Review: The Crafty Poet By Diane Lockward

Most artists worry at one point or another that they will lose their creative spark, that if they are not working actively at their chosen art, they will find themselves alienated from whatever impetus that caused them to create art in the first place.

In The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward, poet Michelle Biting writes, “I worry I will slip out of the creative zone I’ve worked so hard to tap–ideas will fade, metaphors atrophy–I’ll wake up an exile from my own poetry country” (19). Biting then suggests that the poet who finds herself in this poetic desert try the practice of scratching, to write down snippets on the fly: images, overheard conversations, random thoughts.

Theodore Roethke kept a practice similar to scratching. He would write down disparate lines in his notebook until he had gathered enough of them to create a poem. This practice is what my own writing has turned into lately while teaching four sections of English Composition. I’ve been writing down fleeting images and thoughts while my students do a free-write warm up at the beginning of class.

Scratching is one of many craft tips Diane Lockward has collected in her volume, The Crafty Poet, A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013). As she explains in her introduction, the book grew out of a monthly newsletter she writes through her well-known poetry blog, Blogalicious. Each of the ten chapters revolves around a different aspect of poetic craft: generating material, diction, sound, voice, imagery and figurative language, going deep/adding layers, syntax, line/stanza, revision, and writer’s block/revision.

The craft tips included in each chapter come from highly regarded, nationally known poets. The book includes 27 craft tips followed by a poem, also from accomplished, well-known poets, many of whom are or have been their state’s poet laureate. After the poem comes a writing prompt. Besides the poems by established poets, Lockward has included sample poems written by readers of her monthly newsletter who followed the suggested prompts.

Because there are so many poems by innovative, contemporary poets, The Crafty Poet is more than a portable workshop; it is an anthology of poems written in the kind of fresh, rich, and lively language we writers want to emulate.

Now that I have a break from a semester of teaching English Composition I, I have my eye on several of the prompts in this book. I’m thinking of starting with Kim Addonizio’s “Sonnenizio on a Line From Drayton.” Lockward explains, “a sonnenizio is a form invented by Kim Addonizio. As it’s name suggests, its form is a spin-off of the sonnet” (61).

Now the fun begins–to look for a line from a sonnet to jumpstart my poem. I intend to spend my winter break mining the many craft tips in The Crafty Poet. With Lockward’s guidebook by my side, there’s no way I’ll find myself “in exile from my own poetry country.”

Ekphrasis

Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.

Recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Terrance Hayes has a 20-part poem titled “Arbor for Butch,” written to a sculpture series by Martin Puryear. Hayes also experiments with form in this poem, as it is a pecha kucha.

The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. 

I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony  lives on through poetry!

Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington

Praying for Peace

Today at my house we’ve been talking about the many horrifying events that are occurring around the globe, and more specifically, the brutal killing of journalist Steven Sotloff in the wake of James’s Foley’s murder. The question is, how do we stay positive? How can we keep ourselves from falling into despair? How do we continue to enjoy our lives when so many are suffering?

Violence begets violence. We can trace the causes of war by jumping from one act of aggression to another. Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame? The people who are using the deaths of these journalists to goad the president into war are irresponsible. As Martin Luther King preached, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

The answer is compassion. And focusing on the breath. I mean that on a very personal level. There are no slogans that will save us. We have this present moment to cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and each other. I’m committed to remaining faithful to gratitude for each breath, for each opportunity to grow in awareness and compassion.

If we learn to respect the abiding source of love within ourselves, we will never want to harm another creature, because all sentient beings are made of the same stuff of life, the same love. We can’t control others, let alone world events. So we need to focus on cultivating love for ourselves and the people with whom we have contact on a daily basis. If each of us does this work, we will evolve and the world will be at peace.

As Robert Thurman says in the introduction to  his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “in order to create something, we have to imagine it first.” The work of creating peace begins in our individual minds, and it spreads as each of us grows in awareness, clarity, and peace.

Peace to James Foley and his family. Peace to journalist Steven Sotloff and all those who love him. Peace to Michael Brown, his family, and all the young people of color who have lost their lives due to discrimination.

(Free!) Online Poetry Class

The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is offering a free, online poetry class, otherwise known as a MOOC. Each week we will listen to two video lessons and write poems based on suggested exercises.

Former poet laureate Robert Hass opened up the lecture series with a talk about writing poetry 1, 2, 3, and 4-line sketches. Rather than explain everything he says in the video, which was wonderful and inspiring, I will direct you to the blog of one of my classmates, Minal Hajratwala, a very accomplished writer in her own right. She has outlined the entire lesson and found links to the many poems Robert Hass cites (often from memory)–thank you, Minal!

The part of the lesson that inspired me the most has to do with “Bantu combinations.” According to Hass, while Bantu men were working together, one would call out a line.

The example he gives is: “An elephant was killed by a small arrow.” 

The second person calls out: “A lake dries up at the edges.”

The idea is to find a similarity between the two images, but a surprising one. Here the connection is that the edges of a dried up lake resemble the elephant’s skin. 

Some of these Bantu combinations, which previously existed only as spoken word, have been collected by Jerome Rothenberg in Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania. 

Here’s the four-line sketch I wrote for the exercise:

Hiking up Pigeon Hill on Little Kennesaw Mountain

Profiles of ancient women line the boulders

Where, in blues and grays, Missourians shot each other

Behind earthen battlements, a yellow-petaled cactus.

Hiking up Pigeon Hill on Little Kennesaw Mountain

 

Review: Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) creates a world where fairytale characters return to us, claiming their stories for themselves.

In “Fur,” Red Riding Hood’s single mother tells her, “Be not girl…but wolf,” and in “Rotkappchen” the girl begs the hunstman to leave her and the grandmother “in the wolf’s belly, without memory.”

The title poem, “Wolf Skin,” shows us the hunter who, after saving the grandmother and the girl, wraps himself in the slain wolf’s skin and calls himself a hero, while inwardly admitting he doesn’t understand the mystery of cutting them out of the jaws of death.

While McMyne retells several different Grimm’s fairy tales, often using the German words for characters or titles, at the same time she explores themes such as death, rebirth, pain, cessation of pain, and entrapment within the confines of societal norms.

McMyne’s language and imagery evoke a world that is close to the pulse and marrow of life. The poems are alive to the unspoken urges and forces that only reveal themselves to us in dreams and ancient stories.

#readwomen2014

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Summer Reading: Swift Hour by Megan Sexton

Swift Hour by Megan Sexton is the 2013 winner of Mercer University’s  Adrienne Rich Bond Award for poetry. This first collection contains many delicate gems. These poems are tender and powerful in their precise and restrained expression of the human condition.

One of my favorite poems is “Lastoshki,” about a man writing down Anna Akhmatova’s verses on cigarette paper as she says “the words that came to her/ like sparrows falling on snow.” Megan Sexton’s first collection is lovely and refreshing. I’m sure to read it a second and third time.
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Peony Moon wins 2014 Saboteur Award

Michelle McGrane and Sophie Mayer’s Against Rape poetry and art anthology won a 2014 Saboteur Award for “Best One Off.” 

In 2013, reacting to rape culture and the tendency for victims of rape to be silenced, McGrane and Mayers created an online anthology of poems from around the globe. An international chorus of poets speak out about personal experiences: survival, anger, grief, and fear.

Even though the poems can be painful to read, as a whole they give courage to others who may have gone through similar experiences. Art can heal. As an older woman once said to me, “Honey, telling our stories eases the burden by half.”

If you haven’t had a chance, do go to Peony Moon to read the poignant, powerful, and persuasive poems that McGrane and Mayer have gathered. Keep in mind that the poems come from honesty and pain and may be triggering.

Michelle McGrane included my poem, “Hippocratic Oath,” which will be in my poetry collection, Swimming This, due to be published in Summer 2015 by FutureCycle Press.

Swimming This grew out of a desire to express my pain and to understand what I had suffered after experiencing abuse from a therapist. I sought therapy to recover from severe post-partum depression, but instead I was manipulated by a predator.

Eventually, through poetry, mediation, and love I recovered. My book shows the path toward healing. I will no longer remain silent about what I went through. If I can do anything to empower others, I will.

Blue bonnets near Austin, Texas, a place where the healing began.

Blue Bonnets in Austin Texas, a place where the healing began.

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

***

I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.

 

Gentle Hike to Cascade Falls

Over Memorial Day weekend I went on a four mile hike on the Pine Mountain trail at Roosevelt State Park, land that is connected to F.D.R.’s Little White House.

F.D.R. chose Warm Springs, GA as a getaway from Washington and the world stage because of the curative properties of thermal springs there. Polio had rendered him paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 39, and bathing in the springs helped him regain some of his strength.

He bought the land surrounding the springs in 1927 and converted the area into a rehabilitation center that is still thriving today. The waters are not available to the general public, but people in need still receive the benefits of the warm springs.

The Pine Mountain trail covers twenty-three miles of easy to moderate hiking through a gentle mountain range, hills mostly, south of Atlanta. The four miles we hiked took us from a radio tower and picnic area off a two-lane highway to a meandering creek-side path under the cover of oaks, pines, and rhododendron. Tiny waterfalls spilled over brown and gold rocks along the way.

We crossed the creek several times until we reached our destination, Cascade Falls. We took our boots off, waded into the cool water, and later watched a millipede crawl across the sand while we dried our feet in a patch of sunlight.

I scrambled up a twenty-five- or thirty-foot overhang just because it was there. I started climbing what seemed like a stone stairway, but about halfway up I realized I would have to pull myself up part of the way, which was a little scary. I should have taken the trail to the top. But I made it, and was relieved once I flopped myself over the ledge.

 

 

Grateful May, Day 1

Satya and Kaspa have started a new writing theme for the month of May–gratitude. Each day on their website, Writing Our Way Home, they share the small and big aspects of their lives for which they are grateful, and they invite others to do the same.

I signed up for their inspirational emails to keep me going; I’ll admit, I tend to let my mind run along some very slippery, downward slopes.  Having a bright note in my inbox reminding me to look up at the blue sky encourages me to pay attention to what brings me joy and happiness.

May 1: After a long drive in rush hour traffic and teaching a three-hour writing class at the community college, I came home to a sink full of dirty dishes, the counters littered with dishrags, coffee spills, and crumbs. The dogs were whining to be let out. I was feeling tired  from the work day and disappointed that no one in the house had cleaned up the kitchen mess.

But when I took the dogs out to the back yard, I looked up at the canopy of tulip poplars and hickory trees hovering over the house, shifting in the twilight breeze. I was still tired, still disappointed that I would have to go in and clean, but for that moment when I stopped at the fence and looked up, I felt the peace that comes with pausing and paying attention to what is good.

Wordsworth writes in his poem Tintern Abbey,

                                    These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet… .

Just as the poet’s memories of nature help to restore him when he is alone in his rooms, even my small moment of looking into the veil of leaves at dusk helps smooth the rough edges of anxiety and sadness, emotions that have built up in me over the years.

The trick is to pay attention, and to be grateful. I’m grateful for the sea of trees that sways in my backyard, for the birdsong that wakes me each morning in May.

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