In the past few years, I’ve made a point of asking all of my writer friends the same question: what is your process like? Some of the poets I know work by mapping out their poetry, each stanza, with a definite intention and plan. Others, begin with an idea and allow it to develop as they write, sometimes altering in the process. Others use different kinds of prompts that allow for different processes. This could be, I suppose, a loaded question, but I wonder if the process used has any bearing on the kind of product?

Personally, I tend to start based on a feeling, an urge that is provided by a particular word or image. From there, it seems that the poem writes itself through me. Often, I don’t have any one intention in mind when I begin, just a general idea. Exercises in form, however, have forced me to think and plan ahead (a bit, at least more than usual). As a result, I tend to write a different style of poetry, a different style of language than the organic voice that seeps through when there are no restrictions. This offers up the question of “organic” voice. Does form force voice, like the very formal tone I notice in my writing when I produce a sonnet or sestina? Is this my individual reaction to the regulations of different forms?

Or is this just indicative of my continuing development of voice as a poet? I would suppose, although I don’t wish to be presumptuous, that our processes as writers influence our voice. Or vice versa. And by influencing our voice, influence our output.

So I extend the question: what is your process and how do you think it affects your writing?

Fixations of Inspiration

Repetition? Okay, so now I’m aware of a recurring image in my poetry: the sky. While, in some aspects, I feel embarrassed that I never really thought twice about it, I feel conflicted about whether or not I should fight it. If the sky is a source of inspiration for me, why should I stifle it? Maybe the issue is that this is a popular, stereotypical poetry image.

The discourse I’m trying to begin here, though, isn’t about sky imagery. It’s about inspiration. Certainly I’m not the only writer who becomes obsessed with something so much that it, almost literally, consumes her? When I’m in one of these obsessive states, almost all of my poetry is conceived with the same topic as inspiration, or eventually ends up with a synonymous meaning. While I was not aware of the sky repetition, I am aware that this could come off as beating the topic to death. However, if it serves the purpose of producing poetry, why stop?

I suppose that the question I want to pose is whether or not these fixations can be stifling to one’s poetry, or if stifling them can be? Writing about the same things all the time eventually fizzles out the excitement and becomes boring to the writer, but how quickly does it become so for the reader?

This question, then, leads me to wonder about whether we write poetry for ourselves or for an audience? It is a conversation that I’ve been having in another English class, (and I apologize for this post being more fluid than defined), and we have yet to come to a conclusive agreement. At this point, I feel that if one were to write only for an audience, the product would suffer. For example, say you want to write a novel, but you know it won’t appeal to a popular audience; do you sell out and write something that does? Or do you write what you want anyway? If one were to write only for oneself, then it might not appeal to others, but it would bring personal satisfaction. I guess the question, here, becomes: which is more important?

Let’s say, then, that I currently have a fascination with flowers (original, I know). All of my poetry encompasses flowers and the workshop points it out and says that they grow tired of it. But it’s the force urging me to continue writing right now. Do I stop in order to please them? Or do I let the fixation play itself out and enjoy myself in the process? Maybe I’m selfish, but I think the latter sounds better. What are your thoughts?

A Fear of Poetry

What is it that makes poetry such an enigma for students? Recently, one of my classes discussed our fears of poetry. Many of us remarked that in high school, there were seemingly two approaches to poetry: the first is to view it as something we all can create and there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” because it is subjective, and the second is to view each poem as a riddle that we must analyze in order to decode the writer’s intent. Both of these aren’t very helpful perspectives in fostering self-confidence in our abilities as readers. I remember having instructors in both of these categories. And neither made me feel any better about my writing.
A high school poetry class offered a space for supporting each other’s work, and also an easy elective for the seniors who wanted to glide through their final semesters. Unfortunately, I never walked away from one of my workshops with much to propel me forward. After so many years stifling creativity for the sake of testing form, students were afraid to give critiques. You either got a questionable amount of half-hearted compliments or murdered-cricket silence. You didn’t feel challenged –thus, I suspect that the quality of my poetry did not improve.
Meanwhile, most of the typical high school English classes that I experienced followed the second approach. We’d sit down with a poem, usually a very well-known one, and pick it apart line-by-line until students started coming up with “imaginative” answers to the question “What does it all mean?” Sometimes, we would focus on one line so much that, in their interpretations, students would disregard the rest of the poem. But these interpretations, unless they got lucky, only made sense in the context of that one line. Often, I would just refrain from participating because I didn’t want to stop liking the poetry we read.
To make matters worse, after reading poems using this second approach, it appears to be a common mindset of students that they have to write a poem that’s as well-crafted as the most famous poets and contain some earth-shattering, riddle-like hidden meaning. I won’t say that I didn’t succumb to this fear at one point. I mean, it’s no wonder so many people experience a fear of poetry! Certainly, this calls for an alteration in the teaching methods of poetry in schools; reading poetry should not breed fear, but provoke the desire to read more of it and to write.

Poetry and Shape

Something we’ve talked about in class recently has been stuck in my head: form reflecting content, specifically shape poetry. It appears that there is a serious divide and debate about this, and it is something I never really thought about. While I have read many a shape poem, I didn’t particularly consider myself capable of crafting one of worth, one that transcended its shape. Sometimes, though, I agree that they might go too far.

The argument has been made that, possibly, shape poetry makes it easier to comprehend for those to which poetry is less accessible. Although I see where those arguing this are coming from, I also wonder why we shouldn’t utilize a visual aspect to our poetry as well? One of my favorite kinds of poetry, and subsequently one of the forms that began me on a poetry-writing journey, is ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrastic poetry is that which is inspired or incited by a work of art. It might be another point for debate, but at times I think that it behooves an ekphrastic poem to be printed alongside that which inspired it. Is this going a bit overboard? Beating the reader over the head with this image? I don’t know. I think it depends on how far from the original work of art the poem takes the writer –how much it deviates from the visual.

Last week, I posted on the blog about novels which combine literary forms, specifically an example from a book by Zadie Smith. For those who are not inclined toward shape poetry, do you dislike shape poetry when it stands by itself? Does it make a difference when there are connotations to characters and plot line of a novel?

Not only do I think that shape poetry is visually interesting, but I think it can be done well. It depends on whether or not the content is more insightful than a reflection of the shape. If the poem is simply describing the shape in which it is contained, with nothing to take away from it besides its existence, then I would agree with those against shape poetry. However, it does have its strengths. We shouldn’t completely discount it as being “gimmicky.” Doesn’t it make sense to fuse artistic mediums sometimes in order to create something stronger than it would be on its own? Thoughts?

Combining Forms

Recently, I have been hooked by the writings of Zadie Smith. While I would recommend any of her books, I especially would push for the reading of her 2012 novel NW. What captivated me, unlike any of the other books I have read in the past year, is the variety of form throughout the book. With each change in perspective comes a different form –one is written in typical prose chapter, one in short episodes, one a little more abstract than modern readers are accustomed to. The reason I am bringing this up on a poetry blog is because of one chapter which is initiated with a poem. But it is not an epithet. It is the essence of Smith’s creativity in this novel.

Apple tree, apple tree.
Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom.
So symbolic.                                            Network of branches, roots. Tunneling under.
The fuller, the more fruitful.
The more the worms. The more the rats.
Apple tree, apple tree. Apple. Tree.                       Which way is forward? Tick, tock.
Three flats. One apple tree. Freehold, leasehold. Heavy with seed.
In the tree-top. When the bough breaks, the baby will
Dead man’s ashes. Round the roots, in the roots?
Hundred-year-old apple tree.
Sitting on your laurens. Under an apple                                     tree. Have a little boy?
New branches. New blossom.                                                          New apples. Same tree?
Born and bred. Same streets.
Same girl? Next step.
Trunk, bark.
Alice, dreaming.
Eve, eating.
Under which nice girls make mistakes.

(This should be in the shape of an apple tree, but editing is not allowing me to do so.)

Finding this in a novel is something I never imagined upon beginning the journey of a character’s story. What’s amazing is that it works. It doesn’t feel out of place. In fact, the entire novel is this bold, just in different manifestations. It sets a new bar that I, as a poet, strive to reach. Now, instead of writing fiction with eyes toward Tolstoy and Hardy, I have found a contemporary doing something exciting and technically innovative. I am intrigued by the incorporation of various forms within a novel; it appeals to multiple senses. It makes the reader work, but also is something universally understandable.

If anyone has recommendations for novels and writers that take advantage of variety like this, please share them in a comment!

The Accessibility of Poetry

Poetry is gnawing at your insides. It is screeching owls. It is creaking wood of a house –you are alone- at night. It demands your attention. That’s what writing poetry has become for me. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that I was trying to sleep the other night and words were embroidering themselves into my brain. Threads of blue, and red, and sunrise. I couldn’t stop my mind from envisioning them on a page, in the world. So I resolved to get out of bed, turn my laptop back on, and finish what the words had already started. The words were writing the poem through me; I was just the intermediary.
Before there was even an inkling in my mind that I wanted to dip my pen into poetry, I considered myself a writer of fiction. It always seemed that poetry was something reserved for the elites. That’s probably what happens when you grow up reading Dickinson, Poe, Frost, and Shakespeare in high school English classes. But it couldn’t evade me for long. Once a year a poetry class was offered by one teacher. Taking that class transformed my entire outlook and I became consumed with poetry. Honestly, and unfortunately, I haven’t written a piece of fiction I’ve been very proud of since. The same cannot be said for poetry.
This begs the question: why are younger students seemingly programmed to choose prose over verse? It appears that there is a stigma that if you don’t consider yourself the next Sylvia Plath or E. E. Cummings, then it’s useless for you to try. Might as well write a novel. Maybe it’s a result of the popularity of the modern novel and the accessibility of publishing nowadays. There is a greater chance for profit, the Bestseller lists, the possibility of film adaptations. (Now, let’s talk about film adaptations of poems –that would be intriguing. Making a film of an entire collection!)
Poetry is compelling. It eats at me in a way that I haven’t yet experienced with fiction. Once, it was a staple in popular literary culture. Now it has fallen to what people are viewing as an “elite” few. It’s wrong. It needs to become more accessible to the population; it is imperative that readers cease viewing it with intimidation and feel more confidence in their ability to read and enjoy it.

I Recommend…

On Rain

It was blacker than olives the night I left. As I
ran past the palaces, oddly joyful, it began to
rain. What a notion it is, after all—these small
shapes! I would get lost counting them. Who
first thought of it? How did he describe it to
the others? Out on the sea it is raining too.
It beats on no one.

Anne Carson

From Anne Carson’s 1995 book Plainwater, “On Rain” is part of a series called “Short Talks.” While there were also short talks that drew me in such as “On Charlotte,” discussing the Bronte sisters, and the standout one line “On Gertrude Stein at 9:30,” this poem’s first line was a lasso. It’s unorthodox to compare night to an olive. I love olives. My friends hate olives. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have a grey area; you either do or you don’t. Such a bold statement captures and enthralls, and this one does the trick.
As silly as it sounds, I can wholly relate to the speaker throughout the poem. I distinctly remember trudging up the hill to my four pm Wednesday physics lab this past fall semester in the pouring rain under a flimsy, red umbrella. I wondered if each drop were a different shape, or if they changed shapes as they fell. How many drops actually battered against the fabric? How many did it take to make that stream running down the sides of the road toward the nearest drain?
It’s a cycle; everything goes back to water. It falls, and it rises, and then it falls again. “On the sea” the rain falls on the tides and “beats on no one.” It makes me question the speaker’s tone throughout the poem. At first, he/she appears to be “joyful” in the rain, observant and inquisitive. But this final line, “it beats on no one,” implies that he/she views it as violently beating on him/her. The more rain that falls, the heavier clothes become in getting soaked, the more weighted down you can become both physically and emotionally.
Also, it can be assumed that the speaker is experiencing a sense of freedom at the beginning of the poem. It is “the night [he/she] left” and is running “past the palaces” in the rain. Maybe he/she is running from an abusive household or relationship in which he/she was beaten. Maybe the rain doesn’t hurt. Maybe the rain heals, instead.

An Impossible Ideal

A Game of Chess by Gwen Harwood

To John Brodie


Nightfall: the town’s chromatic nocturne wakes

dark brilliance on the river; colours drift

and tremble as enormous shadows lift

Orion to his place. The heart remakes

that peace torn in the blaze of day. Inside

your room are music, warmth and wine, the board

with chessmen set for play. The harpsichord

begins a fugue; delight is multiplied.


A game: the heart’s impossible ideal –

to choose among a host of paths, and know

that if the kingdom crumbles one can yield

and have the choice again. Abstract and real

joined in their trance of thought, two players show

the calm of gods above a trouble field.



While perusing this week’s reading of The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, I found myself drawn into this particular poem. Usually, despite my glorification of William Shakespeare, I’m not disposed to read sonnets. The same feelings applied to the earlier sonnets in this section of the anthology. However, coming across this one was different. It’s probably due to my connection of the first line to one of my favorite classical pieces. “Chromatic nocturne” takes me back to “Nocturne” by Claude Debussy, with which I associate a Monet painting from the cover of the CD.  The “colours drift/and tremble” with a “dark brilliance on the river.” It really is the same image.

At first glance, I assumed that it was written in the Spenserian style. But the rhyme scheme of the first stanza is actually abbacddc whereas the style is ababcdcd. I thought this interesting, but I like how it becomes less “sing-song” than it would have been otherwise.

The first stanza sets up the atmosphere for the chess game and the second explores it. Do we play chess in order to see the outcome of different scenarios, so that we can choose the one that will prove more favorable? In this way, “if the kingdom crumbles one can yield/ and have the choice again.” It is a bit unsettling, and gives us the power to look at our lives from a bird’s-eye view, as though we and everyone connected to us is merely a pawn in the “game” of life (a great board-game, as well, but I don’t mean to advertise). Can humans be so objective, so careless, as to look at their lives and the turbulence within them without feeling anything? I suppose having the option to stop the clocks and try again allows for that. But that isn’t real; as Harwood says, it’s “the heart’s impossible ideal.” If we could truly sit like gods in our rooms with “music, warmth and wine” and not have to worry about dealing with the consequences of each of our choices, then the life would just be a hodge-podge of millions of Choose Your Own Adventure books. How could we learn from our mistakes? How could we grow as people? While it might be a dream for the chance to relive the crucial moments and choose differently, it behooves us to face the “trouble field” we have set up for ourselves.

Haiku of Regret and Love

Anonymous Haiku:
tsumu mo oshi/ tsumanu mo oshiki/ sumire kana
I regret picking
and not picking

From the Bashȏ period, this haiku is included in The Classic Tradition of Haiku, an anthology edited by Faubion Bowers. I often find haiku to be either very cryptic or very simple, in which case I try to read too far into it. This one, however, is simple but at the same time poignant. The first option leaves the speaker with the decay of the flower, and thus the regret that there can be no maintenance of its beauty. The second option prevents the speaker, who lives in a material world, from possessing this beauty. The beauty of the violets is ephemeral and, no matter what, the speaker will suffer regret.
The nature of haiku creates an unusual atmosphere. It is composed of a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. However, the English translation of this haiku does not follow the structure. In the past, I have attempted the art of haiku, but I never was truly able to capture the beauty and truth in such few words as those which I had read. It never felt quite right. Could this be that the English language does not lend itself as naturally to the form? Luckily, though, none of the substance is lost in translation. By researching the symbolic meaning of flowers, my findings concluded that violets are associated with being preoccupied by thoughts of love. Perhaps the speaker is regretting having walked away from a chance at love and also at experiencing a love that may have nastily decomposed.
It is fulfilling to get so much emotion and meaning from such few lines. I think that is what draws me to reading haiku. Surely, it is even more beautiful in its original language.

On Form: In Response to Szirtes

Without form, there would be no frame for the image. Form is the perspective in which a poem can be viewed and interpreted. For example, as George Szirtes mentions in his article “Formal Wear: notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern,” rhyme can be used to provide a lighthearted air. Length of a line can contribute to the pace of the poem, the diction can affect the tone, and density of a stanza can weigh down or lighten its effect.

To be honest, I have never intentionally focused on the form while I write. Rather, my attentions are usually given primarily to the content and diction of a poem. I have always considered my work as adhering to the standards of free-verse poetry, out of insecurity of any other kind of form. But Szirtes makes a good point that free-verse poetry is “never ‘free’ to those who use it well.” Considering all of these pillars of form (rhyme, meter, pattern, etc.) tend to infuse themselves into the work anyway. Because, as Szirtes states, it is “community.” As we are versed in poets and writing styles of previous eras, we are influenced and, subsequently, so is our work. He argues, though, that poems do not “wear uniforms but they are aware of each other’s presence.” There should be a relationship between works through form, but the important thing is to bring “fresh life” to the form with the content of one’s own poem. This allows poets to have discussions through their poetry with poets of the past, Szirtes refers to as “ghosts.” I would be honored to have Dickinson or Frost haunt my house for a little while.