on his site recently.

“Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno and the comic translates Eliot's quotes from Greek and other languages.

From Dante's poor tortured soul trapped in the eight circle, we move through Prufrock's own little emotional circle.

via the great Open Culture website, here are some related links
All images © Julian Peters –

November 3, 2013

Prompt: Robert Sward and "God is in the Cracks"

The Helix Nebula - also known as The Eye of God

In his poem, "God is in the Cracks," we have a dialog between poet Robert Sward and his father.

If you read that poem for this month's prompt, a number of paths might come to mind for your own writing:  1) a poem about fathers and sons  2) the acceptance (or lack of) what we have chosen to do with our lives by our family  3) the life of the mind versus a life more firmly grounded in "work."  The elder Mr. Sward even suggests, correctly, a poem about arch supports.

I would be okay with those three being the prompt for your November submission, but, for me, the heart of the poem is in the harder-to-explain idea of the title.
"Just a tiny crack separates this world
from the next, and you step over it
      every day,
God is in the cracks."

Robert Sward
Robert Sward's father, a podiatrist, came to the United States from Russia. Life experiences made him convert from Judaism to Rosicrucianism, a philosophical secret society. Living in the Jewish North Side of Chicago, his father practiced his religion in their basement, which figures in his collection, Rosicrucian in the Basement , where this poem originally appeared.

The religious or spiritual or philosophical theme is hard to avoid. Being raised Catholic, I had trouble as a child grasping this idea that I had two fathers - the one making eggs in the kitchen and another God the father who always appeared in illustrations as more grandfatherly than my own grandfather.

Avoiding those cracks so that you don't cross over to that other world every day reminded me of the recurring line in John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire: "Keep passing the open windows." Don't jump out and end it all, no matter how hard the day and life appear to be right now.

The title also made me think of the idea of God being "in the gaps." In the always argumentative meeting of science and religion, the religious side often inserts God into the "gaps" that appear in scientific explanations of the universe. Scientists trace back to a big bang where everything including time begins. But what triggered that big bang and what came before it? No answer. So, God fills that gap. It's an argument that angers scientists (Where's the evidence for God?) and pleases the believers because it has to be taken on faith, which stops all reasonable debating.

So, prompt #4 is my favorite and clearly the most difficult. It is to write about this crack or gap and God and how we step over it every day.  Maybe it also involves fathers and mothers, careers and family, the life of the mind and the everyday life. Maybe it's the support we want from our family that doesn't appear quite so literally as those in our shoes.

This work of being a poet is not as easy as it looks.

Submission deadline: Saturday, November 30, 2013

October 24, 2013

Book Launch for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop

Book Launch for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop
Sunday, November 10, 2013
2 PM

Join Diane Lockward and 20 poets featured in the book for a book launch reading for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop at the West Caldwell Public Library (30 Clinton Road, West Caldwell, NJ)

. . . this is a poetry exercise/craft tip book poets (and English instructors) only dream about, a collection divided into sections such as "Sound," "Voice," and "Syntax," each addressing the stated topic with relevant writing/revision suggestions, plus a poem provided as a springboard for writing a poem in a similar mode or form. There are even examples of poems written from the prompt. . . I look forward to the next time I teach introduction to poetry writing because I definitely think students will appreciate the specificity of Lockward's prompts.
Martha Silano, Blue Positive

Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Temptation by Water. Her poems have been included in such anthologies as Poetry Daily: 360 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times, and have been published in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner

The book conatins model poems with prompts, writing tips, and interviews contributed by 56 of our nation's finest poets, including 13 former and current state Poets Laureate: Kim Addonizio, JoAnn Balingit, Ellen Bass, Jan Beatty, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Robert Bense, Pam Bernard, Michelle Bitting, Deborah Bogen, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Edward Byrne, Kelly Cherry, Philip F. Deaver, Bruce Dethlefsen, Caitlin Doyle, Patricia Fargnoli, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Amy Gerstler, Karin Gottshall, Jennifer Gresham, Bruce Guernsey, Marilyn Hacker, Jeffrey Harrison, Lola Haskins, Jane Hirshfield, Gray Jacobik, Rod Jellema, Richard Jones, Julie Kane, Adele Kenny, Dorianne Laux, Sydney Lea, Hailey Leithauser, Jeffrey Levine, Diane Lockward, Denise Low, Jennifer Maier, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Jeffrey McDaniel, Wesley McNair, Susan Laughter Meyers, Bronwen Butter Newcott, Alicia Ostriker, Linda Pastan, Stanley Plumly, Vern Rutsala, Martha Silano, Marilyn L. Taylor, Matthew Thorburn, Lee Upton, Nance Van Winckel, Ingrid Wendt, Nancy White, Cecilia Woloch, Baron Wormser, Suzanne Zweizig

And an additional 45 accomplished poets whose poems inspired by the prompts in the book serve as samples: Joel Allegretti, Linda Benninghoff, Broeck Blumberg, Rose Mary Boehm, Bob Bradshaw, Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Rachel Dacus, Ann DeVenezia, Liz Dolan, Kristina England, Laura Freedgood, Gail Fishman Gerwin, Erica Goss, Jeanie Greensfelder, Constance Hanstedt, John Hutchinson, Penny Harter, Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll, Tina Kelley, Claire Keyes, Laurie Kolp, Joan Mazza, Janet McCann, Antoinette Libro, Charlotte Mandel, Joan Mazza, Janet McCann, Nancy Bailey Miller, Thomas Moudry, Drew Myron, Shawnte Orion, Donna Pflueger, Wanda Praisner, Susanna Rich, Ken Ronkowitz, Basil Rouskas, Nancy Scott, Martha Silano, Linda Simone, Melissa Studdard, Lisken Van Pelt Dus, Jeanne Wagner, Ingrid Wendt, Scott Wiggerman, Bill Wunder, Michael T. Young, Sander Zulauf

September 11, 2013

8th Biennial Warren County Poetry Festival in New Jersey September 28

The 8th Biennial Warren County Poetry Festival is a free one day event that will be held September 28, 2013 with a theme of "Blues Poetics: Working-Class Roots and Rhythms in Poetry."

The Festival is held every two years, and has won two Citation of Excellence from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It features workshops, panel discussions, book signings, and open mic sessions.

The festival is held on the campus of the Blair Academy, in Blairstown, NJ.

The 2013 Featured Poets are Roger Bonair-Agard, Nick Flynn and Joy Harjo.

Roger Bonair-Agard is a veteran of the spoken-word scene and a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion. He is the author of Tarnish and Masquerade, co-author of Burning Down the House, GULLY and Bury My Clothes. Roger moved to the United States from his native Trinidad and Tobago in 1987.
books by Roger Bonair-Agard 

  Nick Flynn has worked as a ship's captain, an electrician, and as a case-worker with homeless adults. He is also the award-winning author of Some Ether, Blind Huber, The Ticking is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. His most recent book is The Reenactments. He divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston, and Brooklyn, New York.         books by Nick Flynn

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. 

 Her seven books of poetry include How We Became Human- New and Selected Poems, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and She Had Some Horses. For A Girl Becoming, a young adult/coming of age book, was released in 2009. She has also released four award-winning CD's of original music and in 2009 won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year for Winding Through the Milky Way. She performs nationally and internationally with her band, the Arrow Dynamics. 
books and music by Joy Harjo

Other poets reading and participating in the day's workshops and panel discussion include: James Arthur,  Laura Boss, Martin Farawell, Maria Mazziotti Gillan,  Jim Haba, Leslie Heywood and Joe Weil.

For the festival schedule, directions and more about the poets, see

August 18, 2013

Breaking Bad and Walt Whitman

There have been several Walt Whitman references during the four and a half seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad. This month the final episodes of the series are being shown.

The two WW's - Whitman and Breaking Bad protagonist, Walter White - have a strange connection.

The two don't seem similar. White is a high school science teacher who finds out he has cancer and becomes a crystal meth maker and distributor to build up a cash reserve for his family. Over the seasons, he breaks very bad, going “from Mr. Chips to Scarface” as the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, has said.

Whitman is nothing like that. Whitman and his book, Leaves of Grass, were not part of some original plot plan by the creator, But he keeps popping up.

In season three, White’s lab assistant, Gale, recites Whitman's poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer", a poem about disillusionment with theory and a need to engage with the world.
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air,…

Gale gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift. In a later scene, Walt read the book which Gale inscribed with “To my other favorite W.W. It is an honor working with you.”

The name of this year's fifth season’s midpoint cliffhanger episode was “Gliding Over All,” which is an allusion to a poem in the book, "Song of Myself."

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.

This poem connects with the Walt that White has become.

And then Walt’s brother-in-law Hank, a D.E.A. agent who has been pursuing the meth cook that is Walt, found the copy of Leaves of Grass in Walt's bathroom, and reading the inscription written by the now dead Gale, knows that Walt is the meth cook and drug lord also known as "Heisenberg."

Walter "Walt" Whitman the poet was a humanist and part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism. He is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse.

His work was very controversial in its time, particularly Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.

Will "The Good Gray Poet" figure in the final episodes of the series?

As at thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds...
I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.

More About WW and WW

August 1, 2013

Prompt: Alliteration, Masturbation and Other Literary Terms

We all were taught literary terms in school, especially during some poetry unit. Simile, metaphor, personification and many others were supposed to be the common vocabulary and grammar we used to dissect the poems.

This month's model poem for our prompt is one that is titled with a literary term - alliteration. The poem itself is no ars poetica though.

by Paul Hostovsky

I whacked off in these woods once.
But that was a long time ago when
everything rhymed a little with
the trees all facing upward and the sky
was full of itself and no one
was around. And everything smelled good.
I smelled good myself. A sweaty,
muddy, musky, burning smell of
autumn or late summer or very early
spring was in the air, and I was so
excited to be so young and existential
and solipsistic, that I peeled off my shirt
and pants and underpants, and stood there
erect and steeply rocking under a sycamore,
my peeled bark in a little pile at my feet,
my head tossing in the wind, my mouth
opening, wider, wider, as if trying
to pronounce all the vowels at the same time
and failing deliciously, and sinking down
to the ground, totally spent and spluttering
a few choice consonants like kisses meant
for the pursed lips of the wind.

We know that alliteration is the repetition of the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in neighboring words. Usually it occurs at word beginnings, as in this line from Shelley's "The Cloud":  I bear light shade for the leaves when laid.

The poem has alliteration, but do you see a connection from the term to the poem's subject?  Repetition? The "few choice consonants" of spluttered sound? How intentional was it in this somewhat naughty-boy poem that has several puns that another name for alliteration is head rhyme?

For our August prompt, select a literary term as your title and starting point. Besides the common terms, there are plenty of lesser known ones (like half rhyme). And a term like "meter" has many sub-topics to offer. Pentameter and caesura suggest things outside of poetry to me. What would a poem titled "Free Verse" or "Masculine Verse" or "Feminine Verse" address?

To avoid preconceived notions, perhaps you should just browse a list of literary terms for poetry and find one that gets your interest.

Paul Hostovsky is the author of four books of poetry, Hurt Into Beauty (2012), A Little in Love a Lot (2011), Dear Truth (2009), and Bending the Notes (2008). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, numerous chapbook contests, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He works in Boston as a sign language interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf

"Alliteration" is from his forthcoming book Naming Names which can be pre-ordered now online.

Paul is online at

July 9, 2013

Prompt: First (Poetic) Love

Who is the first poet you fell in love with? In this video from The Poetry Foundation, Edward Hirsch, Evie Shockley, Jean Valentine, Juan Felipe Herrera, Katy Lederer, Marilyn Hacker, Pierre Joris and Rachel Levitsky talk about first poetry loves.

Several of the poets ask the interviewer if the question is meant literally or figuratively, or if the answer can be a poem rather than the poet. This inspired me use that first love of poetry as our prompt and inspiration.

Who is the poet that was your first love? This might be the love of a poem, but it might be a crush on the poet, either by way of a poem or just a photo on a book jacket or an encounter at a reading.

Emily, as she appears on "her" Twitter page
I had a little adolescent crush on plain old Emily Dickinson because I felt sorry for her and imagined that if I had been there in Amherst that I might have been friends with her. I would have gotten her outside into nature and maybe we would have even dated.I also had a crush on glamorous Marilyn Monroe at that time because I also wanted to save her from the world.

In “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” Billy Collins takes that idea to a playful extreme. His poem is an extended metaphor for reading a Dickinson poem. The undressing is also the uncovering of the poems. FOr example, taking off her "tippet made of tulle” is like opening her book.

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

Emily's simple poems are "a more complicated matter" when you actually read them. They are not so easy.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

Emily's habit was to wear a white dress, although she rarely left her family home in Amherst. She was a recluse for the latter part of her life, hiding behind the door when there were visitors. It is assumed that she died a virgin. You can hear Billy Collins read this poem and some of Emily's poetry online and Collins says that "There are many speculations about her...Was she lesbian? Was she celibate? Did she have an affair?" All of that speculation inspired him to write the poem in which he wanted, in a playful way, to put the guessing to rest by undressing her and having sex.

Naomi Shihab Nye
The first time I heard a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye it was her reading "Making a Fist" at a Dodge Poetry Festival. I loved the poem and I had a bit of a crush on the poet too. I bought two of her books because I wanted to read them, but also because I wanted to go up to her and ask her to sign them and say something to her.

In another video, Naomi Shihab Nye talks about how poetry inspires us. She says, "I've carried, for perhaps 30 years, a very tattered piece of notebook paper that says: Philip Levine has described the muse as 'being the portion of the self that largely lives asleep. Being inspired is really being totally alive.' He says that such a state feels a 'little odd' and also 'delicious.' " She also carries with her William Stafford's poem, "The Sky."

Despite my Emily and Naomi crushes, the poem I carry in my wallet is "When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats. That was one I fell in love with in high school and that I memorized and that reads even better to me as I grow old and gray and full of sleep myself.

For this month's writing prompt, we write about First (Poetic) Love. This can mean the first poem you recall loving or the first poet you loved (in any sense of the word).

Submission Deadline: Wednesday, July 31st

June 20, 2013

Children's Poets Laureates

Most of us think of THE Poet Laureate as the one that represents our country. For the U.S., that is Natasha Trethewey who was recently appointed to serve a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
But many U.S. states and cities have also been designating laureates on a local level.

I'm pleased that there have also been more appointments for children’s poets laureate. Here are three recent appointments.

Children’s Poet Laureate for Wales named at National Urdd Eisteddfod" from Wales Online
“Former Urdd Eisteddfod chair Aneirin Karadog has been named as Wales’ next Children’s Poet Laureate. Mr. Karadog said, ‘The role involves working with young people during their formative years, when the imagination is so alive.... One of the appealing factors is a chance to re-light my own imagination through theirs.’”

"UK’s first black children’s laureate: new history curriculum could alienate pupils” from The Guardian (UK)
“Ted Hughes, then poet laureate, and his friend and fellow author Michael Morpurgo devised the laureateship—first awarded in 1999 to illustrator Quentin Blake—to mark a lifetime’s contribution to children’s literature and highlight the importance of children’s books. Previous children’s laureates include Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine, Michael Rosen, Anthony Browne and Morpurgo.... Blackman is the eighth children’s laureate, inheriting the role from the Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson.”

From The Los Angeles Times "Poetry Foundation names Kenn Nesbitt its children’s poet laureate
“The Poetry Foundation announced Tuesday that Revenge of the Lunch Ladies author Kenn Nesbitt will be its next children’s poet laureate, a position the foundation created in 2006 to recognize that ‘children have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience.’... This honor is not related to the U.S. poet laureate, who is named by the Library of Congress. Nor is it connected to regional poets laureate, such as Eloise Klein Healy in Los Angeles or Juan Felipe Herrera, California’s poet laureate. Nesbitt succeeds J. Patrick Lewis as the fourth poet to hold the position. His numerous books for children—all of them full of child-appropriate silliness—include The Tighty-Whitey Spider, My Hippo Has the Hiccups, and My Foot Fell Asleep. In an interview with outgoing laureate Lewis, Nesbitt listed influences including Lewis Carroll, MAD magazine, and ‘that greatest of all children’s poets, Anonymous.’”

May 30, 2013

Prompt: Torn from the Headlines

Newspaper headlines writers often have a flair for puns and other wordplay. Jay Leno made a regular crowd-sourced segment on The Tonight Show from reading headlines and ads that were sent in by viewers.

Sometimes it's intentional, as in a story about creating unique holiday sweatsuits called "Fleece Navidad." Sometimes the writers are having fun with innuendo as in "Summit ski area gets first decent dump." Sometimes you wonder what they were thinking, or if they were thinking: "Home sales up, despite fewer homes sold" and "Abe Lincoln played key role in 'Lincoln.'"

But headlines as poem titles can serve the same purposes as most titles for poems; they offer a way into a poem and they can offer more than one way to view the poem.

Headline poems are frequently quite serious. They use an actual headline as the title. The poem may address directly the topic of the headline, or it may offer another perspective where the headline seems more ironic.

This month, for the first time, I am using one of my own poems as a model for a prompt. This is a poem that did come from an actual newspaper headline, but the story I chose to tell did not appear in the article. I was more taken in my thoughts with trying to put myself into the event that no one witnessed that occurred in a wooded area I knew as a place that deer often emerged from onto the road in front of my car.

Woman Found In Wooded Area

She ran through the woods
to escape him.
He followed the path
knowing he would reach
the same place.

She wore stockings.
The thorns tore at them
and she bled.

When she came out,
her breath was visible
and he could smell her.

Like a deer, she stilled,
hoping he could not see her.
But he could.

    by Kenneth Ronkowitz

Another example of a headline poem is one in the current issue of Crazyhorse by Amaud Jamaul Johnson titled “L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates Dead at 83."

One of your two prompt options for June is to write a headline poem. Use the headline as your title. Grab a newspaper or click over to a newspaper site and start reading.

This month, since we have two possible prompts for your June writing, you may choose either or both and submit one or two poems. As a new submission requirement, we ask that you include in your email submission subject line both the word "submission" (which sorts it automatically to the proper mail folder) AND also the short title of the prompt - this month it will be "traveling" or "headlines." We always get poems submitted that don't have the correct subject line and also don't have anything to do with the current prompt, so perhaps this will help with the sorting process. 

Submissions are due by June 30, 2013.

Prompt: Traveling

I know of several new books out this spring and summer that offer prompts and inspiration for poets. One of those is Writing Poetry To Save Your Life: How To Find The Courage To Tell Your Stories by my friend and mentor, Maria Mazziotti Gillan.

Maria's book is all about how she writes and on some of her beliefs about poetry. First off, she says we all have stories to tell. Our stories. And those stories are best told and most universal when they are rich with the details and truth of the actual experiences.

Whether she is working with her graduate students as director of the creative writing program at Binghamton University-SUNY, or running a weekend retreat with old and new poets, she has her ways of helping writers get into that dark and frightening cave that holds our stories, and ways to get past that crow that sits above us and frightens us from saying what we know is the truth.

The book offers a series of short, readable chapters on ways to find those stories, make your writing stronger and get past the many fears that poets (including herself) encounter.

The chapters include model poems, generally her own writing with background on the situation, and exercises.

The final section is more than a hundred pages of short prompts in groups of five. They are often a phrase and rarely more than a sentence. In workshops, Maria will often call out a half dozen suggestions to a group and just ask you to choose one that resonates, or combine several.

I have chosen a group of Maria's prompts that share the theme of traveling.

Write about:
a train, bus or plane that you missed
riding on a school bus
leaving Penn Station, Canal Street or any specific location
a cab ride
running away from home
Start with "I have driven highways..." or
"on the street where we lived..."

For a sample traveling poem to consider, look on the main site's prompt page for "The Bus Through Jonesboro, Arkansas" by Matthew Henriksen.

This month, since we have two possible prompts for your June writing, you may choose either or both and submit one or two poems. As a new submission requirement, we ask that you include in your email submission subject line both the word "submission" (which sorts it automatically to the proper mail folder) AND also the short title of the prompt - this month it will be "traveling" or "headlines." We always get poems submitted that don't have the correct subject line and also don't have anything to do with the current prompt, so perhaps this will help with the sorting process. 

Submissions are due by June 30, 2013. 

May 18, 2013

The World Drops By Poets Online

I enjoy looking at the widget on this page that let's you see the recent visitors to the blog and see that fans of poetry from around the world are visiting.

Although doing the website since 1998 and this blog since 2005 has connected me to many poets, I have not literally met very many of them.

A few of the poets who submit poems and some of the featured poets are people I know from workshops and readings from the east coast of the United States.

I do feel like I know some of the regular contributors too. I have been reading their poems for years and have seen their writing change and grow. But, I will probably never meet them in person.

In this age of Facebook and social media "friends," I have a pretty wide circle of poetry friends. People follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest.

One of those virtual poetry friends is Mary Kendall who has been submitting poems for the past eight years. I know that she has been a familiar name in the submissions folder, but I know more about her because she has emailed me about "non-submission" topics, and because via those social networks, I discovered her own blog.

Mary is an American transplanted to London. She started blogging in 2012 when she was headed to the UK "for four months" but she is still there and I get to follow her European travels through her blog.

from Mary's visit to Monet's gardens and house at Giverney
She visited a place I have on my bucket list - Monet's gardens and home at Giverney.was

But the post that I enjoyed the most was one about her own poetry and Poets Online story. Those are the stories that I hope are out there, but I don't expect to hear.

Here is an excerpt:
In 2005 I discovered a website that I quickly grew to love: POETSONLINE ( It is a website with an accompanying blog that never fails to interest me (the blog can be reached through the main website). I am very indebted to this site and blog. After a 20 year hiatus in writing, I slowly started writing again in 2001. It was a strange experience (to be saved for another time) to start writing once again after so long. So, how did this site and blog help? This site presents a poem as a prompt (often several poems) along with some carefully constructed thoughts about the works. This leads the editor of the site, Ken Ronkowitz, to present that month's prompt idea. The prompts are varied and always interesting. The blog adds many details and comments. I often write in response but don't send the poems in. This past month I spent days writing a poem about a willow tree to send in, but when the deadline came, I knew the poem wasn't ready. It is now, but it is relegated to my quiet folder of poems not shared with the world. Who knows where it will land. When I read the poems then published to the prompt, I realized mine was quite different and perhaps it was a good thing I didn't submit it after all. We writers are our best self-critics, aren't we?
Anyhow, starting in 2005, I've submitted and published a number of poems, some ok, some good, and one or two that have become some of my favorites. Occasionally I will get an email from someone who has read a poem and they make a private comment to me. Once, a composer, Paul Carey, asked to use some winter haiku he had read from the site. That was a lovely surprise. I never got to hear the resulting work, which was my only disappointment, yet the fact that another person wanted my words for his music is touching. 
My thoughts today made me think back to the first poem I wrote for poets online seven years ago. The prompt asked us to think about who our reader is and what they would be like, how they would read the poem, how they might respond. I'm going to share this poem with you here today because I have been wondering who my readers are in all I have ever written. They will always be anonymous just as I am a reader of poems, novels, blogs, etc. and unknown to so many authors, many of whom I love.

It's a nice bit of serendipity that her first submission was to a prompt about the reader you imagine when you write. I have several idealized readers for my poems. One is a radio voice - that of Michael Silverblatt. For some poems, I have a single person that I am writing to and for.  But for most of the poems I have written based on my own prompts, I imagine the poets like Mary who are out there also writing a poem to that prompt. I imagine that, like them, I want the other poets reading the poems that are in the Poets Online archive (and that's a lot of poems at this point) to like my poem.

Sometimes poets and readers will reach out by email, as Mary mentions, and connect because of a poem online. Most of the time that doesn't happen. Most of the posts here don't get comments. That is typical for most blogs and websites. I have been teaching for more than 35 years, so I know that most students won't tell you about a good experience they had in your class, but you do cherish the few that do.

Writing poetry can be a lonely craft. Doing the Poets Online site is also a quite solitary job. But when I do hear from poets, it makes it worth it.

May 12, 2013

I Ask My Mother to Sing

I Ask My Mother to Sing

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I've never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

by Li-Young Lee

via The Writers Almanac
from his collection, Rose

April 28, 2013

Tenth Annual Celebration of Literary Journals May 19


Join 12 literary journals and their editors for the free tenth annual POETRY FESTIVAL: A CELEBRATION OF LITERARY JOURNALS in New Jersey. This annual event, organized by poet Diane Lockward, includes readings throughout the afternoon by poets featured in the journals.

Books by the poets will be available for sale and for signing and the 12 journals will be displayed and available for purchase. This is a great opportunity for poets to talk with the editors about their publications. Each journal will be represented by two poets who have published in that journal.

Sunday, May 19, 2013
1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
West Caldwell Public Library (30 Clinton Road, West Caldwell, New Jersey, 973-226-5441)

The journals that will be represented:

  1. Adanna
  2. Edison Literary Review
  3. Exit 13
  4. Journal of New Jersey Poets
  5. Lips
  6. Painted Bride Quarterly
  7. Paterson Literary Review
  8. Raintown Review
  9. Schuylkill Valley Journal
  10. Stillwater Review
  11. Tiferet
  12. US 1 Worksheets

Scheduled poets reading throughout the afternoon:

Ample Parking; Refreshments Available; #33 NJT Bus Stop Within Short Walking Distance; Many Area Restaurants

Directions to Event

Festival Information

April 24, 2013

Figurative Language

These days, many people associate formal poetry with "old poetry."  Forms, like sonnets, and rhyme schemes are often seen as those things we had to study in school.

When many readers see lines like
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?

their eyes get cloudy - and they stop reading.

Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Temptation by Water.  Her free monthly poetry newsletter (subscribe here) has reviews, writing tips and a poetry prompt. She is collecting some of those prompts and model poems in a new book, The Crafty Poet, due out later this year.

In one issue, I was struck by Diane's suggestion that literal language is not always enough for a poem.
The just-right use of the figurative—moving beyond the dictionary meaning of words—can open a poem to both broader interpretation and greater exactness. Metaphor and simile are what we first think of when we consider figurative language, but there are enough other rhetorical figures to boggle the mind. 
Five of the figurative tools that she suggests (beyond the familiar metaphor and simile) are apostrophe, personification, hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. They are all good tools that poets should know and use.

To use apostrophe, as John Donne does, for example, in his sonnet “Death, be not proud,” is to bring to the subject an immediacy not otherwise possible. Direct address achieves this feeling of being up-close and personal.

Personification creates a similar effect of immediacy. It can enliven a poem and heighten its emotion, as Philip Levine does in “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” a poem in which the pig speaking is given human qualities: It's wonderful how I jog / on four honed-down ivory toes. Personification can be tricky; the key is knowing when to use it and how much is enough in a poem.

Frost, in “After Apple-Picking,” finds a surprisingly convincing way to get across the idea “I have had too much / Of apple picking” with the hyperbole “There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch.”

Metonymy, with its substitution of an associated word for the intended one, shortwires the way we think of the substituted term and thereby offers an efficiency of language. In “How She Described Her Ex-Husband When the Police Called,” poet Martha Clarkson ends with, "He’s the joker pinned in bicycle spokes / vanishing down the street." Because it’s common knowledge that a joker is a playing card, the substitution works.

Synecdoche, with its substitution of a part for the whole, is a type of metonymy, providing that same efficiency. T. S. Eliot uses synecdoche in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the lines "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."  In doing so, he gives us claws as an intentional disembodiment.

April 22, 2013

Learning Poems by Heart

Caroline Kennedy writes that, “If we learn poems by heart, we will always have their wisdom to draw on, and we gain an understanding that no one can take away.”

For the Poems to Learn by Heart collection, Kennedy chose more than 100 poems that can speak to all of us.

Caroline Kennedy on Learning Poems by Heart

The Poetry Foundation has collected a few poems from the book and offers a Poems to Learn Teacher Guide which includes activities aligned to Common Core Standards for grades K-12.

Sample Poems

Grades K-3Don't Worry if your Job is Small” by Anonymous
Some Words Inside of Words” by Richard Wilbur

Grades 4-6
Invitation to Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
A Blessing” by James Wright

Grades 7-12
Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
Bilingual/Biling├╝e” by Rhina Espaillat
If—” by Rudyard Kipling
Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

April 19, 2013

The 4 Days in Nature Writing Prompt

Plank Bridge

How about this as a way to get out of a writer's block, a creative rut, or poetic funk: unplug and get out into the natural world..

A study published in the journal PLOS One found that spending four days in nature - away from electronic devices - is linked with 50 percent higher score on a test for creativity.

I am one of those people who spends too much time in front of a screen (computer or otherwise) but who also loves to take a hike.  The study looked at people who did electronics-free wilderness hiking trips for four to six days. (The hikes were organized by the Outward Bound expedition school.) 

They gave creativity tests to some the morning they started their trip and others on the fourth day of their trip and found the day 4 group scored higher. (I'm not sure why they didn't test all of them before and on day 4.)

Maybe it was being in nature, or maybe it was being unplugged. Maybe its both things. 

Another study was also cited that found that just seeing the color green before being given a creative prompt yielded more imaginative answers than seeing the color white before the prompt. 

Anyone willing to experiment and report back to us?