Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

Last year wasn’t all bad. I read a lot of books, some of them quite wonderful, all of them good. 42 books to be exact, including a mix of poetry, books on the craft of writing, novels, memoir, and other non-fiction. And that doesn’t even count the spiritual books and books of poetry that my husband and I read out loud to each other. I also indulged in a rare pleasure—re-reading a few old favorites.

Here, then, are my ten favorite books that I read last year. These books, by and large, were not published in 2021, though quite a few are recent. In some cases, I’m coming late to the party.

These are the ones that brought me the most delight, pleasure in the power of language, grace of new knowledge, and/or enlarged me in some potent way. I hope you might find some gems for yourself among these.

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

What an astonishing gift of a book! Kimmerer braids indigenous wisdom with botanical science with the teachings of plants themselves to create a magical book of stories. Captivating and gorgeous, this book takes a clear look at our current ecological predicament but offers so much hope, if we would just listen and follow the wisdom all around us.

These next three books of poetry each enlarged my understanding of the experiences of others in powerful, compelling language.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine

Not poetry in a familiar sense, though it’s subtitle is “An American Lyric” and Rankine in a formidable poet, this book won so many prestigious awards, and deservedly so. Hard to categorize, this is a collage of prose poems, short anecdotes, essay-like commentary, art by visual artists, and documentary that paints a vivid, alarming portrait of what it is like on a daily basis to be in a Black body in America. Necessary reading for many of us and a deeply affecting ride.

Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith

Smith is Black, gay, and HIV positive. He takes us intimately into his world with stunning originality and vulnerability, painting an amazing portrait of his experience, contracting and living with HIV, among other things. Full of pain and love, this is a beautiful collection by a poet that has been garnering a lot of attention in recent years.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, torrin a. greathouse

I loved this extraordinary collection of poems. Another book I wish were required reading. greathouse is a master of language whose poems arrive like shock waves. A trans-gender person, who also lives with disabilities and physical pain, greathouse writes deeply moving poems in astonishing language that opened wells of understanding in me. 

Nothing To See Here, Kevin Wilson

What a fun, crazy ride this novel is! Extremely weird, but delightful, Wilson tells a preposterous but somehow utterly believable story with great characters who are dealing with very relatable (as well as some highly unusual) problems. Spontaneous combustion anyone? If you’re looking for a good read, look no further.

A Slow Green Sleep, Jonathan Weinert

Full confession: This book is written by a friend of mine, but that is not why it made the cut. As I read this book of poems, I thought “Yes, Yes, Yes, he’s done it!” This is the kind of book I wish I could write. The language is precise, exciting, honest, and imaginative as Weinert takes on the exceedingly troubling ecologicial crisis we are living with, and reckons with his own feelings and culpability.

Story, Robert McKee

This tome is a classic on the art of writing screenplays but is about story form in general—applicable to novels, short fiction, memoir, plays. McKee, who is revered in Hollywood for his gift as a teacher, spells out a clear, compelling, step-by-step process for crafting powerful stories, and a way to understand why a story isn’t working. And it’s not formulaic. He gives many variations, using examples from well-known films. It took me all year to get through this, but it was worth it.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This was definitely the most amazing novel I read in 2021. Tartt’s characters and story are so vividly and grippingly portrayed, you feel like you are absolutely there. Heart-rending and also full of resilience and love. I didn’t love where it went near the end. But this was a remarkable tour-de-force of a novel.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

This novel is really a memoir in disguise, and it’s a beauty. Written by a Vietnamese-American poet, this is a searing, stunning, moving story of his youth, his early love, and his challenges growing up poor and gay in an immigrant family. It’s an arresting read.

Keep Going, Austin Kleon

I love all of Austin Kleon’s delightful, wise, little books on creativity, and this one is no exception. The book’s subtitle is “10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” and hence it’s really timely. Kleon is so good at getting to the essence of things with punchy aphorisms, fascinating quotes and examples from the lives of many artists, and his wonderful signature drawings. He gives you abundant permission to make art and many great suggestions about how.

And, as a bonus, one more:

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa

I have read this book more times than I can count. I like to read a couple of pages in the morning before meditation. Although he was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa describes, in this book, a clear, secular path to living a more awakened life and helping to create an enlightened society. Loaded with highly-accessible wisdom and practical tools.

If any of these books call to you, I encourage you to order them through your local independent bookstore or your library. If you order online, please consider using either Bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores, Powell’s Books, which has a vast collection of new and used books and is a great independent bookstore, or Better World Books, which fosters literacy.

How to Deal With Creative Advice & Become a Better Artist

How to Deal With Creative Advice & Become a Better Artist

Creative advice for writers and artists abounds. Much of it is useful, helping us create stronger art. But it can also block our best work. In today’s post I discuss how to navigate that slippery terrain.

Write as if your words were a fire bringing warmth to a freezing cold room. Waste no words, just provide heat.

– Sir Tim Smit, writer and founder of the Eden Project

I don’t remember how it started.

Several editors told me that my poems had too much abstraction. I needed to focus more on concrete imagery.

This is a popular concept in writing circles: Avoid abstraction. Rely on physical images to communicate.

“Go in fear of abstractions,” The famous poet Ezra Pound wrote.

I teach my own students to bring their writing alive with concrete images, images we can see, hear, feel in our bodies, taste, smell. We experience life through the body first and foremost.

In order for writing to be vivid, evoke emotions and draw readers in, writers need strong, specific, sense images.

Not “I felt sad,” but “Tears streamed down my face.” OK, that’s a cliché, so you need to find a better way to describe sadness, but you get the idea.

I started to get very self-conscious about my lack of concrete imagery. (Don’t use “very”—that’s another common piece of writing advice. Ack! I just did.)

Here’s the thing about creative advice, like any advice:

It’s good up to a point. And then it can really mess you up.

The Benefits of Creative Advice

There is wisdom and helpfulness in the oft-repeated maxims for good writing. “Show, don’t tell” or “Avoid adverbs.”

It behooves an artist who is learning her craft to study the guidelines, learn the trade, the tools, before subverting them. To ignore centuries of practice in your art is arrogant foolishness. To snub new advances could be costly to your best art.

So, begin by applying the commonly-accepted rules. See where and how they strengthen your art.

In receiving that feedback about my writing, I started practicing describing things in concrete detail. I went for walks and looked around my room and practiced the art of description on the things I saw, heard, perceived with one of my five senses.

It is wise as an artist, who wishes to grow, to practice what might not come naturally, to strengthen where we are weak, to keep developing our craft.

I often give myself assignments to write outside of what’s easy or familiar, to stretch my capacities as a writer and expand my palette. If I always write poems in short lines, I’ll try writing in extended lines, discovering what it takes to create a strong, long-lined poem. Or I’ll write without using the word “I”.

But be attentive to how creative advice may be holding you back from creating your best work.

The Pitfalls of Creative Advice

There are exceptions to every rule.

Ezra Pound wrote: “To begin with, consider the three rules [of Imagist poetics], not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”

Notice that Pound says never to consider anything as dogma, even his own rules. The rules won’t always apply.

There are places in a good story where you need to tell instead of show to move the pace along. There are places for abstraction. You’ll find it used powerfully in the poems of Emily Dickinson, for instance.

What I Discovered

What happened as I practiced describing things in concrete detail?

I got very (there’s that “very” again!) bored by the writing. It wasn’t me, wasn’t my style, wasn’t what fascinates and inspires me. It was tedious to do and tedious to read.

I also realized three things:

1) There are many beautiful sense images throughout my poems. I do know how to use concrete imagery.

Consider this poem of mine recently published in a wonderful literary journal called Sweet: https://sweetlit.wordpress.com/issue-10-3/poet-maxima-kahn/

If you receive critical feedback, check to see where it is true and accurate, but also where it is not.

2) My gifts and voice as a poet lie in a realm of complexity. The swirl of emotions, the abodes of Spirit and soul, the interplay between our physical world and the unseen, whether that be our feeling life or spiritual life or intellectual life—these things are in my “wheelhouse.”

My poems include ideas and so-called “abstractions,” intensely-lived questions and deeply-held values. This is who I am.

Consider what your unique strengths as an artist are, what makes you you. And don’t sacrifice these.

3) I will continue to be alert to the balance of the concrete and abstract in my writing. But without stymieing my flow.

Because the other thing that happened, when I listened to that feedback and got self-conscious about it, was I got writer’s block for two weeks, until I sorted out what had happened.

Keep what you have learned from the advice that strengthens your art. Be alert for your weaknesses. Jettison the rest.

And if you find yourself blocked, check to see if you received some piece of criticism that you took too much to heart or that is gumming up the works. And let it go. Get back to what you do well.

What Does This Mean for You?

You have to get to know which pieces of advice are for you and which are not. You need to develop discernment about when to use that advice and when to ignore it.

The best way to develop that discernment is to:

  • Try out the advice in your art.
  • See if the art is now stronger or less strong.

You may want to test out different versions (with and without the advice) on a handful of trusted readers/viewers/listeners.

Ultimately, you are seeking to develop your internal compass to the point that you know when your work is more powerful and more radiantly yours, and when it is weaker and/or no longer true to you. But we always have blind spots.

Guard your unique brilliance, but be open to seeing your blind spots and growing as an artist. Learn to hone your skills and strengthen where you are weak.

Most importantly, protect your ability to create, to stay inspired and share your singular vision with the world.


To read the 3 tenets if Imagism plus Pound’s list of “Don’ts” for writers, go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/58900/a-few-donts-by-an-imagiste

To read some other sets of rules (read: advice) for writers, check out these:

From Stephen King: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/13/stephen-king-on-adverbs/

From Amitava Kumar: https://lithub.com/ten-rules-of-writing/

And from a host of authors: https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/33-essential-tips-for-aspiring-writers?utm_term=.bwXeAZ4Yz#.tnxAglRok


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Create an Ode

Create an Ode

Get your imagination sizzling with this creativity prompt to create an ode.

In this post I walk you through Ellen Bass’ lovely poem Ode to the First Peach. I show you what makes the poem sing and how to create your own ode in any art form you choose.

This prompt is not just for writers. Although I will talk about principles of good writing here, I will also share ideas of how to translate these principles to other art forms.

Whether in writing, painting, dance, sculpture, photography or some other medium, I invite you to craft an ode.

First, let’s look at what an ode is and how we might make one that really shines.

Read Ellen Bass’ Ode to the First Peach here.

The Marriage of Content and Form

Notice how the poem is juicy with language in the way a peach is overabundant in its sweetness and deliciousness. This poem positively spurts with rich, vibrant language. The language matches the subject.

If Ellen Bass were describing a prison cell, the language would need to be colder and harder. Reading this poem provides a rich pleasure like eating a ripe peach.

What Is an Ode?

An ode is an homage, a poem of praise to a specific person, place or thing. Like a letter of appreciation to that thing.

Typically, the ode addresses the thing being praised directly, speaking not just about it but to it. Such as starting with, “O beautiful ____”. Ellen Bass’ poem does not address the peach directly, but it’s still very much an ode.

Let’s look closer at her ode and see what we can discover to inspire and inform our own creations.

By doing this, we will learn how to approach a work of art to glean both information and inspiration. We will gather information about what is strong and effective. We’ll also harvest inspiration to create our own beautiful and true work.

Choose Verbs That Tremble With Aliveness

I start by looking at the verbs, because exciting verbs are so vital to vivid, effective language.

One of the first things you can do to improve a piece of writing is to go back and look at your verbs. See where you might change the verbs to more specific, accurate, alive ones—not speak but whisper, not run but gallop, not laugh but chortle.

Of course, like all things, this can be overdone, and you need to consider the style and tone of the piece when choosing your verbs. However, a well chosen verb can do a great deal of good work for a piece of writing.

Here are all of the verbs in Ellen Bass’ ode:

feasted, plugs, severed, shines, silvered, darken, turn, imagine, be, reflected, becomes, shoots, ravished, were, fallen, dreamed, curried, remaking.

Notice how she only uses the word “to be” twice. Most of the verbs she chooses shiver with life.

If you aren’t a writer: What is the equivalent of a verb in your medium? What propels the action, brings movement and energy? Is it a fast run of notes in music? Is it bright colors in painting? Or perhaps a specific verb like “shiver” instead of “was cold” is equivalent to a subtle blending of colors instead of using a primary hue. You decide and then examine your use of that element.

Use Adjectives (and Adverbs) With Care

Next let’s look at the adjectives.

Adjectives need to be used with care. Too many adjectives begin to cancel each other out. And they can make the writing feel overburdened, cumbersome.

Yet a well-chosen adjective can bring something radiantly to life for the reader.

Notice how sparingly Ellen Bass uses adjectives in this poem, which nonetheless achieves a lushness. Most of the nouns in the poem stand alone without an adjective to define them. They don’t need an adjective because the nouns themselves are so well-chosen and vibrant. We’ll look at them in a moment.

Here are the adjectives in this poem:

one, clear, next, golden, heavier, sudden, dense, first, lustrous, silent, swollen, clefted, flaming.

Look how wonderful and apt the adjectives are for their subject, the peach. And at the same time how vivid they are as words, not just “round” or “orange,” but “clefted” and “lustrous.” The adjectives not only have specificity but also feel good in the mouth to say. And we feel them in our bodies.

If you aren’t a writer: An adjective is something that modifies or describes a noun. If the noun is the subject matter of your piece, what might be the equivalent of an adjective? In a dance piece, it might be a gesture of the hand or a bend of the head that modifies the larger movement and gives it a particular flavor. In music, it might be an ornament, a trill, a bend of a note or distortion.

Be Specific With Your Nouns

Now let’s consider the nouns.

Here they are:

insect, stub, resin, scar, hollow, stem, juice, fur, caul, minute, hairs, palm, flesh, weight, newborn, marriage, citron, blush, planet, hall, mirrors, swan, fairy, sky, dawn, beginning, world, pith, stars, coins, pockets, night, chaos, scent, morning, sugar, bruise, hunger, life, remnant, ripeness.

What an extraordinary collection of nouns!

Some of them are concrete descriptions of aspects of a peach, such as stem, scar, juice, scent.

But many of them are imaginative metaphors to help us appreciate the peach in a new light. Metaphors can work magic in a poem.

If you aren’t a writer: The nouns are the nuts and bolts of your piece, its subject matter or foundational elements—a key phrase in a dance piece, perhaps, or a musical theme.

You might think of the nouns as the building blocks of the piece, the verbs as what connects and gives momentum to those building blocks, and the adjectives as flourishes or ornaments that add nuance.

In whatever medium you are working in, make sure your “nouns” are strong and apt, as vivid and right as they can be for the piece.

And what about using metaphor, likening one thing to another to help us experience your subject in a richer or new way?

Create Your Own Ode

Now that we have gathered this information about what makes this poem come alive, let’s use it for inspiration to create our own ode.

1. Choose a subject for your ode, something you wish to praise. It could be something you love, but it could also be something difficult, which you will use your ode to learn to appreciate. For instance, I recently wrote an ode to frustration.

2. Start by free-associating a list of lively verbs, nouns and adjectives, or phrases combining them, to describe the subject of your ode. Include startling, original metaphors.

You might also make notes of memories of your subject, details of the specific pleasures it has brought to you.

3. Now choose the best of these to begin making a first draft of an ode. Or start by just allowing yourself to play freely with the subject and see what arises.

Let yourself experiment. Be wild, inventive, playful. Odes often are. Or be melodramatic, over-the-top in your exaltation of this thing. Discover the voice that is suited to your subject.

Don’t try to be perfect in the first draft. That kills creativity. Just get some ideas on paper or in your medium-of-choice.

If you aren’t a writer: Even if you are working in a non-verbal medium, such as dance or painting, you can still begin by writing out images, associations and metaphors to more fully delve into your subject. You can also begin by deciding key elements of your piece—musical or dance phrases, color palette and so on.

Refine and Revise

Then, go back, refine, revise, hone.

If you are writing, look at every verb. Can any be strengthened?

Look at every adjective. Can any be removed and the line will be as strong or stronger? Can any adjectives be replaced by using a more vital, specific noun instead?

Look at your nouns. Are they the most dynamic and apt ones to meet your subject? Have you used metaphor to bring your subject more vividly to life and to bring delight and surprise to the reader?

If you are making an ode with dance, how could you use non-representational movement to create an ode to a peach, for instance? Instead of showing someone eating a peach, how could you suggest the ecstasy, sweetness, surprise of biting into a ripe peach? How could you metaphorically depict the juice running down your face or the slow ripening to colors of sunset?

If you are writing music, how could the notes reflect the burnished quality of a peach, the lushness?

If you are painting, what in the painting, in the background perhaps or the colors or textures, leads us to experience the subject in a new and deeper way? What is it you most wish to communicate about this subject to the viewer? Perhaps the painting is non-representational but takes us to a place of feeling the subject.

Let yourself have fun with making an ode.

Perhaps you would like to give yourself the project of making a series of odes on different subjects. Odes engage our senses, our gratitude, our imagination.

To get more ideas about wild and wonderful odes, check out Pablo Neruda’s odes. Here’s my favorite of those: Ode to My Socks

What are you inspired to make an ode about now? Begin making some notes.

Entering the Word Temple of Poetry

Entering the Word Temple of Poetry

The Chinese character for poetry is made up of two parts, “word” and “temple.”*

Let us enter the sacred word temple of poetry. Let us be housed by holy words.

What makes a poem holy?

The care it took to select each word like a stone, carve it to a perfect fit with other word-stones.

The mastery to shape phrases, images, metaphors that strike, move, tantalize, challenge, even confound.

The precision to stack these carved words into a poem, so that it stands as a singular temple.

The attention to calculate the architecture of the poem—its line breaks, line lengths, stanza breaks, form, its flow through the rooms—“stanza” means room in Italian. To hollow out with words a hallowed space.

In all this care and careful craft, we are invited into sanctuary, the breathing presence, awe.

Each poem that is made with true care is a word temple, a temple made of words and a temple to language, expression, communication, art.

Poetry invites our wonder, deep feeling, delight, recognition, pain.

Poetry gifts us with beauty, the grace of a carefully-made thing, unique expression, honesty, reflection. It gifts us with art, and that is, or at least can be, sacred.

Let us enter the word temple of poetry.

Let us approach the poem with reverence, inner quiet, our senses alert for the Presence of the Beyond.

In some poems we may be disappointed, as in some churches, we are left without a feeling of the Sacred. But let us come with that hope and yearning with which we approach God or a sacred grove.

Let us let ourselves be permeated by the poem, each cell absorbing the words, images, sounds, feelings, ideas.

Let us let ourselves be wounded by poetry and also healed, approaching with such open hearts, minds and bodies that we can be pierced by the poem’s clear seeing and deep feeling.

We can be upset by its provocations. We can be lifted by its hot-air-balloon joy or rent open by its pure grief. We can be dissolved by its truth.

Let us enter the word temple of poetry and worship there together.

To your poetic heart,

Maxima

*I learned this inspiring fact from Copper Canyon Press, a leading publisher of exceptional poetry in the United States, whose logo is the Chinese character for poetry.

P.S. If you liked this post, please share it.

P.P.S. If you would like to engage in one-on-one mentorship with me to craft extraordinary poems or other writing/creations of your own, my creativity mentoring may be for you. In April, for National Poetry Month, I’m offering 20% off on my mentoring packages.

 

To read more about poetry and writing, check out these posts: Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt and Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

Get Back On The Horse: Dealing with Setbacks on the Artistic Path

Get Back On The Horse: Dealing with Setbacks on the Artistic Path

I “finished” a collection of my poems last summer after eight years of working on it, off and on, most recently with the help of professional editors. At that point I committed to sending it to four publication contests or open reading periods a month until I find a publisher.

The Path to Publication

books on shelf

by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

For a poetry book, especially a first book, publication contests and open reading periods (which are really a kind of contest) are the main path to publication. This is a time-consuming, highly competitive and slow process.

The first step is research.

Make a list of presses with upcoming deadlines (On PW.org the Small Presses and Contests and Awards databases are great).

Research which of those presses seems like a good match for your poetry.

Send your manuscript out! Submitting a manuscript typically costs $25-30 per submission. In other words, I’m currently spending upwards of $100 plus quite a few hours each month to do meet my goal.

Why Not Self-Publish?

Poetry is not like non-fiction. With non-fiction, self-publishing can be a great route to take.

With poetry, if you are happy to sell or give your book to friends, family and people who attend your readings, self-publishing is great. However, if you want to reach a large audience and garner recognition, as I do, you need a reputable press.

Dealing With Rejection

I started sending to four presses per month back in July. Usually it takes 4-6 months to hear back.

Recently, I have started to receive “rejections.” At first this didn’t matter, because the presses I was hearing from weren’t at the top of my list. I know it’s a long process, there’s a ton of good poets out there, and it’s all a matter of time.

More recently I started hearing from contests and presses I really wanted to be chosen by. They chose someone else’s book. This is hard. I get sad and doubt creeps in.

The Antidote to Disappointment

by Luis Davila

The antidote is to “get back on the horse,” which is what you are taught to do in horse-back riding when a horse throws you.

I get back to writing new poems, revising recent poems, and sending out my beloved book to more contests. Having it out there in the world in many places gives me hope and keeps my hand in the game. Doing new writing keeps me connected to my love of the form and the spark of creativity.

And something has changed in me. I feel genuinely glad for the winners. I know they’ve been working as hard as I have and how much it means to each of us. I feel envy too, sometimes painfully, but it feels good to be happy for them.

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve had a set-back of any kind: from receiving criticism, not getting accepted into a show, publication or program you wanted, attending a workshop or conference that discouraged you, or comparing yourself negatively, get back on the horse.

Start making art for the love of it. Do it as often as you can. Reconnecting to the joy of art-making is the best antidote there is. And you’ll be improving as an artist at the same time.

When you’re up for it, send your work out into the world. Send it to a whole bunch of places, large and small. It’s only a matter of time until it will find its way.

One way to magnetize your creativity is to be kind and generous to other artists. You can do an act of kindness now by sharing this post, using the buttons below. Thank you!

 

Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

In my post last week, I shared with you how to get inspiration and training by copying the masters of your art form and translating what you learn to your own unique style. If you missed that, click here for Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters.

This week, I promised you a new creative “prompt” or idea to jumpstart your own inspiration and creativity.

What the Heck is a Prompt?

A prompt is an idea or jumping off point for creating new work. Its purpose is to get the creative juices flowing and open you to new directions that may prove very fertile. A prompt may inspire, challenge, delight or motivate, or all of the above.

Many artists share that their best work often comes from prompts given by others.

Using prompts is a great way to:

  1. Move past artist’s block and get started creating anything.
  2. Get inspired.
  3. Expand your creative possibilities.
  4. Discover new tools.
  5. Create new work that may surprise you.

A New Idea for You Today

Master of Disguises book coverI have been reading poet Charles Simic’s recent book, Master of Disguises. Simic is a Pulitzer-Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate. Despite that, I don’t really love his writing, though I can appreciate its artistry. It’s just not my style. In fact, it’s about as far from my style as you can get. And that’s one reason he can be a good source for me to learn from, a good master to copy.

Here’s the prompt I created for myself from reading one of his poems. First the poem that inspired it.

Scenes of the Old Life

Washing hung from the fire escapes.
Boys threw cats from rooftops. 
War veterans hopped on crutches,
Pitching pennies and smoking reefers.

Writers destined to remain obscure
Wrote late into the night
Using a pencil and the kind of notebook
Their children took to school in the morning.

Outside a club advertising exotic dancing girls,

A man in a crumpled white suit
Staggered with a knife in his heart,
One dark eyebrow raised in surprise.

In winter, rain fell as if it meant to fall forever.

We kept the gas oven lit to warm ourselves,

While mother cried and cried chopping onions

And my one goldfish swam in a pickle jar.
—Charles Simic

Your Assignment, Should You Choose to Accept It

Copy Charles Simic’s poem “Scenes of the Old Life” formally as exactly as possible. Here’s how.

  1. Start simply by making a list of strong images that are memories from your childhood. Get a good sized list. Notice how Simic chooses images from his environment and then narrows down to one that is quite personal at the end of the poem.
  2. Choose the strongest of the scenes or images from your list, paring them down to ones that create a cohesive or similar mood throughout the poem, as Simic does.
  3. Make a poem that follows Simic’s form exactly. You may need to choose images/scenes that work best to do this.

To follow his form, your poem will:

  • Be made entirely of striking images/short scenes.
  • Express each image in a short pithy line or a few lines. If you want to completely follow his form, you might use the same number of lines for each of your images or scenes that he does. In Simic’s poem, the first line is one image, the second line another, and the last two lines of the first stanza are a third image. Are they all one scene? That’s for you to decide. The next stanza is clearly one scene.
  • Be a poem of 4 stanzas made of 4 lines each (called a quatrain).
  • Use simple, straight-forward syntax and language, be made of complete grammatical sentences.
  • Contain many “end-stopped” lines (though not all of them), meaning the line ends with a comma or period.
  • Mention the season at some point (as he mentions winter).

Once you’ve created a first draft, feel free to edit, revise or stray from the form in some ways to make the best poem you can.

Translate the Same Prompt to Other Media

modern dancer

photo by Olena Kotyk on Unsplash

If you are not a poet, you can start by making the same list of potent images from your childhood, including one set in a particular season. Then, make a painting, drawing, sculpture, musical piece or dance piece, based on a collection of those “scenes.”

You might make a rule for yourself that you have to use the same number of different scenes or images that he does. Or you might decide you are going to make a painting divided into four equal squares, each with a scene in it, as he has four stanzas in his poem.

If you feel stumped, start small. Give yourself the assignment to make a 1-minute dance piece or to do a 10-minute sketch based on one particularly striking scene. If you don’t make representational art, make something that conjures the images or feelings evoked by the list of scenes.

The idea is to stretch yourself and see what you learn and discover.

I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

 

 

P.S. Please share this post with friends who might be inspired to create new work, using the share buttons below!

P.P.S. To learn more about poet Charles Simic and read more of his poems online, click here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/charles-simic

Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

Pearls from the Colrain Poetry Conference

I am just back from the Colrain Poetry Conference, this one held in Truchas, New Mexico. The conference is unique among poetry workshops in that it is an intensive weekend devoted to honing a manuscript of poems as a whole, rather than working on individual poems.

Two teachers and two editors of poetry presses lead the workshops. The conference is open to a maximum of 14 participants. We had ten in our group, and then were divided into groups of five each day to work on the manuscripts.

We stayed together in a big, beautiful, adobe house in a remote village at 8,000 feet in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. High desert ringed by the dramatic Truchas Peaks, incredible sense of deep quiet and the magic New Mexico is known for.

The days are long. We started at 9:00 a.m. and went until 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. each day, starting Friday evening and ending with a session Monday morning. By the end of each day, my head felt like it would explode from taking in so much.

The experience was wonderful—encouraging, inspiring, enlightening, humbling (in a good way). I learned so much, and I came home eager to dive into my manuscript again with new eyes and ears.

I’ll share a little of what I learned here.

 

Truchas Peaks in the distanceHow poetry editors read a manuscript

The over-riding lesson is your poetry manuscript must be deeply cohesive as a singular work and not simply a collection of wonderful poems. It was thrilling to witness how deeply the editors engage with every aspect of the manuscript, and they expect all of those aspects to make sense to the book as a whole.

The editors began by looking at the title and the table of contents as a map of the terrain of the manuscript—what the key themes, preoccupations, voices of the book will be, what the through-line or arc will be, how that line rises and falls throughout the manuscript, creating interest.

After looking at the title and table of contents, the editors thumbed through the manuscript, looking at the various forms used on the page, the use of white space, the visual effect of the poems, independent of content, and what that might suggest. In other words, they looked at how the poems looked without reading them initially. Are there poems in couplets, poems in a singular small block, ones that use white space inventively, ones with long lines, short lines? Do these forms recur? They look for both a variety of forms and a repetition of similar forms threaded throughout to give the book interest and coherence.

Then the editors read the first few poems in depth, looking to those poems as a guide to the book as a whole, how to read this poet, what the themes will be, what the voice(s) will be, what the approach will be. Those first poems need to be stellar and significant to the book’s themes. Many editors will read the first five poems, and if those poems don’t totally knock their socks off, they won’t read further. Often, they will turn to the final poem, as well.

These editors then read one or more poems from the middle of the manuscript, choosing those poems based on titles that intrigued them and/or titles that seemed important to the themes of the book or poems that were visually interesting on the page. And then they read the last poem of the book, which needs to both be a really stellar poem and one that works as a summation or final statement for this collection.

 

dandelion seedsLittle pearls to make your poetry book gleam

  • Every poem must be very strong, edited to its finest, and any weaker poems removed or any that don’t fit with this manuscript’s themes, voices and preoccupations. A leaner manuscript is definitely preferred to a longer one.
  • If you have many poems on the same theme—say about your mother’s death—each poem needs to approach the topic differently and arrive at a different place. Otherwise, choose only a few to include and sprinkle them through the manuscript, rather than place them one after another.
  • One teacher gave an example of a manuscript (not one at the conference) that was full of one fantastic poem after another, but they all progressed in the same way—thesis, exposition, epiphany—and had a similar form. The book didn’t work as a whole because there wasn’t enough variety. One editor said what she looks for is a “constellation of difference”—constellation suggests the poems belong together, but difference means there are various stars orbiting in the same galaxy.
  • Ask of each poem why it belongs in the manuscript and what it is doing there. What is this poem’s relationship to the title? What are the ambitions of these poems together?
  • Form is as important as content. Formal decisions are as important as content decisions.
  • The titles provide a map to the manuscript. Be careful of titles the feel pedestrian—will they draw the reader in?
  • Let the image do the work. Cut away explanation that is already inferred in the image. Trust your readers.
  • Always submit poems in PDF form, not in a Word doc, as formatting can get wonky.
  • Watch out for glosses rather than specifics, not “aging parents” but “my father’s arthritic hands gripping the bed rail.”
  • Once a voice is established, it sets the bar for the rest of the manuscript, and editors look for that voice and quality throughout. Voice combines who is speaking, how are they speaking, and who are you speaking to?
  • When writing about the natural world, locate the reader in a specific, particular place—not just any tree or river.
  • What’s at stake for the poet/speaker in these poems? One editor stressed the need to see the poet’s culpability in the topics being addressed, to see self-criticism, if there is criticism of our world, and in general to see the speaker’s vulnerability and responsibility. For instance, I write a lot about the limitations of language to describe experience. She said she wanted to read how language has failed me specifically.
  • Keep a rubble pile, a file of lines you love that you have had to cut from your poems (to make the poems stronger) to draw from for new poems.

And finally, a wonderful quote that was shared with us from Annie Dillard (from her essay, “Write Till You Drop”:

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

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