Monday, April 30, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Rachel M. Simon

Can you believe today is the last day of National Poetry Month? Thank you to Rachel M. Simon for offering suggestions about how to best take advantage of poetry opportunities - during Poetry Month and throughout the year. You might remember her post last year about Poems in NBA Playoff Season.

Rachel M. Simon teaches writing, gender studies and film courses at SUNY Purchase College, Pace University, and Marymount Manhattan College's program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.  Her first book, Theory of Orange won the Transcontinental Prize from Pavement Saw Press. Her chapbook, Marginal Road, was published by Hollyridge Press.

Poetry Month

It is almost the end of Poetry Month and I’m exhausted. 

I am like many poets, especially teaching, grading, employed, writers who yearn to find time to build community with writers as well as time to work own my poems (and still need to do the dishes).  This month I’ve taught four classes, secured four teaching gigs for the summer, participated in the Split this Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C., and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, MA, and helped care for a batch of chicks and ducklings that will hopefully grow up to lay many delicious eggs, and planted a vegetable garden from seed.

What I’m thinking I might have to offer at the end of Poetry Month is some advice on how to navigate your busy schedule for the best during the one month when the most invitations for readings and festivals arrive as some of us are also writing and grading final exams. Here are some tips:

1.         Be active in your poetry community.  Try to say yes when folks ask you to give a reading or go to a poetry festival.  Poetry gets such little attention during the year; you should take advantage of the few weeks when it gets some national attention. Reward yourself by participating in the festivals and reading series that poets spend so much time organizing.

2.         Don’t try and do it all at the poetry festival.  If you exhaust yourself trying to go to every reading, panel, early morning celebration, and late night bottle of poetry whiskey you’ll miss out on the connections and friendships and opportunities that the festivals have to offer.  Choose the few events that are most important to you and make sure you have time to relax between the readings. If you are a morning person be sure to go to the first readings of the day.  If you shine at any bar, be sure to hang around to see where the poets are drinking.

3.         Find out about events that are especially great every year.  When I first went to the Dodge Poetry Festival about a dozen years ago I happened to overhear people talk about Lucille Clifton’s early morning reading in the small church on the grounds of Waterloo Village. It was a religious experience, well worth the early morning drive. 

4.         Consider what fun you can have in the non-reading portions of a poetry festival. This past weekend in Salem, MA, at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I was planning to skip out on the thank you reception for the volunteers and participants. I expected it to be much less interesting than the readings. My friend Hannah convinced me that the volunteer reception was a festival highlight.  It is nice to have a relaxed environment to chat with writers and usually the portions of the festival where you’re not sitting in marathon readings don’t have uncomfortable chairs.

5.         Don’t forget to write! Take advantage of any spare moments to write that you can.  I write during readings, on trains, and while my students take exams. It is important to keep writing and allow yourself to find inspiration during poetry month.

6.         Keep in Touch. I know that schmoozing isn’t fun for everyone, but talking to editors and publishers should be interesting to all poets (who want their poems published). These are the people who do all the hard work to bring poems into the world. The best part of my time at a VT writers’ residency was meeting and befriending the editors of magazines and journals that eventually published some of my poems that led to the publication of my book.  Facebook makes this easy, but Facebook will also suck away your time and keep you from writing, so be careful.

I hope you’ve had an exhausting poetry month, I know I have.  Hopefully it has been a productive month for your writing and your relationships with the writers in your life, maybe I’ll see you at a poetry event in the next year.

Friday, April 27, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Rachel Melville

Thank you to Rachel Melville for today's post about leaving the comfortable word of prose to try something new: poetry.

Rachel Melville is a writer who lives and works in West Michigan with her husband Nick and two children, Jalen and Serenity. Currently, Rachel is looking forward to the end of her MFA journey in May when she will received her degree from Naropa University.

Poetry For the Non-Poet or Becoming a Writer

From the outside, poetry can be a bit aloof, or perhaps, like the “cool kid’s table” and you and your prose are not allowed. I felt that way for much of my writing life— that is until this past year when I took an MFA Poetry writing course labeled “Poetry and the Isms”. It was after taking this course that I went from being a prose writer to a true writer.

If you aren’t familiar with the Isms, let me help you out. There is are many, but Symbolism, Fundamentalism, Objectivism and Dadaism are my personal favorites. The funny thing about discovering these eras where new forms of poetry were being created is that I never (and I mean never) would have come across them had I not taken this class. I was content to live out my existence without really venturing a look at the scope of what is defined as poetry. This class became the launching pad into new poets, forms and techniques, and most importantly, a new perspective on poetry. I came away from this class having a better understanding of what poetry can be and produced a body of poetic work that I was quite proud of. I was a writer from then on— not just a prose writer or just a poet.

So what is the take-away from this observation? That making effort to stretch yourself and challenge your prose writing friends to do likewise is beneficial to your writing life. Take a survey course or workshop that “forces” you to engage with writing styles you are unaccustomed to. It can make all of the difference from being labeled type of writer to just: writer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

National Poetry Month: Poem in Your Pocket Day Tomorrow!

On Thursday, April 26th, carry a poem in your pocket. The Academy of American Poets not only hosts Poem in Your Pocket Day, but also offers some printable, pocket-sized poems to get you started. 

What poem will you bring with you throughout the day? Last year I chose A Blessing for a Wedding by Jane Hirshfield. This year, Ruth Stone's The Cabbage speaks to me. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Margaret Rozga

A hearty welcome back! to Margaret Rozga for today's post. Last year for National Poetry Month, Rozga described the process of writing her poetry collection, Though I Haven't Been to Baghdad. Today she considers what it means to write political poetry and her experiences at the recent Split this Rock Poetry Festival.

Poet, essayist, activist, and playwright Margaret Rozga brings the resources of literary craft to her writing about major social issues such as war and civil rights. In Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, she details in well-crafted poems her responses to her son’s deployment first to Mosul, Iraq, in 2004 and then to Bagram, Afghanistan in 2008-2009. He served in the Army Reserve as a member of the 330th Military Police Detachment headquartered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Her earlier book, Two Hundred Nights and One Day, tells the story of the 1967-68 campaign for fair housing legislation in Milwaukee, a civil rights movement in which she participated as a college student.  This book was awarded a bronze medal in poetry in the 2009 Independent Publishers Book Awards and named an outstanding achievement in poetry for 2009 by the Wisconsin Library Association. 

She has had work included in six collaborative exhibits with visual artists.  Her poems and essays have appeared or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies including NimrodVerse WisconsinYour Daily Poem, and Wisconsin Magazine of History.  Her play about the Milwaukee fair housing marches, March On Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests, has seen three full productions and three concert readings since its debut in 2007.  A professor of English at UW Waukesha for over 25 years, she now offers poetry and journaling workshops throughout Wisconsin and nationally.  She lives in Milwaukee where she reviews books of poetry for several journals and blogs about poetry and social justice.

Political Poetry: Craft and Compassion

For four splendid March days, during the recent Split This Rock Poetry Festival, I enjoyed being among poets who embrace the possibilities of poetry as a vehicle for expressing the full range of their concerns, including their concerns about public events and policy, their concerns about the social and political direction of our country and world.  Readings, discussions of social and literary issues, and craft workshops filled the days and lasted late into the nights.  

These splendid four days focused on what some call “political” poetry, and because it’s political, some question its poetic quality.  Split This Rock refers to the poetry it celebrates as “Poetry of Provocation and Witness,” the term “political” being less precise and prompting some of the negative reaction.  Still by whatever name, this poetry often has to defend itself as poetry.  It is an issue that concerns me because it is the poetry I practice especially in my books, one about the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and the other about the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars I experienced as a mother of an Army Reservist.

The lonely poet working in isolation is an image ingrained in our culture.  Writing poetry, it is true, requires concentration, and so it may be solitary.  I have also found it true that many young writers turn to poetry after the isolating experience of a failed romance.  But these factors do not mean that poetry must be focused on the isolated individual.  Poets, like other people, have social networks and concerns: jobs, friends, family, civic issues, and histories.  Poets can and do write about individual experiences.  They can and do write about falling in and out of love, about the role of art, about facing old age and death.  

But if poetry, defined most simply, is the art of using language most resourcefully, then why limit poetry to a handful of subjects?  Writing that taps into a wide array of the resources of language ought to be free, will free itself, to explore a wide array of topics. Poetry can be egocentric, but it need not be exclusively egocentric.  The “I” may not be the center either of the poet’s world or of the poetic world.  A poet may find inspiration in others, in action, as well as in solitary contemplation.  Rather than be exclusively egocentric, poetry can be community inclusive. 

The confessional and the ethereally poetic are scarcely the whole poetic garment.  Public and heroic strands, still important internationally, historically have been vibrant contributors to the whole fabric of poetry in the Anglo-American tradition. Consider, for example, the range from the heroic Beowulf, to Chaucer’s fallible nuns and priests and pilgrims on their Canterbury trek with all the baggage of their lives, to Shakespeare who made dramatic poetry out of history, to England’s tradition of poets laureate including John Dryden, who wrote the political satire “Absalom and Achitophel, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose work includes “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” to the work of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, and Rita Dove, to the surge of public interest in poetry following the September 11th attacks in New York.  To object to the “political” in poetry seems to snip off so much of our literary heritage.  It leaves us with a national cultural garment that is thread bare.

Split This Rock continues its work between the festivals it sponsors every other year.  You can check their website and blog for discussions.  I’ll also discuss some of the books and ideas I took away from this year’s festival on my blog

Friday, April 20, 2012

National Poetry Month: Leah Umansky

Reading and writing are parts of a conversation that can reach across eras and cultures. Today, poet Leah Umansky looks at another side of that conversation: The poetry book review.

Leah Umansky is a New Yorker by birth, a teacher by choice, and an anglophile at heart. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton, her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a recipient of a 1-week fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry Blog.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Barrow Street, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Contemporary Verse 2, and Cream City Review. Read more at her blog: She is also the Host/Curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series on the Lower East Side of NYC. 

Poetry Book Reviewing

Over the past year, I’ve started to review books of Poetry for The Rumpus. First, I started with Tom Sleigh’s, Army Cats, then Carol Muske-Dukes Twin Cities, and Dorothea Tanning’s final book of poetry, Coming to That, which will go “live” next month.   At first, I had hesitations about reviewing poetry, especially because as a poet myself, I do not have a book of my own (as of yet). As with any kind of writing, I believe you have to do it for yourself.  You have to forget about the anticipated audience. You need to be proud of your voice because it needs to run alongside that of the poet’s, so it better be good.

I always start with theme. Maybe it’s the 8th grade English teacher in me, but any strong collection of poetry has a thread of some kind woven through it. Once I discover the thread, I can pull it through my own narrative and sit with it a while. As a reader, I keep post-it notes in the back of my book, small ones, sometimes big lined ones, sometimes fancy ones, and as I read, I mark the poems that resonate with me.  After reading the poems, I look at each poem I’ve flagged, and then I go through and annotate. I make notes in the margin, I put brackets around stanzas I’ll want to quote, and I put footnotes to poems I want to relate back to. Once, I step inside the poem, I try to think about how it’s working; about why it’s working and how it relates to the book as a whole.

Ironically, I’ve realized that of the three books I’ve reviewed so far, none are anything close to that of my own writing style.  I’m not sure if this sort of distance is a positive or a negative, but I will say, that I asked a similar question last summer in Cornelius Eady’s “Manuscript Workshop” at the Fine Arts Work Center, about contest judges. I asked if judges often pick work that mirrors their own, and he said actually, they don’t. He said they usually pick something that surprises them.  (With that said, maybe my distance from the work I review is just fine.)

In 2010, I won a poetry fellowship for a writing workshop with the literary critic/scholar Christopher Ricks at the Norman Mailer Writing Colony in Provincetown, MA. I was not familiar with him or his status in the literary world.  I was honestly dumbstruck, when he revealed that he, himself, was not a poet. I didn’t understand why someone who wasn’t a poet would want to critique poetry.  After seven days of listening to him discuss poets and poetry, I realized that any kind of writing about poetry is just about getting it and you don’t have to be a poet to get poetry.  Ricks is someone I wish I could be more like. His knowledge of poetry and criticism surpasses anyone that I’ve ever met. Listening to him discuss a poem by Marvell, I would often find myself writing down nearly word for word of what he would say.  That week workshop was more like an intensive study of T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy. I learned about the art and craft of poetry, which helps in reviewing it. Ricks said, “Poetry refuses to tell you what kind it is.” I agree with that, you have to go in there and dig around.

Reviewing poetry is like an exploration into the world of why a poem works and how it is working. I like being that kind of explorer as I’m always up for a challenge.  For anyone who wants to start reviewing poetry, I’d encourage them to contact editors/writers at online or print journals, blogs, web sites – even on Twitter or Facebook.  From my experience, most people are kind-hearted and willing to give someone an opportunity to write. Besides, you’ll never know unless you try.  It’s an old cliché, but there’s truth in it.   To quote one of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson in The Passion:  “What you risk reveals what you value.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Hila Ratzabi

You might remember Hila Ratzabi from 2010 when she wrote about her writing space make-over. I'm very happy to welcome her back to share her thoughts on meditation, writing and where the two practices connect.

Hila Ratzabi has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize, and received an Amy Award (Poets & Writers Magazine). Her essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in the Washington Post, the Forward, Drunken Boat, Zeek, and the Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poetry has been published widely. She is the author of a chapbook, The Apparatus of Visible Things (2009), published by Finishing Line Press. She is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of Storyscape. She holds an MFA in Poetry Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is a freelance editor in Philadelphia.

Meditation and Writing: Twin Practices?

In January 2012, I spent a weekend sitting at the Shambhala Meditation Center on Sansom Street in Center City, Philadelphia. And when I say sitting, I mean literally just that: sitting. Well, there was some walking, in between the sitting, but it was mostly sitting, meditating, and listening to meditation instruction and talks on practice. Our teacher, Alexander, had asked after the first day if we noticed anything different after a day of meditating. I said that when I came home to share my experiences with my partner and discuss how things were going, I found that I was able to listen to him without thinking or imagining what he might say next, without rehearsing what I would say next. I felt clear and open.

During the meditation training weekend, I told my teacher that I had struggled for years to set up a formal practice, but the discipline of it always scared me. I was afraid that if I missed a day or two, it wasn’t worth continuing, because I would never be able to keep up with it. I couldn’t convince myself to meditate every day, despite the fact that I had felt the benefits of meditation on many occasions when I did do it. He said, “Maybe we need to re-frame it. Do you brush your teeth every day?” I smiled. I got it. It was just that rhetorical question that changed my approach to meditation practice, and made me realize that the practice was not only as necessary as basic hygienic care, but also as mundane, and therefore not scary or hard to do. Since then, I have started a regular, daily practice, aiming for 20-30 minutes per day, but allowing myself shorter times when I’m busier. I have missed a few days here and there, but overall I’ve kept the practice fairly regular, though not at the same time every day. I also make sure not to berate myself when I do miss a day, and just pick right up again the next day.

I always thought in the back of my mind that regular meditation practice would also translate into regular writing practice. I knew that both activities were beneficial to me, and I also was aware of my own deep resistance to discipline and routine, and even deeper fears of messing up, of not attaining the lofty heights of experience in either meditation or in writing. I have tried many times to set up a regular writing practice, but so far it hasn’t really worked for me. Many writers swear by routine, but many others do not. I can think of Mark Doty as one example of a poet who I recall has said he does not write every day (thank you, Mark!).

Part of meditation practice teaches you about self-acceptance, about acknowledging that there is nothing more that you need beyond the present moment, beyond where you are and what you are right now. It’s about just taking a moment to notice that you are here and that you are okay. No matter what is going on life, no matter what you are struggling with, beneath all of that, as my teacher said: “I’m going to ask you to believe one thing: that you are basically good.” So while I do get frustrated with myself at times, and feel that I don’t write enough, I’m also working with feeling okay about that.

What does translate for me from meditation to writing is the experience of focus and observation. In the most basic form of meditation practice, you focus on the breath, and in other forms you might focus on an object, sound, or image. This connects for me with the experience of writing poetry, which is first and foremost about observation, noticing. A poem arises for me often when I’m slightly distracted, not trying to write, but when something comes into my field of attention that makes me look twice, or think twice. Something that I feel I need to respond to, to say something to. That might be a Jackson Pollock painting; a dying rat on a city street (yes, that happened, and there’s a poem about it); a pigeon looking quizzically at me through the window; someone else’s poem that makes me stop, stunned; a fish in a bookstore aquarium; a memory of a childhood photo. These are the things that take me out of the every day and into a place of curiosity, awareness, and mystery. Meditation helps train my mind toward this mode of relating to the world around me, and poetry helps me respond to it.

Note: On my list of books to read, and related to the topic of meditation and writing, is The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty Moore. Though I haven't read it yet, I have heard great things about it, so do check it out!

Monday, April 16, 2012

National Poetry Month: Angie Vorhies

I know that my creative writing has been greatly influenced by being bilingual (English and Italian) and I regularly encourage writers to learn a second language. Angie Vorhies notes in today's guest post for National Poetry Month, that translations happen regularly, with or without language. I encourage you to follow the links to the resources she recommends and take her suggestions to explore the world through poetry, even from your laptop in a coffee shop. 

Angie Vorhies is a poet, translator, photographer, and founding member of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project.

Found in Translation

 “We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.”
--Robert Kelly

As human beings, even if we live in a place where we never encounter a foreign language, we are translating every day of our lives. When your partner asks what you did at work today, you translate your experience into words. Screenwriters translate works of fiction into film. When a teacher says “draw a house,” the kindergartener translates language into image.

The dictionary defines “translate” as:
1. to bear, carry, transport from one place to another;
2. to repeat or forward a message;
3. to transform, enrapture, entrance.

It is this last definition that particularly interests me. While I believe that the meaning of a text is important, when I read what I really want is to be entranced. I want literature to enrapture and transform me. And the best literature does that.

Nowhere does it say that one has to be perfectly fluent in a language to translate. Yet, somehow, over the years, I just assumed that was a requirement. Years of studying foreign languages in school had made me a competent speaker and reader of German and Italian. But a poor memory and aversion to the cod-liver oil list of verb tenses kept me from pursuing further language study. When I left school, I stopped reading literature in other languages.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I suddenly got interested in translation again. I had been writing poetry and had always enjoyed Poetry Magazine’s annual translation issue, especially each poet/translator’s description of how they approached the work and what issues arose during the translation process. That was a revelation for me, a peek under the hood of poetry and language.

Then I discovered the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, edited by poet Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris of Words Without Borders (Ecco, 2010). I can’t even begin to describe the incredible beauty and heartbreak this book offers, a hundred years of the world’s best poetry. Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue,” translated by John Felstiner forever changed the way I look at translation. By including German words in the English text, Felstiner creates a powerful effect on the reader, giving them the experience of being alienated from language.

Reading Anna Akhmatova, César Vallejo, Marmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Bei Dao, and Valzhyna Mort, to name just a few, helped me to see the rich variety and endless possibilities of language. It changed the way I wrote in English. (Re-)discovering translation was like being reborn in language.

Here’s what I found in translation:

1. An appreciation for all the translators who have come before and shaped our literature. The Bible. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Shakespeare was influenced by Petrarch.  Neruda and Borges by Walt Whitman.

2. An understanding of other cultures and an appreciation for how they have transformed (and continue to transform) English language and literature.

Forest Gander writes, “I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.”

Paul Celan called translation “encounters.” Like the tradition of midrash, where the holy book is revised again and again, new translations bring richness and variety to literature.

3. An injection of new life into my own work.

So I invite you to begin translating today. Here are some ways to get started:

Find a favorite poet writing in another language. Rilke, for example. Go to the bookstore and pull volumes from different translators (Edward Snow, Stephen Mitchell, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy). Compare the same poem in different translations. Why did the translator choose the words s/he did? How does that change and broaden your understanding of the original poem?

Travel around the world through poetry. Go to Poetry International Web. Look at the list of countries in the right-hand column, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Click on individual poets and read the poems in their original language (some even have audio recordings). If you know another language, try doing your own version before the reading the English translation given.

If you don’t, try doing a homophonic translation, where you take the sound of the poem and translate it into English. Or copy and paste the original text into Google Translate and see what comes up. It won’t be a “faithful” translation, but I can guarantee you it will change the way you look at language.

Read poetry in translation. Submit your own. Support the many literary journals that are publishing translations. One of the best is Poetry International from San Diego State University. Last year’s issue (#17) had over 600 pages of poetry. At $15, it’s a bargain and the best place to discover new poetry from around the world.

Finally, reach out and connect with other writers. Join the CAB Project where you can meet a writer from another country and collaborate on a new work together.

“the more you were lost in unknown areas of distant cities, the more you understood the other cities that you had passed through in  order to arrive there....Arriving in each new city, the traveler rediscovers a past that you didn’t know you still had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in strange, unpossessed places.”
--Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Friday, April 13, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger BJ Ward

In celebration of National Library Week, poet BJ Ward shares his first library experiences and how they shaped him. What is your favorite library memory?

BJ Ward’s most recent book is Gravedigger’s Birthday (North Atlantic Books/Random House). His poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” and New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts,” as well as in publications such as Poetry, TriQuarterly, Green Mountains Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Sun. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Inside Jersey, The Worcester Review, and Teaching Artist Journal. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and two Distinguished Artist Fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts. He co-directs the Creative Writing degree program at Warren County Community College. He lives in Asbury, NJ, with his five-year-old son. 

BJ Ward in Washington, N.J.

In Celebration of National Library Week

One might hear this week how we celebrate libraries because they house national treasures—e.g., knowledge, history, creativity, and equal accessibility.

But I celebrate libraries for very personal reasons. I grew up in northwestern New Jersey, surrounded by the patchwork earth of farmland that grew sweet corn and isolation. Boredom was my county’s most plentiful crop.  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 divagation led to apprehension.

            It didn’t matter that my family was blue-collar broke—the children encouraged to wear the same clothes for three days to save money at the washeteria. The television’s picture tube was two years busted, dispatching images only in purples and greens to our family. It was a poor man’s Mardi Gras year-round. However, it was a parade that I tired of. On the last day of fourth grade, my teacher—Mrs. Penner—handed us temporary library cards to be used during the summer. Little did she or I know what she did, but it was akin to handing me the Golden Ticket at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

By mid-July I had grown terribly bored of watching a purple Ricky get frustrated again with a green Lucy for yet another perfectly avoidable near-disaster. I found Mrs. Penner’s gift, hopped on my normal-colored bike and made my way to town, miles away. My dirty clothes didn’t seem to matter to the librarian when I walked in and showed her my card. She smiled and said, “Welcome,” then turned her back as if she trusted me completely, as if I owned the bookish joint. As I roamed the musty yet clean aisles, I was amazed that this pleasure was free—unless you enjoyed it too long at home. Then you had to pay a 5¢ late fee. No guard followed me around the stacks, taking note of which books I touched, as I placed my finger on immensity after immensity, my nine-year-old brain awash in curiosity.

            The card catalogue was astounding—all that knowledge and creativity ordered so as to be found—which is to say, ordered so as to invite me in. I was a kid from the outskirts of dirty, little, humble Washington—sleepy, vexed, bankrupt Washington with its roads made of pot-holed concrete slabs—stubborn and resilient Washington, noted for a declining can factory & a defunct pipe organ maker. Every weekday throughout that summer I returned, locked my bike to a tree struggling to grow from a dirt plot in the sidewalk and slid off the town’s cigarette-butt streets into the shady arbors of bookcases, rubbing elbows with the same authors kids in Princeton were familiar with—kids in Princeton, who also lived a bit off Route 31—but they were near the state capital, Trenton, where 31 ended and all the decisions got made. I was near the other terminus of 31, near Buttzville, home of Hot Dog Johnny’s, where the only decisions relevant to my family’s life was Mustard or Ketchup? on a tube steak.

            If I were physically sick, it would have been clear to an observer why I entered a pharmacy day after day. But the library was a different kind of house of cures. Its books were no less officinal to the boredom that affected me than penicillin would have been to an infection. And words weren’t the only thing well-stocked there. Hospitality was part of the experience. The democratic library received me as if I were a brain surgeon. It let me fill the quiet room of my head with the noise of the world’s various, galled, happy, mournful, inquisitive, rhapsodic, splenetic, and sometimes nothing-but-silly voices—until I found my own and shouted out to the world how the human condition occurs in little, dirty, beautiful, unapologetic Washington, New Jersey. The library was a shining, egalitarian, constantly expanding star-cluster where one could find himself as he got lost. To get there, I had to navigate around fences, through claptrap, slog through the indifference the world tried to (and still tries to) teach me, keeping intact both my imagination and compassion. Although I didn’t know it then, they were the two qualities on which all my future happiness would be predicated, and the Washington Public Library was where, instead of being accosted, they were acknowledged, somehow acquitted, and accreted.  Thank you to all the librarians who keep the doors open to those who need the library. And thank you, Mrs. Penner.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Angela Voras-Hills

No one becomes a poet for the money, but money-making - and everything else we have on our schedule - often gets in the way of poetry. In today's post, Angela Voras-Hills offers concrete tips about finding time to write.

Angela Voras-Hills earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and has been awarded the Martha Collins Prize in Poetry and a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. Her work has appeared in various journals, including most recently Barnstorm, Cimarron Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She currently lives in Madison, WI, and tries to be one person at

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: How Busy People Make Time to Write

There are so many excuses not to write, but the most popular is “I don’t have time.” Most of us like to believe that great writers are independently wealthy and sit at their desks with sunlight streaming onto their pages from 9-5, but this is rarely the case.  Most prolific writers are people with jobs and families.  The trick?  They treat it like a part-time job and commit to showing up for it regularly.  This involves prioritizing, turning writing into a habit, developing a schedule, and setting goals.


How important is writing to you?  What are you doing instead of writing?  Watching American Idol? Doing the dishes? We all need to do a little something to unwind occasionally.  We all like a clean house.  But can you watch American Idol while you’re doing the dishes?  Can you record the show and skip through commercials to free up an extra 10 or so minutes for writing?  Can you get your kids to do the dishes?  Maybe you can give up watching American Idol until you’ve figured out how to sneak writing into your schedule?  Evaluate how you’re spending your time, and if writing is important to you, make time for it.

Turn Writing into a Habit

If you want to write more and more often, turn it into a habit.  It’s easiest to develop the habit by writing at the same time and/or in the same space each day.  Many famous, prolific writers have a special place they write—an office, their car, a coffee shop, etc.—and as soon as they step into that space, words come to them.  That’s a habit.  But even if you can’t commit to the same time and space each day, think each week about the time you can dedicate to writing.  Pencil it into your schedule and show up for each meeting.  This will prepare your brain to write at a certain time each day. 

If you’re developing a writing habit, it’s also easier if you start by developing your writer’s mind.  By this, I mean pay attention.  Pick a place or time when you can be attentive to the things around you.  Maybe during your commute you have time to be hyper-aware of your environment and think about things you’ve heard and seen throughout the day.  Perhaps you’re a runner or a walker—use that time to write in your head.  As writers, we need to be observers of the world, so make observation and learning a habit, and the writing should follow if you make time for it. 

Work with Your Schedule

We all have busy schedules.  If you have a family and need to get everyone ready to go in the morning, wake up a bit earlier to write.  Maybe your schedule is more unpredictable?  Before going to bed, look at the next day’s schedule and pencil in some time to write, even if it’s during your lunch break or while you’re on an exercise bike at the gym.  Another great option is to carry a notebook with you each day.  Take notes, then pick a weekend day when you can dedicate a few solid hours to writing.  Many prolific writers with families and day jobs do this.  (Poet Sarah Lindsay talks about it here.) 

Setting Realistic Goals

Maybe you want to finish a first draft of your novel in the next 6 months.  How many hours a day will you need to work to accomplish this goal?  Is it a realistic goal?  Once you’ve established a specific long-term goal, set short-term goals for yourself.  Will writing for a certain number of hours, pages, or poems per day or week help you achieve your long-term goal?  Again, is this realistic?  Write your goals down and put them where you will see them often.  If you don’t reach your goals, hold yourself accountable—ask yourself why you didn’t hit your word or page count and find a way to overcome the problem in the future.  However, don’t let it make you feel so guilty that it makes you stop writing altogether.  Check in with yourself, then get back to writing.

And Finally

Say you’ve woken up an hour early, you’re at your desk, the kids are asleep, and you start writing... and the cat wakes up and meows at you to feed him.  Go ahead and feed him, but then KEEP WRITING!  It’s easy to get frustrated when the stars don’t seem to be lining up in your favor.  The biggest secret of prolific writers is that they keep writing anyway.  You’re a busy person, and conditions will rarely be perfect, but if it matters to you, you must keep writing. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nima Aghdam's Review of Long Day's Journey into Night at Arena Stage

The Eugene O’Neill Festival continues at Arena Stage with Long Day’s Journey into NightThanks to Nima Aghdam for sharing his review with us today. He writes plays and short stories while attending Georgetown University school of medicine in Washington DC. 

Long Day's Journey into Night at Arena Stage

The 19th century Russian neuropsychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff described a collection of symptoms in people with chronic alcoholism characterized by severe memory loss and a penchant for confabulations. While each character in Eugene O’Neill’s seminal play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, seem to have a weakness for alcohol or other substances, none suffer from loss of memory. In fact, it is the memories that make the Tyrones sick. A dust of decay covers their summerhouse, their garden, even the painting of Shakespeare on the back wall, and no matter how many glasses of whiskey James Sr. and his two sons knock back, facing the past doesn’t get any easier.
          This spring, Arena Stage is treating O’Neill’s fans to a strong staging of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Helen Carey as Mary Tyrone finds ample grace and vanity in her character throughout the first half of the play. She is so sincere in trying but condemned from the start by O’Neill’s dark vision. This makes Carey’s performance all the more heartbreaking. Her memories are the ones we mourn the most. Recalling her days as a schoolgirl in a convent playing the piano, or reminiscing about James Tyrone’s charm as a young and promising actor, would make for little plot in lesser hands. But with O’Neill’s language and Helen Carey’s delivery, memories propel the plot into an uncomfortable terrain, where, as James Joyce puts it, “driven and derided by vanity,” the Tyrones must face their undoing. 

            Edmund Tyrone, the younger son, deftly acted by Nathan Darrow offers yet another side of the family’s misfortune. Where Mary, his mother, digs deep into her past to find a vestige of her lost and happy youth, Edmund recalls only a single moment of joy on a long journey at sea. His only sin was to be born, and he is reminded of it time and time again. His ethereal presence offers the best chance at redemption, but from the start, we are waiting to be let down.

            It is difficult not to make the usual connections between Eugene O’Neill’s family and the Tyrones. More startling is that the play itself is O’Neill reckoning with his past, and even though each character makes half sincere efforts in reconciling with the past and each other, he was fully committed to face the awful truth. The summer cottage of Tyrones on the Connecticut shore may be obscured in fog, but O’Neill dared to look and he saw everything.

See Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Arena Stage through May 6. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

National Poetry Month: Joey Nicoletti

Welcome back to one of my favorite Italian-American poets, Joey Nicoletti. You might remember reading about his poetry collection here last April. Today, Joey reminds us to really look around and be present in our world. That is to say, our physical world right here, right now. Where you are.

Joey Nicoletti is the author of Borrowed Dust (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Earthquake Weather (NightBallet Press, 2012), and Cannoli Gangster (Word Tech, 2012), which was selected as a finalist for the Steel Toe Books Prize by Denise Duhamel. His poems, reviews, and nonfiction essays have appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Waccamaw, Aethlon, Tulane Review, and Gradiva: International Journal of Italian Poetry, among other places.

A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, the University of Iowa, and New Mexico State University, he is a former poetry editor of Puerto del Sol and currently teaches creative writing and English literature at Niagara University.

Place Writing Prompt

So I was in sitting on a lushly verdant slope of grass behind St. Vincent’s Hall—otherwise known as Vini’s—at Niagara University, talking with students as their Atomic Tangerine and Deep Magenta-cased iPhones basked in the glow of an unusually warm March sun, gleaming the way to the Canadian shore, in the immediate, power-lined distance.   

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon

 - as James Wright wrote in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” These are some of the lines that made me become smitten with poetry, and on this particular afternoon, they were a collective set of binoculars for me to see the world differently; one that me and the students I teach are familiar with, no less.  I may have been conducting class at a leafy suburban college campus in Lewiston, New York, but no matter where I am, it’s not hyperbolic for me to say that I am often kickin’ it at William Duffy’s Pine Island digs: it’s my poetic couch; my home plate, my Kennedy Space Center; the place that inspires me to attempt, much less actually take to the on-page skies of my words and ideas, bringing those who would possibly read my work along for the language ride, with equal amounts of joy, consideration, and gratitude.

Perhaps the primary matter of importance to me in poetry is audience: a writer’s ability and willingness to speak to, rather than at his or her readers. Not only does James Wright take the audience to William Duffy’s farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, he also gives each reader a hammock-eye view of what, as William Carlos Williams writes, “is found there,”  and in so doing,  we experience much: the butterfly, whose bronze color suggests rigidity, as well as the image of metamorphosis, a possible indicator of the poem’s speaker’s concern with change; the blowing leaf, easily swayed by wind, the empty house, the sentient cowbells that “follow one another,” drawing attention to the fact that the cows themselves are not physically present.  But the speaker is, and the audience is in the hammock of discovery with this person. As the late David Foster Wallace argued, literature is about “what it means to be a fucking human being,” and Wright’s Pine Island speaker is a particularly resonant case in point.      

In the spirit of Spring and its shared transformational nature with well-made verse, I ask you to consider the beginning of this poem by Jim Daniels from M-80:


The sky is gray and it will be
Raining soon and we’re waiting in line
for the drive-in, the one on Eight Mile,
the border between Detroit and Warren and the
is stewing just like always, every day
guns pointed at our own dumb heads, every day
someone else dumb enough to pull the trigger
because we’re mad, mad and sick and dumb
and we’re gonna get ourselves a little piece of
     something (...)

Note the way Daniels utilizes specific detail. Combined with the title, the opening lines tell the audience exactly where the trouble will take place. Not only will the drama of this poem unfold in an outdoor movie theatre, it will do so at “the one at Eight Mile/ the border between Eight Mile and Warren.” What’s more, “The sky is gray,” and “the/ anger/ is stewing just like always, every day/guns pointed at our own dumb heads, every day.” Not only is the audience aware of their surroundings, Daniels establishes what accounts for them in the first seven lines—one for “every day” of the week. One may go into this poem knowing 8 Mile via Eminem’s movie or as a Detroit native, but we begin “Trouble at the Drive-In” in as much trouble as the speaker of the poem, as a member of a movie watching audience, which serves as an extension of the audience reading Daniels’ words. There mos def is a storm brewing in this poem, and Daniels involves us with vigor, allure, colorful specificity, and purpose. What the bronze butterfly is to James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” the gray sky is to “Trouble at the Drive-In:” curious portents of things to come for their respective speakers.

Given that April is National Poetry month, a time when many write a poem a day, I invite you to try an exercise I often use in the creative writing classes I teach. In the spirit of Daniels’ speaker in “Trouble at the Drive-In,” start a poem that’s set in a particular place. If no place immediately comes to mind, make a list of places you’ve lived, places you’ve visited, and places you’d like to see someday. Then pick one.

Like the Daniels poem, the setting can also be an on-ramp to an incident you witnessed, participated in, or heard about. If the need arises, feel free to make up a similar episode or combine fact and fiction. Sometimes a helpful way to get a fresh perspective on a given poem that you’re writing or reading is to consider where it’s set. In this case, the 8 Mile setting of Jim Daniels’ Drive-in theatre is a major quality that makes it his poem, by virtue of the speaker’s experience, his familiarity and intimate knowledge with his hometown, as well as a place where many people live. In poetry—along with fiction and playwriting, as well—location is often an agent of a speakers’ voice. 

Your poem can also be situated at a place everyone has heard of. You might, for example, write “Trouble at McDonald’s.” Even though many have eaten at Mickey D’s, one may have had a slightly different experience from the rest of their classmates. For instance, a student from Albuquerque may have had the option of having eaten a Green Chile Cheeseburger, given the major influence of Latino culture in the state of New Mexico. Similarly, while many people have seen a movie at a Cineplex, perhaps not everyone has been to a drive-in theatre, much less one in Jim Daniels’ Detroit.

Just as a play benefits from a setting, the capsule drama of a poem often gains from taking place in a particular locale. It gives us map coordinates for the interplay of language. It also opens up a wealth of details that can ease into the poem. Such details can include proper names (cities, streets, shops, rivers, hills), all of which can act as images in themselves. They can also be starting blocks of sorts to other topics or ideas for new poems.

Remember, you can put anything you want to in a poem—it’s a matter of finding out how to do so. Poems are often made from artfully discovered details, and one way to consider how such might be the case for yourself is to take another look and listen at a particular place—especially a specific locale that you know well. This assignment might enable you to generate an opulence of imagery and employ metaphor to poem’s (and its speaker’s) advantage. Poetry can be found and made anywhere: demonstrate how a specific locality can work to a poem’s benefit in 1-2 pages. No worries if you go beyond two pages: after all, poems such as Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “A Street in Bronzeville,” and Adam Zagajewski’s  “To Go to Lvov” are just some of the many examples of longer poems that utilize a specific locale to clear a path for new areas of discovery, persuasion, and resonance.

Happy National Poetry Month, and happy discovering. Onward!

Friday, April 6, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Chris Hansen-Nelson

Thank you to poet Chris Hansen-Nelson for today's guest blog post about seeking poetic inspiration in a variety of art forms. We met studying poetry as graduate students at Sarah Lawrence College and have continued to workshop poems throughout the years. His feedback and kindness has been a gift to my writing. I think you'll find the same for your own writing in today's post. 

Chris Hansen-Nelson comes to poetry after successful careers as an actor and director in television, film and theatre.  He received his MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry at Sarah Lawrence where he studied with Dennis Nurkse, Suzanne Gardinier and Stephen Dobyns, amongst others.  Since then he has worked extensively with Heather McHugh and more recently with Ellen Bryant Voigt.  He has published in The Gallatin Review and Storyscape, among others.  Currently, he is working on a manuscript length series of persona poems in the voice of the Preacher Casy, a character in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

An Invitation to Seek Out Art Forms

Thanks for the invite Chloe. What I thought to note was my recent experiences with other artistic disciplines and the effect of this exposure on my writing.  I’ve been working for about a year on a manuscript consisting mostly of persona poems in the voice of a character from “The Grapes of Wrath” – the “Preacher Casy.”  As part of that pursuit, I looked long and hard at a famous series of photographs by Walker Evans that were commissioned to accompany a book by James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (a truly worthy read), about itinerant Alabama farm workers and their families during the Depression, as it was relevant to my topic.  It was the fundamental simplicity I saw in the faces of those people that struck me.  It reminded me of the complexity of my life, of the world in which I live, and how polar opposite, as a result, my perspective on everything must be from these people in Alabama in the 1930’s.  Their faces reflect the essential nature, the basic struggle of their day to day lives, concerns that I have never had to confront, a primary lesson I must work to remember.  It also re-opened my eyes to the value of confronting other types of art. 

Then, in the past six months I chanced to see an exhibit of de Kooning at MoMa and, more recently, a play, “Red” about Rothko, and although I knew little about either, I found both to be remarkably moving and useful.  De Kooning spoke to me about pattern and variation, a common topic in poetry, and also about the abandonment of classification by others of the work.  He did what he did and said the hell with the then reigning school/church of painting.  My current project, new ground for me, excites and informs me in process, but I wrestle with questions about its validity, its honesty, whether it is poetry at all, whether that even matters.  De Kooning’s strength in the face of such would-be pigeon-holing encourages me.

Then, I saw a production of “Red” down in D.C. about Rothko.  His passion, at least as depicted in this play, was infectious, as was his philosophy.  I recommend looking up and reading the play, or, better yet, if you have the opportunity, by all means go see it.  His exploration of borders, or so it immediately affected me, was all about pattern and variation.  I immediately went to the Phillips collection in D.C. to check out his work in person and found the intensity mesmerizing.  I moved beyond my simplistic observance of giant blocks of intense color in close proximity to begin to examine the borderlands between them that Rothko created. I found these frontiers between the strengths of these colors, these places where the colors began to fuse, or refused to fuse, to be a bridge, a DMZ, almost a conversation between different languages that did not need to comprehend the literal meaning of the others words.  I read in the gallery handout, or maybe it was in the play, that my interpretation was not wrong.  While it was not right, it was mine and therefore for the moment in which it existed, true.

This was an expanded understanding for me of the invitation to be open to whatever response is evoked, or provoked, a new clarity with respect to seeing abstract work, and a new window on the power of inference, of all the shadows available in writing poems.  I rushed back to my manuscript with a passion to reflect that emotion and curiosity in re-visiting the work. 

Also, last February, I had the good fortune to see the Merce Cunningham troupe performing their farewell tour in NYC.  I am as woefully ignorant of modern dance as I am of abstract expressionism, but this piece was completely available to me.  The nuanced expression of variation against the face of pattern excited me tremendously.  The specific movement of an arm, repeated to the point of recognition, only to be slightly changed, to affect an intended, if unspecific, reaction.  And, similarly, the pattern of dancers working solo, and then as duets, as triplets and then alone, again, stirred me.  I borrowed a pen from my wife to jot down reactions as the piece unfolded, my impulse to somehow connect to what I was observing, indeed, participating in as an observer. 

Finally, recently we saw Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” at Lincoln Center, which was superb, and days later, in listening to Beethoven streaming out of an all-classical radio station in Portland, Oregon over the web at work, to get me through another day in the corporate world, I was struck by the similarities, or perhaps, more accurately, the lineage, in the pattern and variation.  It was in the small series of notes in each, moments of simple, single notes standing out alone for a moment from the rest of the orchestration, moments where the great differences between these compositions and their composers disappeared.  Somehow, I could imagine in that moment’s simplicity each composer working on this string of notes, and it moved me.

None of these examples of pattern and variation, which I but briefly touch on, were simple exercises in variety, of course, each variation was chosen surgically for effect, whether it was with respect to tempo or tone, or climax, or whatever.  All of which one could spend an academic career dissecting.  I myself was satisfied with where it took me in the moment and since.

Anyway, that’s the end of my first blog – an invitation, an encouragement to seek out art forms you know little about and let them wash over you.  Fear not, while the water may be deep, or so I hope to discover, it is only as deep and as hot as you can stand at any one time, or so I’m counting on, and no swimming beyond your capacity is ever required.  Enjoy!