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

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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:

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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.

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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)

an interview with Molly Fisk: part 1 of 2

UnknownHello, Reader, it’s your lucky day! That’s because today’s post is part one of a two-part interview with poet, radio broadcaster, life-coach, and person extraordinaire, Molly Fisk.

I came to know Molly when I took a class from her called “Getting Your Work Out.” With her no-nonsense advice, her gentle and constructive questions, and her soothing, archetypal voice, she helped me get to a point where I was submitting regularly and objectively, instead of sporadically and with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. #forevergrateful.

I recently read Molly’s newest book, Blow-Drying a Chicken: Observations from a Working Poet (more on that title later in the interview), and loved it so much I wanted to know more about how this book came to be in the world. But before we begin, here’s a public service announcement:

Molly Fisk will teach a five-day on-line workshop on essay writing that begins this Sunday (9/22): Essay Bootcamp, a variation on her popular Poetry Boot Camp. For more information, contact her through her website.

And now, Reader, I give you Molly Fisk:

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MS: This book came out of a weekly radio address broadcast by your local radio station KVMR. How did you first land such a sweet gig?

MF: I didn’t even land it, it was handed to me by KVMR’s News Director at the time (2004) Carolyn Crane, who said I could write about whatever I wanted to. I worried for a couple of hours, thinking I might not be able to dream up enough things to say. And I’d been a poet for 13 years by then, but not writing any prose at all except for letters. The friend I called for some advice said to me, “YOU? Not have something to say?!?!” in such a tone of voice that I was startled, and then laughed, and then took the job.

The corollary information is that I’d been a broadcaster for 5 years by then, and people were often saying that my voice was great on the radio, so that helped. And I had loved Bailey White when she was on NPR, too. So those two things helped egg me on to try it. And here I am still doing it, at 6:25 p.m. Pacific Time on Thursdays as part of the News Hour. (You can hear me streaming at kvmr.org) Three minutes. This week was a re-run, but next week will be essay #296.

MS: Three minutes. That’s not a lot of time — maybe as long as we sit at a red light waiting for it to turn green (and here in the Peninsula Town, maybe not even that long!). What was it like to work with a three-minute time constraint? In what ways was that constraint a challenge and a gift?

MF: It was incredibly hard at first, because they don’t mean three minutes and 30 seconds, or two minutes and 45 seconds, they mean three minutes, give or take 10 seconds. So I did a lot of reading aloud on the sofa to my cats – trying not to speed up or slow down, but to develop an even pace where the words could be understood and I wasn’t sounding too ponderous. In my normal speech there are lots of gaps and pauses, which I tried not to indulge in for the essays.

At the beginning, I think I wrote four in a row, and then practiced to get them to the right time. I wanted to have some in my back pocket in case one week I couldn’t think of anything to write. Now I have done so many I can just re-run things if I get sick or need to go out of town or just feel blocked.

The big unexpected gift has been that writing for radio taught me how to edit. When you’re writing for print, and you have an editor, you’re in luck – you can learn that way. Someone says “where is this going? you’re off the point” and you take it out or develop it more. But with this time constraint and no editor, I had to learn to do that for myself. I almost always write in a joke or a tangent that I love and then have to take it out again. Now I think I take it out before the sentence is even completed, with a kind “there you go again,” to myself in passing. The quote “kill your darlings” is attributed to about 15 different writers – I don’t know who originally said it. But it turns out to be quite true. The minute you like something quite a lot, you know it will probably come out because one reason you can even see it enough to like it is that it’s not in the flow of the rest of the work. It’s sticking out a little bit. And that means it won’t work when the whole piece is done. It’s like the kid in the 5th grade photo wearing orange when everyone else is wearing blue.

The other thing I learned about writing for radio is that big words can screw things up. You have to be able to speak clearly and make sense. Three minutes is longer than you would ever wait for a red light, even in your neighborhood – those are probably a minute and a half – but it’s not very long, and your audience is listening, not reading along. So you have to give them the gist of things quickly and seamlessly. I do throw in a lot of vernacular and words I learned from my grandmother – I say “ice box” and “groovy” and “whippersnapper,” which aren’t in your run-of-the-mill 21st century sentences much any more. But I do that in a calculated way. Ice box is a lot easier to pronounce than refrigerator, actually, when you come down to it. And that’s not manufactured for radio. I’ve been saying it since I was a kid, because my mother did.

MS: (*looking around sheepishly for so grossly misoverestimating how long I wait at traffic lights*) Aha, now we’re talking diction. My inner-poet’s ears just pricked right up. I’m curious: what has writing poetry taught you about writing radio commentary, and what has writing radio commentary taught you about writing poetry?

MF: Both poems and radio commentary are short forms, so in terms of how much I like to bite off and chew (or how long my attention span is), they’re quite similar. There’s more room in poetry for open space, silence, big leaps of understanding. In radio, dead air is frowned on, so you have to kind of rush right along most of the time. And in that rushing you don’t want to trip over your own tongue. I still probably use more convoluted words and phrases than the average NPR reporter, partly because that’s how I think and speak and partly because community radio has a little more leeway to be casual than big-time radio does. But I do always have my ear out for something that I might write easily but that would be hard to say out loud.

An example is the word “sesquicentennial.” When I moved to Nevada City, the town was getting ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Now as a show-off, I would love to be blurting out “sesquicentennial” on the radio at every possible opportunity. But as someone who likes to record in one take, and who knows how a tongue-twister can gather momentum and really screw you up, I backed down and wrote “150th anniversary” when I was describing my town in an essay.

In poems, I don’t have the same constraints about tongue-twisters, even though I read them aloud to audiences, because I can go as slowly as I want to. But in poetry I have my own personal constraints about not sounding too “poetical” or mannered. People half-expect you to be a puffed up idiot already, bringing on ten-dollar words just to make them feel small. So while I don’t stop myself from using longer words that come naturally to me in speech — like exquisite or desultory — I would never put something like “pulchritude” into a poem because I wouldn’t say it out loud. It’s just not one of my words.

I don’t think radio and poetry have influenced each other much at all in this arena, it’s more what do I find natural to say and when would I say it. I’ve always thought about poetry as being my profession and radio as being more like recess or a brief vacation, where I can lark around and get a little rowdy and not worry about things. In that sense I suppose my poems are a little bit more formal and carefully thought-through.

I am lucky enough, with each form, to be able to sit down often and spit out a poem or an essay then and there. They’re not always the best ones, but I don’t have to be waiting for Euterpe or whoever the muse of poetry is to stop buffing her nails and come whack me on the head with a good idea… I can almost always find one by looking around me.

photo courtesy of the author

photo courtesy of the author

Poet Molly Fisk writes weekly essays for community radio stations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin. She’s the author of the poetry collections, The More Difficult Beauty, Listening to Winter, and Salt Water Poems, and the audio recordings of commentary, Blow-Drying a Chicken and Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace. Fisk has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She’s the owner of Poetry Boot Camp (poetrybootcamp.com) and can be reached at mollyfisk.com.

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Reader, stay tuned for part two of this interview and a chance to win a signed copy of Blow-Drying a Chicken.

an interview with Kristina Marie Darling

click on image to order this book

click on image to order this book

Hello again out there. Recently, I talked about wanting to “shine a light” on the work of other writers, and in this vein I’m happy to post this interview (full disclosure: it’s an electronic interview in the form of an e-mail exchange) with Kristina Marie Darling, co-author with Carol Guess, of X Marks the Dress: A Registry.

Since reading Kristina’s lyric essay Melancholia: An Essay, I’ve been intrigued by her use of inventive forms — footnotes, appendices, and this time a bridal registry, more appendices, and erasure — to forge new poetic ground. I was especially interested in talking to Kristina about the process of collaboration, and you’ll see that many of my questions revolve around that topic. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kristina Marie Darling:

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MS: How did you and Carol Guess come to work on this collaborative project?

KMD: I’ve always admired Carol’s work. I even reviewed her book, Tinderbox Lawn, for Galatea Resurrects: A Poetry Engagement. When my lyric essay, Melancholia (An Essay), was published, I emailed Carol as part of my efforts to promote the book and discovered that the admiration that I had for Carol’s work was mutual. I was thrilled. Shortly after that, Carol and I did a book trade by mail. That was the beginning of a great conversation, and I’m so glad that I reached out.

Carol had just finished a collaboration with Daniela Olszewska, and we started discussing the possibility of working on a project together. I had collaborated with a visual artist before, but never with a writer. Give the admiration I had for Carol’s work, and the possibility of trying something new with my own poetry, I welcomed the opportunity. With that in mind, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to reach out to other poets, artists, and creative people. A single email message can lead to unexpected friendships, conversations, and opportunities.

MS: Did you begin with the idea of a book in mind, or did you undertake the collaboration in a more open-ended way?

KMD: When we started the project, we were definitely working on the level of individual poems. But it gained momentum quickly, and soon we were adding to the manuscript on a daily basis. I’d never experienced this kind of creative momentum before collaborating. As the manuscript grew, we started looking at it as a book, rather than a set of individual poems, and we began thinking about how to structure the project. Once we had finished the first section, Carol and I made a tentative plan for how the rest of the book would unfold. But I learned that it’s important to be open-minded in a collaboration. You never know what your collaborator is going to write, so you find inspiration at the most unexpected moments. You may find yourself wanting to try something new, exciting, and challenging at any time.

MS: How did you come to your subject?  In other words, did you and Carol choose the subject at the outset, or did the subject evolve out of the collaborative work?

KMD: The first thing that Carol and I decided on were characters and their voices. Carol wrote as the husband, and I played the part of the wife. The subject of weddings emerged as part of our discussions about structure. The theme of the wedding registry allowed us to organize what we had already written, and to lend unity to the different voices that had begun to inhabit the manuscript.

MS: What were the nuts and bolts of your collaborative process?  (e.g. did you draft each poem collaboratively?  What were the logistics of the work? etc.)

KMD: That’s a great question. The first section of the book consists of linked prose poems, so for this part of the manuscript, Carol and I were each in charge of one character’s voice. Carol would write a poem in the voice of the husband, then I’d respond in the voice of the wife. Midway through this section, we introduced a mistress character. I’ll let that part of the book remain a mystery.

After the first section had been drafted, Carol and I were each in charge of one of the appendices to the main text. Once we had completed our respective additions to the manuscript, we erased each other’s poems from last section. These erasures comprise the final appendix to the work.

MS: What was the revision process like in your collaboration?

KMD: We discussed all major decisions regarding the structure of the manuscript, and agreed on them before making those types of revisions. But when it came to line edits, we mostly revised our pieces and our appendices on an individual level. I would tweak my poems, and Carol would tweak hers. Although we consider everything in the book to be collaborative, this revision process worked well, since we could each make our contribution to the project exactly what we wanted it to be.

MS: Were there ever points of disagreement regarding artistic choices, and if yes, how did you resolve them?

KMD: There were never any disagreements. Carol was wonderful to work with. She’s friendly, polite, professional – everything I could ask for in a collaborator. And I was really grateful to be able to learn from a writer as experienced as she is. I feel like she taught me so much about how to structure a book-length project, and showed me how to build a compelling narrative. Carol and I had never met before starting the collaboration, so I was delighted that we worked so well together.

MS: I noticed that many of the poems, particularly those in the first section, use syntactical patterns and forms similar to come of your previous work. What was it like to bring this established voice into a collaboration?

KMD: When collaborating, it’s important to respond to your collaborator, and to accommodate his or her voice. But it’s also imperative that you maintain some degree of artistic autonomy. So you have to strike a really delicate balance. You don’t want to distract the reader from what your collaborator is doing, or clash with or her aesthetic. But it’s also important to maintain a sense of your own identity. Most importantly, though, collaboration can be great way to discover new contexts for your existing style of writing, and to expand what’s possible within an established voice.

MS: What advice do you have for poets who are considering a collaborative project?

KMD: First and foremost, don’t let the rest of the world discourage you. Some people will tell you that collaborative writing is hard to publish, so don’t do it. I say don’t let those people stop you. Carol and I were surprised and delighted by the positive response to our collaboration when we started sending work to journals. It took less than a month for us to find a publisher for the manuscript. We were both thrilled to work with a press as wonderful and reputable as Gold Wake Press. But most importantly, I now consider Carol to be a good friend and mentor. I wouldn’t have any of these things if I let people discourage me. Collaboration, for me, has been a truly rewarding experience and I’d certainly recommend it to other poets, artists, and creative people.

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I’m grateful to Kristina for taking the time to answer these questions. If you’d like to know more about the authors, Kristina’s website is here and Carol’s is here. To buy the book, go here or click on the cover image above.