friday roundup: From Tiger to Prayer, Big P, and haying

Happy Friday, all. Sometimes I hate it when I’m right (although, I confess, not very often). From all indications, I was right last week when I said I was through my quota of Normal Weeks for the year. It’s back to nursing the sick and brokenhearted, orthodontia ad infinitum, and setting (very) early alarms in the hopes of having some poetry time each day. Sometimes I get tired of the effort it takes to fit poetry into small and hard-won slivers of time. But a few things I read consoled me this week. I share them with you:

From Tiger to Prayer  Early in my poetry adventures, I was lucky to learn from Deborah Keenan. She is a wonderful poet, teacher, and human being. It was Deborah who taught me how to really work as a poet — how to read the work of other poets and use those poems as springboards into my own work. Her signature exhortation to “get a grip” is always ringing in my ears. “Get a grip” — on your work, on what’s important in it. “Get a grip” — on what poems (of your own, of others) are crucial for you, of what the world needs you to say as a poet. “Get a grip” — a grasp, a hold of; gain purchase, traction; an understanding of, an awareness of; a travel bag. Yes.

This week Deborah arrived as if an angel in my mailbox in the form of her book of writing prompts From Tiger to Prayer. In classic Deborah-style, these are not your everyday writing prompts such as “Write a poem in which you’re a character in your favorite movie,” or, “Write a poem under the title of a newspaper headline from today’s paper.” These prompts go deeper. They speak to your particular voice as a poet. They are rich enough to return to over and over again. A few examples:

“‘Tiger’ — one poem. ‘Tigers’ — one poem. Singular and plural. This alone can carry you for years as a poet.”


“Write a page full of poetry, sweeping horizontal lines. Repeatedly fold it. I mean it. Fold it vertically, horizontally, diagonally, like an old-fashioned paper fan — understand where the poems are waiting based on the folds.”


“Look for the poems in the world that seem to have been written so that you can write the companion poem. Then write those poems.”

You can buy this spectacular, small, and beautiful book from broadcraftpress.

Big P  Whatever you’re doing right now, stop. And go immediately to Gulf Coast‘s website to buy a copy of their current issue. Aside from all the good writing between the covers, you will find an essay by Tony Hoagland, “12 Things I know about the Life of Poetry.” Here are some gems from within:

“You can learn more from reading a single book of good poems over and over than from rushing through a shelf full… . You can learn more artistically from reading a single poem many times with great attentiveness, than from reading incidentally encountered poem after poem.”


Make a “conscious and deliberate, overt, voiced commitment to the humanist soul-preserving agenda of poetry.”


“You have to love Poetry more than Your Poetry… . When I am bent, and poor, and pathetic, and in need of restoration, I go back to Big P.”

Let the people say, Amen. There is so much more in this essay — including hot springs, Ferris wheels, fear and trembling, motorcycle gangs, churches, and all your old girlfriends and boyfriends. You must read it.

haying  As for me, when I am bent, and poor, and pathetic, and in need of restoration, and behind on the papers due for my MFA program, and tired of trying to fit a life of poetry into small and unpredictable slivers of time, I go back to Certain Poems. One of my Certain Poems is “haying” by Deborah Digges, from her posthumous collection The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart. This poem reminds me of why poetry claimed me. It reminds me about attention. And riches — the treasure of language. It reminds me to find the words that belong to a particular poem. It reminds me why I will never stop finding small and unpredictable slivers of time, of why I’m writing papers in the first place.

You can click here — Haying-DeborahDigges — to revel in her language and attention.

And you can listen to her read it here, but be prepared to weep at the way her voice is both strong and delicate — the way it both holds fast to, and slips off of, each word.

I will do the same, then pull myself together and wash the dishes, write some papers, wipe the brow of a small one resting on the couch. Amen.

friday roundup: on metaphor, reverse dictionary, and “everything of the stillness”


It was fun for a while…

Friday and I’m completely out of my rhythm. Something about summer vacation. I’ve decided I’m in the Secretary of State chapter of motherhood. In which I am primarily engaged in settling disputes amongst and between warring nations. Bringing to bear the power of diplomatic language. Suggesting compromise. Compromise from the Latin com- “with, together” + promise “‘The ground sense is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.'” (etymonline). Alas.

Since the last roundup, there has been one heated debate over whether or not North Korea could ever host the Olympics (you can’t make this stuff up); one badminton set purchased and discovered to be too big for the Wee, Small Yard; one former midwesterner who never would’ve imagined a badminton set too big for a yard or a yard too small for badminton; four swim practices; one collection of poems read during swim practices; three trips to the library; one door closed to the general din in the back of the house (this just now occurring); one trip to the beach; two waves catching one 8yo by surprise; one very sad and sandy 8yo; one hasty departure; and one trip back over the mountains at rush hour. Alas. Onward:

on metaphor  I have not done a lot of reading this week, but when I’ve had a few minutes I’ve been reading Stephen Dobyns craft essay “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory” (from this book). Dobyns puts all figurative language in the metaphor bucket — simile, allegory, analogy too — and while I would like to split hairs on this point, his thoughts are equally applicable to all forms of figurative language.

He argues that if a poem is meant to recreate an experience for the reader, the figurative language of the poem must serve to 1. heighten emotion and 2. involve the reader more deeply in the poem. This is accomplished when the figurative language both provides an easily discoverable context and introduces mystery.

He uses this example from W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures:

like a house where the witch
has just stopped dancing.”

We know what quiet means. We have to think a little bit about the particular quality of quiet after “the witch has just stopped dancing.” This touch of mystery involves both sides of our brain, and increases our investment, as reader, in the poem.

There is more to read and learn about metaphor (and many other craft topics) in Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order which probably every other poet in the world has already read, but not me.

reverse dictionary  Sometimes it is a small thing, a slender slice of time, just a few lines jotted down, that convinces us we are living the writing life. When time is scarce for my usual writing practice, I try to do very small things that don’t take much time. One thing I do is choose a few words and write a “reverse dictionary” for those words (which is also good practice in creating metaphors). Examples:

  • The wandering of a throat. How breath becomes enemy. (thirst)
  • Meaning ‘from the very beginning.’ Meaning ‘there was a spectacular fire and I melted but survived.’ (mineral)
  • Somehow meaning ‘two.’ Somehow meaning ‘pedal faster, let me steer, look at the same view I’m looking at.’ (tandem)

If you need a 30 second to 3 minute writing exercise, I recommend it.

“everything of the stillness”  The collection of poems I read this week at swim practice was The Darker Fall by Rick Barot. Even sitting in the bleachers with my sun hat on, even with the background noise and the wind, the coaches hollering “Onnnnes, ready go! Twooooos, ready go! Threeeees, ready go!” I was broken open by so many of these poems. A particular favorite is the second part of the poem “Blue Hours” which I cannot find online but share with you here:


from “Blue Hours” by Rick Barot

II. Exile

All day I have made words
which fix my life
to the rhythm of
this day. I know
this hour’s satisfactions:

tea coloring the water
in a cup, and birds, kindled,
as if of one mind,
shuddering out of the trees,
then gone. The sun

falls below the familiar
line of roofs, and I
wait for someone who knows
I wait. Yet why
the old terror, the one

Seferis knew, sickened
with sensibility
as he stood on the ship
and watched the light
die over Sounion,

the cliffs still gold
while the hills turned blue?
He discovered himself
in the moment, and heard
the voices of others,

distant but calling.
Here, houselights blink on,
the breeze empties
of warmth. And more often
I catch myself

in these moments
when the light is scarcely
alive above the roofs
and I lean on the doorframe,
remember the small

fires of everything gone.
I know longer know who
I’m waiting for. I ask
everything of the stillness,
I wait for everyone.


I am in awe of the figurative language of this poem, as well as with the linebreaks, which often serve to suspend meaning, and/or to let it slip a bit as the poem continues.

And now… the blue hour of dawn is long gone here and I must away. I wish you happy Friday and a wonderful weekend. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: the Eiffel Tower of poetry, split the page, and mortal moments



Hello Reader, and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there have been FIVE whole days of school for the kids! (well, technically four and a half since every Thursday is a half-day — but still, much more poetry time than last week). I’ve been getting up with the moon, which has been amazing this week in case you haven’t noticed. When the kids were small and went to bed at 7:00, I would go to bed at 8:30 and get up at 4:30 to write. I fell out of that habit as they grew and their bedtimes, and mine, got later. But for the last two weeks I’ve reverted to my old schedule with a slight adjustment of the waking time to 4:45. Say ‘hey’ to the moon, make tea, and I’m at my desk by five. I’ve been a much happier person on this schedule — just knowing that time at my desk is waiting for me each morning, or knowing that, whatever unexpected events the day holds for me, I’ve already put in my time at my desk. I’m adding one pre-dawn hour for reading and writing to my brief list of saving things. Now, on to the roundup:

the Eiffel Tower of poetry  I continue my love-fest with Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. This week I read her essay on theme. I was thrilled to learn, amongst other things, that Mary and I have in common an uneasy relationship with Polartec, and also that she refuses to subscribe to, but secretly reads, the New Yorker (seriously, people, you have to read this book). But about theme she says:

“I am led to believe theme is absolutely meaningless in the long run. But part of me cannot believe I just said that.”

She also says (and this next quote strikes me as particularly important from a craft perspective):

“If you take the theme out of the poem and talk about that theme there should still be some residual being left in the poem that goes on ticking, something like, why not say it, color, something that has an effect on your central nervous system. It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.”

Ruefle eventually argues that maybe all themes are similar or the same. We’ve heard it before: all poetry is about death. Ruefle doesn’t go quite that far. She says all poetry is about mutability (mutable meaning “liable to change”; from the Latin mutare “to change”). She closes the essay thus:

“I have nothing else to say about theme; the whole subject has begun to depress me, like the classified ads in poetry magazines. As Roland Barthes reminds us, Maupassant often ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place in Paris from which the Eiffel Tower could not be seen. Where is the Eiffel Tower of poetry, and could we have lunch there?”

Yes, Mary. Let’s.

split the page  Every time I hear the word “split” I say in my head “the lark and you’ll find the music.” This phrase occurred to me this morning, somehow, as I was turning to my notebook and I thought I wonder what would happen if I split the page? Would I find music? I tried it. Literally. I folded the page down the middle, then did a freewrite in the left hand column. Next a free-write in the right hand column, encouraging but not forcing, the lines to weave together where they met in the middle. To wit:


A new trick for getting to unexpected language and image! The results, while not mind-blowing, were at least interesting and will be good inputs for drafting days. I thought I’d share this trick with you — another way to cut and shuffle language — in case it appeals to you to try it.

mortal moments  Many in the world are marking Good Friday today, and so it seemed a good day to turn to Denise Levertov (known affectionately on this blog as D-Lev) whose heritage was Jewish, upbringing was Anglican, and who converted to Catholicism later in life. Here’s an ekphrastic poem, which I think draws on Rembrandt’s heads of Christ paintings (the Google seems to think so, and the poem mentions “those small heads”). One thing I love about this poem is that the poet considers what’s NOT in the painting (add it to your methods for ekphrasis). It’s also pleasingly (to me) post-modern: the Christ is humanized and maybe even flawed. Here is:


Salvator Mundi: Via Cruces by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (as I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone wh has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, not to be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.


Mortal moments. Mutability. Lunch at the Eiffel Tower with Mary Ruefle. I wish it all for you. Thanks for reading.

writing process blog tour, or, once upon a time, I went to IKEA…


no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

…with my dad. This was in the Grim Time. Husband and I were selling a house I could’ve sworn we just bought so that we could move across the country to a town I’d never seen. The trip to IKEA was to pick up items that would add to the appeal of our house: planters, a ficus tree, more lamps, a few prints for the walls — things to convince someone they wanted to live in that house (which I could’ve sworn we just bought — hence, no prints on the walls yet).

Anyway, I hate shopping in general, and I get overwhelmed in large stores, and I could not find my way around IKEA to save my life. A couple of times I asked a worker in a blue shirt how to get to a certain department. They kept saying, “Just follow the arrows on the floor.” Arrows? On the floor? But I don’t look at the floor while I walk. And the arrows didn’t go where I wanted to go, at least not directly. The arrows went other places first. I did not have the energy or the desire to go other places first. Please, just tell me: Where are the freaking house plants?

When Carol Berg tagged me for the writing process blog tour, I immediately thought of this trip to IKEA. The reason why is not immediately clear to me. But I expect that writing about it might make it clear.

What are you working on?

  • A book review of a book you’re definitely going to want to read
  • A series of poems titled “Sick Room”
  • Revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions
  • A series of ekphrastic poems based on paintings from this amazing book
  • And other stray poetry creatures that cross my path

How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’m not sure my work differs wildly from other contemporary poetry being written today.  All I know is that there are poems that ask to be written. “Ask” is putting it mildly. “Demand” might be more accurate. I can only assume that the poems that demand to be written by other poets are different poems than those that demand to be written by me.

Why do you write what you do? Joan Didion said:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

The pictures in my mind are different, but my reason for writing is the same. I write about the things that mystify, confuse, and confound me. I write to try to figure them out.

I also write because once upon a time I tried to NOT write and it just didn’t work. At all.

And I write because I believe that art can transform: the person making it and the person taking it in; suffering into insight; pain into beauty; confusion into (at least momentary) clarity; scrawls of black on a white page into a poem.

How does your writing process work? I always begin by reading the work of other poets. Their words, their moves are springboards into my own work. On writing days I wake early, read, then free write off of what I’ve read. Once or twice a week, I revisit the free writes to see if any (or if any lines from all) are asking to be a poem.

When I draft, I often have an idea for a poem in mind, or a title I’d like to draft under, but sometimes I begin with a truly blank page and discover the poem as I go. I use language-based prompts and/or constraints to bring me to words and images I probably wouldn’t get to without them. Some of my favorite tricks:

  • word banks: Whenever I read a book of poems, I make a list of words that seem important, recurrent, or interesting. I number the lists, then use to select 10 words. The challenge is to get these words into the draft (I also often do this with free-writes). All credit for this trick due to Sandy Longhorn.
  • cut and shuffle 1: I write two short pieces. One describes a physically inactive or quiet scene; one describes a physically active or emotionally charged scene. Then, I incorporate alternating lines from each scene into a draft. Credit for this idea goes to Jack Myers in The Practice of Poetry.
  • cut and shuffle 2: I take a free write (or lines from several free writes) and type up the sentences in a list. Then I go to, enter my list, and let the randomizer spit out an order. From there, I construct a poem. This often involves a lot of cutting and re-lineating. This is also a good trick for revision.
  • gaping lines: I take a poem by another poet, or one of my own drafts or free writes, and write the lines on a page with gaps in between. Then I draft between the lines. At the end, I pull the borrowed lines out and see what remains. Also from The Practice of Poetry.
  • twenty little poetry projects: Also from The Practice of Poetry (handy little book, no?), described here. For me, this prompt feels especially fertile for long(er) poems.
  • drive words: From Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. Write down five words in each of the following categories (they can be merely suggestive of each category): flowers/plants; metals; weather/landscape; parts of the body; words you like the sounds of; colors; scents. Choose one word from each category. Then choose five words from another poet’s poem. Use your words and the words of another poet to draft a poem.
  • homophonic translation: Take a poem from another poet and plug it in to Google Translate. Translate it into another language (I often use German because of its wealth of sounds and textures). Then translate it back into English based only upon how the poem sounds if read as English (meaning is not important; in fact, the translation will be nonsensical). Use any lines or phrases that catch your ear to begin a draft.

So, now the IKEA story makes sense, right? Because when making poems, I do wander, and follow barely-noticed arrows, and take detours, and sometimes I never find what I thought I was looking for, but maybe I find something else.

I love reading about other poets’ processes. In case you do, too, here are some poets who’ve written about their process as part of this blog tour:

Carol Berg, Kelli Russell Agodon, Susan Rich, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Sandy Longhorn, Angie Macri (hosted on Sandy’s blog), Donna Vorreyer, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Kelly Davio.

Happy reading, happy writing!

friday roundup: a brief list of saving things, using the you, and “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse”


A Woman's Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

A Woman’s Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

Hello Reader. Sorry about the lack of roundup last week. It was one of those weeks. This week was less one of those weeks, and I’m happy to be here at my desk sharing what I’ve been reading and thinking about. Let us commence:

a brief list of saving things  Speaking of those weeks, I’ve been keeping a tally lately of small, saving things. By saving I mean able to save. Save as in “keep safe or rescue from harm or danger.” Save from the Latin salvāre, “make safe.”

Perhaps it’s overly dramatic (who, me?) to say that the things on my brief list can save a life. But maybe it’s not. And either way, maybe these things can save a day, or a moment, or one’s last shred of sanity.

Here is my list: a cup of tea; honey, just honey; a haircut; cozy socks; a good novel (especially if it’s Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I hereby beg you to read if you haven’t already); a note from a friend; a text from a friend; a 20-second hug; homemade macaroni and cheese (or as we call it at the Wee, Small House, “Grandma Mac & Cheese”; and, of course, poetry.

What’s on your brief list of saving things? Gentle reminder: don’t forget to save yourself from time to time.

using the you  I’m still reading through Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and with every page I’m more and more willing to follow her to the ends of the earth. I would drink her Kool-Aid.

In her essay “On Sentimentality,” she discusses (and argues with) a Philip Sterling essay on the use of the second person pronoun (the “you”) in poetry. Sterling’s essay, which is available to subscribers of The Writer’s Chronicle here if you’re interested, argues that the use of a vague (or not-identified-in-the-poem) “you” in poetry blocks the reader from participating in the poem, and makes the reader “a passive observer, an eavesdropper.” He also argues that use of the “you” can come across as accusatory and condemning.

Ruefle counters: “Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.” And she suggests that if the “you” in a poem is vague, or not immediately identifiable, we should “read the poem, use your noggin, figure it out.” (Fist pump for Mary!). She cites Keats’ “This Living Hand” — vague, accusatory, condemning all — as “one of the greatest cases of the ill-defined you in English literature.”

I often experience the vague “you” in poem as an invitation to deeper intimacy than can be achieved with the lyric-I or the third-person. The “you” has room in it for the reader — it says “put yourself in this poem and see what happens.”

If you want to read more poems that contain masterful use of the “you,” I direct you (this is a specific you: by you I mean you) to Jennifer Richter’s Threshold.

“What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse” Well, wow. I completely fell for this poem by Geffrey Davis, which won the The Massachusetts Review Anne Halley Prize. Once again I am begging you to read something: find it here.

Then ask yourself: what poems can you write under the title “What I Mean When I Say (fill in the blank)”; who have you come for?

Thanks for reading. Happy weekend. Go forth and save yourself today.


book review: The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano


So far, this autumn has been a time of planning, sifting, and sorting for me: spending time with projects to understand their clockwork insides, piling up mini-manuscripts for submissions, making applications for writerly gigs (also, crossing fingers; yes, definitely that). There hasn’t been much generative work happening at the desk of this poet, until I picked up my recently-purchased copy of The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice.

Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano wrote this book out of their own practice of bringing prompts to one another for joint writing sessions. The Daily Poet, published by Two Sylvias Press, is a sturdy but compact book of 366 poetry prompts – even one for leap year! That’s right: you basically have no excuse for not knowing what to write about. Ever again.

With the vague notion of writing a poem-most-days in November, I picked up The Daily Poet on November first, and dug right in. The book begins with a message from the authors that sets what I consider to be the perfect tone for a book of prompts. Right away, the message is:

  • realistic “Each day offers a unique exercise to get you closer to a new poem.” Because we all know that responses to prompts are not necessarily going to be poems by the end of the day. Sigh.
  • supportive  “There is no wrong way to complete a writing exercise.” Because we all know the most important thing for a prompt to do is to get us to the page, regardless of whether or not we follow the prompt in the end.
  • inspiring  “So enjoy, go forth, and write the poems you need to write. Our hope is that these exercises lead you to compose inventive, original, and downright daring poems, leaving you with a healthy stack of work that will enrich not only your life, but perhaps the lives of fellow readers.” Because sometimes we all need a reminder of why we’re doing this crazy poetry thing anyway.

I don’t know about you, but already I like this book.

Now on to the prompts and how I’ve used the book. Coming off a period steeped in particular projects, it was refreshing to have a wide variety of subject areas in the prompts I used. For one week in November (and I paraphrase):

  • Write a poem to a saint, actual or imagined
  • Write a poem that uses the names of as many types of candy as you can think of
  • Write a poem where the weather plays a particular role in changing something
  • Write a wedding poem
  • Write a poem in the form of a three-ring circus
  • Write a poem whose title is chosen thus: Pick up a book, turn to page fifteen, go down seven lines. That line is your title.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle words and images from a poem of yours that you’ve never really liked and use them to write a new poem.

For me, the main strength of this book is that the variety of prompts helped me get into a very generative space, where what I wrote one day had nothing to do with what I wrote the next (generally speaking). The variety of prompts also encouraged creative exploration of topics I might not have considered fertile ground for poetry (candy cigarettes, anyone?). For me, this is the book’s greatest gift to its user: its power to dig deep inside the rabbit holes of your poet’s brain and/or subconscious and pull out work that might never have been pulled out without it.

Other strengths of the book are:

format  I love that each page of the book has just one prompt on it, and has room for notes – ideas that the prompt sparks right away, the title of the draft the prompt brought forth in a particular year, etc. To wit:


The one prompt per page format also helps me to clear my head and focus on just that one thing (I promise you, if there were more than one prompt per page, I’d be saying, Nah, I don’t feel like doing this one, let me see what else is here…).  Bonus: there are also a few blank pages for notes at the end of the book.

portability  When you see that a book has 384 pages, you worry about being able to throw it in your bag, which you then throw in your bike basket and ride with to the library. You worry about whether that bag will hurt your shoulder as you go upstairs to the quiet second floor. At least I do. But although this is a hefty book in terms of page count, it’s a compact size (.9 x 4.9 x 7.9 inches) and a reasonable weight (14.9 oz.) – it’s utterly portable, and will even fit in most purses in case your kids have a dentist appointment and you’re going to try to write a poem in the waiting room. Bonus: it’s also available in e-book format.

steeped in seasons and history  As I paged through the book beyond the prompts I’ve used for November, I was happy to see that the prompts often highlight particular dates (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, May Day, Veterans Day), seasons (e.g., Carnival, Chanukah, Christmas), and historical events (e.g., the first documented snowfall in L.A., the birthday of Langston Hughes, the day someone first applied for a patent for a shoe-making machine). Although not all the prompts are calendar-tied, enough are so that the book feels cyclical and honors our very human need to mark time.

As for drawbacks, from my perspective there are only two. Neither of them are deal-breakers for me, but I point them out for people who might have a strong preference on one or both of these points:

One is that there is no table of contents or index. This means you need to mark up those notes pages at the end so you can find a particular prompt again. This is a relatively easy workaround, no? What I miss is being able to read the TOC and/or index as a poem – one of my favorite things to do. But I can deal.

The other is that, for the most part, the prompts are content-based rather than language-based (there are some exceptions). If you are one of the lucky ones who only needs an idea of what to write about to come up with a poem, this won’t be an issue for you. I am one of the less-lucky ones who needs more, which is why I typically use lots of tricks and traps – or language based prompts and/or constraints – to get into a poem. The easy workaround for this, of course, is to have all your old tricks and traps up your sleeve. Which I do.

I see this book on my shelf for many years, note-scrawled and page-marked, scuffed and showing its age. These are the books we love most, right? – those that endure for us over time, that keep giving, giving, and giving. I truly believe The Daily Poet will be one of those books for me. If you’re a poet, I highly recommend that you fold it into your writing practice. This book is also a great find for those of you who teach writing, and for those who lead or participate in writing groups that write together. You can buy it here.


Martha Silano & Kelli Russell Agodon have eight books of poetry between them, along with twelve years of friendship. They visit each other by ferry for long writing dates that always include coffee, laughter, and chocolate. The Daily Poet is the first book they’ve written together.  (bio from book cover)

friday roundup: all of these faces, Spillway 20, and “Traveler’s Field”

[background music: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” lyrics replaced with “Where did you go social contract?]

Friday again. Hello, Reader. This morning I upheld my end of the social contract by tracking down the grownup on my street who yelled the F-bomb and other choice words at my boys for riding their bikes on the sidewalk. Very politely, I reminded this gentleman (ahem) of his responsibilities to the children in the neighborhood. Namely, that a friendly reminder, and talking to me or my husband directly if follow up is needed, is really the way to go, rather than yelling and swearing at a ten year old. #justsayin. Sometimes I feel like our society has become too mobile and nobody knows their neighbors anymore, and so we sometimes forget our responsibilities to one another. But yes, that is me: the activist neighbor who will gently speak to your child if s/he is doing something unsafe or disrespectful, and who will remind you of good manners, Mr. F-bomb. Sheesh!

Now that that’s out of the way, we can get down to roundup business:

all of these faces  I’m really excited to share with you the new website of my former mentor and teacher, Deborah Keenan. When we lived in St. Paul, I studied with Deborah at the Loft Literary Center, and in her private Monday morning group. Those years learning from Deborah were so formative in my growth as poet. From her, I learned how to dissect a poem to see why and how it was working, and to write out of what I was reading. She took my work seriously, and helped me to see that it was time to start believing in my work, sending it out, claiming the title Poet. She’s also the person from whom I learned to make Handouts (which, er, reminds me — I’m a little behind on The Handout schedule, but don’t worry, it’s on my list).

As her website says, Deborah is poet, artist, and teacher. If you poke around a bit, you’ll see her amazing collage work, and run into some quintessential Deborah writing prompts (click on “writing inspiration”), more of which will be added to the site over time.

I hope you enjoy it. And if you’re wondering about my title for this section (and as she writes on her website) the phrase “all of these faces” is what encouraged Deborah to begin her collage work years ago (Hmmmm, what poem would you write under the title “All of These Faces”?).

Spillway 20  So, I’m going to be reading up in Marin this weekend, for Spillway 20 where my poem, “Making Dinner with Joan of Arc” appears (I wrote about drafting this poem here, and by the way, I wasted quite a lot of time to be able to draft it!) Each reader will read her own poem, and the poem of one other contributor. I’m excited to read Kathleen Kirk’s poem “Cassandra Can’t Believe the Headlines” (man, I know how Cassandra feels!). I’m looking forward to the reading, not without some nervousness. I’m walking around my house repeating this mantra: “Practice, wear your Haystack, and have a wee small glass of wine.” 🙂 Wish me luck.

“Traveler’s Field” A while back, I wrote a bit about poetic citizenship, and today’s poem comes from a stellar example of poetic citizenship, the Central Arkansas Broadside Project curated by the indefatigable Sandy Longhorn. Hop over and read a little bit about the project. One thing I love about it, besides the fact that it moves poetry into public space and consciousness, is that each poet whose broadside is featured recommends other poets whose work they enjoy. If I had had even one of these broadsides in my hands when I was 16 years old…!!! So, Sandy, three cheers for you and the CABP. And Reader, for you, here is “Traveler’s Field” by Hope Coulter.

Happy Friday, happy weekend, and thanks for reading. And now, for me it’s back to, “Practice, wear your Haystack, and have a wee small glass of wine.””Practice, wear your Haystack, and have a wee small glass of wine.””Practice, wear your Haystack, and have a wee small glass of wine.””Practice, wear your Haystack, and have a wee small glass of wine.”……….

friday roundup: taking stock (again), on images and symbols, and ‘the last thing lost’

from wikimedia

from wikimedia

Dear Reader,

There is nothing on my calendar today. Therefore shall I gather mine writerly belongings and goeth to the library, and there maketh an offering unto the muse, or if the muse be absent, writeth anyway.

But first, the roundup:

taking stock (again)  It seems much of my writerly time of late has been spent taking stock. Printing, piling, sorting, listing, weaving, unweaving. I’ve been looking at all these poems and asking, Where do you want to go? What are you doing over there in that pile? Do you have to be such a loudmouth? Have you seen the Mail Order Bride lately? — she seems to be playing hide-and-seek. And other questions. And then, the residency application I worked on last week was also a big stock-taking activity.

Yesterday, in the brief window I had for writing related activities, I did some more taking stock — because I know I need to do some big revising. Because, in case you haven’t heard, lots of journals are reopening for submissions right about now.

As with so many other elements of the writing life, I’ve only learned how to take stock of my work only by doing it. There is often a lot of flailing around before clarity begins to emerge. There is some kind of intuitive process that begins to pile certain poems together, that jots notes, finds connections, sees the different organizing principles of the work (content, diction, voice, image, narrative thread, etc.).

And there is patience. The willingness to sit with incomplete ideas and let them remain incomplete.

When’s the last time you took stock of your work? Do you have a method for doing it? I’d love to hear from you in comments about this.

on images and symbols  Reader, I’m still not over it: Seamus Heaney is dead. There have been many heartening articles about his work and life all over the interwebs, and I’ve been mining them for gems. Like the one from this article in the New York Times:

In his workaday searching for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament” he included all of life,…

Because I know I’ll be boarding the good ship S.S. Revision any day now, I’m thinking about this quote through revision’s lens. I’m thinking: What if we asked these questions of our poems:

1. What predicament does this poem attempt to illuminate?
2. Is each image and/or symbol in the poem adequate to that predicament?

(Side note: Interestingly, the word ‘predicament,’ which we use to name a difficult or fraught situation or condition, comes from the Latin words for “to say” and “forth, before” — in other words, to to assert, to declare publicly, to make a claim. Yes, the subjects of our poems are public declarations. Etymology info here.)

I suspect Mr. Heaney would say that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find symbols and images that are truly adequate to our predicament, but that it’s the job of the poet to try.

…and finally…

‘the last thing lost’  Have I ever mentioned that Verse Daily is my absolute favorite daily poetry site? No? Well it is.

Because I’m not very good at doing anything every day except drinking  coffee, brushing my teeth, and feeding my kids, I sometimes miss the day’s poem. Luckily, I stumbled across this one (can’t remember how… internet rabbit holes — I love them) better late than never. Reader, I give you “Calf” by Lisa Coffman.

Hmmm, what poem could you write under the title “the last thing lost?”

And now, it’s off to my sunny library table for me. I hope you have a wonderful Friday and a relaxing weekend. Thanks, as always, for reading.

friday roundup: the art of syntax, the personal universe deck, and ‘the doorway that watches you go’

Reader, don’t look now… but here at the Wee, Small House we’ve nearly made it through one whole week without anyone getting sick or otherwise needing unplanned care. It’s been so nice to have a bit more time for poetry this week! Without further adieu:

the art of syntax On the recommendation of Sally Rosen Kindred, whose poems you should read, I’ve been reading Ellen Bryant Voight’s The Art of Syntax (one of several books in the Art of… series from Graywolf). Holy smokes, Reader, word-nerd-alert of the century! This book is awesome! Although I’m only about one-third of the way through the book, I feel I’ve learned so much about what particular syntactical structures can do, and how different structures work together to “sort and arrange” perception over a chunk of text (a poem, a passage). She says that, although we poets have been fretting about line since free verse became the norm in poetry, “It is useful to remember that we write in sentences too, and that the infinite variations of generative syntax take another quantum leap when they can be reinforced, or reconfigured — rechunked — by the poetic line.” I feel I could devote the rest of my 40s to pulling this book apart and learning from it, and I highly recommend it to all you poets, writers of other stripes, and teachers of writing.

the personal universe deck  Amongst other things, The Art of Syntax looks at the development of one’s lexicon (“one’s individual stash of words”), which reminded me of a resource I’ve used a lot in the past, but not so much lately. The “personal universe deck” is the product of a guided exercise found in The Practice of Poetry and it goes like this: On 100 index cards write:

  • 16 words that suggest each of the 5 senses (80 words all together)
  • 10 words that suggest motion (not necessarily verbs)
  • 3 abstractions
  • 7 anything else
  • All words must be significant to you, specific (“crow” not “bird”) and sound good to your ear.
  • No adverbs, no plurals.

Now you have 100 “drive words” that can fuel your poems. Grab 10 and use them all in a draft. Or use them with other constraints: I’ve found that using a personal universe deck in combination with words that I sense are important in whatever poet’s work I’m reading at the moment can produce surprising results. It’s been a few years since I’ve refreshed my personal universe deck. Office supply store, here I come. (Oh dear, this will mean many index cards spread out on my combination kitchen/dining/living room floor).

the doorway that watches you go  This week I’ve been reading Hadara Bar-Nadav‘s Lullaby (with exit sign) — yet another book I highly recommend. These poems take elegy to a whole new level. I love how this poet uses lines from Emily Dickinson (all hail the Undisputed Queen of Everything), to launch into small but sonically packed poems of the body, mortality, and grief. Here is the title poem of this collection (which actually doesn’t use lines from E.D., but which is still really amazing).

I hope the doorway to your weekend stands wide and inviting. Thanks, as always, for reading.

friday roundup: wandering, branching, and a folk tale

this really has nothing to do with the post except that I saw this when I was wandering one day and - yowzers!

this really has nothing to do with the post except that I saw this when I was wandering one day and – yowzers!

Wow, where did that week go? (Have I said this before?) Anyway, reader, happy Friday. Before any more time slips away on me, let’s go straight to the roundup.

wandering  Do you know the Frances books by Russel Hoban? I love these books. They remind me of the world I grew up in where if you refused to eat anything but bread and jam you were fed bread and jam (and nothing else) until you swore you’d never want bread and jam again. That world of jump rope rhymes and forts under the kitchen table and of imaginary friends and picnics and children playing in the broom closet. And also that world where wandering was part of everyday life.

Remember wandering? Or does your memory need refreshing? According to Frances’ (sometimes) best friend, Albert, wandering goes like this: “I just go around until I get hungry. Then I eat my lunch.”

Does that not sound like bliss?

I was reading Best Friends for Frances (wherein Albert expounds upon wandering) to Youngest Child this week and it made me realize that our modern way of life is far too devoid of wandering. How easy it is to forget the importance of aimlessness! I resolved to wander more — both literally (as in wandering around my neighborhood) and in my writing life (as in embracing the prairie dog at my desk). And here’s a trick that helped me to do that:

branching  I found this idea in Wingbeats which I first wrote about here. In the chapter called “Thesaurus Is Not a Four-Letter Word,” Ellaraine Lockie shares a process she calls branching. Here’s a shortened version of how to do it:

  1. Make a list of “key” words and write them horizontally across the top, right corner of a piece of paper. Key words might be words you love or that interest you, words related to a particular subject you want to write about, words you notice recurring in your (or someone else’s) writing.
  2. Under each word write synonyms for that each word, circling the synonyms that are especially interesting to you. Then repeat the process for the circled words.
  3. Meanwhile, on the left side of the paper write down scraps of language, ideas, phrases, other words, anything that occurs to you as you do your branching.

Here’s what it looks like:

IMG_3885I’ve always done a lot of what I call “word work” in my notebook — definitions, etymology, synonyms and antonyms. But branching extends this practice in way that seems very generative to me. I’m adding branching to my toolkit for both draft preparation and neutral practices. Eariler this week, branching allowed me to write when the writing wasn’t flowing, and to start an interesting collection of phrases, lines, and words when I went back to capture the scraps in the left hand column. I wouldn’t call it a draft, but it’s also not an empty page. For you writers in the readership, I hope branching can be a helpful tool for you. And now, on to

a folk tale  Some of my favorite poems are those that hearken back to an old tale, but unfold in modern times. That mix of the archetypal and the typical is so interesting to me.

Here’s a poem called Folk Tale by Linda Pastan that uses elements of folk tales to examine family life.

Notice the objects, characters, and actions she borrows from the old tales: horses, cows, pigs and ploughs; cuckoos, eggs, roosters and brooms; dwelling, milking, lowing, roosting,gathering. She conjures biblical language (“a multitude of two”) and modern life (the “abandoned aircraft,” the “blue television light”). She mixes associations of the ark and the stable with spelling words, braids, school buses, and piano scales. Pretty amazing if you ask me.

Have a good weekend, Reader. Thanks, as always, for reading.