There was no post for December 2014.
Welcome back to Digging Our Poetic Roots! I thank you for your patience while I’ve been busy working on the anthology, the WordTemple Poetry Series and WordTemple on KRCB. So much poetry, so little time!
Do we write only when we think our poem may be published? Or do we write because of a deeper need? And once we feel that need, do we write and stay with whatever comes out initially, or do we spend time revising, crafting the poem into something that works on multiple levels? The poems that will appear in the anthology Digging Our Poetic Roots — Poems from Sonoma County have already been selected. Do we stop writing? No! Do we stop stretching and learning and re-learning? No! So let’s get going. There are poems waiting to be born. The subject of revision will be addressed in the future, but today’s subject may inspire you to look at some older poems to see how rhyme can give them a little oomph!
“There comes the time in the career of a great poet to stop taking pleasure in rhyming mountain with fountain and start rhyming beauty with duty.”
When Dylan Thomas began writing poetry, it was because he was in love with words. He started with nursery rhymes. The meaning of them didn’t matter much to him; what mattered was the sound of the words: “As the notes of bells, the music of instruments, the noise of sea, wind and rain.”
There are at least 28 different kinds of rhyme. Learning at least some of them will introduce the possibility that they will work for you on an unconscious level. You may feel reluctant about using any kind of rhyme. Why is that? Well, maybe it’s because really good rhyme is hard to achieve. When it isn’t achieved, you may end up with something Hallmark would use in one of its cards, or you could be left with unintentional humor, or pulse-stopping predictability. Or maybe you feel that stopping to consider rhyme will stop your creative process, interrupt a flow. So flow. But then go back to the poem and see if rhyme can give it extra muscle.
When rhyme works, it sounds effortless which, to me, seems a bit magical. It brings me great pleasure as a reader to feel that a poem has really been paid attention to, has been worked on to make it seem as though it took no work at all.
Rhyming can create a type of harmony, creating a longing for difference and sameness all at once. We’re comfortable with pairs. We want to hear prominent sounds again, just as we do in music. If we don’t hear it, it can be jarring. Think of the familiar refrain in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Dum dum dum DUM, dum dum dum DUM. What would happen if that last DUM was left out? When rhyme is used in a poem, it conveys the type of poetic structure and rhythm we find in the complete Beethoven refrain.
Now let’s turn back to the notion of nursery rhymes. These are poems or songs that are packed with rhymes, rhythms and stories. Here’s one you know:
This little piggy went to the market
This little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none,
And this little piggy cried Wee! Wee! Wee!
All the way home.
Playful right? The pigs are given human qualities, and the list of happening also adds to the playfulness of the rhyme. But what if you take that same rhyme and create a different story, a different poem? Here is what Donald Justice did to it:
Counting the Mad
This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat,
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.
This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.
This one thought himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long
This poem works, in part, because it was written to echo a familiar nursery rhyme. There are two poems in our mind all at once – the three pigs, and madness. The rhyming and the rhythm is familiar to us. It sets up an expectation – an expectation that is destroyed and rebuilt into something quite powerful. So many nursery rhymes and fairy tales have dark, sharp edges; Justice paid homage to this by being direct and by playing with our familiarity with the three little pigs.
But look at the rhymes! He rhymes “jacket” with “meat”, “dog” with “long.” What the heck kind of rhymes are these? Well, I can tell you Hallmark is not interested! Maybe you can find it in one of the following rhyme possibilities and examples:
Reverse Rhyme back/bat
Frame Rhyme back/buck
Rhyme strictly speaking back/rack
Rich, or Identical Rhyme bat (wooden cylinder)/bat (flying creature)
I don’t want to go into too much detail here – how some of these rhymes are formed with a stress on consonants, others on a combination of consonants and vowels, etc. I think it’s enough to look at each example to understand the differences. And remember, these are just 7 of over 28 types of rhymes! I’ll give further examples in a future mini-essay.
You can choose to write a new poem using rhyme, or an older poem that you feel needs a little something extra to make it more powerful. You can do what Donald Justice did: Select a familiar nursery rhyme and turn it on its head by creating a whole new poem. Be sure to read your poem out loud to make sure that the rhymes aren’t “clangy,” or work against the poem in some other way. Be brave! Be experimental! Go!
Do I want to see your poems now that the anthology is underway? You bet. Please send them to me. I can’t wait to read them.
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2014-2015
khastings (at sign) WordTemple (dot) com
Thanks to everyone who has been participating in the Digging Our Poetic Roots project. I feel a little amiss about sending mini-essays out, but I’ve been over-the-top busy with reading poems, sending poems to the contributing editors, getting poems back, notifying everyone about poems accepted for the anthology, formatting the book, etc., etc., etc.! Yes, it’s a lot of work but well worth it! The quality of poems that were sent in is wonderful. Not surprisingly, the contributing editors had some very positive things to say about poets in Sonoma County; I’ll include those comments when I write the introduction to the book. Good job, everyone!
The Petaluma Poetry Walk on September 26 was terrific, as always. I hope many of you were able to make it. If not, watch out for it next year. A million thanks to Geri DiGiorno and Bill Vartnaw for their hard work on this event.
Gillian Conoley blew the audience away at the WordTemple Poetry Series in September with poems from her new book, Peace, and the never-before translated work of Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books, published by City Lights Press. Danusha Lumeris (The Moons of August) was fabulous, too, as was our very own William Greenwood (Landscape/Cityscape). Thanks to everyone for a great night.
YOURS TRULY will read for the Rivertown series at the wonderful Aqus Cafe in Petaluma on Monday, October 6 at 6:30 p.m. I’ll read a few poems from Nighthawks but will also read new poems written during the Digging Our Poetic Roots project. (Thats right, I’m doing the work of writing, too.) Diane Frank is the co-feature, and there’s an open mic. So come one, come all!
WordTemple Poetry Series in October: On Saturday, October 18, Pennsylvania poet Robin Becker will read from her new book, Tiger Heron. This woman brings incredibly rich experience to her writing and you’re sure to enjoy it. Along with Becker, Brian Komei Dempster (Topaz) and Janine Canine (Mystic Bliss and Ardor: Poems for Life) will read. Check out www.wordtemple.com for details.
Okay. Keeping it short here so I can get back to work on Digging! See you soon.
The deadline for submitting poems for consideration in the Digging Our Poetic Roots project anthology is here! September 1 is the cut-off date. This is earlier than I expected, but in order to meet all deadlines for the printer, this is the date. All submitted poems (so far, well over 100!) will be dispersed to the contributing editors. As you know, this is not a contest but, because there are so many poems, not all of them will be selected for publication. The poems that help create the best flow for the collection — how they work not only by themselves, but how they speak to each other — will be chosen. Once the final poems are selected, I’ll notify all poets whether their work will appear in the anthology or not, start work on ordering the poems, formatting, art work, etc., required by the printer and send it on. The goal is to have the completed book in hand so that readings can be held throughout the county by fall 2015.
Also: The WordTemple Poetry Series is back from its summer break. Head out to the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 282 S. High Street, in Sebastopol to enjoy the following events! Hope to see you soon.
WordTemple Poetry Series
Saturday, September 20, 7:00 p.m. GILLIAN CONOLEY. WORK BY HENRI MICHAUX. DANUSHA LAMÈRIS. WILLIAM GREENWOOD.
Gillian Conoley, the award-winning author of seven collections of poetry, is returning tonight to celebrate her latest book, Peace. Peopled by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thoreau, as well as musicians, senators and the lives of the ordinary, Peace braids the past with the present in ways that add up to a type of transcendence even when the key question is never answered: Can peace and war live simultaneously?
“Peace is a struggle composed of inner and outer lives, personal and political history, and words that soothe and disrupt, elucidate or temporarily obscure, but don’t urge to action. Peace comes from confronting all the pieces and faces, the bad stories and ceaseless, difficult present. So Gillian Conoley tells us in her masterfully composed collection Peace. One knows these love-filled forms of familial falling apart, the tragedy and warmth of growing up in the sticks, clarity achieved in the hot spaces and so rhythmic sounds Americans have put to their times. ‘Like gold into scar/ a twister in the skull.’” —Alice Notley, author of Culture of One
And that’s not all! Conoley will also read from her newly published book Thousand Times Broken: Three Books — the previously untranslated books of Henri Michaux. Written between 1956 — 1959, during Michaux’s mescaline experiments, Thousand Times Broken includes Four Hundred Men on the Cross, a contemplation of his loss of faith; Peace in the Breaking, written under the influence of mescaline, and Watchtower on Targets, a collaboration with surrealist and abstract expressionist painter Robert Matta.
Danusha Laméris’s first book, The Moons of August, was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press poetry contest and was released in January 2014. She was a finalist for the 2010 and 2012 New Letters Prize in poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poem, “Riding Bareback,” won the Morton Marcus Memorial prize in poetry and her work has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. She has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Northwest, Rattle, The Sun and Crab Orchard Review as well as in a variety of other journals.
Sonoma County poet William Greenwood is celebrating the publication of Landscape/Cityscape (Small Change Series, WordTemple Press 2014). “In Landscape/Cityscape Greenwood resumes his singular, sometimes eccentric explorations, getting at the core of what language may propose for one’s way of living. Very much in evidence here are both natural and urban vistas, those external panoramas of consciousness that help us, in Ezra Pound’s words, pull down our vanity.” — Paul Vangelisti
Saturday, October 18, 7:00 p.m. ROBIN BECKER. BRIAN KOMEI DEMPSTER.
Robin Becker, Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, is the author of seven poetry collections, including Tiger Heron, her latest; Domain of Perfect Affection; The Horse Fair; Giacometti’s Dog; and All-American Girl, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. In 2002 the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh published Venetian Blue, a limited-edition chapbook of Becker’s art poems. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bunting Institute, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2000 she received the George W. Atherton III Award for Excellence in Teaching from Penn State, and from 2010 to 2011 she served as the Penn State Laureate. For the Women’s Review of Books, Becker edits poetry and writes a column on poetry called “Field Notes.”
“Becker’s Tiger Heron, rich with animal life from the flying squirrel and prairie dog to inhabitants of the coral reefs of the Caribbean, expresses outrage and grief over the ongoing destruction of these ecosystems. A moving poem deals with homophobia, another celebrates Yiddish, ‘a mongrel, Middle-High German.’ These vivid, self-confident lyrics ranging from villanelle to couplet deserve close reading.” —Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer Prize winner
Brian Komei Dempster celebrates the 2014 15 Bytes Book Award winner Topaz (Four Way Books). In this debut collection, Dempster examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in World War II prison camps. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history. “Topaz is a significant and moving addition to one of the oldest and most firmly rooted of literary genres — the quest…Dempster brings to his quest both a gravitas of tone and an arsenal of poetic skills mastered through his long apprenticeship in the art of poetry.” — Richard Tillinghast
Dempster, the editor of Nisei Voices Award winner Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps, is a professor of rhetoric and language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco.
Greetings poets and poetry lovers,
I hope everyone is enjoying a summer break from routine. Here are a couple things to note for the month:
The Cloverdale Performing Arts Center is kicking off its literary series, Books on Stage, on Thursday, July 10 at 7 p.m. Each event will feature one poet and one prose writer. The July grand opening features yours truly reading a number of new poems along with some poems from Nighthawks. Joining me will be Gil Mansergh, author of the novel The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill. I hope to see you there!
Address: 209 N. Cloverdale Boulevard.
Here’s a link to their site for this and future Books on Stage events: www.cloverdaleperformingarts.com/special-events/books-on-stage/
Digging Our Poetic Roots
Those of us who are involved in my poet laureate project are still Digging Our Poetic Roots. The next mini-essay and writing prompt has to do with rhythm. Because this is one of my favorite topics when it comes to craft, my “mini” essay is turning into a “midi.” Rhythm as it applies to music, rhythm as it applies to writing, how to think of rhythm when you are writing a poem that may need a quick rhythm or a slow rhythm, or a mixture of many, plus another fun writing prompt — it’s all there. It will most likely go out to everyone who has signed up to participate in the project by Monday, July 1 or Tuesday, July 2. If you haven’t signed up but would like to, please send a note with the subject line “Sign Me Up!” to submissions (at sign) wordtemple (dot) com. Thanks to everyone who has sent poems in so far! We look forward to more. (Please spread the word!)
The last Digging prompt was to write a “cut away” poem. Here’s one of my own teeny tiny cut away poems inspired by this project. The words, including the title, were taken from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac:
What flesh, poetry
Make a yodel-joy:
fog, rushing ice cream,
insane nook of
mouth to huddle-cave
If you haven’t written your cut-away poem yet, it’s not too late. Go for it!
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2014-2016
Dear Poets and Friends,
Welcome back to Digging Our Poetic Roots!
We’re heading into summer, so let’s have some fun. In this latest edition of Digging Our Poetic Roots I’m going to introduce you — or re-introduce you — to a type of “found” poem called the “cutaway.” I think this is an exercise we’ll all enjoy. Read (and write) on!
How does a cutaway work?
First, turn to prose — perhaps a favorite novel — and select a passage from that writing.
Next, remove words from between selected phrases that you would like to keep.
Take the selected phrases and copy them down, without changing word order, to create a poem. Line breaks and stanza breaks are totally up to you. You may be surprised to find that the poem takes on a whole new life — and meaning — from the original prose.
Always give credit to the author whose work you are using to build your poem.
The section below contains an example to help you on your way.
I’m looking forward to creating my own cutaway. Be sure to send yours to me at submissions [at sign] wordtemple dot com for consideration in the upcoming anthology.
EXAMPLE OF A CUTAWAY
It’s my understanding that the inventor of this “found form” is Scott Wiggerman, and so it is his poem that I’ll use today. You can also find it in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms — A Handbook of Poetics.
First, I’ll include the prose that Wiggerman used — the last paragraph of The Stranger by Albert Camus. I’ll bold the phrases that Wiggerman kept for his poem, “Calm.” Following the prose, I’ll include Wiggerman’s found poem.
“With him gone, I was able to calm down again. I was exhausted and threw myself on my bunk. I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up with the stars in my face. Sounds of the countryside were drifting in. Smells of night, earth, and salt air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide. Then in the dark hour before dawn, sirens blasted. They were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me. For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiance,’ why she had played at beginning again. Even there, in that home where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of speculators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
Based on a passage from Albert Camus’ The Stranger
I woke with stars in my face,
sounds of the countryside,
smells of night and earth,
Sleeping summer flowed
through me like a tide.
I thought about her life,
why she had played
at beginning again,
there, where lives were
fading out and evening
was a kind of wistful respite.
In that night alive
with signs and stars,
I opened myself
to gentle indifference.
The world, so much like myself,
so like a brother,
everything less alone.
— Scott Wiggerman
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Please visit www.wordtemple.com
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2014-2015
In case you’re not receiving the mini-essays and prompts of my Digging Our Poetic Roots project, here is the most recent blast. I hope you’ll sign up and send a poem to me at submissions (at sign) wordtemple (dot) com.
What is one possibility when a poet wanders into an art gallery or museum? Ekphrasis.
What style of poetry might one call “On the Medusa of Leonard da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery” by Shelley, or Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn?” Ekphrasis.
And what if I were to sit here and imagine a scene from a place I’ve never been, say, the Sistine Chapel, and then write a poem about it? Ekphrasis.
Ekphrasis, that term used to indicate poetry or writing that concerns itself with artistic objects or other visual arts, or even visual scenes, is a very old practice. Think of Homer or Virgil describing Achilles’ shield. It’s that old. The word is actually from the Greek meaning “description.” One of the definitions of ekphrasis is a “virtuosic description of physical reality (objects, scenes, persons) in order to evoke an image in the mind’s eye as intense as if the described object were actually before the reader.”* But of course it goes beyond a plain description. “The chair was made of wood” doesn’t cut it. I like to think of ekphrasis as a deeply personal and intense response to that physical reality. It allows for imagination and the breaking out of meaning. Just look what W.H. Auden did with this poem, one of the best ekphrastic poems ever written:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Now that you’ve read the poem, paste this URL into your browser and check out the painting Auden is writing of. See those “white legs disappearing into the green,” the precious ship with its tight schedule sailing on.
Now read the poem again and see how he has used the style of ekphrasis to build so much muscle into the poem right from the opening lines. It’s outstanding. The metaphors of the painting are reflected in the metaphors of the poem and they all hit us right in the solar plexus in 2014. What is that ship today, and who is it passing by? Ekphrasis can connect us to reality in very interesting ways.
Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is a transformational ekphrastic poem, to say the least! Here it is:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
By now, dear poets, whether you’ve read these poems before or not, you’re probably as stunned as I am by their brilliance. I’m stunned each time.
*The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, J.A. Cuddon, ed., Penguin Books, 1999
Your prompt this time is to, of course, write an ekphrastic poem. Sonoma County offers so many choices for inspiration. Head to an art gallery or a museum or an old abandoned building or a fallen tree in the woods. Head to an old photo album, head anywhere, but go! Keep in mind what you picked up in the first two Digging blasts — stanzas and line breaks — and then write the best ekphrastic poem you can. Have fun! When you’re feeling good about it, send the poem to me at submissions (at sign) wordtemple (dot) com and it will be considered for publication in the anthology.
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2014-2015
Dear Poets and Friends:
Need I say that April is National Poetry Month? I didn’t think so! Be sure to check out the many poetry-centered events listed in this month’s Guide including (but not limited to):
Sunday, April 6: Live poetry and music at the Redwood Café in Cotati
Monday, April 7: Patti Trimble reads at Aqus Café in Petaluma
Thursday, April 10: Two events to choose from — The annual Favorite Poems Night at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts and Iris Jamahl Dunkle reads from her new book at Copperfield’s in Montgomery Village at 6 p.m.
Saturday, April 12 at 2 p.m.: Terry Ehret and Katherine Hastings read at The Sitting Room
Thursday, April 17 at 6 p.m.: Katherine Hastings reads at Copperfield’s in Montgomery Village
Saturday, April 26 at 7 p.m. The WordTemple Poetry Series at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. (www.wordtemple.com)
For details on these events and others, be sure to check out the listings in this wonderful Sonoma County Literary Update.
AN INVITATION: April also ushers in a new baseball season. Will the Oakland A’s finally go all the way? Will the San Francisco Giants repeat their even-year World Series wins? Who knows? But here’s something I do know: SUBMIT A BASEBALL POEM to me at “email@example.com” and your poem will be considered for publication in the Digging Our Poetic Roots project anthology to be published at the end of my two-year term as poet laureate. Deadline: June 1.
In the spirit of this invitation, here’s a link to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wonderful poem, “BASEBALL CANTO.” Check it out! http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/baseball-canto/
Finally, as part of my Digging Our Poetic Roots email blast in March, I included a poem by Sarah Piatt. Here’s a little about her along with a poem:
Do you know that Sarah Piatt is the most highly regarded and most frequently anthologized nineteenth century American woman poet after Emily Dickinson? Published in the most prestigious journals of her time, she was celebrated as, sigh, a “gifted stylist in the genteel tradition.” However, there was much more to her and to her work than that “genteel” label. She was political and experimental, pushing the limits of Victorian language, the messages of “women’s poetry,” and more. Her “deviant poetics” made her peers more than a little uncomfortable. Do you love her already?
Born in Kentucky in 1836, Piatt’s concerns were child-death, Civil War, bad-faith politics and bad-faith marriages, and the loss of children’s innocence before they had the chance to experience innocence at all.
Here is her poem “Giving Back the Flower” which, as the March “Digging’s” prompt requested, asks questions.
GIVING BACK THE FLOWER
So, because you chose to follow me into the subtle sadness of night,
and to stand in the half-set moon with the weird fall-light on your
Till your presence hid all of the earth and all of the sky from my sight,
And to give me a little scarlet bud, that was dying of frost, to wear,
Say, must you taunt me forever, forever? You looked at my hand and you knew
That I was the slave of the Ring, while you were as free as the wind is free.
When I saw your corpse in your coffin, I flung back your flower to you;
It was all of yours that I ever had; you may keep it, and — keep from me.
Ah? so God is your witness. Has God, then, no world to look after but ours?
May He not have been searching for that wild star, with the trailing plumage,
Far over a part of our darkness while we were there by the freezing flowers,
Or else brightening some planet’s luminous rings, instead of thinking of you?
Or, if He was near us at all, do you think that He would sit listening there
Because you sang “Hear me, Norma,” to a woman in jewels and lace,
While, so close to us, down in another street, in the wet, unlighted air,
There were children crying for bread and fire, and mothers who questioned
Or perhaps He had gone to the ghastly field where the fight had been that day,
To number the bloody stabs that were there, to look at and judge the dead;
Or else to the place full of fever and moans where the wretched wounded lay;
At least I do not believe that He cares to remember a word that you said.
So take back your flower, I tell you — of its sweetness I now have no need;
Yes, take back your flower down into the stillness and mystery to keep;
When you wake I will take it, and God, then, perhaps will witness indeed,
But go, now, and tell Death he must watch you, and not let you walk
in your sleep.
The Selected Poetry of Sarah Piatt
(University of Illinois Press, 2001)
Happy April, everyone!
Happy March, everyone!
By the time this note is posted, I believe we’ll be able to look forward to at least a few rainy days. Keep those rain dances going!
March 17 is, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll be the featured reader at the Crossroads Irish American Festival in San Francisco this year. The venue will be Bookshop West Portal. If you know anyone in or around the city that might enjoy an evening of Irish Soda Bread, drinks and poetry, send this link to them. The more the merrier: www.irishamericancrossroads.org/calendar.html
For this month’s posting, I thought I’d share with you the first mini-essay and prompt, among other things, that went out to people signed up to participate in the Digging Our Poetic Roots project. Remember: If you’d like to participate, send me a note at submissions (at sign) wordtemple (dot) com, and I’ll get you signed up. There’s nothing to lose, and a whole lot of poetry to be had.
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2014-2015
Welcome back to Digging Our Poetic Roots. In this section, we’ll have a mini-review of one element that helps define a poem (an element that deserves a whole book about it) — stanzas — and get our first prompt for writing a poem. We’ll also read a poem and statement about it by our first guest poet, Annie Finch.
Let’s get started!
STANZAS — A VERY MINI REVIEW
When we open a book, there are two things that help make it instantly recognizable as a book of poems — stanzas and line breaks. In the craft of poetry, neither stanzas nor line breaks are arbitrary but serve any number of functions. An entire book could be written on this, but let’s just dip our toes into the stanza pool for now. I’ll address line breaks in a future section.
You could define a stanza as a group of lines with white space above and white space below. True, but that’s not much fun and it doesn’t tell me a whole lot. Did you know that the word “stanza” means “room” in Italian? Now that’s pretty cool. A stanza then could be thought of as a contained space for language, with doorways leading to and from it, connecting it to other rooms. The first stanza of a poem is entered by way of the title (a subject I’ll address at another time) and has another doorway leading to the next stanza, and so on. When you walk from one room of a house to another, you might think “Craftsman,” “Victorian,” or “shotgun.” Put a page of stanzas in front of you and you might say “Sonnet,” “Villanelle,” “free verse,” etc.
Stanzas run the gamut. Some have identical line lengths, some have varying line lengths, some have a few lines, some have many, and it’s all good. A stanza can even be a form, like the Spenserian stanza. But we’ll deal with forms another time.
The function of a stanza varies. It can help create and maintain a type of tension, it can open into or close off sections of a story in a poem, it can arrange emotions and more. Stanzas are the architecture of your poem and, as a poet, you get to choose the best architecture to house the words, sounds, rhythms and all of the other elements of your poem.
Here is a poem by Sara Teasdale that makes it easy for us to see why she chose to divide it into three stanzas:
NIGHT SONG AT AMALFI
I asked the heaven of stars
What I should give my love —
It answered me with silence,
I asked the darkened sea
Down where the fishes go —
It answered me with silence,
Oh, I could give him weeping,
Or I could give him song —
But how can I give silence
My whole life long?
From the title, “Night Song at Amalfi,” we flow seamlessly into the first stanza with that “heaven of stars.” The second stanza brings us from the sky to the sea, and the third stanza is all about the internal. Neat little rooms that are all tied together but deserve their own space. (By the way, the stanzas in this poem are called quatrains since they have four lines each.)
You may write a poem that just refuses to have separate stanzas, where that kind of break would interrupt the flow of the poem too much, give it air where air isn’t needed. That’s okay, too. Give the poem what the poem calls for.
Each time you write a poem, pay attention to what that particular poem wants. Does it call for separate stanzas as Teasdale’s poem does? Does it require uniform stanzas, each with the same number of lines, or does it say “This one line is a stanza all by itself, and the next three lines are in a room of their own”?
Unless you are writing a poetic form, say a villanelle, poetry is free. Read your poem out loud. Experiment with your stanza breaks. Let the poem tell you what works best, which stanza breaks or un-breaks give it the most muscle. Then make deliberate decisions.
A PROMPT, A POEM AND GUEST POET ANNIE FINCH
In this first prompt I’m going to ask you to do two things: (1) Create a poem from your childhood memory, making it as simple or as complex as you’d like, and (2) experiment until you feel that your stanza breaks work best for the poem. Here is a childhood memory poem by Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly) to get your juices flowing:
MEMORY FROM CHILDHOOD
A Chilly and overcast afternoon
of winter. The students
are studying. Steady boredom
of raindrops across the windowpanes.
It is the schoolroom. In a poster
Cain is shown running
away, and Abel dead,
not far from a red spot.
The teacher, with a voice husky and hollow,
is thundering. He is an old man badly dressed,
withered and dried up,
who is holding a book in his hand.
And the whole child’s choir
is singing its lesson:
one thousand times one hundred is one hundred thousand,
one thousand times one thousand is one million.
A chilly and overcast afternoon
of winter. The students
are studying. Steady boredom
of raindrops across the windowpanes.
Take all the time you need. When you are finished with your poem, you may submit it to me at submissions (at sign) wordtemple (dot) com.
Use “Submission” as the subject line.
Include two copies of the poem in a doc attachment. On one copy only, include your name and email address.
GUEST POET ANNIE FINCH
Annie Finch is a highly celebrated poet and author. Her books of poetry include Spells: New and Selected Poems; Calendars; Eve; and Among the Goddesses. A graduate of Yale University with a doctorate from Stanford University, she is also the author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books about poetry.
Annie and I recently paid a visit to the poet Carolyn Kizer, to whom this poem is dedicated, and I was thrilled when Annie gave me permission to share this poem with you along with her statement about the poem. Here she is:
“I wrote ‘A Carol for Carolyn’ in honor of poet Carolyn Kizer, so I could read it at an event in her honor. I chose a rhythm that inspired me, and based the poem on an image from a dream. I had always wanted to write a carol and this was the perfect occasion, not only because of the name, but because it is such a triumphant form.”
— Annie Finch
A CAROL FOR CAROLYN
“It is easy to be a poet, / brim with transparent water.”
— Carolyn Kizer, “In the First Stanza”
I dreamed of a poet who gave me a whale
that shadowed clear pools through the sea-weeded shade.
When beached sea-foam dried on the rocks, it would sail
down currents that gathered to pool and cascade
with turbulent order.
She brims with transparent water,
as mother and poet and daughter.
The surface is broken and arching and full,
impelled by the passions of nation and woman.
The waves build and fall; the deep currents pull
toward rocky pools cupping the salt of the human.
The ocean she’s authored
brims, with transparent water,
for poet and mother and daughter.
An optional note from Katherine: The carol was a medieval lyric verse form that initially derived from a close connection with dance. Carols were originally performed at “round dances.” Modern children’s games like “Now We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush” represent modified off springs of the medieval round dances. By 1550, dancing at religious festivals fell into disfavor and was pushed aside, leaving just the element of song. Eventually, caroling – the songs especially – came to be viewed as rather wicked pagan exercises, with lyrics no church would approve of either then or now! With the Reformation, the medieval carol began to die out, being replaced with the more subdued celebrations of Christmas and other religious holidays.
An Invitation to Residents of Sonoma County
DIGGING OUR POETIC ROOTS
A project of Sonoma County Poet Laureate Katherine Hastings
As your new poet laureate of Sonoma County, I have created a new project — Digging Our Poetic Roots — in which I will regularly select a number of poems over the two-year period to share electronically with our local communities through various means (WordTemple; Poets in the Schools; Sonoma County Literary Update, etc.), pointing out, when applicable, which “school” or “movement” of poetry each poem represents, the different aspects of each poem that help shape it (i.e., rhythm, types of rhymes, white space, meter, etc.), share comments about the poem by the poet her/himself whenever possible, put out writing prompts, and invite Sonoma County to respond with poems of their own. Everyone is invited to participate — experienced and inexperienced, young and old. We will all learn or re-learn together as we visit or re-visit the poems and topics at hand, myself included! I will invite guest editors to participate in the reading of these poems and in the selection of poems to be published in the culminating project — an anthology of Sonoma County poets. Following publication, I will coordinate readings to be held throughout the county and record some of the poets for WordTemple on KRCB. This project will exercise the poetic muscles of anyone who participates and increase exposure to the burgeoning community of poets in Sonoma County with celebratory readings. We’ll “dig” our poetic roots both by looking deeply into poems, and by enjoying the whole process, start to finish.
Please send an email to submissions [at] wordtemple.com expressing your interest, and then get ready to write poetry!