7 April 2020

I woke up with significantly less anger today. I felt very comforted by today’s writing prompt: write a poem based on a news article. The post even included links to a few news articles which, thankfully, had little to do with the actual news. I am actively avoiding the majority of those reports. I just read my daily Brookline, MA update each night and then check the latest numbers (you know which ones) in The Guardian. I limit the rest of my news consumption to coverage of the Royal family, updates from Shedd Aquarium, and Bon Appétit content.

Thinking about poetry and news at the same time always reminds me of these lines from William Carlos Williams:

Screenshot 2020-04-07 18.17.33

Those lines come from Williams’ long poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” and you can read an excerpt from it here.

So, as you can see, the news and poems can complement each other, and I liked seeing this juxtaposition in today’s NaPoWriMo prompt. I decided to use the article “Researchers Discover Faraway Planet Where the Rain is Made of Iron” as the source text for an erasure, and I found the process of creating this poem very restful. The poem did not demand anything from me or take anything from me. I just let my mind glide over the words, keeping the ones that struck a chord. Is this the best poem I have ever written? No. Is this worst poem I have ever written? Also no. It’s just a poem I made that has the word pretty in it. And that’s fine.

[Jill Hurst-Wahl uses the phrase “And that’s fine” in almost every one of her collection development lectures, and I find it so soothing.]

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7April2020_CapeCanaveral-2I was listening to Live Through This by Hole while I did this erasure, which does not sound restful or meditative but, oddly enough, was.

6 April 2020

Today, the NaPoWriMo prompt asks us to write an ekphrastic poem that uses Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights as its inspiration. This prompt felt exhausting to me for no apparent reason. I woke up in an extremely foul mood, hating everything and everyone. Moods like this always remind me of Edith Wharton’s novel Summer because in the opening scene the main character steps outside and says, “How I hate everything!”

The first time I read Summer that scene resonated with me on a deep, primal level, and I think of it often.

So, I feel a bit like Charity Royall today, even though she detests working in the library and I adore working in the library, and I did not use today’s prompt. Instead I started working on a little erasure series about anger, using sections from this Wikipedia entry as my source text.

Feels cute. Might delete it later. Might do a hundred more erasures titled anger. Might listen to the Captain Marvel soundtrack a thousand times in a row.

How about you? What emotion are you experiencing today? What are you listening to? What are you writing? What will make you happy tomorrow?

6April2020_Anger1

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5 April 2020

Reading today’s NaPoWriMo prompt came with a wave of nostalgia because it uses an exercise taken from The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. This book collects writing exercises different poets have used with their students, and I had to buy it for my first undergraduate writing course at George Mason University. My teacher was Mark Craver, whom I loved. He did not throw me out of his (crowded adjunct) office when I demanded he tell me “if I am even any good at poetry before it’s too late to drop this class,” and he cured me of my habit of inserting random French words into my poems to demonstrate my sophistication.

We never used the “20 Little Poetry Projects” exercise in Mark’s class, but I used it to write (a bad draft of) a poem during the first semester of my MFA program, when we had to turn in a new poem every Thursday like writing a poem is easy. I always felt very anxious in my grad school poetry workshops, because Jeffrey Pethybridge was always in my workshop, even though he an undergraduate student, and he would critique everyone’s poem very thoroughly and seriously — as if we had any idea what we were doing! As if I had formed all the best bits of my poems on purpose instead of entirely by accident when I wasn’t even paying attention to the process! Later, after we became friends, Jeff would call me on the phone at odd hours of the day to read me something he had just written as if my opinion mattered. Graduate school was weird, though I often miss those long conversations (debates? arguments? hallucinations?) with Jeff and Paul and Jamii and Mark and Melissa and Scott and Janet and Tim et al.

Anyway, this time I used the “20 Little Poetry Projects” to better effect, and I put French in it for an actual reason! You can read my poem below, but also if you have children or teens quarantined in your house, challenge them to write a poem following these instructions. Tell them it doesn’t matter if their poem doesn’t make any sense! Poetry is largely nonsense.

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4 April 2020

Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt asks us to write a poem based on an image from a dream, something I already do quite often since I am one of those people who remembers their dreams in the morning.

I tried to write about a dream I had last night, in which my best friend who used to be my boss observes me teaching and then tells me what a bad job I’m doing. This has never happened in real life! She was (and likely still is) an extremely supportive and empowering supervisor. Except in my dreams, where she’s all criticism and paperwork and long sighs expressing her immense disappointment.

I dream these dreams quite often, and they always involve a bizarre classroom environment or an incredibly long journey to a desk located in a shared office. Sometimes the office is in a strip mall. Once I couldn’t even get to my office on an upper level because the building only had escalators running in the opposite direction.

I dream strange dreams, my friend. You can read my poem for today below. I couldn’t think of the right title, so if you have any ideas, let me know!

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3 April 2020

I’m very excited because today’s NaPoWriMo prompt, which involves using an online rhyming dictionary to create a word bank that will provide material for your poem, dovetailed nicely with an idea I had for a list poem. A list poem, or catalog poem, presents an inventory of objects, places, people, or ideas. List poems often use repetition and may also include rhyme. Their structure is usually deliberate rather than random, and they tend to conclude with a strong image or significant idea. (If I sound like I am lecturing you, it’s likely because that definition comes from a lecture I give to my creative writing students.)

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” is a famous example of a list poem, as is “Shirt” by Robert Pinksy. Some of my favorite list poems come from The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. During her time at court, Shōnagan kept a daybook to document her observations and reflections. Sometimes she wrote a more typical diary entry, but she also created lyrical lists that could be considered prose poems. Here are some examples from the Ivan Morris translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

29. Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syraup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

43. Poetic Subjects

The capital city. Arrowroot. Water-bur. Colts. Hail. Bamboo grass. The round-leaved violet. Club moss. Water oats. Flat river-boats. The mandarin duck. The scattered chigaya reed. Lawns. The green vine. The pear tree. The jujube tree. The althea.

If your social distancing circumstances include cohabitating with children and teens, you might invite them to experiment with writing a catalog poem of their own. I found a sample lesson plan for high school students on the NCTE’s website. A (very lazy) search on the interwebs took me to multiple list poem lesson plans for younger children (like this one), as well as this plan designed for college students. I also found an interesting article about using image lists to jumpstart your writing process.

What I am saying in a very roundabout way is I have written today’s NaPoWriMo poem! and I actually followed the prompt! and I wrote a list poem! and You can read it below! Hooray!

3April2020_ListOfDays

The rhyming dictionary definitely helped me take this poem in an unexpected direction. It also allowed me to indulge my lifelong obsession with Greek mythology. The rhyming dictionary suggested golden mean as a rhyming partner for quarantine, and looking up the definition reminded me of the violet hour, a reference found in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” a poem you may have studied in school. If you have never read “The Wasteland,” you probably are still familiar with its first line, which people often quote this time of year: April is the cruelest month. Typically, this line can be read as a reference to the emergence of spring, or the earth’s attempt to resurrect plants and flowers  (i.e., “breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”).

This April we’re experiencing another type of cruelty, which is why I am seeking comfort in poetry. I hope you are finding solace as well! What is bringing you comfort these days? What provides you with solace?

 

 

2 April 2020

Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was inspired by James Schuyler and involves using concrete details to write about one particular place. I really like poems that rely on specific nouns and cultural references. “Homage to Sharon Stone” by Lynn Emanuel is one of my favorite examples of this type of writing. I am so curious to read the poems that emerged from this prompt. If you have written one, please share!

My poem for the day attempts to address a different prompt, created by the teenage daughter of one of my best friends and favorite writing partners. T (her daughter) actually gave us this assignment on Monday, and I just finished it, which suggests I may not be the ideal candidate for homeschooling. In my defense, I initially found the assignment to be slightly off-putting since it required us to write a piece that must include the words ooze, palpable, chicken. I immediately came up with the phrase “the palpable ooze of chicken” and then required a palate cleanser of immense proportions. Thanks, Elisa Gabbert for introducing me to negronis in 2009. I would not have survived this assignment without them. If reading about T’s prompt has put a bad taste in your mouth, you might also need a negroni. Don’t know the recipe? Watch this video of Geoffrey Zakarian making one during his self-quarantine.

Anyway, I accepted this writing assignment from T and then, for no good reason, decided to make it more difficult by using her required words in a cento. If you know me in real life, then you already know how much I seem to enjoy complicating an already complicated task. Make it harder, that’s what I always say (to myself and literally no one else). I had planned to inventory my fridge and pantry this afternoon so I could make a meal plan and limit our outside interactions to one local grocery shop every ten days, but instead I spent about four hours reading poems on the Poetry Foundation website. A search for the word chicken returned 317 poems, in case you were wondering. But I also had to do a separate search for poems containing the word palpable (197 results). Fortunately, the word ooze just turned up organically, as it does.

Like an erasure, a cento requires you to use source texts, and I have listed the ones I used to write “Shell, Cage, Bone” at the end of the post. (A lot of them use the word chicken in the title, a fact that may surprise only myself. Before today, my knowledge of poems that contain the word chicken consisted of “The Red Wheelbarrow” and nothing else.) I encourage you read these poems; a cento is designed to introduce you to the work of many different writers.

In addition, if you live or are quarantined with children and teens, I encourage you to encourage them to 1) participate in National/Global Poetry Writing Month or 2) write a cento of their own. The second option should occupy them for 1 to 5 hours!

You can read my “ooze, palpable, chicken” cento below. I hope T likes it. She has already given us a new assignment, so I am behind on my homework again (required words: emphasis, sunflower, scissors). Why am I doing homework assigned by other people’s children? Is this going to become a trend? What madness has social distancing wrought?

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Source texts (in order used):

1 April 2020

I am once again attempting to complete NaPoWriMo (or GloPoWriMo if you’re free from these United States) during our cruelest month. I don’t always end up writing 30 poems in 30 days, but since social distancing has become our new way of life, I want to carve out time every day to write a new poem. This year’s participation also gives me the chance to interact with some of my closest (distanced) friends, and I hope sharing the work we create this month will bring us (virtually) together.

For my first poem, I decided to use the early bird prompt posted on March 31st, although as usual, I seemed to have strayed from the prompt’s instructions by writing about birds in general rather than a favorite bird. Do I have a favorite bird? How does one select a favorite bird? I sense a new self-quarantine project emerging.

Anyway, here’s my poem for Day 1. It’s an erasure that uses the introduction to this Wikipedia entry as a source text.

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If you haven’t written your NaPoWriMo poem yet, you could use the favorite bird prompt or the prompt from today’s post, which references one of my favorite poems of all time including all time yet to come.

 

1 April 2019

For the ninth(!) year in a row, I’m participating in NaPoWriMo (or GloPoWriMo if you’re free from these United States). Writing 30 poems in 30 days sounds daunting, but trying to achieve that goal has always been an extremely generative process for me. My first attempt at #NaPoWriMo involved a secret pact — and a secret password-protected blog! — with a poet whose poetry and practice I admire. She taught me a lot about writing within a compressed time frame and suppressing my editorial impulses when creating a first draft of a poem. These lessons capture the core mission of National/Global Poetry Writing Month (or any other 30/30 writing challenge). All too many poets, regardless of their level of experience, get blocked in their writing because they start editing even before they have written anything at all. NaPoWriMo invites me to limit the demands I put on each poem by demanding that I limit the amount of time I spend bringing that poem into the world. I write as many poems as I can each April and then edit them at my leisure.

The poems I write during April often figure into other poetry projects I pursue throughout the year, so I rarely follow the daily prompts although I highly recommend using prompts, especially with writing groups or creative writing students. I am still centering my #writeeveryday efforts on using the predictive text algorithm in my phone’s memo application to write poetry. (I (still) have a Samsung Galaxy S7.) So far, the algorithm and I have produced some solid work. Most people remain skeptical of the poetic potential of their predictive text function, but I encourage you to explore ways to disrupt the algorithm’s rhythm. You’d be surprised at the results.

Today’s #NaPoWriMo prompt is to write a poem that provides the reader with instructions on how to do something, which is a classic. I have used it myself and with students many, many times. I didn’t even read the prompt until after I wrote my poem for today, but I think I might come back to it later in the month.

I usually keep the majority of my #NaPoWriMo posts private or remove the poem after a few days in case I want to submit it for publication in the future, but I’ve posted a screenshot of my April 1 poem below. Did you know about my obsession with Alexander the Great? And my further obsession with Mary Renault‘s novels about Alexander the Great? Now you do.

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“untouched and still possible”

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself

to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W. S. Merwin

2 April 2018

I didn’t not follow the Day 2 prompt for NaPoWriMo, which encourages participants to write a poem “that plays with voice.” I just didn’t challenge myself to use voice in a different way than I have been using it recently. The poems in my Predictive Text series frequently conflate “you” (second-person point of view) with “I” (first-person point of view), and since the “I” in these poems is a loosely fictionalized version of me (that is, me, Gillian actual), this fluidity between pronouns allows readers to imagine the events in these poems as happening to them. In theory, this shift in point of view that positions readers as the speaker of the poem should make the details of the poem feel more universal (as opposed to highly personal). In theory.

Currently, my Introduction to Creative Writing students at Wheelock College are reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a book which uses “you” to challenge the reader’s position in a powerful and evocative way. If you haven’t read Citizen yet, put that book on hold at your local library tout de suite! In the meantime, you can read excerpts here, here, here, and here. Afterwards, try to answer the question I asked my students to reflect on:

In Citizen, Claudia Rankine addresses “you” throughout the book. Where do you recognize yourself in the encounters described in Citizen, if at all? What perspectives or angles of experience were you surprised to inhabit, and why? How does Rankine’s choice to use second person point of view affect your experience as a reader? How does Rankine’s choice to use second person point of view affect your experience as a citizen?

(question courtesy of the National Endowments for the Arts reader’s guide for Citizen)

I’ve posted my 2/30 draft below. It disappointed me right away, and I’ve already revised it multiple times, but here’s the original version:

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