April 30, 2018

Reading Poetry Like a Professor

I had Billy Collin's warning about some classes in "Introduction to Poetry" when I encountered an article titled "How to read poetry like a professor."

It turns out that the author of the piece, Thomas Foster, is a retired professor of literature who has made a side career by writing instructive books about how we ought to read. (He's not the old professor illustrated above.)

He has published How to Read Literature Like a Professor, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Twenty-five Books that Shaped America, Reading the Silver Screen and now How to Read Poetry Like a Professor.

Foster, like many of us, couldn't quite get a "handle” on poetry in elementary school. But, as a teenager, he encountered with the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and it turned around how he read poems.

Billy Collins shares that Ferlinghetti connection. In Collins' poem "The Trouble with Poetry," he says that reading poetry makes him want to write poetry and fills him with a "longing to steal."

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
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.

Foster's article is taken from his latest how-to-read book which, thankfully, does not suggest (as Collins warned):

tie the poem to a chair with rope 
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Foster's suggestions include some good basic advice:

  • Read what’s actually in front of you. Make a quite literal first reading.
  • Read all the words. Each word. No skimming. He feels students often whiz past a keyword.
  • On a second reading, get into the way things are assembled on the page. He advises to read the sentences, not the lines. That means you should also 
  • obey all punctuation, including its absence. No punctuation at the end of the line? Keep that very brief pause but don't drop the voice as if the sentence is over. A comma, acts as all commas - pause - and a period, semicolon, a question mark and even a dash is meant as a stop.
  • I agree with him that at least one time you should read the poem aloud. This may not work in the library or coffee shop, but when alone or with an open group, do so. Even poems  "written for the page" reveal things when heard. That's one reason why I like audiobooks.
  • Do multiple readings of the poem. Unlike reading a novel, it is easy and to reread a poem right after the first cold reading.
  • Look up the odd words or allusions. Some poetry, especially the older classics, contain references and vocabulary that was challenging back in their own time for the less educated and is challenging today for even the educated. Even the more accessible modern poetry sometimes makes reference to a person or place that would be helpful to know a bit more about to understand the poem fully.
I am not so sure that this is so much how to read "like a professor" as much as it is simply how to read a poem. But it is instructive in correcting some of the ways that some students might misread a poem.

Painting via Wikimedia & the Brooklyn Museum of Professor William H. Goodyear by Wilford S. Conrow

April 23, 2018

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Poem in Your Pocket Day has been celebrated since National Poetry Month in April 2002. It was initiated by the Office of the Mayor in New York City, in partnership with the city’s Departments of Cultural Affairs and Education. In 2008, the Academy of American Poets took the initiative to all fifty United States, encouraging individuals around the country to participate. In 2016, the League of Canadian Poets extended Poem in Your Pocket Day to Canada.

It is simple to join the celebration. On Thursday, April 26 select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, and street corners. You can also share it on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem.

On Poem in Your Pocket Day, the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, unites in a day-long celebration of poetry. The project is spearheaded by Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, whose staff recruit members of the community—students, senior citizens, local business owners, neighbors, and friends—to distribute poem scrolls throughout Charlottesville. Over 7,000 scrolls are distributed to a local hospital, a children's museum, libraries, senior centers, nursing homes, and numerous small businesses in the downtown area. They also put together a street team that hands out poems along the Charlottesville pedestrian mall.

April 20, 2018

Unblocking Writer's Block

A friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit that wall we call "writer's block." She was really referring to writing poetry, but that block hit me recently with blog posts. I had some ideas, but couldn't get anything started.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. He also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write.

I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer's block, so I decided to read it and write about not being able to write. Of course, the block can also be a creative block that goes wider than just writing.

The article quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says that “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”  You have to write?  Unless you're on deadline, no one has to write.

A dictionary might define writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain's creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it being a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the  procrastination that we call a block.

Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are, and  developing writing models.

A believer in neuroplasticity, she says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Arguing about whether writer’s block is a real psychological issue or a romantic term coined by writers won't help you if you hit a block.

Why do you get blocked?  I found several lists online. Some items resonate with me, some do not.

Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can't get started? Certainly many of us are our own toughest critics. All of these are fear in some way.

If you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can block people.

The solutions are even more numerous than the causes. Feeling blocked? Try these block breakers. Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

I have often heard that you should do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

You can combine several solutions - take the dog (or just yourself) for a walk. That is exercise, a different task and also a change of scenery. Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt,  do some woodworking, paint a wall or a landscape, chop some firewood.

Some current research finds that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain.

If that seems too much like procrastination, for writers, free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. I'm not good at this. I tend to keep drifting in my writing back to the task.

It is also recommended that you block back. Get rid of distractions - not an easy task in this distractible times.  Certainly email, social media, 24 hour news and movies on your phone can take you away from your writing. I think this is a mythical solution. As much as I would love a cabin out in the woods for a writing place, I could see me sitting there unable to write and distracted by rabbits and a river.

It bothers some of my writer friends but I rarely ever feel blocked. One of my methods is keeping notebooks full of ideas, a note on my phone where I list one-liner poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and usually a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and stalled on.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons, not so great. But if I am banging up against that block at 9 a.m., I might do something else and come back at 3 p.m.

Recommendations often say that binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn't let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014. It works.

April 18, 2018

And the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry This Year Goes To...

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry has been awarded to Frank Bidart for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.

Frank Bidart is the author of "Metaphysical Dog" (FSG, 2013), "Watching the Spring Festival" (FSG, 2008), "Star Dust" (FSG, 2005), Desire (FSG, 1997), and "In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90" (FSG, 1990).

He has won many prizes, including the Wallace Stevens Award, the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

From the publisher:
Gathered together, the poems of Frank Bidart perform one of the most remarkable transmutations of the body into language in contemporary literature. His pages represent the human voice in all its extreme registers, whether it’s that of the child-murderer Herbert White, the obsessive anorexic Ellen West, the tormented genius Vaslav Nijinsky, or the poet’s own. And in that embodiment is a transgressive empathy, one that recognizes our wild appetites, the monsters, the misfits, the misunderstood among us and inside us. Few writers have so willingly ventured to the dark places of the human psyche and allowed themselves to be stripped bare on the page with such candor and vulnerability. Over the past half century, Bidart has done nothing less than invent a poetics commensurate with the chaos and appetites of our experience.
"Half-light" encompasses all of Bidart’s previous books, and also includes a new collection, "Thirst," in which the poet austerely surveys his life, laying it plain for us before venturing into something new and unknown. Here Bidart finds himself a "Creature coterminous with thirst," still longing, still searching in himself, one of the "queers of the universe." 
Visionary and revelatory, intimate and unguarded, Bidart’s "Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2017" are a radical confrontation with human nature, a conflict eternally renewed and reframed, restless line by restless line.
Nominated as finalists in Poetry in 2018:

semiautomatic, by Evie Shockley (Wesleyan University Press)
A brilliant leap of faith into the echoing abyss of language, part rap, part rant, part slam, part performance art, that leaves the reader unsettled, challenged—and bettered—by the poet’s words.

Incendiary Art, by Patricia Smith (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)
A searing portrait of the violence exacted against the bodies of African-American men in America and the grief of the women who mourn them, infused with a formal virtuosity emblematic of the poet’s aesthetic sophistication and savvy linguistic play.


April 17, 2018

Spring and Fountain Online Poetry Retreat

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's Dodge Poetry program is offering a free "Spring and Fountain Online."

If you would like to join educators and students of poetry nationwide from the comfort of your home and on your schedule, you can register by April 20.

For one week, from April 22-29, participants will receive a daily e-mail that will give you access to a “Giving Voice” packet of contemporary poetry, suggestions for daily activities (including journal prompts and writing activities), videos of poets reading their work and access to a Google Group where participants can communicate and connect about their experiences.

For information and to register, go to dodgepoetry.org/schools/sfonline/

April 13, 2018

Stories in Verse

Marilyn Nelson has an impressive body of children’s and adult poetry and other books. I had read her book of poems The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems  but I more recently found her book, How I Discovered Poetry which is written for a younger audience.

How I Discovered Poetry is not a book about poetry or a how-to about discovering poetry as the title might suggest. It a fictionalized memoir in verse. The book includes line-and-shade illustrations and Nelson’s family photos.

Nelson says that the "I' in the book is not her, but it is certainly based on her experiences from ages 4 to 14 as her family moved and lived on numerous military base homes in the 1950s.

She calls it the “portrait of an artist as a young American Negro girl.” It is comprised of fifty autobiographically-inspired sonnets without rhyme which are are part research, part life experience, and part imagination.

The book's title comes from a poem near the end of the book and is perhaps not the warm story we might expect about discovering poetry.

Nelson may be better known for her book A Wreath for Emmett Till.  Back in 1955, it was news that Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy, was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.

It was a brutal murder. His mother had an open-casket funeral to let the world see what had happened to him.

The acquittal of the men tried for the crime was a big media story at that time.

His story became one of the triggering events in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Nelson writes that "I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life."

In this book, meant for a high school reader, Nelson uses another heroic crown of sonnets. This is a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. She says that she used this form because it " became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter." 


April 9, 2018

Prompt: Hopper and Poetry

I have been a longtime admirer of the haiga which combines haiku poems, calligraphy and painting. Haiga (俳画, haikai drawing) is a style of Japanese painting that incorporates the aesthetics of haikai.

They were typically painted by haiku poets (haijin), and are often accompanied by a haiku poem.

The paintings, like the poetic form it accompanied, were simple observations of the everyday world.

Poets have frequently been inspired by art - paintings, sculpture and other forms. The name of this kind of poetry is ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis means "description” in Greek and older ekphrastic poems tend to focus on sometimes elaborate descriptions of the art. An example of this is Keat's “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” John Keats does go beyond description in his speculation on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music on that urn.

For our April writing prompt, we set two restrictions on your poem. First, we are interested in poems that go beyond description. Be a poet who interprets, inhabits, confronts, speaks to and reflects on the “action” of a painting and amplifies or expands its meaning.

Our second parameter is that you use a painting or drawing by American artist Edward Hopper. He is one of the most popular of modern American artists and some of his paintings have been widely used, reproduced, even parodied.

Hopper art is easy to find online. I suggest taking a look at wikiart.org's collection of almost 200 of his works. You'll see his very famous Sunday Morning and Nighthawks but I suggest you might choose one of his lesser known paintings or drawings.

His painting Gas suggests so many stories: Where is that Mobil station? How different was a gas station in that time? Who is that man - owner, worker? What mood does the poem suggest? Who just left the station after filling up?

You might also look at his paintings grouped together by themes or motifs that inhabit his work, such as couples or windows.

You will not be the first poets to use Hopper. There are two poems I will post on our website for this prompt.

One is "Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room" by Victoria Chang, excerpted here.

While the man is away 
telling his wife 
about the red-corseted woman, 
the woman waits 
on the queen-sized bed...

...That is all 
the artist left us with, 
knowing we would turn 
the woman's stone into ours, 
a thirst for the self 
in everything—even 
in the sweet chinks 
of mandarin.

The second model poem is "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)" by Edward Hirsch. Here is an excerpt:

Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant...

Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts

To stare frankly at the man...

Submission Deadline: April 30, 2018

​Some additional sources you may want to consult about poets reacting to art.


April 1, 2018

Happy National Poetry Month

T.S. Eliot wrote that "April is the cruelest month," but April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., the largest literary celebration in the world, created by the Academy of American Poets.

The Academy has many events and programs and many organizations and schools host events. There are always more poetry reading this month than usual. You might find an event near you at poets.org/poetsorg/poetry-near-you

Throughout the month of April, you will find posts tagged #nationalpoetrymonth.

One easy thing to do is to sign up for the Academy's Poem-a-Day to receive poems specially curated by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith for National Poetry Month.

And April 26 is "Poem in Your Pocket Day," a day to select a poem to carry with you and share it with others at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners, and on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem.