Sunday, November 21, 2010

Poetry Almanac

This is a good site for poems, specially selected each day, with other poetry-related information -- and audio, since this site is connected to Garrison Keillor's "Poetry Almanac" on NPR.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Walter Mosley, "Pet Fly": Invention-Patterns

After reading the story by Walter Mosley called “Pet Fly,” think about some of the following observations:

We can read a text in a “readerly” way, focusing on what it means; or we can focus our attentions in a “writerly” way, thinking about how it works. Further, as I have tried to emphasize in all our text-based exercises, and in some posts, we can consider specific devices that writers seem to have borrowed from each other, and practice writing as a kind of imitation process. All writers, all artists, all creative people generally, learn in part by “stealing” from others: they see something work in one story, or movie, or building, or system, and they identify the device or element or gesture that is transferable to a work they are engaged in (or, the insight that a device is transferable, that other practitioners can use it, inspires a new work).

This imitation method is the basis for my course; it is the most important way to learn how to write – paradoxically, it is the best way to learn how to be original: to borrow from others, then experiment a bit, update certain aspects of the new work, turn things upside down, invert them, truncate them, extend them, question them, mix and match…the, see what happens.

So, in this story, what can be transferred? If I were to create an exercise or two from this story (and I will), what ideas would be most fruitful?

Let’s start with setting. Mosley’s story is set in a classic environment – the workplace, an office – on Wall Street. Mosley isn’t the first person to use that setting; in fact, I suspect he was himself influenced (since imitation is an unending series of exchanges from one writer to the next) by, among other writers, Herman Melville – famous mainly for the whaling novel Moby Dick, and also for the “workplace” (and Wall Street) story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” in which we have secondary characters presented as “peas in a pod,” let’s say (if there’s a formal name for this device, I don’t know it) – that is, in “Bartleby,” as a tripling of characterization, and in “Pet Fly,” as a doubling. (Hamlet does the same thing with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern; Lewis Carroll, with Alice in Wonderland (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum).

In Mosley, the two Lindas are doubled – in a joking way, because Mosley doesn’t even bother to give them different names. Why? What effect does this device have? First, it is one of many ways to think about secondary characters. They might represent certain challenges or experiences of the major characters; they might be devices meant mainly to deepen atmosphere, to pace the plot of the story, to provide shadow or contrast to the main focus of the story; they might be comic relief, among other possibilities.

Doubling such characters, at least in Mosley, Hamlet, and Melville, also makes us see the characters as incomplete in themselves; it takes two or three of them to create the effect. This has the thematic value, in all three of these texts, of highlighting the ways in which bureaucracy, systems, institutions, power structures, etc. can devalue human individuals. People in offices, sometimes (at least as far as some “free spirits” are concerned) lose their individuality or efficacy.

So, the two Lindas help create atmosphere, and they “shadow” the main character, Rufus; that is, they reflect something of his on inefficacy, though with variation on the theme: we don’t see their interiority (what they feel or think), and they seem to be unresisting of the System.

To steer back to writerly concerns: how does a writer invent character? Partly, a writer invents character by deploying secondary characters in various ways to reflect, contrast, shadow, support, frame, or otherwise influence the main character or characters, and how we see them.  We could create types or functions for other secondary characters in this story: they represent, mainly, the dynamics of the office that Rufus is employed at.

Notice, as well, that we have other obvious doublings – in particular, the twins, Mona/Lana. There are a few very subtly surreal elements in this story (which is one reason I enjoy it), and this suspicious pair of twins is one such element: are there really two? Page 228 seems to establish them as real, but why do we need twins in the story? It might be Mosley’s send-up of that old racist notion, “they all look alike” – a reversal of it, in what is clearly a story about racism, and sexism, but through a perspective that denies us clear answers.

Look at the scene in the bottom half of page 226, in which Rufus has an encounter with “Big Linda.” It seems ordinary, or naturalistic: pretty much the way it might unfold in a real-life encounter at an office between two people in menial positions. But as you read the dialogic scene, consider two things: first, how what Linda says to Rufus teaches us about his character; and second, how his responses and interior reflections also reveal something about who he is. Often, when a secondary character serves as a refracting device: he or she provides  a screen, in a sense, upon which the main character’s reactions can be projected so as to show us more about him or her.

We see in this scene that Rufus is a large man, but not assertive; we learn a little about how he perceives women, and that he avoids rudeness and conflict. This small scene, in addition to pacing the story (providing a segue between the expository scene with Ernie and the first encounter with Mona/Lana), allows us to see how Rufus sees, and how he is seen by others. Notice as well how the first Mona/Lana encounter is followed (after the rather strange encounter with the fly) by another scene with Big Linda. Patterning like this helps us enter the illusion of familiarity with fictional character, I think; it “baffles” the invented time and place of the story, suggesting depth and movement.

This story has very little “action:”; the only moment of real conflict is the sexual-harassment complaint, which, since it seems to lead, ironically to something good for Rufus, is a kind of non-conflict in the story. Instead of action, we have situation; we have what amounts to a deep and insightful character portrait, really – a story that allows us to feel and perceive small and nuanced details of experience through Rufus’ “everyman” life. he is not remarkable, but in small but pointed ways, he is remarkable; he has a sensitivity to things that he refuses to surrender.

I want to focus on one more doubling element, which is of course the “pet fly” – the fly at home, that is, whom Rufus adopts, briefly, and focuses his attentions on – as if deflecting his mind away from his own miniscule existence within the office, where he might be “squashed” (what one usually does with flies) if he doesn’t stay in his place.

This is the third doubling of the story: we have two Lindas, Mona/Lana, and the at-work and at-home flies. Again, the flies are there mainly to refract something of Rufus’ interiority: he talks to them, relates to them, and such “relationship” intensifies our sense of his essential loneliness.

Do we “need” the flies in this story? How would it read if we edited them out? Or the two Lindas, or for that matter the twins, when one would do for the sexual-harassment plot line?

First, they are elements of invention as much as they are elements of structure and content; that is, I suspect they have something to do with the way the story was created by the author, and not only with the final “product” and its meaning or effect, or its “contents.” It is not easy (short of asking the author, who will not always have clear answers himself about such things)  to separate the product from the process – but in this course, that is what we are seeking, really: we read, in part, to find how we might write.

So, how do they aid in invention?

Many of my exercises are aimed not so much at achieving theme or meaning in what you write; most writers accept that if they focus consciously on what they “mean,” their poems and stories will be flat and unmemorable. So, pattern is the thing: artists are interested in rhythms, pulses, patterns, tensions, contrasts, amplifications, etc. – and by focusing their energies on that abstract level, they are more likely to discover meaning, I believe. Meaning, once it is pinned down, dissolves; it has to keep moving away from us to exist. Works of art are more about their effects. The fly, in a way, is pure effect: it is itself a symbol of meaninglessness, and yet it is also the condensed point of meaning in the story. It is smallness of scale, and in looking at it (through Rufus’ eyes) we see ourselves seeing; the world at normal human scale is intensified, turned off-kilter just a bit, and the ordinary is made less than ordinary. If there is a meaning in such a story, it is simply that we need to look at things in new ways, and that doing so will save us – from what, I don’t know; perhaps only from the deadening effects of the ordinary.

So, what exercises might come from this? One: toss a fly (or something arbitrary, out of scale, slightly odd) into a story, and see what happens. Two, think not only about plot and character, but also architecture in your stories: patterns, doublings, oppositions, framing and pacing, risings and fallings – such as the one at the end of this interesting story. Rufus takes home the bonsai tree he’d bought for Mona/Lana; it is metonymic of her, as is the fly, in a weird way (when he sees the office fly, he thinks of her); and she is indicative of the lack of direction in Rufus’ life, as his mother points to it in the last line. The plant goes home with him, but not the girl; this man lacks those things that make us whole: companionship, and, as his mother says, “a real bed.” I love the way the closure in this story avoids any real thematic resolution. We end with the emblematic nature of the bonsai (a small world itself – one in which a fly might be human-sized), with the ordinary comments of the mother, and a sense that life, even a life slightly of off track, keeps moving forward.

Read, if you have time, the story by Anton Chekov called “Lady with the Pet Dog” (or “lady with the Lap Dog” in some translations); the dog is another good use of what we might call a red herring, or a device that refracts or suspends meaning more than it holds or creates it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poets at Work

This is a new site that looks like it has good information and resources:

Tom Larson

A quick informational post, while I work on the next "lecture" --

If you have time this week, consider going to this event at the downtown Houston Public Library. The author, Thomas Larson, is a friend and colleague of mine, and an authority on memoir as a creative-nonfiction form. If you are interested in writing memoir, he can perhaps answer questions. The book he is presenting is a hybrid form: memoir, music history and biography, culture studies, musical analysis. It will be a media presentation, so if you are interested in writing about music, it might give you some ideas.

It's Wednesday, October 20, 6 pm -- read more at this site:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Study of Two Poets: Cruz and Kooser

I spoke before about repetition as a dynamic and formal element in writing. This week I will focus on poetry more specifically, and will look at prose next time. I want to look somewhat at repetition, but since it is, in a sense, artificial to isolate the elements of art, I will also talk about a few other matters, to show how important it is to study these points of craft one by one, but also to see their synthesis.

One issue I’ve tried to address in my Workshop posts, particularly with regard to poems, is the importance of defining the integrity of the line. The ways in which a voice or a point of view in the poem can help “shape” the line are quite varied. Traditionally, a poetic line has been defined greatly by the elements of stress and syllable count, or “meter”; but even when poets use those metrical elements in traditional ways, there must be some other force at work to give it life and authenticity.

I have spoken in the Workshop about dramatic situation, for example; “voice,” the word I use above, is in a way a further condensation of the concept of dramatic situation.

Voice is (to offer some tentative definition) how the poet creates a sense of relationship in the poem, and also a sense of occasion in the traditional rhetorical meaning of that word (kairos). Occasion in that sense is the spur, the impetus for writing or speaking; it might be some event, some previous text or other words, or merely a feeling that arises when the poet prepares to write (or that cause her to write). But also, the poet (or any writer) can invent a sense of occasion, and make it an important part of the poem (or story, or essay).

Sometimes, the voice appears to speak “to” or “of” somone, although that other presence might be abstract. The poet W. B. Yeats said that rhetoric was speech heard, and poetry was speech overheard – meaning that poetry, often, is more private, and more like one’s speaking to oneself. But even in that situation, we have a matrix between speaker and auditor – a space within which some sort of occasion, sense of pace, sense of prior and succeeding action, exists, however slight or abstract.

Look at the first poem below, by Victor Hernandez Cruz. It uses a fairly universal occasion, you might say: eating; and it uses, I think, a particular food, red beans, in a metynomic or more broadly a symbolic or emblematic sense – red beans stand in for cultural identity, but also, for the archtetypal truth of sustenance, hunger, and fellowship (we tend to eat together, and meals are rituals).


Red Beans

next to white rice
it looks like coral
sitting next to snow

Hills of starch
The burnt sienna
of irony

Azusenas being chased by
the terra cotta feathers
of a rooster

there is a lava flow
through the smoking
white mounds

India red
spills on ivory

Ochre cannon balls
next to blanc pebbles

Red beans and milk
make burgundy wine

Violet pouring
from the eggshell
tinge of the plate.


There are many wonderful forces at work in this poem: it is beautifully imagistic, very inventive, and expansive, although the initiating element is something as mundane, as ordinary as red beans and rice!

Think, first, of occasion: the poem might indeed make you feel hungry, but certainly, it reminds you of eating, of family, of the table, the kitchen, a restaurant, and all the noises, smells sights, and feelings of such experiences. Furthermore, the poem is metamorphic: it compounds one image and suggested scene upon another, each quite different from the next (though all related, ultimately) such that in fact it has no natural (or climactic) way to end – it could go on even longer, I imagine, proposing various ways that the red and the white of a plate of red beans and rice suggest other sights and experiences.

It is a “list” poem, of a sort: and that is a key aspect of repetition as a force in art. Give your reader one thing, and then be generous enough to offer it again in a different packaging, a different flavor, from a different angle. In other words, although there are nine stanzas here, there is one basic concept that the poet unfolds numerous ways. Creativity,  to a great extent, is finding many ways to do the same thing, and making us enjoy it rather than get bored because we know what’s coming. You want the reader, in a way, to both know and be surprised by what comes next.

Each stanza – of two or three lines – is a miniature scene; each one, directly or indirectly, is also metonymic or symbolic of some aspect of history, or more specifically, of the ongoing experience of people of the Southwest – or so it seems to me; and you could, of course, interpret or value the poem in various other ways. It is from knowing a few things about the poet, perhaps, that I make that connection – but it is also the metonymic power of single words. One word or one image can suggest volumes of history, emotion, and life.

But notice as well how concrete and particular the words are, for the most part. This is another point I’ve been trying to make in Workshop. Start from concrete, small, sensual details; if you want to write a poem about love or loneliness or war or injustice, forget that you want to write such a poem, and look for a real thing that your mind can handle, explore, and open up into the poem that seeks you. If injustice or love or war or loneliness are in your heart, the poem will probably end up touching those notes; but it will do so in a way that evokes, that conjures, that strikes – not by preaching or essaying.

One more point: the lines here are free-verse lines; they are small lines, in short stanzas. The appropriateness of those two choices is probably due to the essentially imagistic frame of the poem: often, image-driven poetry uses a narrow line in a short stanza, because it is (I think) somewhat like the movie camera moving in close, to show us the pores, textures, beads of sweat, blemishes, granulations, etc. – the distance between what a thing is as an item in a genus or family of other things, and what a thing is as the pure matter of which all things are made – whether we react to them with love or hate, revulsion or desire, hope or regret.

Next, I will look at a poem that seems very different to me, but that still illustrates these issues, I think. First, the poem:

A Box of Pastels

I once held on my knees a simple wooden box
in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.
It was a set of pastels that had years before
belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,
and all of the colors she'd used in her work
lay open before me. Those hues she's most used,
the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,
while the cool colors - violet, ultramarine -
had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.
She's had little patience with darkness, and her heart
held only a measure of shadow.  I touched
the warm dust of those colors, her tools,
and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser was the Poet Laureate a few years ago (the position changes every two years; the current Poet Laureate is W.S. Merwin). He is culturally and aesthetically different from Mr, Cruz, I suppose: a midwestern Anglo-American (well, maybe not "Anglo," exactly!), somewhat older, and more of a traditional poet, although still mainly operating in free verse. Perhaps Mr. Cruz owes more, in his construction of the poetic line, to the Modernist poet William Carlos Williams, who was trying to create a distinctively American sort of poetic form (different, that is, from the European, specifically, British, tradition), also focused quite often on seeing – on the image. Mr. Kooser is still harkening back to the traditional iambic pentameter line, and thus still presents a poem that includes more overt narrative and discursive statement (the Cruz poem suggests the occasion or situation of sitting down to eat, but the rest of its occasions are very abstract, though also very visceral: the cannon invokes war and the ravages of history, the rooster suggests peasant life or at least rural life, the Azusenas suggest womanhood or romance (to me!), etc. But such a story does not have at its center a singular consciousness, or a distinctive, named self.

Kooser’s poem is almost confessional; that is, it does focus on a single self, an "I," a speaking consciousness, talking directly from memory. The character and story are not elaborate, within the lines of the poem, but they are clear and complete, though compact.

The dramatic situation suggests a visit to a museum, or perhaps the house of a famous artist (Mary Cassatt), that has been turned into a museum (I'm guessing, and could perhaps do research and find out more surely, but guessing is often good enough for appreciating the poem as it is). The “theme” of the poem seems very strongly tied to the basic antithesis or continuum of colors as “cool” or bright. It is symbolic in the sense that the poet tells us, more or less, that this painter preferred birghtness – not only in terms of raw color, but perhaps in terms of emotion – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair. (None of this is exact or certain; it doesn’t need to be. Your intepretations need only be plausible.)

Also, before continuing: this poem is just slightly, indirectly, related to a class of poems (writing generally, really) called ekphrasis. An ekphrastic text is an intensive verbal description of a work of art or visual scene. More recently, a poem about a work of art, or an artist's work, is called ekphrastic, but the basic point is that the poet or writer attempts to evoke, to conjure, the visual object within words. It is almost a kind of contest between the powers of visual art and the powers of verbal art. Look for my earlier posts on ekphrasis, and look out for Exercises on our class site dealing with various aspects of ekphrasis.

But how is it similar, if at all, to “Red Beans”? I am trying to help you as writers discover the most rewarding aspects of craft and skill; how to find the true energy of making art. It seems to me that both poems depend heavily, if in different surface-level or formal ways, on repetition. In the Kooser poem, it is more a matter of reiteration, or how prose often moves forward: state a subject, then move forward in part by restating or renaming it. See the Kooser poem as reduced to the main line of this list: rainbow, pastels, colors, hues, peaches, pinks, cool colors, violet, ultramarine, darkness, shadow, warm, color, light. These words are reiterations, I think, of the same basic note (to insert a musical analogy). In a way, the poem is made up entirely of this one concept, “color,” unfolded in a dozen different ways. But the poem has synthesized that with a basic narrative; we like to listen to anecdotes, to stories, but it seems to me the true art here is not in the story itself, but in the reiterations – in the unfolding of the one thing into many things, as if the poet were a magician – or a creator. (Really, the art is in the synthesis: in giving us both a natural, appealing story, and also, a fugue of words).

Cruz does the same thing, but his “story” is much further away (there is no “I once sat down for dinner…” comparable to Kooser's "I once held on my knees...");  but both poets give us a fugue of words. In Cruz, as it happens, it is also to do with color; in fact, that red and white (also the colors of blood and flesh, the Eucharist, or the Catholic identity of many Hispanics of the Southwest) are foregrounded in this poem. So, Kooser foregrounds narrative, but combines it with the reiterations on the theme of color. Cruz foregrounds color, but still has a suggestion of situation, if not exactly narrative.

My points, to work back toward being a creative writer, are: first, consider the paradox of the many out of the one when you are creating. Open a door – choose a singular, but concrete, theme – and then find the various ways you can repeat it. Second, if you choose a formal or structural armature – telling a story or painting a scene – consider that you still need  a contrapuntal element: and often, that will be how your story needs the stasis of scene, or your scene needs the dynamics of story, though one or the other might be minor rather than major.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Repetition: Further Thoughts

I've written, last year and already this term, on the matter of repetition. Repetition as a key to matters of both form and invention (or, what we make as well as how we make it: product and process) is an obsession of mine -- because it is both simple and complex as a concept.

So, I try to approach it in different ways. Technology (online tools, that is) allows some new approaches, although they resemble skills that are already necessary to reading and writing.

For example, the simple CTRL + F command (in your browser or in Word), which allows you to quickly locate instances of a word or phrase. Take a text of your own, or of any writer, and search it for various words and word-patterns: what do you notice of primary terms, instances of repetition, proximity of certain words, etc.?

Another useful tool is a tag cloud. A cloud allows you to create a visual representation of word occurrences.

Before proposing an experiment, I will develop my thoughts a bit more. Creativity is, from one angle, a matter of finding associations that others don't notice, or that are in some way volatile -- leading to further associations, for one thing. Art is pattern-making; repetition is the tick-tock of pattern-making and pattern-recognition. Between two things, including two instances of the "same" thing, there are many dynamics: a matrix or space of possible value or meaning, a tonality derived from the combination of the two things, a sense of speed in traveling between the two, a texture, a rise, a fall, etc. (Tick-tock: what is that vocable we use for naming time except the resistance to seeing a second instance of the same thing as the same thing? We have to alter it; we have to invent the illusion of change.)

Writers develop their works, they invent and discover, partly through returning to a point of observation, obsession, desire, fear, or memory. Language allows us to see many in one: Love is love, but it is also lust, ardor, passion, longing, romance, fondness, amorousness, and many other "synonyms" that are really different angles, different degrees, different stages, different influences, different steps on different ladders of experience. Also, each word, each concept or node of experience, has it's opposites: hate, loathing (an almost-rhyme with loving!), despising, disliking, detesting. One word, one node, when touched, reveals many possible pathways forward. We fit experience to language, and language to experience. We invent, and yet we re-inhabit forms that writers have always used; we speak words and phrases, perform entire conversations, that others have had before us. Life is a ritual, life is a discovery -- both.

One way to think of art-making is as a way to move forward (to discover, to escape, to survive) and at the same time stay still (to preserve, to persist). This is a paradox -- a puzzle that making art seems to undo, but really it adds other layers to the puzzle. Repetition, creating of patterns, invention of form -- these are ways we engage the paradox.

This is all rather abstract and high-falutin', I know. It is a felt notion more than a theory, I guess. So, let me push into the experiment, and see if you have any insights of your own -- ways to make more concrete and practical my ethereal ramblings:


Look at these two texts by classic American authors -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" and T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Emerson's text is a long essay, Eliot's is a longish poem; the essay is from the early 19th century, the poem from the early 20th century. Both use reiterations of words and concepts. What I'd like you to do is to use CTRL  + F, and/or simply your own scanning/re-reading/note-taking skills to study how the writers use repetition at the word/phrase level. Specifically, for Emerson -- focusing mainly on the Intro and Chapter 1 -- how often does he use words that have to do with SEEING an LIGHT? Don't look only for those words; think about what words are in some "family resemblance" with them: words that directly or indirectly have to do with seeing, light, and their opposites.

Then, in Eliot's poem, discover how often he repeats the same words, but also, again, consider how those words form patterns in association. Study as well how those clusters of similarity change and move in the poem.

Finally, for fun, copy and paste some or all of the texts -- and any other text -- into this resource, "Wordie" -- a word-cloud generator. What words are dominant? What forms do you see in the hierarchies of repetition?

As a final "Exercise," you might take the most frequently used words and write your own story/essay/poem with them.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading Events in Houston

There are many literary events in Houston,; here are links to online information about some of them. Going to readings is a good way to meet other writers, to get a sense of the social sphere writers inhabit, and perhaps to find opportunities to read yourself (particularly at open mic events).

This is the premier literary event in town -- the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

Inprint also has readings by local writers, followed by open reading opportunities.

The University of Houston Creative Writing Program has readings, but also, the literary magazine they host, Gulf Coast, has a series at the Brazos Bookstore.

The Houston Poetry Fest is many events every fall: readings, awards, etc.

Here's a single event at UH-Downtown.

Kaboom Books is Houston's finest surviving used bookstore -- and they host a reading series specifically for "nanofiction"!

If you're interested in the Poetry Slam movement -- the main site has more information besides this Verboscity reading series.

Check here for ongoing notices, particularly events at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in town.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

YouTube as a Writer's Resource

You probably know about YouTube as a source of entertainment, how-to information, etc. Have you thought of it as a writer's resource? There are a few ways I can think of it as useful to us, but for this post, I'll focus on YouTube as an archive for video/audio of lectures and readings.

Writers frequently give "readings" -- they are invited somewhere ( a college, a bookstore, or some other venue) and read selections from their works. Sometimes, they also lecture on their art; also, they give extended interviews, usually on their influences, their craft, their politics, their live stories, and other matters. There are also a few films about writers and their lives, their times, and their work. Finally (and for this, see some of my posts from last Fall 2009), there are feature films about writers, or -- of course -- films based on their works (even, though rarely, on poems, as opposed to novels).

For now, I will share some YouTube videos of writers reading (and, as often happens at readings, talking about their craft and inspiration).

You can, of course, simple search YouTube (or Google) using any writer's name; but if you search YouTube itself, there are always suggested, related videos on the right. That's one good way to explore and discover new writers. Try that with some of the suggestions I make here.

Also, listen and look at the way writers read their works. Some are terrible at it! Others are very instructive as to how their works, or how poetry and prose, should sound out loud. (By the way: practice reading your own drafts out loud, or reading what you like of others' works out loud, as a way of hearing what's there that silent reading doesn't reveal.)

Some recommendations:

Kay Ryan, former Poet Laureate:

I highly recommend Ryan as a good poet to start with -- she's accessible, amusing, and brief -- but her poems are highly crafted, and explore the edges and interconnections of words and meanings.

Raymond Carver:

Ok, this is mainly for the audio; but listen carefully! Carver was a modern master, brilliant with language, and courageous in his characterizations.

Kevin Young:

Young is a prolific poet, and his poems -- in books that are amazingly long for poetry books these days -- are deeply inclusive, rangy, fluent, amusing or moving, and embracing. Sometimes, as a kind of parlor game, we can ask whether a poet is more "Whitmanesque" or "Dickinsonesque" -- read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and see what you think (and yes, it's a trick question).

Sandra Cisneros:

Unfortunately, there aren't so many good YouTube videos of Cisneros reading (some, though, offer us her thoughts on writing); there are good videos elsewhere, and later, we'll explore non-YouTube video & writing resources.

Mary Gaitskill:

A weird camera angle; but a typical sort of literary event, with a good reading presentation from a solid prose stylist and storyteller.

Ann Sexton:

This takes us back a bit: digitized video of older analog film. This combines Sexton reading with documentary.

Allen Ginsberg:

"Howl" was a classic work of the fifties and sixties: the flagship of the Beat movement.

Taylor Mali:

Slam poetry! -- perhaps a different category from "literary" poetry, but let's not be too picky; on the other hand, how is this different from, say, T.S. Eliot? I can guess which one makes us happier, but -- it's worth our while studying the differences and similarities. What, of these two choices, can be combined for something new...?

Wanda Coleman:

...maybe Ms. Coleman shows one way -- literary, fun, lively, well-made, loud!

Thomas Lux:

Tom's an old teacher of mine. Topical poetry! -- note, in particular, how as one goes through the world (driving on the highway, in this case), there are occasions for poems everywhere.


There's much, much more. There is also a lot on YouTube, though, that's BAD -- mainly, I mean the videos themselves: remember, it's everyone who wants to post something (well, with some editorial oversight, I guess) -- so sort the good from the bad: bad production values, in particular. But listen to how poetry and prose come alive when seen and heard, and take those insights back to the page with you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


This is premature for us, perhaps, but all the same, it's worth considering ways of publishing your work when you feel it's ready. There are many ways to publish -- which, over the past fifteen years or so, has meant online as well as in print (well, we can include electronic media such as CD's as well, I guess -- and even live performance is a kind of publication).

Below is a link to information on an undergraduate-oriented literary journal; there are other types of journals, including online, and then there are more "commercial" or "popular" publications. It really depends on how you see your writing, your intended audience, and your concern about $$$. Literary writing doesn't pay much, or at all! It's for the "art." In our course, I'm focusing on the "art," but that doesn't mean your writer's sensibility has to be artsy -- just focused on matters of craft.

Anyway, here's a call for submissions I received from a former colleague; and below that, a web site that lists many journals, magazines, and small-press publishers (more on book publishing in a later post).

Monday, September 6, 2010


I have exercises on writing about things – two in particular that I will post this week (Week 2) are called “The Talisman” and “Garbology.”

On Facebook today, a friend linked to this interesting article in the New York Times Magazine. I offer it as an adjunct to the “Talisman” and “Garbology,” along with some musings to accompany it.

Partly, these exercises are about seeing. When we look at what’s present, we are seeing only a small part of what is really there, and only a small part of what each item in our view really is in itself. Regarding that first statement: we tend to see what we are inclined to see, what we are already familiar with or what fits our general view of the world we are a part of. Our eyes tend to home in on particular things, as well, to the exclusion of other things right there before us. (That’s true of hearing, as well). Regarding the second statement: everything is an emblem of some larger experience  -- a history, a family of things, the use or other meaningfulness of the thing, the metonymic realities of the thing (who owns it, made it, was affected by it, among other associations),  and countless other contexts we could define.

Many of the exercises are meant truly to “exercise,” that is, train, our perceptions: to see more, to see less at times, and thereby to see with greater focus, greater opportunity for value or meaning.

 One thing that interests me about this Times article (about the Internet-based initiatives it discusses, that is) is that the things we own and share are interconnected, and the stories about them are interconnected; the Internet, essentially a vast and dynamic system of interconnections, is therefore a natural medium (or dimension) for exploring the interconnectedness of things and the people who own and share things.

So, to add to ideas surrounding “The Talisman”: these web services, forms of Social Networking, offer technological ways of narrating and sharing stories; how do the Short Story, the Poem, or the Essay (consider them much older forms of technology, and also media, or alternate dimensions!) already do the work of telling, framing, and sharing stories related to things? How are things works of art in themselves; how are they also projections of identity, family, community? 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tributes & Remembrances

This link, to an article originally published in AWP Chronicle, turned up on the New Poetry listserv today:

...and someone followed up with this one:

I offer them with two purposes: one, as examples of prose forms -- the tribute, or alternatively, the remembrance of someone. These can be autobiographical, but not necessarily; as memoir, they might focus on the narrator equally with the subject, or the narrator might be essentially hidden from view. However, one way to think about such writing (all writing, really) is that the narrator, or the author, is always refracted in some way, even when he or she isn't overtly presented in the narrative.

Also, I offer them as representations of "Creative Writing culture" -- or, at least, of a certain perspective of it; and of the poet as mentor or teacher.

Can you find other tributes or remembrances? Other writings that somehow portray the culture and sensibility of artists, writers, readers, etc.?

You might also look for online groups (Yahoo, Google Groups), forums, or listservs meant for poets, other writers, readers, etc. Later, I post links to some.

Our Text Companion Site

Our textbook comes with a companion site -- ancillary materials worth having a look at: