Category Archives: Poetry

From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?

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On Imagination

[I see that YouTube has removed this video for whatever reason, so please refer to this post’s comment sections for a transcript of Will Smith’s monologue in the film Six Degrees of Separation.]

It only took me about 15 years to finally view the film Six Degrees of Separation for the first time last night.  What an evening of captivation that made for…you could say it quite captured my imagination.  As far as what “imagination” itself is, the film (an adaptation of John Guare’s stage play of same name) is frank in its perspectives on the concept in the above scene, which gives me pause to reflect on how this can apply to one’s writing.

“The imagination has been so debased that the imagination…being imaginative, rather than being the linchpin of our existence, now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves.”

To many, “fiction” and “creative writing” may connote creating new, original worlds comprised of new, original creatures that lift us out of our reality.  Admittedly, I often characterize my choice of reading fiction over nonfiction as my “escape” from my everyday.  Yet, to be fair, my disbelief can only be suspended so far—at some point, I need to be able to see something recognizable within the text if I am to relate to it and learn from it and thereby stay engaged with it.

I remember making a pop-up book for a grad school assignment (yes, grad as in graduate school, not grade school!) that asked us to create a visual representation of our “reading life.”  I fashioned my book such that, with every turn of the page, a different symbol would pop up (that’s no easy feat to engineer, by the way…it took ages) that depicted one particular function reading serves in my life.  Among other things, I had an airplane to represent that idea of escape, a telescope for seeing beyond my immediate frame of reference, and a staff of music notes for the musicality or harmony books can provide through their themes or lyrical style.  And yet…

“Why has imagination become a synonym for style?  I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world.  I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us.”

One symbol I also distinctly recall inserting into the pages of my pop-up book was a mirror.  As I explained to my peers during my presentation, reading is a way of holding a mirror in front of myself because it may either convey or conflict with my perspectives, and in that confrontation, there is reflection, be it validating my beliefs or modifying them through the acquisition of new knowledge or ways of thinking.  It tells me something about myself, and I in turn form my interpretations of plot, character, etc. in terms of what I know from my own life experience and attitudes.  And while I’m certainly infusing certain personal meaning into what I write, I do hope that it strikes a chord with other readers’ lives such that they derive their own meaning.

I’ve felt the sting of insecurity before over incorporating aspects that are true to my life in my stories, as though that meant I was being unoriginal—after all, if I am truly creative, shouldn’t it all stem purely out of my imagination?  Consolingly, I have since reached understanding that it’s actually the moment we stop seeing ourselves in our writing that we’ve stopped being imaginative.

This brings to mind something I just read today by Josh Hanagarne (a newly published author) on his World’s Strongest Librarian blog.  With regard to his new novel, The Knot, Josh says:

“I am this book.  This book means everything to me.  It is pure me, […] easily the most personal thing I am able to share with you.”

I think when it’s all said and done, whether we get published or not, we should all be able to feel this way about what we’ve written.  So, in closing, I offer you this line from the film:

“To face ourselves – that’s the hard thing.  The imagination…that’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”

As writers, to what extent are our stories a means of self-examination?  Where do you see yourself in your characters, your truths in their “fictitious” circumstances and dialogue?  Do you find that the writing process is therapeutic in making your analysis of self “bearable”?  Might it do the same for your readers?


The Art of Discipline

On page 19 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg pauses to reflect on the importance of discipline in writing.  Her personal mantra when the going gets difficult is:

“Writers write, writers write…”

It all goes back to her emphasis on “showing up on the page” and curbing our tendencies to procrastinate or wait for inspiration to hit us.

The Prompt:

In light of the above, Goldberg asks us to write about discipline in one of 3 ways:

1.  Begin a poem or essay on what understanding you’ve reached on what it means to be disciplined, what you accept about it or what you reject;

2.  Track one of your existing characters as he/she copes with some element of discipline; or,

3.  Relate a past event that involved discipline in your life.

Going with Door #1 today…

Response:

Discipline is..

dedication and details

a dreaded dungeon

of dankness that congests my chest and blurs my eyes

resistance

like trying to run along the ocean floor.

But discipline is also

drizzling drops

of decadent delicacy

embedding structure within passion

to convert it to a sugared treat.

Reading the results

the rejuvenating reward;

whereas

idling for inspiration

the idiocy that is

waiting for words to come to you

rather than working to walk amongst them again.

The daily dollop, then,

the routine regimen,

the waking willingness

to expend effort and enjoy the effervescent energy

of Creation.

Reflection:

I can’t say I had any deliberate reason for the particular consonants and vowels I repeated in this other than they were the ones that started a lot of the words that were coming to mind with regard to the topic .  And I actually think I automatically latched onto to alliteration as a device to give me discipline, to set boundaries in which I could creatively explore.

Ironically, I’m not disciplined enough right now to spend more time on this or even take a second pass on what I just dashed off to revise or expand.  Ah well.  In truth, I think even just that brief time reflecting on it was validating, as that’s the point–if we perceive our goals as laborious tasks immense in proportion, of course we’re going to hit a psychological road-block; we’re just setting ourselves up for it.  The approach that seems widely recommended across writers is to chisel bit by bit off that boulder.  It may not feel like much at the time, but the aggregate results over the span of days will be noticeable if we discipline ourselves to set and accomplish reasonable daily goals.  If I’ve learned anything from my professional experience, it’s that goal-setting needs to focus on feasible, measurable results.

For me lately, on days when I’m not writing for my project, I’m making sure I’m at least writing a new blog post to stay warmed up.  And as for when I am working on my extended piece, sometimes I just roll with it, but other times I might set a word count–in yesterday’s case, 2,000.  It started out slow, requiring much discipline, but once I got into it, I tapped into a torrent of new ideas and ways that they could tie back to the old, and before I knew it, I had written almost 2,500 words by the time I reached a good time to stop for a break.  And even if I can at least add a few sentences of maybe a 100 or so words, I can feel the same level of satisfaction, even if I end up deleting it the next day.  Simply because I know I tried.  I worked at it, and I showed up on the page today.


Exploring Form

The Prompt:

Addressing our existing or yet-to-be-created written pieces, page 7 of Room to Write gives us two options:

1)  We can compose a new piece of writing without considering what form it will take–that is, approach writing organically and allow the words to dictate their structure, not be boxed into it.  The idea is that writers do not and should not try to slot themselves into a specific category of writing–essayists can be poets, poets can be journalists, vice versa and etc., etc.  We may be hindering our writing by forcing it into a convention and, even worse, we may be regarding ourselves as failures when we do not succeed in one genre without giving consideration to how we might flourish in another.

2)  Spinning off #1, we may instead choose to select a piece we’ve already written in some form or another and rewrite it following an alternative genre:  e.g., short story, poem, essay, performance monologue, creative nonfiction, or children’s story.

Given my yammering about my 4th grade poetry anthology in a previous post, I’m going to choose Door #2 and convert one of my existing prose snippets into a poem.  It’s not a form that I gravitate to naturally, and I can’t recall any poetry I’ve written since high school (usually of the lovesick teenager variety in my diary) except maybe a sonnet in grad school.  So the piece that I am transforming below is something I freewrote and later revised in preparation for inserting into my current book project if it ends up fitting in anywhere.

Response:

Late night bath—

The drain releases overhead.

*

Flipping pages,

Pausing for a moment’s thought,

Eyes drift unconsciously

To where it nests,

An evening bag in her line of sight.

Eyes plucked from pensive pause,

They focus yet still do not,

Enrapt are they in the celestial body

Of the beading

As though staring into milky heavens,

A private observatory of unrestricted skies,

Free of constellation form

And twinkling the more for it.

*

Lens zooms in,

Eyes and mind allured,

And only then an awareness

Of rising volume and intensity.

Water trickling,

Encompassing her

About her

Around her

Within her

Deafening her

Drops stream then bead

On her skin

Blood courses with new coolness.

*

Close-up transcends

stationary to tracking

As she rises

Approaches

The dazzling hexagon,

Its glittering lid swept open

Its reflective remnants stared into

Seeking out that which sought

Until

In a flicker irretrievable

She sees them:

*

Fogged green

And glaring back.

Reflection:

I’m not sure what I think of this.  It’s nothing profound, but surely something that if I truly sought to perfect as a poem, I could go through countless revisions and take it into even further directions.  The original piece is intended for a larger work, so it begs the question whether it can stand alone in poetic genre.  I tend to think that it can, as the poetic form allows–if not effectively requires–gaps in the story as it’s explicitly told, instructing the individual reader’s imagination to construct implicit meaning to allow the tale to flow within one’s own interpretation.

I obviously did not take my prose piece word for word, and in deconstructing and reconstructing it in this way, I found myself deleting prepositions left and right and allowing myself to shift into  passive voice at times–the beauty of poetry, after all, is that unless you’re writing a traditional one that wears a corset of rules as a sonnet does, there is no strict convention.  It does not have to rhyme, it does not have to allot a certain number of syllables per line (not to discount the genius that is Shakespeare’s mastery of iambic pentameter), it does not matter how long or short each line or stanza is (sounding a “barbaric yawp” to you, Whitman!), and grammar and punctuation are a free-for-all (Miss Dickenson, what a rebel in petticoats you were).  On this last point, what I did have a hard time with was the punctuation–even knowing that it was entirely up to me and how I deemed it supported my words best, I still gravitated toward conventional mechanics in that respect.  Judging when to insert line breaks, however, came more easily, as it’s such a simple yet effective visual tool for emphasizing words and phrases via isolation versus italics, caps, or bold font.

This exercise also brought my attention to the poetic devices already embedded in my original piece, which reassures me that I am incorporating a variety of such in my prose to hopefully better appeal to the senses and facilitate understanding–the ones I spy in particular (and which are color-coded in the poem above) are metaphor, simile, anthropomorphism, alliteration, and assonance.  The fact that I did not need to intentionally plant them into the poem for the sake of the activity tells me that I am listening to my words as I write them and endeavoring to paint mental pictures.  It is not always that these come through in a first pass, however–actually, while it’s wondrous when they come naturally, it would be too inhibiting to constantly be deliberate in incorporating them when first generating new writing.  Instead, it’s good to approach writing the way Goldberg seems to be encouraging us to (and as exemplified in this Dead Poet’s Society clip), by letting go and riding with the current on the first draft.  Subsequent revision is then our opportunity for elaborating with detailed description and devices where needed.


The Impact of Words

The Prompt:

Page 4 of Room to Write asks us to describe the first incident in which we were affected profoundly by words.  In describing this, we should address what led up to the encounter, our physical reaction to it, and anything else that was happening simultaneously.  We’re free to fill in the gaps with fiction, if we please, and perhaps construct it as a poem.  I’m going for prose, but you do what you will.

Response/Reflection:
I can’t swear that it was the first time words ever profoundly affected me, just that it’s the earliest memory that my pea-brain can pinpoint right now.  It’s arguable, after all, that I was first profoundly affected when I first learned how to read, but I don’t recall there ever being a “Eureka!” swell of emotion then; it’s more so the appreciation that I can attach to it now in retrospect.  I think of the metallic-spined Golden Books that kicked off my reading career, and my red paperback of The Story of Ferdinand that certainly made its place in my heart–but, again, a meaning established in my adult years when I so needed to hear truths put simply in my ever-increasingly complicated world.  And I wish I could remember the first orally articulated words that may have moved me, but I think it would have to be when I myself took on the challenge of words, the composition of them in forms of my own choosing if not creation, that stands out as most pivotal to the writing life I’ve embarked on since.

I think it was fourth grade when I submitted my first “book” into the running for my elementary school’s Young Authors Contest.  It was an anthology, actually, a collection of poetry that I carefully entitled, Poems of Modern Style.  I suppose I classified them as “modern” based on the youthful and pop cultural content they covered (the ’80s punk aesthetic being a component) as well as the fact that I did, with the exception of a few haikus, create my own poetic structures to follow.  It’s difficult to recall what exactly led up to these choices; I can only assume I chose the poetic medium because I couldn’t think of a plot around which to develop a decent story of any length (not to mention I’d probably noted the failure of my previous year’s prose piece, something about a lost bunny or puppy trying to find its way home.  The dialogue was painfully monotonous; I clearly knew nothing of dialogue tags at age 7).  So I suppose I had a range of miscellaneous ideas floating through my head that did not necessarily follow a cohesive theme, yet could adequately be dumped under that catch-all descriptor of “modern.”

The poetic form gave me the freedom to explore all these ideas in flowing form or fragmented sketches.  Yes, I was 8 years old and an avid Shel Silverstein reader that was of the school of thought that all poems had to rhyme, so constrained myself in this respect, but it was rules like rhyming or the number of syllables measured in those haikus that really did prompt me to stretch and squish and swap words to comply with those forms without sacrificing meaning.  That would be, then, when I caught the first glimmer of understanding how word-rich the English language is, that there are so many degrees of meaning even among synonyms that we are at liberty to play around with all sorts of words in trying to find the specific ones that truly convey what we’re seeking to say, whether in isolation or combination.  Poetry forced me to think more deliberately, weigh each word’s worth more when there were so few alloted to a line and so few lines beyond that.  Sure, I certainly remember cranking a couple of those out, feeling satisfied enough on the first try and ready to move on, but there were others that taught me the value of revision and being a discerning reader of my own writing.  I further recall that I had drawn illustrations to accompany each poem, demonstrating that interplay between word and image and how they create meaning in synergy…or maybe it was also because I loved to draw and thought it made the pages pretty.  (It did.)  I painstakingly copied the final versions down onto construction paper of alternating rainbow colors and bound it all together to submit for the judging.

This process acquainted me with the eye-strain and sore hand muscles that accompany writing, but also with how these symptoms of pain were salved by the flutter in my stomach that signaled both the thrill of creative achievement and the anxiety over what others may think once I placed my baby in their arms.  And even the agony of anxiety was utterly diminished when they announced the results:  I was a finalist.  I didn’t end up winning, but I had made the top four, and that was the first external recognition I’d received of my words that wasn’t just a grade on an essay.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have relied on outside reinforcement, but it was the validating boost this shy girl needed to affirm that what I’d worked so hard on and genuinely enjoyed all by myself was something of merit that others could enjoy too.  In the short-term, it inspired me to tackle an illustrated “novella” as a sixth-grader two years later for that same contest (I won, even got to go “on tour” reading select chapters in different classrooms) and cemented a love affair with words that will stay with me for a lifetime.



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