31 January 2012

'History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman...'

The NPR news program All Things Considered has a new feature: Each month it will take on a "poet-in-residence" for a day. The poet will shadow workers, attend news meetings, become familiar with the stories of the day and how they come to be stories on air. Then, the poet will write a poem using that day's news as a prompt.

January news poet Tracy K. Smith was moved by the story of Nigerians fleeing violence in the north of their country, which she heard about at the morning news meeting. She told All Things Considered's Melissa Block that news events are often "things I am thinking about and wrestling with and trying to understand better." And what better way to do that than to write about them?

Smith had to write her poem "in a hurry," not unlike how writers write to timed prompts in my workshops. But she had the "luxury" of an entire day! Her poem written in a a hurry begins: 

     History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman
     Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.

Smith discusses her writing process with reporter Melissa Block. To read and/or listen to the interview and to read Smith's entire poem and hear her read it, click here.

Any day the glare of the empty page gets to you, try checking out your favorite news source. Scan the headlines from that day or the day before, read the stories that seem to reach out to you. Give yourself some time for ideas to dance around in your head, couple and rise to the surface. Then write whatever stirs your feelings the most. Free write at first, giving your thoughts free reign. There's plenty of time to edit later. You'll write your way into that place all on your own.

28 January 2012

The Wolf is the Thing

PROMPT: Close your eyes and listen to the recordings of wolves at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, IN, near Lafayette. Let your mind wander. What thoughts, images, feelings present themselves to you? When I visited Wolf Park several years ago, I purchased a CD of these howls in the gift shop and used them as an audio prompt at a workshop. Stories emerged with widely varied themes-everything from peace and safety to fear and loneliness. What would happen if you let yourself really howl? I drew on my understanding of the wolf in dream imagery as the animal in us who cannot be ignored, who holds our heart's desire and wrote this...


The wolf is the thing, you know—
that beast brooding in the switchbacks 
of every body's gut. 

He's the one we think will eat us up 
if we let him howl
who turns out to be 
the one who eats us up 
when we don’t.

Let him howl.

27 January 2012

The Eyes (and Noses) Have It!

PROMPT: This poem had its origin in a strong image--rain and wind in spring making a shower of petals from flowering trees, which then collected in drifts where the sidewalk met the grass--and a strong, nearly over-powering scent. I sometimes ask writers to each contribute a strong image or scent to a list, then each writer can choose to write about his/her own suggestion or one someone else made. If you try this prompt, let the image, or smell, or both, take you to a new place, as in my poem the narrator moves from nature outside to a person inside. The "you" of the poem didn't literally smell like the apple blossoms, but the feeling evoked by the embrace and the unique smells accompanying it created the same sort of headiness--a figurative similarity. 

The Morning After

Rain stole the last of the apple blossoms
yesterday afternoon. I watched
still darker clouds gather overhead as
wind waltzed the petals from tree
to the grasses’ greedy arms.

Soon the wind grew jealous and
pitched the petals to the desert of sidewalk where
when it would not reign its temper in
grass gathered the petals to itself in drifts
like a fence in winter will snow.

I staggered up the straight path to my front door
so punch-drunk with the breeze that I 
thought I saw Krishna dance before the cow maidens,  
luring them with the music of his flute
toward the sheltered spot
under the tree.

The morning after was when
you stepped from the shower and held me.
And the scent of soap and damp
where my nightgown met your skin was
the same.

26 January 2012

Writing from Sandpaper

PROMPT: A well-worn scrap of sandpaper. Often I put out a collection of objects for writers to choose from, but this particular object is apt to draw a very different response from each person. It reminded me of my husband, whose shop I confiscated it from, and the many things he's made for me--including dinner!

Writing from Sandpaper

His smell whiffs from
the bracken of grit     halted
on this scratched scrap.

It’s the part of him that's
buff and press and snow—
his pattern as it smooths its way
into my tables
     my shelves
          my chairs.
Into a cabinet of earrings singing secrets.
Into an island where herbs chiffonade
in time with the melting sun.

Smooth, so smooth this shaven skin
limber with sweat and callous:
his, mine, this life.

25 January 2012

Beneath the Roar of the Grinder...

PROMPT: A sound and the emotional response it calls forth in the writer. The sound I chose was a coffee grinder, but others may work better for you--a tea kettle whistling, an alarm clock or clock chime, a train whistle, footsteps on stairs or a sidewalk, a knock on a door, a dripping faucet or hose, splashing in a pool, rain. I usually suggest several but allow writers to choose one of their own. Or you could go around the writing table and ask each person to contribute one to create a list of sounds all can draw from. Write in the direction of uncovering something new about yourself; see if a metaphoric quality emerges. Concentration on one of the senses may make you more aware of other sensory data as you write. For instance, my example begins with sound but appeals to sight, taste, smell and feeling as well. My title also serves double-duty as first line of the poem, but it's not necessary for yours to do that.

Beneath the Roar of the Grinder…

Beneath the shoosh
     and splutter
          of scalded
               spit-out water…

Beneath the
     schmush of the scoop
          like the child’s
               tin-painted shovel in sand…

Is the coffee 
dark and bitter
like me:

Pressed from a hard shell.
Perfume of first light.

13 January 2012

Three Times of Snow

PROMPT: The title is the prompt, and the weather today may work to stimulate your creative juices. But you could really substitute any weather: three times of sun, three times of rain, three times of wind. Or change "times" to "kinds." Or switch out the idea of weather for another noun, like "mothers" or "houses," "yards" or "jobs," "cats" or "husbands." The possibilities are, literally, endless. I actually wrote this poem in summer, at a workshop I led in my home several years ago, which goes to show it may be easier to romanticize winter when it's 90-degrees outside. You decide!

Three Times of Snow

First there’s the dancing snow (probably in November but after
Thanksgiving): big flakes that light on my outstretched tongue
or melt on still-warm earth.

Then there’s the driving snow (usually in January but always firmly
in the New Year): sharp crystals that blow me inside by the fire
and turn my thoughts to cocoa, tomato soup, grilled cheese.

Finally there’s the packing snow (which could come any time but
I cross my fingers and wish for): to build forts and mold grenades to lob at
my brother’s head. And when he runs inside, cheeks red, to tattle

this       is the snow I lie down in       and spread my wings.

12 January 2012

In the Never-Never Land of My Unfinished Novel

PROMPT: From my Nov. 6, 2011, workshop at Nora Branch of IMCPL. First we read the poem “The Mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks and talked about the idea of negative capability in writing (see a related handout under the "Resources" tab), Then I asked attendees to write about something that had presence and meaning in their lives because of its lack. Here’s what I wrote…

A psychic I met in grad school said she saw me with three children AND I would write three books. It took me most of the years between then and now to realize the two were the same thing: books are a writer’s children. She saw me that way, and I’ve been saying I wanted to be a novelist since the fourth grade, and yet to date, I’ve written no books, though I have managed to raise one human daughter.

I have written a great deal of nonfiction and a lot of this and that, including disparate parts of two novels. I have a vague idea for a third. My problem is I can’t seem to sustain the work—to string together the many pieces and fill in the blanks between them.  I’m not getting any younger, either. Last birthday I logged 55 years this incarnation.

Sometimes it’s life that gets in the way: helping my husband, my daughter, my dying mother, my elderly father, my difficult mother-in-law, my sick cat. Sometimes it’s internet shopping and computer games. I always have an excuse.

Each of my two novels in progress has its own mini-library of books on geographic or time settings. One novel takes place in present time in an invented town in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, while the other is set in Ancient Rome circa the reign of Caesar Augustus. The wall of my studio holds a large, framed image of my muse. It’s the reproduction of a fresco from a home in ancient Pompeii entitled “The Poetess.” The artist painted her head and shoulders in a rondelle, and she holds a book of wax tablets and a stylus, ready to make her mark on them.

Some people say she is Sappho, the famous Greek poetess from the Isle of Lesbos, but there’s no evidence of this. For one, this young woman is dressed as a well-to-do Roman. For another, she is too young to fit our idea of the middle-aged Sappho. My young woman is not far out of girlhood—perhaps 15 or 16. Her pose is a typical one used by itinerant artists and chosen by families wishing to immortalize someone, often someone who has recently died.

So into the vacuum of identity surrounding this I've projected an identity and made her the central character in my novel set in ancient Rome. I see her as someone who actually lived and whose family we know a great deal about, though we know little about her specifically. I see her as Sulpicia, the daughter of the orator Sulpicius, granddaughter of the jurist Sulpicius and niece to the general and statesman Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalla, her mother’s brother and a contemporary of Caesar Augustus. 

Sulpicia is important because her few poems are the only poems written in Latin by a woman to have survived the centuries. We know from historical sources that educated Roman women did indeed write, and fragments of writings by women in other genres do exist. Her poems survived only because someone tucked them into the final volume of poems by Tibullus, published after his death. Tibullus, one of the Latin elegists, was a friend of Sulpicia’s uncle, Messalla, a patron of the arts. Sulpicia, Tibullus and Sulpicia’s younger brother are thought by historians to have been part of the circle of writers Messalla helped support.

It's thought she wrote her poems around age 15 to 19. But all we know for sure is what’s in them: She had a great and forbidden love with someone not of her social station. After that, she simply disappears. Scholars postulate she either married and wrote no more or died. My novel is about what happened to her—in my imagination, of course. I identified with her for all time when I read these bold and insistent lines, addressed to her lover:

     This day has brought a love
     it would shame me to conceal—
     won by song and prayer
     Venus gives him to my arms
     and all that she promised comes true.
     Let my love be told by the loveless,
     my letters go unsealed
     and any read them who will.
     If I sin, I glory in sinning:
     I will not wear virtue’s mask—
     the world shall know we have met
     and are worthy, one of the other.

She lived. She loved. She wrote about it. She disappeared. 

Will I do the same?

I have imagined often what it will be like to finish my days on earth and not finish my stories—never to complete what I set out to do, what I told everyone I wanted. Will someone like me, centuries from now, discover my bits and piece and imagine what connected them? What’s missing? Will she wonder what I wonder of Sulpicia? What happened to her? Where did she go? Will I speak to this future writer from my grave of paper wads and empty ink cartridges, as I believe Sulpicia speaks to me from her grave of wax tablets and papyrus?

Someone in a writing group I attended once asked when I finished reading an excerpt, “How is it that someone with your talent hasn’t already written many, many books?”

The honor she paid me touched me deeply, and my eyes clouded with tears because of how it filled me up and emptied me out all at once. The answer I gave her works for all the questions in this essay: “I don’t know,” I whispered and bowed my head. I felt shame.

I still don’t know. I feel like a failure most of the time, but I keep writing something. 

A Postscript

Part of what sets apart my writing workshops is that I take the same risks I ask participants to take: I write along with them and read aloud what I wrote at least once in each session. When I finished reading this piece, again there was a hush. I let the silence ride. Eventually a woman spoke. "I thought I was the only one who felt that way," she said. Others voiced and nodded agreement.

It helps to know we're not alone on this journey. Sulpicia had the Messalla Circle. I'm glad to have all of you. Love is not the only thing it shames us to conceal.

Please enjoy this recording of Gwendolyn Brooks reading "The Mother."

07 January 2012

Two Peas in a (Writing) Pod

Listen to an interview with humorists Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, or read the transcript, as they discuss their collaboration on the just-released novel Lunatics. The story is told by two very different characters in alternating chapters.

Here's how it worked: Barry would write his chapter from his character's perpsective, then send it to Zweibel, who wrote in the other character's voice. Whenever the latest chapter arrived in their email inbox, they really never knew what to expect and had to move the story along with whatever the other person had given them.

You can try this for fun, and who knows? You may end up with something you want to shop around to publishers. This pair suggests you choose someone you get along well with but whose writer's voice is the opposite of yours. This opposition is what will give the story its energy and keep readers interested.

They also said they only met about twice during the whole process, that all the "work" was really done by email. So if you have a writing pal who doesn't live close, this is a fun way to keep in touch!

06 January 2012

Between the Lines

PROMPT: Choose a poem you think will work well as a prompt. At the E. 38th St. IMCPL branch in late October 2011, we started with "Fire" by Joy Harjo from her book What Moon Drove Me to This? Cross out every other line (it doesn't matter whether you start with the first or second line) and write lines of your own to fit with the remaining original lines. Then, cross out the remaining lines of the original poem and write more lines of your own to go with those you already wrote so that what you end up with is a poem that's wholly yours. 

Here's what I wrote...

Between the Lines

No one hears
a voice unspoken.
Each person must walk into
the timbre of her own breath.
Every One must dance into
the beauty of her own resonance--
flirting, flitting from word to word to word
like lovers wrestling in the damp night.
A body must journey into its deepest throat
no matter what the cost. See--
the cancer cut from inside my neck
was not the end but a new start. My voice
goes on and on even as I sleep
like water rippling in moonlight.
My dreams, my pen become a tongue
for those weary of talk. I am become
a breeze that bristles dry autumn leaves
to ground. I mulch the earth's madness
with whatever laughter or tears
I launch into the darkness.