Welcome to the MPC Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat
Part 1: Amanda Moore’s Social Distance Online Writing Retreat March 16 – March 28
Part 2: Meryl Natchez’ Social Distance Online Writing Retreat March 30 – April 12
Part 3: Rebecca Foust’s Online Writing Retreat (see below) April 13 – April 26
Part 4: Terry Lucas’s Online Writing Retreat April 27 – May 3
Part 5: Judy Halebsky’s Online Writing Retreat May 4 – May 10
Part 6: Kirsten Neff’s Online Writing Retreat (see below) May 11 – May 17
Part 7: Rebecca Black’s Online Writing Retreat May 18 – May 24
Part 8: Prartho Sereno’s Online Writing Retreat May 25 – June 7
Read more about the Writing Retreat:
Poetry is more relevant than ever in this time of social distancing, even as we have to move away from public readings and events to experience the reading and writing of poetry more privately. Inspired by Amanda Moore’s Social Distance Online Writing Retreat, and Meryl Natchez’ Social Distance Online Writing Retreat, (both of which we highly recommend), MPC has created its own Online Writing Retreat, during which local poets will take turns providing one or two weeks each of daily poetry inspiration–poems, craft essays, poetry prompts, submission ideas, and assorted recipes and musings. MPC hopes to bind our community virtually, and bring inspiration and comfort in these difficult times. We hope you’ll join or start discussions with fellow MPC members on the MPC Facebook page.
The current host of the MPC Online Writing Retreat is poet, filmmaker, gardening teacher, writing teacher, mother of three, and MPC Board Member Kirsten Jones Neff
Day 63: Elizabeth Bishop – a guest post by Jim Pellegrin
After a 45-year career in medicine, Point Reyes Station resident Jim Pellegrin, stepfather of Kirsten Neff, is retired and able to focus full-time on some of his favorite things, including poetry, his garden and a flock of self-satisfied chickens.
Under the Window: Ouro Preto
by Elizabeth Bishop
The conversations are simple: about food,
or, “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.”
“Women.” “Women!” Women in red dresses
and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies – – muffled to the eyes
in all the heat – – unwrap them, lower them,
and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.
The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces. (one face laughed
and one face cried; the idle one just looked.
Patched up with plaster, they’re in the museum.)
It runs now from a single iron pipe,
a strong and ropy stream. “Cold.” “Cold as ice,”
All have agreed for several centuries.
Donkeys agree, and dogs, and the neat little
bottle-green swallows dare to dip and taste.
Here comes that old man with the stick and sack,
meandering again. He stops and fumbles.
He finally gets out his enameled mug.
Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet,
all on its own, three feet above the ground.
Oh, no – – a small black boy is underneath.
Six donkeys come behind their “godmother”
– – the one who wears a fringe of orange wool
with wooly balls above her eyes, and bells.
They veer toward the water as a matter
Of course, until the drover’s mare trots up,
her whiplash-blinded eye on the off side.
A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all. The body’s painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says
HERE AM I FOR WHOM YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING
The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests. They wash their feet,
their shoes, and put them back together again.
Meanwhile, another, older truck grinds up
in a blue cloud of burning oil. It has
a syphilitic nose. Nevertheless,
its gallant driver tells the passersby
NOT MUCH MONEY BUT IT IS AMUSING.
“She’s been in labor now two days.” “Transistors
cost much too much.” “For lunch we took advantage
of the poor duck the dog decapitated.”
The seven ages of man are talkative
and soiled and thirsty.
Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water
And flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror – – no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.
I have to confess, at the outset, that I love Elizabeth Bishop, and this poem in particular, probably more than I should. So besotted was I years ago that I dragged my bewildered young family to the tiny colonial town of Ouro Preto in the interior of Brazil where we stood beside Elizabeth’s ancient fountain and watched the entire poem unfold, from muffled babies, to swallows dipping and sipping, to syphilitic trucks, and finally even a horse trotting up, with a great flourish, for a cold drink!
The poem is exquisite, obviously; Ms. Bishop was a perfectionist, working on some poems for years, and allowing only a handful to be published in her long life. You can feel her delicately trying to find the right image in the last stanza, which of course she does in the blue morpho butterfly’s tattered wings. If you’ve ever been to the tropics, you know there is nothing more blue than a blue morpho butterfly, and nothing more beautifully tattered than Brazil.
You’ll notice that Ms. Bishop is not a presence in the poem. It’s as if she were taking a picture from a window, looking out, so of course, she is not in the picture. Most, if not all, of her poems are like that; they are about what she sees when she looks outward, and not about her.
Many of her contemporaries were what was known as ‘confessional’ poets, who wrote mostly about themselves and who looked mostly inward. I this, I that. Think of John Berryman, such a brilliant stylist and such a keen mind, but so self-absorbed and narcissistic, so self-pitying, really. And bound for ruin, from the get-go.
Not that Bishop’s life was any picnic. Her childhood and her personal life were harrowing, to say the least, a horrendous series of losses and traumas. But all that was her business, and she kept it to herself, while most of her contemporaries howled the outrageous unfairness of it all at the moon.
So if you’re sick of your COVID-19 era shrunken world, sick of the same walls and the same people, sick of yourself, really, then Elizabeth Bishop might be for you. Get ahold of her “Complete Poems”, and read ‘The Moose,’ and ‘Crusoe in England.’ and ‘The Fish.” They’ll take you somewhere else, somewhere that will hold your gaze as it held hers.
For an illuminating essay about Ms. Bishop: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing, The New Yorker, March 6, 2017.
Imagine your father had left you a small inheritance, as happened to Elizabeth Bishop. Not enough to buy your own airplane, but enough so you didn’t have to spend your time working for a living, enough to be completely free. What would you do?
Well, you might travel, right? Ms. Bishop lived all over the world, spent years in Brazil on a hilltop near Rio. You might fall in love with interesting, strong, beautiful men and women, sometimes the right ones, sometimes the wrong ones. You might write exquisite poems and send them off to your friends who would send you back their own exquisite poems.
And of course, you just might smoke a million cigarettes and drink yourself to death, which Bishop nearly did, more than once.
In the end, you might live a life plagued by child abuse, mental and physical illness, and difficult, tumultuous relationships, but you might have the grace to spare your readers all that and leave them instead with a feeling of awe and wonder at the luminous rainbow world you saw when, thank God, you looked out the window.
Recipe: Brazilian Fish Stew Recipe, courtesy of NY Times and master-chef Sally Jones
Day 62: Writing Outside of the Box
The landscape around us – economic, social, political, physical – is unsettled. Many are wondering what the world will look like after this pandemic. This moment, when all is up in the air, might offer an opportunity to expand our approach to poetry and to integrate new art forms. For inspiration, I will start with two examples of powerful multi-media poetry.
The first is a visual poem comprised of narrative language and archival daguerreotype photos of African slaves in the South from the 1850’s. It was created by the artist Carrie Mae Meems.
Meems’ work makes a statement about biases that shape ongoing racism and injustice in the U.S., including the role of the photographer in perpetuating lasting stereotypes
The next piece is a striking video poem by a young woman named Eva Hoffman.
Eva was sent home from her college in California and returned to Minnesota due to the pandemic. This visual poem allows us to understand the layers of heartbreak – from the loss of a classmate to drugs before she left campus, to the loneliness of her own life interrupted, to weight of understanding environmental catastrophe. Through Eva’s elegant eye, we also understand her profound appreciation of life and of the natural world around her, so the poem, in video form, generates tension between the weight of the moment and the delicate beauty of the pleasures and blessings of being alive.
Stuck at home, vacations, reunions, and birthday parties canceled, no new vistas to be seen, no trailblazing adventures to be had, maybe we can try to take ourselves out of our artistic comfort zones into new territory. After World War I, when European society was unstable and/or in shambles, an avant-garde artistic movement called Dada arose, rejecting the traditional parameters around art. Why should a poem look or sound a certain way?
In 2016, the New York Times publish a piece about the 100-year anniversary of DaDa-ism, articulating its relevance: On July 14, 1916, the poet Hugo Ball proclaimed the manifesto for a new movement. Its name: Dada. Its aim: to “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.” This aim could be achieved simply by saying: “Dada” … However short-lived, Dada constitutes something like the Big Bang of Modernism.
In this article, Dada is described as “the autoimmune response to the cancer that was World War 1.” This creative response inspired some of the foundational modern poets, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein.
What is our creative response to the Covid virus that has remade our world? How can we be brave and experimental, maybe even absurdist and irreverent, as we write poems? The process of swerving out of bounds and making unusual or radical art might be cathartic and energizing, forging new pathways in the brain. At the very least, it might be fun.
Kansuke Yamamoto a Japanese surrealist poet and photographer who referred to his visual pieces as poems. Here is a piece called I’d Like to Think While Inside the Body of a Horse
Also, take a look at this array of Visual Poetry on Pinterest
- Find a photograph that you find powerful – it may be beautiful, it may be upsetting, or confusing. Speak to this photograph. Have a conversation with it in your poem. Ask questions, make guesses, describe emotional responses. Finish the story of the photograph.
- Search for Poetry in Prose in this “Blackout” exercise, you redact text to create a poem. The results, as evidence by the poems in the NYTimes link above, are surprisingly powerful
- Find an existing poem you have written and use photographs and/or video to add dimension to it (Eva Hoffman used photos and video in the poem shared above). Alternatively, create a collage with found images and superimpose poem or integrate your poem into the collage.
Recipe: The Stew (otherwise known as Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Tumeric, “the recipe that broke the internet”)
I found this recipe when I was experimenting with plant-based meals, attempting to wean my family off of nightly meat-based dishes. It was the first plant-based dish that everyone in my family found 100% satisfying. It is SO good. You will not be disappointed.
SPICED CHICKPEA STEW WITH COCONUT AND TURMERIC
Serves four to six. Cooking time 55 minutes
This is #thestew, Alison Roman’s internet-famous recipe, as delicious as it is beautiful. Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an incredibly creamy, basically-good-for-you dinner that evokes South Indian chickpea stews and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean. While the chickpeas alone would be good as a side dish, they are further simmered with stock, bolstered with dark, leafy greens of your choosing and finished with a handful of fresh mint.
4 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for serving
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
1½ tsp ground turmeric, plus more for serving
1 tsp mild chilli flakes, plus more for serving
2 tins chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tins full-fat coconut milk
270ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 bunch Swiss chard, kale or collard greens, stems removed, torn into bite-size pieces
1 small bunch mint leaves, for serving
Yogurt, for serving (optional)
Toasted pita, lavash or other flatbread, for serving (optional)
- Heat 4 Tbsp oil in a large pot over medium. Add garlic, onion and ginger. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally until onion is translucent and starts to brown a little at the edges, three to five minutes.
- Add 1½ teaspoons turmeric, one teaspoon mild chilli flakes, and the chickpeas, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, so the chickpeas sizzle and fry a bit in the spices and oil, until they’ve started to break down and get a little browned and crisp, eight to 10 minutes. Remove about a cup of chickpeas and set aside for garnish.
- Using a wooden spoon or spatula, further crush the remaining chickpeas slightly to release their starchy insides. (This will help thicken the stew.) Add coconut milk and stock, and season with salt and pepper.
- Bring to a simmer, scraping up any bits that have formed on the bottom of the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until stew has thickened, 30 to 35 minutes. (Taste a chickpea or two, not just the liquid, to make sure they have simmered long enough to be as delicious as possible.) If after 30 to 35 minutes, you want the stew a bit thicker, keep simmering until you’ve reached your desired consistency. Determining perfect stew thickness is a personal journey!
- Add greens and stir, making sure they’re submerged in the liquid. Cook until they wilt and soften, three to seven minutes, depending on what you’re using. (Swiss chard and spinach will wilt and soften much faster than kale or collard greens.) Season again with salt and pepper.
- Divide among bowls and top with mint, reserved chickpeas, a sprinkle of chilli flakes and a good drizzle of olive oil. Serve alongside yogurt and toasted pita if using; dust the yogurt with turmeric if you’d like.
Day 61: Writing the Domestic and Familial
In the early 1970s, when Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Award-winning poet Sharon Olds was a young mother and submitted her work about her home and family to respected literary magazine, it was suggested to her that Ladies Home Journal might be a better fit. This article in The Guardian about Olds and her well-received material about her divorce tells the story. In it, Olds says, “There is an expression – the devil is in the detail,” she says. “I think the earth is in the detail. I am quite myopic. I wear glasses. I am not good at big abstracts. I focus on things up close to me. Some poets have better imaginations than I have. They write about ideas that come out of experience, not ordinary life itself.”
As a young mother, I had stepped out of a journalism career to stay home with my children, and I turned to poets like Olds for permission and inspiration as I wrote poetry about the everyday experiences and details of my domestic life, children and marriage. I would write before the kids woke up, or after they fell asleep, and thus, the collection that arose from that time is entitled When the House is Quiet.
For many of us, this Covid quarantine means we are spending an inordinate amount of time in our homes with our family members and pets, and while this is most certainly wonderful in many ways, there are also likely times when it is trying, or, at the very least, disruptive to our life as we knew it. Today, we will explore poetry of the home and family. Below are four wonderful examples of poems that are observations of familial love and domestic life. Again, when writing poetry, observation is everything, as beauty and pathos are dependent upon careful attention to and recounting of physical and emotional details.
We Collect Gull Feathers by Timothy Young
As the evening dies over Pepin,
we collect gull feather, black and white ones,
and pretend they were dropped by the eagle
whose track and wing marked
the gray Mississippi sandbar.
Jesse remarked as we arrived,
“If I point at hawks they fly away,
but if I don’t they stay in their trees.”
The river moves heavily, south,
and the sun drops beyond the bluffs.
The air chills me.
I want to keep my fingers in my pocket,
because everything moves on here,
except that sweet pain of love that knows
he’s growing up to leave me.
Girl in the Doorway by Dorianne Laux
She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don’t, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.
Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist by Barbara Crooker
Because he can still cause a reaction in me
when he talks about SN2 displacements,
amines and esters looking for receptor sites
at the base of their ketones. Because he lugs
home serious tomes like The Journal of the American
Chemical Society or The Proceedings of the Society
of the Plastics Industry, the opposite of the slim volumes
of poetry with colorful covers that fill my bookshelves.
Because once, years ago, on a Saturday before our
raucous son rang in the dawn, he was just
standing there in the bathroom, out of the shower.
I said Honey, what’s wrong? and he said Oh,
I was just thinking about a molecule.
Because he taught me about sublimation, how
a solid, like ice, can change straight to a gas
without becoming liquid first. Because even
after all this time together, he can still
make me melt.
And finally, a link to this heart-achingly beautiful poem by MPC’s own Rebecca Foust: Abeyance
In a 2012 NPR piece entitled It’s A Genre! The Overdue Poetry of Parenthood
by critic David Orr (the very same who, as mentioned in a previous post, does not love Mary Oliver’s work), Orr heralds the arrival of the “Genre” – writing about parenthood that is. He writes: Yet while the new poetry of birth is largely being written by women, it would be unfortunate if it were only being written by women. After all, men do have a role to play in these matters. So it’s good to see poems like Paul Muldoon’s “Sonogram” and books like Devin Johnston’s Traveler that confidently take up the rituals and worries of early parenthood. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the same volume of the Best American Poetry series that includes Baggott’s poem about breast-feeding concludes with Kevin Young’s “Expecting,” in which Young describes his wife’s ultrasound as “The doctor trying again to find you, fragile / fern, snowflake.” All snowflakes are unique, yet look nearly identical — like embryos, babies and even birth itself. This is the kind of paradox that new parents understand, and that poets at last seem ready to embrace.
The respect that poetic work about the art of nurturing has achieved corresponds with the respect women have gained in society at large. As women stepped up to lead institutions, including publishing houses, and, simultaneously, men became more involved with domestic life, a wider range of work made it into the canon. I often think about Sylvia Plath, and what her life might have looked like if she were born today. I also credit the extraordinary Adrienne Rich as someone who trail-blazed the way for women (and men) to rightfully own and write their truths.
Observe a person or a room in your home. Take the time to note every little detail, the way we did in the writing about nature prompt. Observe, and then observe even more deeply. After you have written the details of what you see, consider the emotions those details evoke. Again, the themes this week are Don’t Judge and Be Real. Let’s say you observe your young adult child leaving crumbs across the kitchen, leaving dishes on the counter, and feel rage…write that rage, whether your child deserves it or not. Maybe that rage is connected to a sense of failure as a parent, or a greater sense of failure in society or by our government. Maybe it is emblematic of your sense of disorder in the universe, or a need for care yourself. Write it all. And, if you feel tremendous love, maybe for your dog who unfailingly gives you that wag when everyone else glares miserably, or your husband who is the only person able to make you laugh, observe the exact details of how these co-inhabitants bring cheer. If you live alone and make phone calls or Zoom calls, you may observe the sound of the person on the phone or computer, the tenor of their conversation. Or, you may choose to describe your kitchen or bedroom or back porch.
Consider how Timothy Young expands his poem We Collect Gull Feathers (above) and in just a few last lines infuses it with the emotional surge of movement, unstoppable time and the loss that carries with it. Talk about gut-punch!
My all-time most domestic (and beloved by many in my family) recipe for Chicken Pot Pie from the queen of domesticity, Ina Garten
Chicken Pot Pie
3 whole (6 split) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
3 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher saltFreshly ground black pepper
5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 chicken bouillon cubes
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups yellow onions, chopped (2 onions)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups medium-diced carrots, blanched for 2 minutes
1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas (2 cups)
1 1/2 cups frozen small whole onions
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
For the pastry:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the chicken breasts on a baking sheet and rub them with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, or until cooked through. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then remove the meat from the bones and discard the skin. Cut the chicken into large dice. You will have 4 to 6 cups of cubed chicken.
In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock and dissolve the bouillon cubes in the stock. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until translucent. Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock to the sauce. Simmer over low heat for 1 more minute, stirring, until thick. Add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and heavy cream. Add the cubed chicken, carrots, peas, onions and parsley. Mix well.
For the pastry, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the shortening and butter and mix quickly with your fingers until each piece is coated with flour. Pulse 10 times, or until the fat is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water; process only enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Divide the filling equally among 4 ovenproof bowls. Divide the dough into quarters and roll each piece into an 8-inch circle. Brush the outside edges of each bowl with the egg wash, then place the dough on top. Trim the circle to 1/2-inch larger than the top of the bowl. Crimp the dough to fold over the side, pressing it to make it stick. Brush the dough with egg wash and make 3 slits in the top. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.
Day 60: Walt Whitman
A guest post by my step-father Jim Pellegrin, a “Whitmaniac”:
After a 45-year career in medicine, Point Reyes Station resident Jim Pellegrin is now retired and is able to focus full-time on some of his favorite things, including poetry, his garden and a flock of self-satisfied chickens.
From Pent-Up Aching Rivers by Walt Whitman
From pent-up aching rivers,
From that of myself without which I were nothing,
From what I am determin’d to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men,
From my own voice resonant, singing the phallus,
Singing the song of procreation,
Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people. . .
From the hungry gnaw that eats me night and day
From native moments, from bashful pains, singing them,
Seeking something yet unfound though I have diligently sought it many a long year,
Singing the true song of the soul fitful at random . . .
From the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips and bosoms,
From the cling of the trembling arm. . .
From the one so unwilling to have me leave, and me just as unwilling to leave,
(Yet a moment O tender waiter, and I return,)
From the hour of shining stars and dropping dews,
From the night a moment I emerging flitting out,
Celebrate you act divine and you children prepared for,
And you stalwart loins.
* * *
from I Sing the Body Electric
The sprawl and fullness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women,
The folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street,
The contour of their shape downwards, . .
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats,
The horseman in his saddle, . . .
The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sundown after work, . . .
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting;
Such-like I love – – I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.
The first poem is Walt at his manic, overly-familiar best. Notice how he is the master of the one-liner, and how the music of the writing comes across as a sort of karmic chant, building and building to, logically, a climax. Somehow it’s all too much for us, for Walt, for anyone, yet still we know exactly what he means, and he touches a wild, deep part of us that most writers, before and after, turn away from.
The second section is one of Walt’s ‘divine lists.’ He took inventory of the whole universe, and savored every story, every vegetable, every sound, as if his job were to name everything, to ‘sing’ everything and everyone on this earth.
So, when you’re reading Leaves of Grass, keep going! You’ll whiz through Song of Myself (the first section) at one or two sittings, but don’t stop there. The next group of poems, Children of Adam, is wonderful (the fragments above are taken from it.) The Sleepers section later on is unforgettably spooky and poignant, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is like having old Walt whisper directly into your ear, Drum Taps is as sad as the Civil War itself. Whitman was a huge blabber who left little in this world unsaid, so don’t miss any of it!
Many writers and poets were Whitmaniacs. Alan Ginsberg was an obvious re-incarnation of Walt Whitman in our century, and he knew it. Read Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’ and ‘America’, and you’ll see that they embody the same great spirit, the same biblical, angelic voice addressing an unbelieving, stubborn America.
For real Whitman criticism (whatever that is) read Harold Bloom, a huge academic snob who considers Whitman a literary god and the best poet on the planet. Randall Jarrell loved him, and wrote a fun review that turned out to be simply a collection of Whitman one-liners. Michael Cunningham, who wrote ‘The Hours’ (which was made into a terrific movie, incidentally), also wrote a novel specifically about Walt Whitman. The list goes on and on. Mostly ignored in his own lifetime in spite of his tireless self-promotion, Whitman is loved by many in our day, just as he knew he would be.
Prompt: Imagine you’re having a dinner party and you invite Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, hoping they might hit it off. (These two bizarre characters were actually contemporaries, as it happens.) So here you have prim, reserved, repressed Emily who never left the house she was born in and the backyard behind it, sitting across from crazy, manic Walt who is careening around the entire universe, zooming through space and time, and all the while groping poor Emily, and anyone else within reach, under the table!
Make your own divine list. Start at the supermarket and write down everything and everyone you see or hear or smell. Be ecstatic. Nothing is too insignificant or ugly or grand or beautiful for your list! You are madly in love with the world, and no object or person or feeling can escape your embrace!
Potatoes, babies, tomatoes, little kids getting ice cream cones, old folks lost in the canned goods, beautiful, proud women, and strong, quiet men on break from the firehouse, etc.
p.s. Walt Whitman lived his whole life in and around New York City, and he would be devastated by the suffering going on there at this moment. I am absolutely certain that were he alive now, he would be spending his days and nights in the hospitals, getting in the way and talking too much and comforting the sickest patients as best he could, just as he crawled into bed beside the dying soldiers in the field hospitals of the civil war. ‘Agonies,’ he said, ‘are one of my changes of garments.’
What follows is a recipe poem about my mother’s cooking. Try it if you dare, and you’ll feel like you’re back in the ‘50’s!
Betty Pellegrin’s Ten-Minute Chicken* Flambe by Jim Pellegrin
Preset all spiral electric burners to high, very high,
so that coils have a volcanic, molten-metal orange glow.
Preheat oven to broil.
Boil one medium pan of water and heat 1/4 inch of oil in iron skillet.
Slam broiler chicken onto cutting board,
split down middle with cleaver and spread-eagle,
place on foil-covered broiler pan and slide into base of oven,
leaving broiler door half-ajar and clearing non-walking infants from the area.
Peel and chop into cubes two large Idaho russet potatoes and one small onion.
When oil is smoking and about to ignite
toss mixture of potato cubes and onion bits into iron skillet.
Put one plastic bag of Jolly Green Giant corn in pot of violently boiling water.
Per package instructions,
DO NOT REMOVE CORN FROM PLASTIC BAG!
Maintaining stovetop coils at red-hot,
pull broiler door open, standing to the side,
flip chicken with large pancake turner,
push broiler door closed with foot.
Slam head of iceberg lettuce onto counter top,
shattering it into small pieces while muttering
“Goddamned Jack, where is that son-of-a-bitch?”
Throw lettuce fragments and bottle of dressing into bowl.
when onion bits blackened cinders,
potatoes singed on outside, hard and cold inside,
transfer entire mass to waiting bowl.
Same with boiled corn bag,
can slit open later at table.
Finally, flip charred chicken out of broiler and onto cutting board,
chop into pieces at joints, ignoring obvious bleeding
and/or quivering of uncooked, still-living inner muscle.
Seat and serve six rowdy, yelling children,
the loud squealing of guinea pigs in the background,
wait for husband to arrive, much too late by now,
having stopped off at calm 2-kid neighbor house after work,
and announce “Betty, the chicken is bloody again.”
*May substitute pound of bacon or 3 steaks or 12 hot dogs
Day 59: Writing the Spiritual
Burning the Small Dead by Gary Snyder
Burning the small dead
broke from beneath
a hundred summers
snowmelt rock and air
hiss in a twisted bough.
black rock twice as old.
As we move from writing about the natural world to writing about the spiritual, the poet Gary Snyder (who, now in his early 90’s recently made a trek down from the mountains to the Mill Valley Library for a reading – if you weren’t there, it looked like the Rolling Stones had come to town, with lines down the street) offers a powerful bridge from the grounded natural world to metaphysical and spiritual.
This New Yorker piece from 2008 gives us greater insight into Snyder’s life and evolution from Beat poet to “Zen Master” and “hermit” ensconced in the Sierra foothills. And the Poetry Foundation gives us this (excerpted below), on Snyder’s integration of religious themes:
In American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Alan Williamson wrote that Snyder’s canon “suggests a process of meditation or spiritual exercise, clearing the path from temporal life to the moment of Enlightenment—the sudden dropping-away of the phenomenal world in the contemplation of the infinite and eternal, All and Nothingness.” … Snyder sees the poet as a shaman who acts as a medium for songs and chants springing from the earth. It is not surprising, therefore, that Snyder draws on the traditions of oral literature—chants, incantations, and songs—to communicate his experiences.
Another poet whose work has resonated on a spiritual level is Mary Oliver, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award, who passed away last year. Although she had many critics (the critic David Orr wrote of her work “one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.”) and was at times dismissed as a “self-help poet” by literati, leading people to apologize for loving her work, the truth is that Mary Oliver was perhaps America’s most popular modern poet because she reached people. Her poems did and do help people, but should that make us think less of them? Like Snyder, Oliver used simple language, often in observation of nature, as a way to access greater spiritual themes. She never belonged to a specific church, but the Buddhist Tricyle Magazine published a loving obituary and America Magazine: The Jesuit Review described her as a “devotional poet.”
Praying by Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Craft: Again, I turn to local poet Jane Hirshfield. Here she helps us to understand spiritual poetry. In this piece she offers a sampling of 22 poems, ancient and modern, with analysis. She calls these poems “gates”, an entrance point into spiritual life. Perhaps the best way to access the spiritual in poetry is to read these poems, and the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Tagore, Rilke, Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Snyder, Oliver, David Whyte, Hirshfield herself, and so many others.
Prompt: Write a prayer. You may know well the God to which you pray, or you may be seeking a greater understanding of your god or gods. If you are naturally agnostic, consider this a trust exercise; make yourself very small, suspend disbelief and embrace a faith in a higher power for the sake of this writing experience. Consider what you are most concerned about, what you most hope for in the world, and what you are grateful for, and put those thoughts on paper.
Recipe: I have found making sourdough bread to be a spiritual experience that includes devotion and ritual, and often great faith. I feel small and utterly dependent upon the mysteries of my starter. After many not-so-good loaves, I have come to depend on this recipe, that I find to be full of grace: Sourdough Artisan Bread
Day 58: Writing About Nature
Let’s dive back into emotion today. Specifically, we will look at nature in poems as a way to describe a greater emotional state.
Often poems set in nature offer comfort. When I ask myself to think of poetry that makes me feel calm, cared for, held, at peace, the poet whose work comes to mind is Linda Gregg.
Here is one example:
Being by Linda Gregg
The woman walks up the mountain
and then down. She wades into the sea
and out. Walks to the well,
pulls up a bucket of water
and goes back into the house.
She hangs wet clothes.
Takes clothes back to fold them.
Every evening she crochets
from six until dark.
Birds, flowers, stars. Her rabbit lives
in an empty donkey pen. The sea is out
there are far as the stars.
No one there. She may not believe
in anything. Not know
what she is doing. Every morning
she waters the geranium plant.
And the leaves smell like lemons.
And here is another by Linda Gregg:
Fishing In The Keep of Silence by Linda Gregg
There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
Another poet who uses place and the natural world tenderly and powerfully is Li-Young Lee.
Here is a favorite:
From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Read what one of the great modern environmental writers Terry Tempest Williams in the LA Times, says she has learned from other great nature writers, including W.S. Merwin and Wallace Stegner :
Look at what I’ve learned from these great minds and teachers. When you look at the words of Merwin, when he said we’ll have to learn a forgotten language. To me, this is what writing is, to retrieve this forgotten language that is inherent in the land. When I think of Wallace Stegner, working about a society to match the scenery, this is what we’re in the midst of. I remember Wally always saying to me, “It’s never about one book. It’s about a life.” …I feel it’s about love. It’s always about love. That’s what allows us to continue and to not despair but to realize, really, all we have to do is look at where we are. In California, you’ve got the Pacific Ocean, you’ve got Yosemite. You have all these extraordinary landscapes, the big trees. It’s so magnificent. So I think, again, it’s this forgotten language that we have to keep remembering. That’s the job of the writer — that’s the work of the writer — every day we face the blank page with gratitude, with outrage, with anger, and with love…
CRAFT: Let’s look at what these the three poems above do, the forgotten language or reverence they unveil. They start by placing us in nature – on a Greek mountainside above the sea, looking across Tomales Bay, under a peach tree at a bend in the road. The sweet, simple, sensual aspects of nature captivate and transport us. They write “with love,” as Terry Tempest Williams says. These poets give us space to experience beauty in our minds, to feel it and long for it in our bodies.
Then, after we are firmly rooted in a physical space, they move out into a wider view of the great universe to remind us that we are alive, and that we could be dead. They are simultaneously offering worldly comfort and a reminder of the existential, which makes the comfort only sweeter and more poignant.
PROMPT: Write a poem as you observe nature. Sit someplace where you are in nature or have a view of nature (it can be as simple as a tree out your window). Observe, quietly and carefully, for a period of time (at least 10 minutes…ideally longer). Write what you see. Look for the small details, anything that would not be noticed by a passer-by. Include anything that unfolds…it can be simple (a bird landing on a branch to preen, the wind bending a stem, a spider swinging from a thread of silk etc) It is the observation that matters. Write what you observe, and then observe what you have written. Does it relate to a larger theme or emotional state? If so, write some line to relate the natural world to this larger concept or feeling.
Bonus Reading: From the Atlantic, a review of a book exploring what happened when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge “spend a grueling year in nature.”
Recipe: Green Smoothie, to get as much nature as possible into your beverage. Here’s a favorite – Super Detox Green Juice – from Skinnyms.com
Day 57: Writing in Response
As we enter a third month of sheltering-in-place, this week’s retreat will focus on emotion, and poetry’s role in helping us to understand and accept our feelings. Without distractions, we have no choice but to encounter and, as much as possible, embrace our emotions. During this unsettled, time, emotions may run wild – they may make us feel angry and corralled as a wild mustang, despondent as an exhausted firefly trapped in a jar. We may feel irreverent, agitated, lonesome, needy, sorrowful, grateful, helpless, loving, broken … Our emotions may be all over the place, “in hiding” one day, “in your face” the next.
Poetry is a remedy… a salve. Poetry sings the song of our souls, recounting the deeper story of our being. Like song, poetry reflects back to us the utterly exquisite and equally fragile mystery that is being alive. Humans turn to certain poets in times of hardship. I am interested in poems that resonate with non-poets. I believe we can examine and seek to understand the power and resonance of popular language. It may be raw and direct, or can tend toward allegory. Often popular poems are lyrical and sensual – visual storytelling that meets the collective emotional need for a narrative in the most complicated and confusing times.
What an exciting moment it is when a previously unknown (beyond poetry circles) poet offers comfort to the world. Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s Try to Praise the Mutilated World appeared in The New Yorker on 9/24/2001, in the days following 9/11, has now been shared hundreds of thousands of times, and has offered solace to people across the nation.
Try to Praise the Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)
There are several places to read/hear COVID-19 pandemic poetic responses online at the moment. Below are a few examples:
First, although this moving poem/song by Kate Tempest Hold Your Own was written and performed pre-pandemic, its power is amplified, a balm for this moment.
Rattle Readers Respond (look for MPC member Francesca Bell’s Love in the Time of COVID-19 )
Califragile (featuring a poem by wonderful East Bay poet Connie Post)
Indolent Books What Rough Beast COVID 19 Edition (you will notice MPC Board member Meryl Natchez’s poem Shelter in Place )
CRAFT: It is difficult to know where to enter the craft of writing honestly about emotion, but this exchange, an inquiry from a 7th grader named Janet to poet Jane Hirshfield, and Hirshfield’s letter of response to Janet, offers a wonderful overview of writing with emotional honesty, and of writing a poem in general. In one stanza Hirshfield writes: “Art is often a way for us to notice the things we tend not to pay attention to—the sheen of light on a table, the speckled skin of a pear. But when we are reminded to notice, they are not only the things that occupy our lives most of the time, they are the real sustenance for everything else. How much richer a life is when the small-bodied moments are felt and seen and tasted, not just rushed through in between the large things. That is, as you call it, “the real you,” the real life: all those unnameable moments.” Many have said the craft of poetry lies in the noticing.
PROMPT: During this epidemic we are often keeping our own company, and thus it is a perfect time to pay attention to our deepest emotions – to notice and identify what we are feeling, and then to look at those feeling carefully, the way we might hold a geodesic stone or exotic moth in our palm, examining with reverence and without judgement. Then we may write what it is we notice. Sit down in a quiet space and take a long moment to identify what you are feeling. Is it fear? Angst? Sorrow? Maybe you are feeling hope because the sun has risen over the garden out your window? Or gratitude because you are at home with the person you most cherish in the world? Don’t judge your emotions, good or bad, and don’t judge what you put on the page. This is an exercise in understanding and observation. You may connect your emotions to physical objects or nature. You may employ simile and metaphor – they are helpful in describing emotion in a unique way. Perhaps you will write a prose poem. I would recommend writing free verse, at least for your initial drafts, and to avoid rhyme because attempting rhyme will trigger your left brain, and move you further from the direct experience and observation of your emotion.
An Emotionally Charged Recipe: I love chili peppers and find that whether the weather is warm or cold, whether my mood is bright or low, poblano or pasilla peppers satisfy. Chiles are somehow comforting and energizing. I have searched far and wide and finally found a perfect (and simple) Roasted Poblano Soup recipe, one I have returned to again and again (and have made several times during quarantine).
See other Retreats above, or join the Retreat, below.
Our host for the April 13-26 Writing Retreat, below, is Rebecca Foust.
Rebecca Foust is the author of Paradise Drive and The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, released last fall. A new book, ONLY, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022. Recognitions include the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes and fellowships from Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Sewanee. Foust was the 2017-19 Marin Poet Laureate whose theme, Sanctuary, attempted to give voice to and about immigrants in our county and beyond. She teaches classes at Mill Valley Library and Left Margin Lit and works as the Poetry Editor for Women’s Voices for Change, an assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine and co-producer of a new series about poetry for Marin TV, Rising Voices.
Introduction: My weeks leading this retreat will focus on formal poetry, or—poems at least in conversation with form. I love form, especially in the hands of poets willing to challenge the rules, bending, breaking and even abandoning them as seen in the sonnets of Terrance Hayes, or followed with mastery, verve, and originality as by one of my favorite contemporary poets, AE Stallings. I’m excited about all the new forms being invented: the Golden Shovel (Terrance Hayes), the Mirrorform (Peter Kline), the Sonnezio (Kim Addonizio), the Albergonnet (Dan Albergetti), the Bop (Afaa Michael Weaver), the Ghazanelle (Moira Egan) and more. With Patrick Donnelly, I’ve been developing a new “formalist track” called “Freedom in Form” at the 2020 Frost Place Poetry Seminar —not clear yet whether that will be taking place online, due to Covid-19.
DAY 42 : sonnet
Introduction: My weeks leading this retreat have focused on formal poetry, or—poems at least in conversation with form. I love fixed forms, especially in the hands of poets willing to challenge the rules, bending, breaking and even abandoning them as seen in the sonnets of Terrance Hayes, or followed with mastery, verve, and originality as by a contemporary poet I adore, AE Stallings.
I’m excited about all the new forms being invented: the Golden Shovel (Terrance Hayes), the Mirrorform (Peter Kline), the Sonnezio (Kim Addonizio), the Albergonnet (Dan Albergetti), the Bop (Afaa Michael Weaver), the Ghazanelle (Moira Egan) and more. With Patrick Donnelly, I’ve been developing a new “formalist track” called “Freedom in Form” at the 2020 Frost Place Poetry Seminar —not clear yet whether that will be taking place online, due to Covid-19.
Poems: Writing this post paralyzed me for a while, because—well, because: sonnet. There are so many truly wonderful examples of this form, how on earth to choose just a few? I’m offering a sampler here, focusing on contemporary sonnets, but don’t forget to check out the classics, especially sonnets written by Herbert, Donne, Yeats, Auden, Frost and of course—Shakespeare and Petrarch.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.
by Marilyn Nelson. From A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin 2005). [This is part V of a full length sonnet crown, a sequence in which each sonnet begins with the last line of the previous poem in the sequence.]
Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?
By William Meredith. From Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press 1997). [Uses word-repetition in lieu of rhyme but otherwise follows the form.]
Dusty and brown on some forgotten shelf
a century hence—or two, let dreams be grand!—
this wry and slanted gloss upon myself
has slipped into some stranger’s browsing hand.
A woman, maybe, growing old like me,
or a young man ambitious for his name,
curious about my antique prosody
but pleased to find our motives much the same.
He cannot know—nor she—what this one life
from the late twentieth craved, or cost, or found;
he will forget my name; but mother, wife,
daughter, has struck a chord, sings from the ground
a moment to his ear, as now to yours,
for what is ours in common and endures.
By Rhina Espaillat. From Irresistible Sonnets (Headmistress Press 2014). First published in Pivot.
Sonnet: More of Same
Try to avoid the pattern that has been avoided,
the avoidance pattern. It’s not as easy as it looks:
The herringbone is floating eagerly up
from the herring to become parquet. Or whatever suits it.
New fractals clamor to be identical
to their sisters. Half of them succeed. The others
go on to be Provençal floral prints some sleepy but ingenious
8 weaver created halfway through the eighteenth century,
9 and they never came to life until now.
10 It’s like practicing a scale: at once different and never the same.
11 Ask not why we do these things. Ask why we find them meaningful.
12 Ask the cuckoo transfixed in mid-flight
13 between the pagoda and the hermit’s rococo cave. He may tell you.
By John Ashbery. [Apologies that I could not find more information on where this poem is published.]
Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion
How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters
By W.S. Merwin. From Migration (Copper Canyon 2007). [Notice the way this poem, although it is (and calls itself) a sonnet, is instantly recognizable as being a Merwin poem. The same is true of the Ashbery poem, just above.]
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
SCAT dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
By Terrance Hayes. From Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin 2018). [An example of the unrhymed and unmetered “American Sonnet” form. This is an amazing book, BTW.]
Contemporary Sonnets that Bend the Form
You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.
By Seamus Heaney. From Opened Ground (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 1999). First published in Poetry Ireland Review. [This is a variation on Shakespearean form—what a poem, right?]
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
By Billy Collins. From Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (Random House 2004). [Note the way this sonnet defines what a sonnet is by its very expression, enacting the form. I especially like the sly references to “Elizabethan” (another name or Shakespearean sonnets) and “Petrarch” (love those spangled tights!) and the fact that the volta or turn happens in line 9 by means of—an actual turn, using that word.]
Three Contemporary Sonnet Parodies:
Lucifer in Starlight
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
By Kim Addonizio. From Lucifer at the Starlite (Norton 2011). First published in Threepenny Review. [This poem is a parody of George Meredith’s sonnet, “Lucifer in Starlight.” ]
Sir, I am not a bird of prey:
A Lady does not seize the day.
I trust that brief Time will unfold
Our youth, before he makes us old.
How could we two write lines of rhyme
Were we not fond of numbered Time
And grateful to the vast and sweet
Trials his days will make us meet?
The Grave’s not just the body’s curse;
No skeleton can pen a verse!
So while this numbered World we see,
Let’s sweeten Time with poetry,
And Time, in turn, may sweeten Love
And give us time our love to prove.
You’ve praised my eyes, forehead, breast:
You’ve all our lives to praise the rest.
By Annie Finch. [This poem parodies not just Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but also the entire carpe diem tradition, Finch is an absolute master of form, and she is offering a number of online workshops and classes that look great—I’m signing up for at least one of these.]
Glory be to God for breaded things—
Catfish, steak finger, pork chop, chicken thigh,
Sliced green tomatoes, pots full to the brim
With french fries, fritters, life-float onion rings,
Hushpuppies, okra golden to the eye,
That in all oils, corn or canola, swim
Toward mastication’s maw (O molared mouth!);
Whatever browns, is dumped to drain and dry
On paper towels’ sleek translucent scrim,
These greasy, battered bounties of the South:
By R. S. Gwynn. From Dogwatch (Measure Press 2014). [This is a parody of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ shortened “curtail” sonnet, “Pied Beauty.” ]
Craft: The two most common sonnet forms are Shakespearean (ababcdcdefefgg), and the form that gave rise to it, Petrarchan (abbacddceffegg), but infinite permutations exist. There are many great references, online and otherwise, to help you learn about sonnets. I feature sonnets often in my Poetry Sunday columns, a good source for learning the basics, https://womensvoicesforchange.org/?s=sonnet
From a list or resources I give to my students when I teach this form:
Barnstone, Tony. “A Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics,” The Cortland Review, December 2006,
Finch, Annie. “Chaos in Fourteen Lines: Reformations and Deformations of the Sonnet,” Contemporary Poetry Review,
***Levin, Phillis Levin. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (Penguin 2001), 448 pp. The (nearly 40 pp) introduction plus the charts in the appendix are wonderfully comprehensive and clear and a great way to get a basic understanding of the form and its history. Sonnets are arranged chronologically from Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) to Jason Schneiderman (1976- ).
Prompt: Using today’s poems as a model, try to write your own sonnet. Start by writing an unrhymed “American Sonnet” in any meter, then recast it first in Petrarchan, then in Shakespearean form. Then go back and write it again as an American Sonnet, using the new ideas you’ve discovered by making yourself try to write in the patterned forms.
Journal: The sonnet is such a popular and widely-used form that almost journals are willing to publish poems in this form. All the journals already mentioned in my two-week-term leading this retreat are good bets, as well as the ones listed below, for which submissions now are open:
Recipe: For my grand finale, a whole slew of recipes offered free by the New York Times during the Covid-19 crisis:
Ali Slagle’s smoky black bean bake. Photo Credit: Christopher Testani for The New York Times.
DAY 41 : Mirror poem
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.
But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—
I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.
By Natasha Trethewey. From Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007).
A looser form of the mirror poem is a short form invented by Peter Kline, the “mirrorform” an 8-line poem that repeats its first line as its last line. The poems below are all by Peter Kline from his new book, Mirrorforms (Parlor Press 2019).
I fall off the right way––
I put the bike to bed
then slide for my better side,
blowing a kiss to the DJ.
I get gauzed by applause. The day
I die my body bag
will be the American flag.
I fall off the right way.
First published in American Poetry Journal.
I see what’s almost there—
a book-shaped gap in a thought
or the sex in the statesman’s obit,
cracks in the exosphere.
Let rubberneckers stare
at the fur the killer wore,
the flash of flesh at the tear.
I see what’s almost there.
First published in Blackbird.
Written into absence
certain words explode,
strewing their starry payload
in morphemed radiance
each time they join. What chance
have we to spark like that
before our verse is set,
written into absence?
First published in Able Muse.
Do you have time for me
out of your unweighed portion––
a grain, a gram’s transgression
(Next Saturday I’m free
for a transgression session.)
After your due devotions
do you have time for me?
First published by Connotation Press.
Craft: Parlor Press says “Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms is a daring, experimental collection of poems in which language reaches its most pressurized state . . . use[d] with musical verve to essentialize thought and intensify feeling. The result is that these poems achieve jewel-like precision: each darkly glinting facet reveals the nuances and ambiguities of longing, transgression, and faith.”
Prompt: Using today’s poems as a model, try to write your own mirror poem. Hint: Let the center of the poem, where the lines begin to reverse themselves, function as a semantic “hinge” or “bridge”—basically, a turn—things should change in, perhaps even be reversed by, the second half of your poem.
Journal: The journals that published todays exemplars are all formal-poetry-friendly and good bets for submission: Able Muse, [open now, no simultaneous submissions], American Poetry Journal, [open now], Blackbird, [open August 1], and Connotation Press [open now].
Recipe: I haven’t tried this one yet, but if shelter-at-home lasts much longer, you can bet I will!
DAY 40 : Duplex
Poem: Duplex poems don’t have to be titled “Duplex,” but this one by the form’s creator, Jericho Brown, does bear that title.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
From The Tradition. Copyright © 2019 by Jericho Brown.
Craft: According to its inventor, Jericho Brown, the “duplex” is a new form that renders the musicality and structure of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues on a single plane. The poem starts with a couplet of two distinct lines. Then, the second line is repeated and a new line is added and then repeated until there are seven couplets of nine to eleven syllables each. Although the duplex above sounds iambic, note how those repeated end words retain its relationship to the metrical tradition of the ghazal. The last (fourteenth) line repeats the first line, making a ring structure also reminiscent of the ghazal. On the other hand, the number of lines (14), the rhyme (sometimes accomplished via repetition), the iambic meter, and the turn all evoke the sonnet. Brown talks in the link below about “gutting” the sonnet, re-inventing it. The duplex holds tradition in its embrace while calling that embrace into question, and this tension and release Brown’s speaker in the duplex poems to interrogate and transcend his condition.” https://therumpus.net/2019/04/the-rumpus-interview-with-jericho-brown/ See also,
Prompt: Using today’s poem as a model, try to write your own duplex.
Journal: Zyzzyva is an award-winning Bay Area journal, one that publishes only “west coast writers.” Submissions are closed right now, due to Covd-19, but do put it on your list for later—quality is consistently high, and contributors get to read at a number of great bay area venues including The Mechanic’s Institute in San Francisco.
DAY 39 :haiku, tanka, haibun & renga
Haiku by Basho
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Haiku by Issa
Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
(tr. Robert Hass)
Tanka written by Shiki
The bucket’s water
poured out and gone,
drop by drop
dew drips like pearls
from the autumn flowers.
Two Contemporary Haibuns
Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks
They hurt my ears, make me run in circles. Under their chemical light you might see my non-human face, the tail I hide beneath skirts. In the city, under mercury vapor, you never see me clearly. I prefer the woods, the quiet howl of mosquitoes, of cicadas. Build me a hut of mud where we never see the stars, too bright. Bring me fans painted with cranes and peonies, poetry folded into birds. Don’t leave me in the crowd, my nose assaulted by too many scents. Let us stay far from others tonight, my love. Our celebrations will be fur and paw, hand to chest. Let the fireworks with their dizzy ghost spiders whine in the distance, keep me here, bring me silk kimonos the color of bark and dirt to nest in.
Keep the copper smoke
and saltpeter, the dim trails
of chrysanthemums in the sky.
By Jeanine Hall Gailey. From She Returns to the Floating World (Two Sylvias Press 2013).
To everything, there is a season of parrots. Instead of feathers, we searched the sky for meteors on our last night. Salamanders use the stars to find their way home. Who knew they could see that far, fix the tiny beads of their eyes on distant arrangements of lights so as to return to wet and wild nests? Our heads tilt up and up and we are careful to never look at each other. You were born on a day of peaches splitting from so much rain and the slick smell of fresh tar and asphalt pushed over a cracked parking lot. You were strong enough—even as a baby—to clutch a fistful of thistle and the sun himself was proud to light up your teeth when they first swelled and pushed up from your gums. And this is how I will always remember you when we are covered up again: by the pale mica flecks on your shoulders. Some thrown there from your own smile. Some from my own teeth. There are not enough jam jars to can this summer sky at night. I want to spread those little meteors on a hunk of still-warm bread this winter. Any trace left on the knife will make a kitchen sink like that evening air
the cool night before
star showers: so sticky so
warm so full of light
By Aimee Nezhukumatathil. First published in Poem-a-Day by the Academy of American Poets.
Craft: All four forms originated in Japan. Haikus have three qualities: 17 syllables in three lines allocated 5-7-5, a “cutting” (kiru), often in the form of the juxtaposition of two images or ideas with a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, and a kigo (seasonal reference). The “Great Four” Japanese masters of this form were Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki, and Yosa Buson.
The basic structure of a tanka is 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7: 5 syllables in line 1, 7 syllables in line 2, 5 syllables in line 3, and 7 syllables in lines 4 and 5.
The Haibun combines prose and haiku and covers a wide range, including autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal.
Rengas are collaborative and involve more than one author working together. A renga consists of at least two stanzas, of which the opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku is the basis for the modern haiku. Two famous renga masters were Sōgi (1421–1502) and Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694). Following the 2016 election, the Harvard Review offered a renga written by more than 200 poets in tribute to President Obama. [All definitions here are from Wikipedia.]
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47809/after-the-gentle-poet-kobayashi-issa (Robert Haas’s haiku written in homage to Issa)
Prompt: Using today’s poem as a model, try to write a poem in any one of these forms.
Journal: Poetry Northwest is an excellent journal established in 1959 to feature the work of regional poets, and in my experience, it is interested in publishing forms like these; submissions are open September 15 – January 15.
Recipe: I haven’t made this yet, but I plan to, as soon as I figure out how to source the ingredients; it turns out that black cod is the same thing as butterfish is the same thing as sablefish. I’ve had this dish in restaurants and LOVED it.
DAY 38  BOP
in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary
In general population, census
is consensus—ain’t nowhere to run
to in these walls, walls like a mind—
We visitors stand in a yellow circle
so the tower can frisk us with light,
finger the barrels on thirsty rifles.
I got rambling, rambling on my mind
In general population, madness runs
swift through the river changing, changing
in hearts, men tacked in their chairs,
resigned to hope we weave into air,
talking this and talking that and one brutha
asks Tell us how to get these things
They got, these houses, these cars.
We want the real revolution. Things…
I got rambling, got rambling on my mind
In the yellow circle the night stops
like a boy shot running from a Ruger 9mm
carrying .44 magnum shells, a sista
crying in the glass booth to love’s law,
to violence of backs bent over to the raw
libido of men, cracking, cracking, crack…
I got rambling, rambling on my mind.
By Afaa Michael Weaver. From The Plum Flower Dance (University of Pittsburgh Press 2007)
The bop poem was invented by Afaa Michael Weaver during the 1997 Cave Canem writing retreat, and I heard him read examples of and talk about the form at a summer conference at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar in 2014. Weaver says “the bop may be seen as the way a poet presents himself or herself to the world as a performance [empahasis added]. ” (Weaver, Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry (Dos Gatos Press 2011) –I just ordered this book!
A bop consists of three stanzas, each followed by a repeated line or refrain, often an allusion to a song title or line. Its logical trajectory is somewhat like that of a Shakespearean sonnet: conflict; argument; resolution. That is, the bop’s first stanza (six lines) presents a problem, the second stanza (eight lines) expands upon it, and the third stanza (six lines) either resolves it or discusses the failure to resolve the problem. There are no metrical or rhyme restrictions—anything goes. For more information, visit https://poets.org/glossary/bop
Using today’s poem as a model, jot down a list of 5 song titles or lines that come to mind. Choose one, and use it as the basis for your own bop.
Journal: The Cortland Review is a terrific online journal that allows features recordings of poets reading their poems along with publication, and submissions are open now,
Recipe: Another great comfort dish, and one that will let you use up a bag of those dried mushrooms—my family loves this one:
Creamy Pasta with Sausage and Mushrooms
- 1 lb farfalle pasta
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb sweet sausage, removed from casing and crumbled or chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 oz button or wild mushrooms, sliced or coarsely chopped [reconstituted dried are great]
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
- minced parsley and grated parmesan for serving
- Cook pasta according to al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water when draining.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat a large saute pan over med/high heat and add olive oil.
- Add sausage and cook until browned and cooked through, 10 – 12 minutes.
- Add garlic and cook 1 minute, then add the mushrooms, stirring well. Continue to cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently so the garlic doesn’t burn.
- Add the white wine and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
- Add cream and about 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water (you can add more if needed as it cooks). Stir in the red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, parsley, and parmesan. Cook until the sauce has thickened, adding more pasta water if needed.
- Add the cooked pasta and toss well.
- Top with a sprinkle of parsley and parmesan to serve.
DAY 37 : nonce forms
Stairs: a rushed flight down thirty-eight; French doors unlocked always.
Always: a lie; an argument.
Argument: two buck hunters circle a meadow’s edge.
Edge: one of us outside bleeding.
Bleeding: shards of glass; doors locked.
Locked: carpet awash with blood.
Blood: lift and drop; a sudden breeze.
Breeze: its whistle though bone.
Bone: the other was looking at —
Bone: cradled to catch drips.
Drips: quiet as a meadow fawn.
Fawn: faces down each hunter each gun.
Again: somebody call someone.
Someone: almost always prefers forgetting.
Forgetting: an argument; a lie.
Lie: a meadow; a casement; a stair.
By Samiya Bashir. From Field Theories (Nightboat Books 2017).
A day or so, from decadence to decay,
that’s all. Things fall
where they may,
excruciating green wait, all
at once having given way
to a fleshly exuberance, a grandiose
of luscious aromatics–you could die
of the sheer headiness
of it and say
apart from a generalized unreadiness
that you suppose
there are worse ways to go, And oh,
not deal with it like this?
Nothing held back. The limbs
bent double by
their own prodigiousness
while the air swims
around them, wasp-drone, heat-hum, root
snaking, the fingered leaf in indolent
abeyance, as if spent.
gravity wins this one, so
why not just kiss
the ground, and not just in reverence but
lasciviously, with bruises darkening
your skin from all the heat of it, and no
boundaries any longer–yes,
dissolved, entirely subsumed, possessed,
not one thing
left of you. Really, what
is this flesh for, if not for absolute
abandon? Look at how it swells
from every branch, like sweat, like easy tears,
like blood from a cut.
Unguarded, unresisting, a freefall
to oneness, nothing in the way,
no stone at the heart of it, after all,
and even the flower is invisible, it blooms
inside the fruit.
By Amy Glynn. From A Modern Herbal (Measure Press 2013). First published in Birmingham Poetry Review.
Ode to the Joke
A joke is thus a double-dealing rascal who serves two masters at once—Freud
A jigger, a poker,
a poker-faced joker,
a two-timing stoker
of fire and smoke,
he cleverly cloaks
what good old folks
would never invoke
—if only the blokes
knew what they spoke:
prudery and lechery
& truckling treachery
tricked out as foolery
& friendly buffoonery.
Praise the jolly joker
who tames our evil
and keeps us civil.
Praise the muckraker
for he’s a merry-maker
and peace-keeper, too,
who sees us through
our faking & breaking,
our shaking & quaking
from our first awaking
to our final forsaking.
By Nausheen Eusuf. From Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books 2017). First published in The Southampton Review.
A metaphor is not a wall,
but a turn in the sudden
feel of it all,
the breath that comes
before the fall,
the calm that comes
before the form,
a shapely reminder
that language is limber,
thought is a bridge,
the brain is a gate
which is the break
in its own wall
and the heart is inclined
to the clearing sound
of the undiscovered waterfall.
By Wendy Videlock. First published in The Hudson Review.
Craft: Today’s poems are “nonce” forms, meaning they are in forms invented by the poet. Anything that repeats often enough for the mind to register it as recurring creates a pattern. As Robert Haas says, human beings are pattern-seeking animals who find a sense of rest, even delight, in recognizing any pattern. The tradition of poets inventing their own (nonce) forms goes back a long way and is alive and well in contemporary poetry. When Billy Collins invented his “paradelle,” he said it dated back to eleventh-century France, but he later admitted he’d made up not only the form, but also its tongue-in-cheek history. The paradelle pokes fun at formal poetry by relying for its construction on rules that are ridiculously complex. Another example of contemporary nonce form is the “sonnenezio,” a sonnet form invented by Kim Addonizio (featured in this column earlier this month). See her poem and a set of guidelines on how to write a sonnenezio. A third example of invented (sonnet) form is the “albergonnet,” developed by my friend Dan Albergotti:
Your Home Is at Risk if You Do Not Keep Up Repayments
Idiot, slow down. Slow down.
until you drown
in stasis as the world
grinds to a halt, its oceans whirled
around all cities, towns, and villages—
all kings, queens, jokers, stockbrokers, and savages—
and everything’s erased, quiet, peaceful, and finally clean,
all dingy urban buildings washed to a metallic sheen.
Slow down, look around, and appreciate the end
that you brought on. And try to apprehend
one more gorgeous, poisoned sunset,
its chemical palette
By Dan Albergotti. From Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press 2014).
Why not try writing your own ghazanelle, sonnenezio, paradelle, or albergonnet, using today’s poems as prompts? If you do, you’ll find that the irrationality of an imposed rhyme or metrical scheme can be a great boon for creativity because it unhooks the carabiner of rational thought and forces you to consider taking your poem places that logic and chronology would never go. You can enjoy writing invented forms, maybe even invent one of your own—the goal is to have fun with it. The root of poet may be the Greek word for “maker,” but making or creating need not be all work and indeed flourishes in an environment where play—what Moira Egan calls “fooling around with poetic form”—is not only allowed but encouraged, and in fact may well be a necessary condition of any good writing.
Read Amanda Moore’s Poetry Sunday essay about Bashir’s poem.
and my essays about the remaining poems,
Come up with a set of three restrictions you will place on your poem, for example:
- the poem will not use articles, prepositions, or the letter “e” (this is from David Roderick’s online “Superpac” workshop on Left Margin Lit in April 2020).
- the poem will be no longer than 16 lines
- each line will have exactly 12 syllables.
Or, make up any rules that you want, then try to write a poem that satisfies them. Have fun with it, for example, one “rule” could be using the word “stir-crazy” at least 3 times in the poem.
Journal: DMQ Review is a Bay Area journal that has been publishing poetry and art since 1998. It’s online, one of the good ones, and submissions are open:
Recipe: In honor of Amy Gwynn’s poem, which always makes me hungry when I read it, I offer you Simple Oven Roasted Figs (I would probably serve this with a generous dollop of crème fraiche, or toasted goat cheese, just sayin’.)
DAY 36 :free verse
Poems: Four free verse poems by Jane Hirshfield:
Today, When I Could Do Nothing
Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books,
silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer—warm—
then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing,
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.
First published in April 2020 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Let Them Not Say
Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.
From Ledger (Knopf 2020). First published in Poem-a-Day by the Academy of American Poets.
My Life Was the Size of My Life
My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept, it opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from
From The Beauty (Knopf: 2015). First appeared in The New Yorker
The Supple Deer
The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.
Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through.
No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.
I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.
Not of the deer:
To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.
First published in Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011)
Craft: Many people assume that free verse is formless, but that is not the case, although it is poetry that rejects the limitations of regular meter and end-rhyme. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics defines free verse as “lines of varying length without any metrical constraints, distinguished . . . by [internal] rhyme, and occasionally by assonance (1993 ed., p. 428). The only thing free verse is strictly “free” of, then is regular, patterned meter and end-rhyme, and—news flash—this means that it is not truly “free” at all. To this I would add that free verse is also bound by the constraints that bind all good poetry: while first-expression best-expression does occasionally work, most poetry is improved by being worked and reworked, so that the words find their very best, most succinct expression. Too many writers today interpret “free verse” as “anything goes,” resulting in the flaccid, line-broken journal entries that sometimes pass for poems in contemporary journals.
In fact, free verse is itself a form with its own set of rules and expectations requiring at least as much technical virtuosity as other forms. Robert Frost is famous for saying that writing it is like “playing tennis without a net;” with meter, line length, and rhyme scheme not prescribed, the poet must write without a fixed template and according to his or her own vision of what the poem requires. The best is recognizable as art, shaped and honed into its ideal expression (Coleridge’s “best words in the best order”), and today’s poems are great examples of that.
Read my Poetry Sunday essays about the first three poems here:
Prompt: Try to write a free verse poem that pays careful attention to line breaks, so that the poem is deliberately, not randomly, shaped, and make yourself put it though several rounds of revisions, ideally separated by some time. Maybe write a poem, as in “Today I Did Nothing” that finds its inspiration in sheltering at home during Covid-19.
Journal: Catamaran Literary Reader is a local literary magazine published in Santa Cruz that produces beautiful full-color print issues. It’s affiliated with a press that runs an annual book contest (most recent winner is Susan Browne’s terrific Just Living) and also an annual writers’ conference. Submissions are open year-round,
Recipe: Free-Form Apple Tart
DAY 35 : Prose Poems
I resisted writing prose poems for a long time. The term seems like an oxymoron: prose is one thing and poetry another, so how can something be both? This form borrows from and resembles prose in many respects. The most obvious of these is that the lines are not broken; they extend all the way to the right margin, making a blocky shape that appears at first glance to be a paragraph from an essay or story.
Prose Poems are increasingly popular, no surprise given the flourishing of new forms that seem to blur the lines. “Genre is a fiction,” my friend Jasmin Darznik likes to say, and her prose memoir The Good Daughter and novel Song of a Captive Bird are written in language so rich and dense with image and sound that excerpts from them do sound like poetry. Prose poems appear regularly now in journals and magazines, along with flash fiction, micro-stories of fewer than 500 words, and sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart. Longer fiction and nonfiction pieces increasingly forgo traditional narrative arcs and rely on strategies we are used to seeing in poetry—like associative thinking, catalog format, and shifting points of view—to advance their action.
More and more I think the difference can be simply stated as this: prose pays more attention to what is said, and poetry pays more attention to how it is said. Poetry is concerned first and foremost with language, and an analogy can be drawn to the difference between painting obsessed with its subject and painting obsessed with its materials and the process of creation. Not all prose aspires to clarity of revelation and expression, of course. And, poetry, as Mathew Zapruder points out, revels in a strangeness: “its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative daydreaming movement—is not some deliberate obfuscation, or an obstacle to communication, but [is] essential to the very way poetry makes meaning.” Why Poetry (HarperCollins 2017), p. xii.
He tucks it under his chin, raises bow to string, the fingerboard running straight from cheek into the palm of his cupped left hand. Cochlea, clavicle, each fingertip curved, some for the balance of the bow, others poised on the strings. So much curled into the minute before music begins. He cocks an eyebrow toward the music stand, finds his place in the lines and spaces. The intervals of sound, like distance and time, paused. He scans the pattern of notes, the signature, the notation. A specific gravity. Downbow, and the universe moving in one direction feels the pull in another. Sound expands, reverberates, notes improvising some rhapsody, harmonies he hears the way he sees the nature of energy, vibrating. He taps his foot, keeping time.
Some Birth Day
Because my soul, open like a tin can under heaven, caught lost light refracted from a planet or star I never saw but felt illuminate my empty core, the dark matter of fact, and like a can once opened can never be resealed, this became the because of my tin can life, the thin curved metal of my remaining days, the lid-off-mouth-open-catch-all-that-can-be mystery of moment rolled under aluminum stars, a comet’s glance, the knife blade moon slicing, sliding, o moon. And you sun, bleached memories of wakefulnesses flickering empty as a can, complete as a can be opened, open empty under heaven, matter’s dark fact and the seasons, turning.
By Sally Ashton. From The Behavior of Clocks (WordFarm 2019).
Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica
Be camera, black-eyed aperture. Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal
that can outrun a hurricane. Be 250 million years old. Be isosceles. Sirius.
Rhapsody. Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot. Create a pleasure that can stir
up the world. Study the moon with a pencil. Drink the ephemerides. Lay with
the almanacs. Become the lunations. Look up the word southing before you
use it in a sentence. Know southing is not a verb. Imitate them remarkable
days. Locate all your ascending nodes. Chew eight times before you swallow
the lyrics and silver Lamentations of James Brown, Abbey Lincoln, Al Green,
Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha. Hey! Watch your language! Two and a Quarter
is not the same as Deuce and a Quarter. Two-fisted is not two-faced. Remember:
One monkey don’t stop no show. Let your fat belly be quilts of quietus. Pass
on what the great winemakers know: The juice is not made in the vats but in
the vineyard. Keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air.
Grow until you die, but before you do, leave your final kiss: Lay mint or orange
eucalyptus garland, double tuck these lips. Careful to the very end what you
deny, dismiss, & cut away.
I have spoken the best I know how.
By Nikki Finney. From Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press 2011)
You can read my essay about Finney’s poem.
My essay about Ashton’s poems, and prose poems in general, is reprinted below. Read a wonderful discussion by Amanda Moore of a very long prose poem by Monica Youn.
Poetry Sunday column: “Einstein’s Violin” and Some Birth Day” by Sally Ashton
This week’s column features two prose poems by Sally Ashton, part of a manuscript called Behavior of Clocks, comprised chiefly of prose shorts along with some more traditionally-lineated poems. The title is from Einstein’s book written for laypersons called Relativity. Struck by “the seeming absurdity of clocks and trains in Einstein’s conceptualizations” and by moments in her life that “seem to coexist across time and place.” Ashton says she tries to recreate a similar simultaneity in the speaker’s experience in her poems.
Let’s talk briefly here about the prose poem, a form I resisted when I first encountered it and still sometimes resist today. The Prose Poem is in fact a form of poetry, but one that borrows from and resembles prose in many respects. The most obvious of these is that the lines are not broken; they extend all the way to the right margin, making a blocky shape that appears at first glance to be a paragraph from an essay or story.
In his book Best Words Best Order, Stephen Dobyns explains a function of line breaks, and what happens when they are omitted:
The traditional metric poem contains two clear rhythms: the rhythm of the sentence and the rhythm of the line . . . powerful effects of traditional verse are achieved by playing off the syntactical movement against the metrical movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2d ed. p. 108)
The tension between the rhythm of the sentence and the rhythm of the line is called “counterpoint,” a quality absent from prose poems since they employ only the rhythm of the sentence. Thus, prose poems must rely on means other than counterpoint in order to achieve tension. The venerable (if sometimes curmudgeonly) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics lists the “principal characteristics” of prose poems as “high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition; sustained intensity and compactness” (1993 ed., p. 977). To this list I might add heightened language and image and a quality of surprise sometimes provided by surrealism. A prose poem need not contain all of these elements, of course, but in the absence of rhythmic counterpoint, such a poem must rely more heavily on some of them to keep the writing from going slack.
In the first of Ashton’s prose shorts, “Einsten’s Violin, we can see a few of these poetic devices at work. Parallel sentence structure (Einstein “tucks,” he “cocks,” he “scans” and he “sees”) forge a pattern reinforced by a pattern of sound repetitions. The sound patterns arise from rich internal rhyme (Einstein’s/violin, tucks/cocks/cheek, string/running, finds/lines/scans) and assonance (tucks/cupped, chin/fingerboard, bow/so).
Ashton achieves simultaneity of action, place, and time by articulating each of the violinist’s movements in a context that includes concepts of place (e.g. “distance”), all accompanied by Einstein’s tapping foot. The effect is heightened by the synesthesia that merges two senses when Einstein hears music “the way he sees the nature of energy, vibrating.” Tension is achieved by compression and also by the way the poet spring loads that dramatic moment at the beginning where everything and everyone is poised, waiting for the music to begin.
How does the second poem, “Some Birth Day,” sustain poetic tension? Like “Einstein” Violin,” it is highly compressed and in that small space develops a rich concentration of repeated words and sounds. The word “can” appears eight times and others—“empty,” “open,” “tin,” to name a few—are likewise repeated. Sound repetitions like the rhyme of “can” and “planet” or the slant rhymes of “can” and “tin” create momentum, especially when they occur closer and closer together as the poem unfolds. Note also the word play and punning, with “dark matter” morphing into “matter of fact” and the word “can” used sometimes as a noun and sometimes as an auxiliary verb. Another technique that drives this poem forward is the evolution in diction from scientific at the beginning to the intensely lyrical “a comet’s glance, the knife blade moon slicing, sliding, o moon.”
It took me awhile to get used to the idea of prose poetry—I love rhyme and meter and at first could not imagine poetry without these musical qualities. But reading the prose poems of contemporary poets like Russell Edson, Stephen Dunn, Stuart Dybeck and others has opened my ideas to the imaginative possibilities of this form, and I hope that these poems by Sally Ashton will do the same for you.
Prompt: Using today’s poem as a model, try to write your own prose poem.
Journal: The Georgia Review is a highly respected journal and submissions are quite competitive—I’ve been sending my stuff there with no luck for at least 10 years. Quality is consistently high, and I thought of it here because it often publishes poems by Stephen Dunn, regarded as a contemporary master of the prose poem. Submissions are open all year except between May 15 and August 15,
Recipe: I guess I chose this one because it kinda looks like a prose poem. I’ve been using this salad dressing for years, and it never fails to please.
Start with 1/3 cup good vinegar (different types can be substituted fir different effects, but I like Champagne vinegar).
Add ¾ tsp salt, ½ tsp fresh ground pepper, ½-1 T minced shallots or 1-2 cloves minced garlic.
Add ¼-1/2 tsp sugar
Add 1 T good Dijon mustard
Blend with a fork or whip and drizzle in enough high quality virgin olive oil until your batch measures a cup or a little over, depending on how piquant you want it.
Keeps covered in fridge for a couple weeks.
Can sub different vinegars and oils for different effects, e.g. use grapeseed oil with a bit of sesame oil and sherry vinegar, maybe a splash of soy sauce.
DAY 34 :columnar poem aka Cleave poem
A cleave poem usually takes the form of two narrow columns (of any length) in which the reader has the choice to read the poem three ways: just the first column, just the second column, or both columns at once by reading across each line all the way from beginning to end and spanning both columns.
To Love as Aswang
With razorblade eyes The Filipina is most sincere
With too much water And will make a very good wife.
With animal teeth The Filipina is a loyal partner,
We sometimes kill Deserving of all your love.
With splintered hands The Filipina is the total package,
With too much life Much more than meets the eye.
With ribcage unlocked The Filipina is not for you,
We wither your roots If you cannot handle her claws.
By Barbara Jane Reyes. First published in Poetry (May 2014).
Craft: Read my Poetry Sunday essay about this poem.
Prompt: Using today’s poem as a model, try to write a columnar poem that can be read two ways: each column as its own separate poem, then again going all the way across the lines of both columns as one integrated poem.
Journal: The North American Review is one the oldest literary magazines in this country and is always a great read, and they publish sonnets and other poems in form as well as less formal poetry. Submissions are open now for their annual James Hearst Poetry Prize and open for general submissions on October 31.
Recipe: Everyone’s been telling me they are making Spaghetti Carbonara, maybe the consummate comfort food,
DAY 33 : golden shovel
Invented by Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, the Golden Shovel is a poetic form in which the last words of each line are, in order, words from a line or lines usually (but not always) taken from a Brooks poem. The results often differ in subject, tone, and texture from the source poem.
The Golden Shovel
after Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
- Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
Terrance Hayes, “The Golden Shovel” from Lighthead (Penguin 2010).
Craft: Terrance Hayes invented this form as an Homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, using the words of her short, punchy poem “We Real Cool,” and titled after that poem’s epigraph, which reads: “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.”
Hayes wrote the forward to a wonderful anthology of such poems, The Golden Shovel Anthology,
Prompt: Choose a short poem that you love—one that really means something to you, and preferably one that is somewhat well-known. Haikus work well for this. Using that poem’s words in sequence, place each one at the end of a blank line to make your template, then write towards each word as you are drafting the poem. When you are done, You should be able to read the end words down the right margin to re-create the original poem you chose.
Journal: Birmingham Poetry Review is a first rate journal friendly to poems in form; gorgeous covers are a bonus. Open for submissions (snail mail only) now and are open all year except for May 15 through September 1.
Recipe: The words “Golden Shovel” makes me think of all kinds of recipes! I’ll give you the one for the Pineapple Upside Down cake (from the Bisquick Box) that has become my family’s go-to comfort food during Covid-19 confinement—easy to make with on-hand ingredients (so long as you have a can of pineapple slices) and delicious.
DAY 32 :ghazal
Today we’ll focus on an old Middle Eastern form called the “Ghazal.”
Ghazal for the Girl in the Photo
You became the girl with the piercing eyes when you found your country swiped by a stranger
In Kabul snow, a missile turned your mother into coal, your last tears were wiped by a stranger
A garden once hung from your name like the perfume of wild apple blossoms, phantom tulips
In the refugee camp, are you Sharbat Gula, liquor of flowers, or a number typed by a stranger?
Your eyes teach how cold flint ignites a flare, how a father’s bones become an orphan’s roof
History writes itself clear as cornea, your green glare—no whitewashing, no hype is stranger
Pity the empire that failed to decipher the disdain in your eyes, the hard stare of war
Pity the first world’s pity, the promise of friends who show up as every type of stranger
Zeest, return to the arms of memory, the riddle of its minefields, velvet lullabies
To the lilt of this land, its lyrical storms, its bells and bagpipes, you’re no stranger
By Shadab Zeest Hashmi. From Ghazal Cosmopolitan (Jacar Press 2017).
Last night I wakened, shaking, wanting sex.
I didn’t know quite where I was, nor why
I wasn’t in my bed. He woke, perplexed
at my confusion, lulled me calm with sex.
He wants to know why women sometimes cry
at moments of wild joy, petite mort, why
a wave of loneliness we can’t express,
that moat of mourning, hits us after sex.
I wonder if it’s chromosomal: y
departed from primordial x, and why
or how he knows to hold me all night, pressed
into him like intaglio, post-sex.
Now, sleep. Some other night I’ll tell him why
I don’t cry with him. Arms around me. Sex.
By Moira Egan. “Ghazanelle” first appeared in The Silk of the Tie/La Seta della Cravatta, a bilingual collection published by Edizioni l’Obliquo, Brescia, Italy, 2009.
Prompt: Using today’s poem as a model, try to write your own ghazal, of any length. If too tough, relax the rhyming component and focus on writing end-stopped couplets whose second line includes the repeated phrase, and try to work your name into one of the last ones.
Journal: The Hopkins Review is another favorite journal that is friendly to poems in received forms. Use Submittable to submit poems in October and November of each year,
Recipe: Here’s a recipe for Jeweled Rice, a beloved Iranian dish. You’ll note that it calls for more than the usual amount of oil—one of its secrets. It can be tricky to pull off the tah-dig), a buttery crust that cooks on the bottom of the pan but—worth it!!
Poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi
DAY 31 : rhyming couplets
Rhyming couplets, which can be cast in nearly any imaginable meter, are a valuable instrument in your craft toolbox. If you can write a good couplet, you are part way there to being able to write a number of other forms, such as the villanelle or the Shakespearean sonnet, that use couplets in their structures. Couplets are great for establishing call-and-response in a poem and can also be a way of managing long poems, of breaking them into smaller bites (or bytes, I guess). If not well managed, rhyming couplets run the risk of devolving into singsong or a nursery-rhyme-like sound, maybe the reason poets don’t seem to be writing as much in this form anymore. To avoid this, try writing your couplets in any meter besides iambic pentameter or tetrameter, substitute slant for full rhymes, and choose subjects with some gravitas, as in today’s poem, “Love and Dread” by Rachel Hadas.
Love and Dread
A desiccated daffodil.
A pigeon cooing on the sill.
The old cat lives on love and water.
Your mother’s balanced by your daughter:
one faces death, one will give birth.
The fulcrum is our life on earth,
beginning, ending in a bed.
We have to marry love and dread.
Dark clouds are roiling in the sky.
The daily drumbeat of the lie,
This premature deceptive spring,
forsythia’s in bloom already.
The challenge: balance. Keep it steady,
now sniffing daffodils’ aroma,
now Googling a rare sarcoma.
The ghost cat’s weightless on my lap.
My mother’s ghost floats through my nap,
as, dearest heart, we lie in bed.
Oh, we must marry love and dread:
must shield our senses from the glare
and clamor of chaos everywhere.
Life bestows gifts past expectation.
It’s time to plan a celebration:
dance at the wedding, drink and sing,
certain that summer follows spring,
that new life blossoms from the past.
The baby is the youngest guest.
But just how long can we depend
on a recurrence without end?
Everything changes, even change.
The tapestry of seasons strange-
ly stirs in an uneasy wind
that teases dreamlike through the mind.
I reach for you across the bed.
Oh, how to marry love and dread?
By Rachel Hadas. First published in the print edition of the November 18, 2019 issue of The New Yorker and online on November 11, 2019.
Listen to the poet reading “Love and Dread” here.
Watch the poet reading “Love and Dread” here.
Prompt: Using Hadas’s poem as a model, try to write at least 6 rhyming couplets without getting up from your place at the computer. Just stick it out till you have 6 couplets, on any subject and not necessarily linked—these can be “seeds” for future sonnets or villanelles!
Journal: 32 Poems publishes shorter poems that fit on a single page (about 32 lines), and the quality is consistently high; sometimes the poems are in fixed form or otherwise seem to acknowledge form. This is one of the few journals I read every time, cover to cover, that it comes out. Submissions are open now.
Recipe: If you master the basic two-step principle in this recipe (kinda like coming up with a solid rhyming couplet, right?) you can adapt it to many other versions of the “Piccata” theme: chicken, turkey, veal, other more sustainable fish, etc.
DAY 30 : villanelle
The villanelle is a wonderful, venerable old French form, and I am not sure how I feel about its name being assigned the cold-blooded (albeit very sexy) assassin in the new TV series Killing Eve. I love its haunting repetitions and also the fact that, once you’ve come up with a strong rhyming couplet and plugged those lines into the template, your poem is half written. For whatever reason, my writing goes better when I have something to write towards. In yesterday’s sestina, the poet writes towards the end words plugged into the template. In the villanelle, she writes towards the lines that make up that couplet, alternating as the last lines of stanzas until the last, when both lines come together in couplet form.
Annie Finch, a leading contemporary master of form, collects villanelles in this anthology co-edited with Marie-Elizabeth Mali. By the way, Annie is offering some online workshops and retreats coming up soon, and they look great.
Today’s poems are “Porch Light” by bay area poet Jane Underwood, who sadly is no longer with us, and “The Dress Code” by Caitlin Doyle.
Winter light fading, husband and dog gone
for a walk, they’ll be back in an hour.
If the sky goes dark, I turn the porch light on.
Exhausted after working all day long,
he’s devoted to home, hearth, his other.
Winter light fading, husband and dog gone
up the hill, where our terrier girl loves to run.
Her ecstasy filled me when I was able to take her.
If the sky goes dark, I turn the porch light on.
Simple daily things, those are our song
of love despite the trials of growing older.
Winter light fading, husband and dog gone
off together, leaving me here alone,
wishing I too could have skipped out the door.
If the sky goes dark, I turn the porch light on.
They fill in what I lack, trek along
the streets, stop for snacks at the corner store.
Winter light fading, husband and dog gone.
When my heart goes dark, I turn the porch light on.
By Jane Underwood. First published in When my Heart Goes Dark, I Turn the Porch Light On (Blue Light Press 2017)
The Dress Code
I should have acted up when I was young.
Who’ll call the guidance counselor (she’s not there)
if I shave off my hair or pierce my tongue?
Who’ll keep me after class to ask what’s wrong
(my father pinned my mother to the floor)
if I go goth or grunge? I’ve read my Jung;
the dream recurs, although the bell has rung
(the more she screamed, the less he seemed to hear)
and everyone’s gone home. What good’s a tongue
ring when it’s not against the rules? Freud hung
(she screamed until she couldn’t anymore)
his hat on cases like mine. The patient’s young
beyond her years. School’s been out for so long
there’s nothing where the building was but air –
(Freud knew I’d see it all but hold my tongue)
Who’ll put me in detention, where I belong,
or send a note home with me (no one’s there)
if I shave off my hair or pierce my tongue?
I should have acted up when I was young.
By Caitlin Doyle. First published in The Yale Review, Vol. 105, No. 3, October 2017
Craft: The villanelle is a fixed form in nineteen lines consisting of five three-line stanzas (tercets) followed by a four-line stanza (quatrain). In a villanelle, the first and third line of stanza one alternate as the last line in successive stanzas until the last one, which concludes with both repeated lines. Stated another way, the first line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, then both lines return one last time as the last two lines of the poem. The repeating lines, called repetends, work the way refrains do in music. Typically, the repeating lines rhyme with each other and then rhyme in turn with the first line of each stanza, and all the second lines of stanzas end on a second, different rhyme. Using capitals for repetends and lowercase letters for rhymes, the form is: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2 (More info: www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/villanelle). Note what this means for the villanelle; it has just two repeated rhyming sounds.
For more on the villanelle, read these examples and their accompanying craft essays,
Jane Underwood, “Porch Light”
Caitlin Doyle, “The Dress Code”
Margaret Stawowy, “Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine”
July 17, 2016: Lucille Lang Day, “The Lost Books” and “Figurines”
Prompt: Come up with one really compelling rhyming couplet, then plug its lines into the template and try to write your own villanelle.
Journal: Measure Review is another favorite literary journal whose focus is formal poetry; in fact, their submissions page says: “If your formal framework is not immediately recognizable—or persuasively explained in your cover letter—your submission will be rejected outright.” Submissions are open now.
Recipe: In my yard, two dwarf trees produce bushels of nectarines that return like a summer refrain. Here are two recipes, both yummy, that call for peaches and are just as good with fresh, ripe nectarines:
DAY 29 : sestina
Introduction: My weeks leading this retreat will focus on formal poetry, or—poems at least in conversation with form. I love form, especially in the hands of poets willing to challenge the rules, bending, breaking and even abandoning them as seen in the sonnets of Terrance Hayes, or followed with mastery, verve, and originality as by one of my favorite contemporary poets, AE Stallings. I’m excited about all the new forms being invented: the Golden Shovel (Terrance Hayes), the Mirrorform (Peter Kline), the Sonnezio (Kim Addonizio), the Albergonnet (Dan Albergetti), the Bop (Afaa Michael Weaver), the Ghazanelle (Moira Egan) and more. With Patrick Donnelly, I’ve been developing a new “formalist track” called “Freedom in Form” at the 2020 Frost Place Poetry Seminar —not clear yet whether that will be taking place online, due to Covid-19.
The sestina is one of the most difficult forms to pull off well. My first introduction to it came in Jim Cummins’ brilliant and hilarious book based, tongue-in-cheek, on the Perry Mason series, The Whole Truth (Carnegie Mellon 2003) . With David Lehman, Cummins also wrote Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull 2005), witty satiric sestinas that lampoon, among other things, the literary world. Turns out the sestina is the perfect vehicle for communicating the numbingly complex language of theoretical Academia! Ted Kooser’s sestina “Weather Central” really exploits the form’s tendency to degrade into numbing repetition; he says he chose it to convey the deadly dullness of TV weathermen voices as well as “how very tedious the sestina form can be.” (Ted Kooser, Poetry Home Repair Manual, Bison Books 2007.)
Today’s poem is “Crab Feed Sestina” by the Bay Area’s own Kathleen McClung.
Crab Feed Sestina
for my father, 1936-2008
My stepmother tells us come hungry, come ready to eat
gumbo and crab, peach cobbler. She mails us tickets
with smiling cartoon crabs, cursive letters: No Host Bar.
Music. Raffle. A funeral home near the freeway,
one of the sponsors, address and phone across
the left hand edge. No Outside Alcohol on the right.
Tom jokes he’ll give me a tutorial on the right
way to behave at a Catholic church dinner. My plan: eat
slower than usual, nod agreeably, anchor a napkin across
my lap, accumulate Mardi Gras beads. I doublecheck: our tickets
nestle between some fives and ones in my wallet, the way
I safeguard Giants tickets, coupons for Clement Street Bar
& Grill. But these are friendlier documents somehow, no bar
codes to be scanned, just cartoon claws, a knife in the right,
fork in the left. My stepmother floors it all the way
to the church in her Scion. I almost yell, “Eat
my dust!” out her backseat window. We’re outlaws. No ticket
tonight. We hurtle into the parking lot, snag the one space left across
from the entrance festooned with crepe paper. Above us, the cross
unsways in the twilight. She locks a red bar
onto her steering wheel, we hear the engine tick
for a moment, and it occurs to me that everyone must write
a poem about a church crab feed eventually. “Let’s eat!”
Tom almost yells and swishes his palms together in that endearing way
of his. She’s happy we’ve come with her. I can tell by the way
she finds our table, our last name, hers and mine, in ink across
butcher paper on the Formica. She’s brought all the right tools to eat
this meal, unpacks them while Tom orders wine at the bar:
special bowls and bibs, little burners to melt butter just right.
I’m sure I’ll win a raffle prize—that spa robe?—buy ten tickets
in a strip, like carnival rides. I fling my numbered ticket
stubs into a wire tumbler, luck humming through me the way
it does sometimes when I least expect it. We are doing the right
thing, the three of us. Worship takes all forms. I look across
rows of heads and beads. Tom balances chardonnays from the bar,
my stepmother lights candles below the burners. We will eat
in disposable bibs, listen for digits, redeem more drink tickets across the bar.
A girl—is she 20?—eating to my right will talk about rehab, the man upstairs.
“Way to go,” I will tell her and nod over the shells we have broken.
“Crab Feed” won the Grand Prize in the Ina Coolbrith Circle 98th Annual Poetry Contest in 2017 and first appeared in the 2018 issue of riverSedge: A Journal of Art and Literature.
Craft: The Poetry Foundation provides a template for and historic examples of the sestina here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/sestina I’ve written about a few sestinas, including today’s poem, in a weekly column (“Poetry Sunday”) for Women’s Voices for Change. The column presents an author and poem written by a woman over the age of 40, along with a craft essay written by me or my co-editors, Susan Cohen and Amanda Moore. Any of these columns is a good starting point for learning about the form:
- July 7, 2019: Kathleen McClung, “Crab Feed Sestina”
- July 24, 2016: LaWanda Walters, “Her Art”
- March 13, 2016: Mary Meriam, “The Boston Soak”
Prompt: Brainstorm a list of end words and choose six that speak to you; using them, and the template from the Poetry Foundation website, try to write your own sestina.
Journal: The Hudson Review ,is one of my favorite journals—consistently high quality, brainy work with a penchant for formal poetry. Beware, though—they do NOT take simultaneous submissions, and they sometimes can take a bit of time to respond. Poetry submissions are open now, April 1 through June 30
Recipe: Because hard times call us to step up and give of ourselves, I am sharing my top-secret tomato pie recipe here. It’s best with ripe off-the-vine tomatoes, but off season plum tomatoes will do, especially if you roast them first. And yes, you can use a boughten crust. And no, it has nothing to do with the sestina, except that both things have 6 basic ingredients.
Becky’s Tomato Pie
4-6 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, seeded and with juice sopped out
Any old cheese you have on hand but try to include some fresh Parmesan
Salt, pepper, olive oil
good quality French Dijon mustard
Fresh herbs, especially basil
- Preheat oven to about 375, and put a cookie sheet in to heat; you’ll place the pie on this. Prepare a pre-baked pie shell. Any will work but after years of making this I’ve decided it is not with it to make from scratch. I like Pillsbury dough rounds from the dairy case or French Picnic frozen rounds that you slightly thaw, roll a bit larger, and press into a tart pan or pie pan, doing all the stuff you are always supposed to do with dough: don’t handle too much, avoid stretching when you fit it into pan. [Make sure not to buy a sweet crust meant for dessert pies.] Prick shell with fork. Butter foil and press into shell, butter side down and weight with spoons or beans. If you have time, chill for 15 mins or more, then follow instructions for pre-baking (bake at about 400 for 10-12 min then remove foil and bake another 5 min or until not quite yet browned). Remove from oven and let cool on a rack. [Note: in a pinch those frozen crusts will work, and if short on time you can skip the prebaking step, just loading filling into uncooked shell, but crust will not be quite as crisp). Leave the cookie sheet in the oven to stay hot.
- Spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard on bottom and sides of cooled shell. Then add thinly sliced or grated cheese: anything you have on hand, to a depth of about ¼-½”. Slice ripe tomatoes 1/8” thick and sieve them through your fingers to get most juice and seeds out; as you work, layer slices on a plate, pat with paper towels, and salt and pepper the slices. When you have a plate-diameter pile about as deep as your pie dish, you have enough. Layer tomatoes in tightly overlapping spirals until pan is completely full. It looks nice to alternate slices of different colored tomatoes or to scatter cut-in-half grape tomatoes in center and on top. Salt and pepper to taste.
[note: if unripe green tomatoes are used, and these are THE BEST, slice them a lot thinner than the ripe ones so they will cook faster, or else pre-bake the slices on a cookie sheet or in a saucepan until as soft as a ripe tomato. I like to use both green and ripe in one pie. ]
- Bake at 375 for about 45 mins until crust is browned and cheese bubbles up. If edges are getting too brown, cover them with foil. Put foil under pan to catch drips.
- Remove and let cool to set up, at least 15 mins. If there is a ton of juice, lift some off with a spoon and save for something else. Drizzle with good olive oil and garnish with chopped fresh herbs.
When cool unmold sides of tart pan to serve, or serve in pie tin.
Past Social Distance Online Writing Retreats