Friday, December 4, 2009

To Emend the World

In "God Bless the Experimental Writers," Corey Mesler gently and humorously tackles the reasons why many of us write. I'll admit it, I had to look up the definition of emend, especially since it's such an important part of this poem.

John Cage said that all writing, indeed all creative work, is experimental. I'll put myself in the category for that reason. That and a lack of huge, formal recognition puts many of us in the category of Mesler's experimental writers - we might not know why we write, or for whom, but we know that we must. The emending, a gradual righting of the world through acts of creation, is what we hope for.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

30 in 30

Inspired by the Northampton Arts Council's 30 Poems in 30 Days Challenge and all my local poet friends, I quietly committed myself to drafting 30 haiku (or haiku-ish things) in the month of November. I'm proud to say that I did it! Here are 4 of my favorites, in no particular order:

marshmallows, cigarettes, and rum
at the birthday party
all grown up now

walking down fifth ave
so this is where all those clothes
at marshall's come from

comfortable habits
collide with love, nervous me
exploding poems

the bones of mount tom
stones from mother's house, a new
path to my front door

Friday, November 13, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Famous Cliches

Nobody hates cliches more than poets. Yet cliches do what we are trying to do in our poems: create condensed, memorable, useful metaphors. In this fun article in the Boston Globe, writer James Parker takes us through the history and function of cliches, the phrases we (to use a cliche) love to hate.

As Parker points out, "Durable, easily handled, yet retaining somehow the flavor of its coinage, the classic cliché has fought philology to a standstill: it sticks and it stays, and not by accident."

The history of the word cliche comes from old printing techniques... "So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up."

Cliches grease the wheels of the government... "An American politician can be off-the-cuff, instinctive, zig-zag, but only if he or she is prepared immediately to make a cliché of it: look at what happened to the word 'maverick' in the last election."

And cliches range from the petty to the profound... "But what of the timeless cliché, the cliché you can steer your course by, the cliché that carries a small freight not just of meaning, but of wisdom?"

The author also chooses two cliches (the one about free lunch and the one about the tango) that describe the range of his "entire psychological and ethical structure." I'll have to think now about what mine would be. And what are yours?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mazel Tov

I'd thought to crack a bottle
of champagne against the corner
of our first home

instead, the first thing I broke
was a basement window,
throwing a ball for the dog.

Oh, the immediacy of shatter and collapse
the laws of momentum and gravity
so unbreakable!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Magnetic Poetry

I don't really like magnetic poetry. It's too limiting (or I'm too inflexible) for me to get really creative with the limited selection of words it offers the writer of casual kitchen poetry. However, I do really like this poem that my wife & I co-created with the magnetic poetry set that someone gave us about dogs. It's meant to invoke the young retriever who's still learning how to be a dog.

remember to retrieve

sniff everything
no pooping on toy
no devour cat
yes play
faithfully together

For another fun poem about dogs, check out Kay Ryan's "Fool's Errands" in The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Grandmother Oliver

She said to write it down
and so I did:

Above a wild white rose,
the moon bled onto clouds.

"Smell that," said my love,
"it's still summer."

I put my face into the flower
and drowned in fragrance

on this cool September night
after Mary Oliver smiled at me -

Mary Oliver with her white hair
and wild, shining eyes.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Makes A Writer?

I just saw the movie Julie & Julia. It was fun. But of course I couldn't help paying special attention to the movie's subtext about how a writer is made and defined. The beginning of the movie shows the main character, Julie, at loose ends, with lots of promise and talent, but directionless. Through discussions with her friends and husband, she decides she needs a project to which she can commit herself. She starts a blog in which she charts her daily progress through Julia Child's cookbook, and updates it for a year. Her blog becomes so successful that she ends up with a book and a movie.

As the credits roll up the screen in the dark theater, the audience is informed as to the dates of death for Julia Child and her beloved husband, as well as current information about Julie Powell. The final line reads, "She is a writer."

I congratulate Julie Powell on her tenacity and success. But I take issue with the movie's message that a writer is defined by her publications. Julie became a writer when she began her blog, before she had hundreds of fans leaving comments. She became a writer when she started writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Eternal Paper

I was both entertained and educated by Michael Agger's article in Slate about writing for the web (writing for the web is part of my day job, so I'm continually learning more about such things).

I was simultaneously heartened by the author's observation of the permanence of paper. "We'll do more and more reading on screens," he writes, "but they won't replace paper - never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you."

Intimacy and tactility - sensuousness - are the most notable aspects of reading from paper as opposed to reading on the screen. Agger describes paper as "a balm for the distracted mind." This is absolutely true for pleasure reading, where one treasures the feeling of diving into a book. I also prefer to proofread and copyedit publications of any length on paper instead of on screen, since paper allows for easier concentration and focus.

When I visited Goddard College for the first time and heard program director Paul Selig describe the MFA experience, he talked about how most of the professors still prefer to receive packets of physical paper in the mail (oh, the time we spent on those packets!) as opposed to being emailed manuscripts. "You might get your manuscript back with wrinkles and coffee stains," he said, and I felt the instinctive joy of a bibliophile whose passions have been recognized and acknowledged. Not only did we all love writing, but we all loved paper.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Poetry for the Young

I recently found this post by author and fellow Hampshire alum Leah Hager Cohen on her blog Love As A Found Object. Cohen describes a momentary yet wonderful solution to a two-part dilemma: how to reconnect with her teenage son, and which poem to suggest he memorize for English class. You might be surprised at her choice!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sculpted Language

Last Saturday I treated myself with a trip to the Smith College Museum of Art, to see the show I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill. (Actually, I treated myself with time, but the entrance was free thanks to a pass I checked out of the Lilly Library. What a great public resource.) I didn't go because it was the work of Lesley Dill (I wasn't familiar with her work). I went because Dill incorporates fragments of poetry into her sculptures, predominantly the work of Emily Dickinson.

I had pretty low expectations of the show. Somehow I expected it to be cheesy. Plus, while gorgeous in person, the sculptures do not come across nearly as well when photographed. They're like written-down words that only truly come alive when spoken. All my expectations were completely blown out of the water. I was amazed by the show, and hope to see it again before it closes on September 13.

I can't imagine that Dill's sculptures could possibly do a better job of embodying the ambiguous, troubled, transcendent lines of poetry with which she chose to work. The two main themes in the show were spirituality and language. The materials (thin sheets of tin, thread, luminous silk fabric), the compositions (figures, partial figures, mixed media, collages), and the scale (a few very large pieces and several very small pieces) all do a great job of illustrating either the spirituality captured in the words, or simply the spirituality of language itself.

You can preview the show here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Extreme Reading

For today's post, I bring you an essay by prose poet John Olson. While at first I found "Extreme Reading" difficult to get into - it really reads as more of a prose poem at the beginning - I was soon able to drop into Olson's particular and illuminating logic that zooms around in a nonlinear, beehive fashion.

He writes:

"Reading is a form of hallucination. The images and people we encounter among the letters are not there. The reality they acquire in our mind is equal to the effort we make in building them in our mind. Sufficient training will help understand the meaning of someone waving semaphores up and down but true reading requires something more of you than knowing how to spell or understanding the relationship between a sign and its referent. The letters invite a cooperation greater than the peremptory commands of a traffic light. Whoever came up with the idea of separating green from red with the happy ambiguity of yellow was clearly someone who enjoyed reading."

I have to admit, I needed to look up two of the words in this paragraph... but that's also part of extreme reading.

Read the entire essay here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Bear Details

If you are anywhere in the area of Easthampton, MA, between now and October, you really should walk around and see the bears. You can download a map here.

All the bears were created by local artists, and they are wonderfully varied in their themes. Some are serious, some are whimsical, some abstract, some historical. The best part of this display is the great attention to detail paid by so many of the artists. A goal of this event is to get people out and walking, and the bears truly reward those who stroll and look closely. Driving through town and seeing all the bears is fun, but walking from bear to bear and viewing them up close is the way to truly appreciate them and the craft that went into making them.
Plus, a lot of the bears have backside surprises that are not visible from the street!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Visiting Emily Dickinson

There comes a time in every young poet's life (at least for those of us who live in my part of the world) - a time to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. For me that time was last Saturday, and I had a beautiful experience on the guided tour (the only way you're allowed to see the Dickinson house), which was really like walking through a talking book about Emily and the Dickinson family.

Emily Dickinson's poems are so sparse, so clenched, and they give up so little in terms of explanation, that I've always found them to be greatly enhanced by their social and historical context. The poems are Biblical, or scriptural, in terms of the intensity of their images and the dense, sometimes opaque, nature of their content. The tour, which our guide had animated by selecting many quotes from Dickinson's letters, provided this kind of illuminating context.

It was amazing to stand in the room where those verses were born, to look out of the large sunny windows at nearby trees and the road. It was easy to imagine that space being enough of a world for a poet with such a rich inner life.

One thing I really appreciated was a display used to convey how word choices affect the meaning and nuance of a poem. Dickinson often chose alternate verbs or nouns or adverbs for a poem, and instead of crossing out and replacing one with another in her manuscripts, she let them stand, indicated with asterisks. Editors have had to choose one word when preparing Dickinson's poems for publication, but the display board in the museum had sliding pieces that allowed one to change which word was included in any given line. I had visions of an interactive book where the poem is still alive, given its final incarnation not by an editor but by each reader.

If you go to the museum, make sure to take the extended tour, which includes the Evergreens. The Dickinson Homestead has been redecorated, cleaned, and somewhat updated. The Evergreens, where Emily's brother and sister-in-law lived, still contains many of their possessions. It smells of age and dust, and echoes with history.

After a tour of the museum, I went with my friend to find Emily Dickinson's gravesite, a short walk away in the West Cemetery. Instead of "died" or "deceased," her gravestone says "called back." People have left offerings of coins, flowers, and pencil stubs on top of the unassuming white marble marker. And close to her gravestone, the grass has (intentionally or unintentionally) been left to grow, wild and tall, a fitting tribute to this local and domestic, yet wild and spiritual, poet.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Earth is Hiring

It's the time of year for sitting through graduation ceremonies. Education is such a big part of the economy where I live, I think that people here have a much higher than average chance of sitting through at least one or two addresses. It's too bad that the two graduations I attended this year didn't feature this inspired speech, given by Paul Hawken at the University of Portland. Here's an excerpt:

"You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn't afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."

Monday, May 18, 2009


"Sometimes, I wish I could read faster."

If you can relate to that statement, check out this little animation I found on the website of the Boston Book Festival.

Monday, May 11, 2009

No Time for Writer's Block

Wishing for more time to write is a trap into which we writers often fall. What's more important is to make the best of the time you have. I can fit small poems quite easily into the chinks and pauses and cracks of my life. Even novelists such as the wildly successful Jodi Picoult have managed to write little bits at a time. (No, I haven't read any of her books, but I do respect her dedication.)

In a recent interview in Time, Picoult said, "When I started writing, I had a newborn baby and then I very quickly had his brother and sister. I didn't have time for writer's block. I wrote every few minutes that the kids were napping or at nursery school or watching Barney on television. Because of that, I learned how to really sit down quickly and focus when I needed to. I've always sort of believed that writer's block is a luxury for people who have time on their hands. If you don't, you don't get it."

If you're using lack of time as an excuse not to write or do whatever it is you love to do, that's what it is - an excuse. Begin where you are, and do what you can in the present moment.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

You'll Know You're Famous When Your Words are Carved in Stone

Every so often I like to take my country self into the city - Boston, that is - and tool around with my urban poet friends. On my last visit, as I walked into the Stony Brook stop on the orange line, I stopped to read words that I saw carved into a triangular granite pillar. I'd recently returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, and I was still in tourist mode - stopping to look at and read everything.

I was expecting something historical, something mainstream and maintaining the status quo - such are the words I've often seen carved into rock. But these words were more lively: two poems, by Martin Espada and Rosario Morales told an alternate history of immigrants, injustice, and working class heritage.

Apparently there is literature carved into such stones all over Boston. Like this author, my friend and guide through Jamaica Plain had walked by these solid monuments to literature on a daily basis before noticing them. It always helps to see your own city through the eyes of a tourist.

Thanks to KL Pereira for the photos.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry off the Page

One of my friends is teaching poetry in her son's elementary school, as a community service. She had a book called The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet: 104 Unusual Ways to Write Poetry in the Classroom and the Community. Many of the exercises in this book have the class write poems on objects - chairs, foam heads, etc.

I love poetry best when it's performed or read aloud. That's when the words truly come alive - when they are embodied. This allows a connection to occur between two or more individuals - and that, to me, is the essential different between poetry and prose. I'm happy to read a novel alone, curled up in my favorite chair. I'll also read nonfiction that way. But poetry is so much better when I read it to someone or someone reads it to me. Poetry is music, is performance. Performing poetry - through the voice or via a physical object - gives it a temporal, momentary, golden quality.

One of the best writing workshops I ever attended was based on the creative practices of John Cage. One thing the leaders did was give us various objects on which to write - coffee filters, cash register receipts... changing the surface changes the writing, and pushes the creation into more of a performance space.

A class at the University of Auckland in New Zealand is doing some cool things in this realm: the realm of poetry off the page. Check it out - then grab a napkin, or a matchbox, or some duct tape, and create!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fresh Young Voices

Last night I went to hear Paul Muldoon read at the Smith College Poetry center, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would also be hearing from the winner and runners up of the 3rd annual poetry prize for high school girls. Check out their really great poems here. My favorite line: "all things backwards, wrong, and beautiful".

Fresh is a word that's thrown around often during the teaching of poetry, yet at the same time is difficult to describe or define. It's the kind of thing where you know it when you see it. These poems are fresh, juicy, shimmering with dew.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Great Month for Poetry

Despite what TS Eliot wrote (“April is the cruelest month”), I think April is a great time for National Poetry Month, especially for those of us who are committing to do some extra writing during these 30 days. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, since spring is inspirational and symbolic on so many levels.

I won’t say what my plan is, because I’ve found that making too formed of a writing plan kills the project before it’s born—but I will say that I’m doing something, hopefully around a certain theme and experience. 30 days is great time frame to develop a current project or generate a new body of work.

Are you in need of some added inspiration or direction? Both the Poetic Asides blog and Poets & Writers are posting daily prompts this month.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Working and Writing

Yesterday, in the course of a conversation, I told a friend that I nearly went into landscape architecture instead of writing. “Why?” she asked. So I had to ask myself—why did I abandon several years of experience in landscaping and horticulture to “start over” on a new vocational path?

I’ve had times in my life when my paid work was gardening or landscaping, and writing was a hobby. I’ve also had times when my paid work was writing or something to do with writing, and gardening was a hobby. I found that I prefer the latter state of being—it feels more flexible and filled with artistic possibilities.

My grad school advisor Rachel Pollack said that the best job for a writer is the one that allows you to do the most writing. My current day job now is great because it’s interesting and I interact with intelligent people, but it’s not all-consuming and doesn’t take up an undue amount of mental space.

Writing is a net that can be thrown over anything, incorporating all of the author’s varied and unusual interests. Currently I edit the newsletter of the Ecological Landscaping Association (a great nonprofit that educates professionals and homeowners about how to work with nature instead of against it in the landscape). The folks there told me it’s rare to find a writer who also has landscaping experience. If you are a writer and have other passions or experience (as all writers do), I encourage you to try find out how you can put them to good use—someone will value your background.

The other thing about jobs is that—just like all those failed relationships—everything is material. I have been an usher in a concert hall, a park ranger, ice cream maker, farmer, and after school teacher, just to name a few of the positions I’ve held over the years. As Pat Schneider wrote, “Live your life thoughtfully, empathetically. Listen, and watch. Write. From these practices will come the most important things you need to know in order to create good fiction.” Or good anything.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Poem of a Certain Place and Time

So I logged onto the Writer's Almanac today as I often do, and found a poem by James Tate entitled "Suburban Buffalo." What are the chances that I have seen those same buffalo? I have seen them. James Tate teaches (taught?) at UMass Amherst, which is a short trip down Route 9 away from the bowling alley in Northampton, MA. On that two-lane strip of wannabe highway in Hadley stands (stood?) the Longview Bison Farm, the land of which has been sold and will soon be a Lowe's.

Tate's poem is a wonderful portrait of a surreal moment in real time, which concludes with a fanciful depiction of deconstructed farmers. It seems even more poignant when you know that the buffalo in the poem are no longer there and the poem has become an inadvertent memorial.

Write ye poems while ye may
old Time is sure a-flyin'
the same subject matter that's there today
tomorrow may be bulldozed

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vessels of Words

There are different stages
to this process:
throwing poems
letting them dry
trimming them
glazing them
sometimes smashing them
and starting again.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Practicing my Cinquains

You could write some, too! They’re the perfect length for a coffee break, or while you’re waiting in a doctor’s office. See where it takes you. Relax your mind and you might be surprised - or just have a little creative fun.

Snow-covered, somnolent
Waiting, watching, remembering
A factory stood here

Night-shrouded, star-dazzled
Humming, tripping, thumping
Senses of old buildings

Wet, unwieldy
Folding, opening, shielding
Held against the sky

Chambered, embryonic
Waiting, ripening, rotting
Not death: a circle

Monday, February 16, 2009

Poetry Variety Show

Yesterday’s Spoken Word: Page and Stage, put on by the Northampton Arts Council as part of their Four Sundays in February series, was a variety show at its best.

The poets who performed were diverse in the familiar, external ways: ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation. Just as importantly, where art is concerned, they were diverse internally. Their style, content, delivery, and intention were varied amounts and degrees of personal, political, intellectual, scientific, elegiac, avant garde, loud, quiet, reserved, and dramatic.

The three headliners were US Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur and slam poets Taylor Mali and Iyeoka Okoaw. They were joined by members of the Hampshire Slam Collective and UMass MFA candidates. By sharing the stage with each other they implied respect for one another. It was a beautiful thing.

Iyeoka Okoaw performed with a strong, honest voice and powerful imagery. Richard Wilbur read regally. I had to leave early so I didn't get to see Taylor Mali, but I found this on his website: "A Baker's Dozen Secrets of Slam: 13 Tips for Performing Poetry in Public." It's perfect advice for all poets who want to read or perform their work.

I attended the event to support the poetry community – and there was a great showing, as the Academy of Music was nearly filled by several hundred people. Thanks to all who made the show possible!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Writing about Pottery

Add this to the great and growing collection of random things I found on the web while supposedly doing something else: students at Exeter Academy being challenged to write vivid, descriptive poetry about pottery. It makes me want to go do that, too.

Learning to Write: From Ceramics to Poetry

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Call for Garden Poems

They say that you always give other people the advice that you need to hear. In the spirit of that, I am posting this press release (which I found on Poetic Asides) that calls for poems about gardening. I plan on submitting something later this week, and I hope you will, too, if you are so inclined. It could help with the cabin fever.

Open Call for Submissions

Horticulture, the oldest and most respected magazine for avid gardeners in North America, is pleased to announce the addition of poetry to its editorial features. Cave Canem fellow (and fellow gardener) Michelle Courtney Berry's "What I Learned in the Garden" has been chosen as the debut poem, to appear in the April 2009 issue and online at

"For over 100 years, Horticulture has been dedicated to celebrating the passion of avid, influential gardeners, and there is an even longer history of poetry inspired by flowers and gardens -- from William Blake to Louise Glück, and so many great poets between them," explained publisher and editorial director, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. "Adding garden verse to our editorial mix is simply another way to celebrate and encourage a real passion for gardening."

Horticulture is accepting submissions on a rolling basis, and is seeking poetry about, related to, or in honor of gardeners and gardening: traditional forms and free verse, the meditative lyric and the "light" or comic poem, the work of the famous and the work of the unknown. Our one limitation is length; we are unable to publish very long poems, and our limit is 42 lines.

Submissions should be sent as an email attachment (.DOC or .RTF only) per the guidelines posted at
For more information on Horticulture, visit

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What a Morning!

Yesterday was a day of wonderful celebration. I've not engaged much in national politics until now, yet I couldn't help but be inspired by the hope that Barack Obama represents for our country.

The reading of inauguration poems last night in Northampton was an event full of community spirit and powerful words. Wanting to participate, I was going to read a poem that I'd written and didn't much care for, but luckily I was rescued by my father, Walter Schiff, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, who sent me a wonderful, heartfelt email. I arranged the words into lines, but the words are all his.

The Flag
Before I left for work today
I put out our flag.
I can't remember the last time
I felt proud about doing that.
Most years I have been sad
because it was a reminder of the ideals
which seemed to be ignored.
After hanging the flag out, I looked up
as I walked back to the garage.
There right overhead was the big dipper
which was the "drinking gourd"
for slaves headed north.
What a morning!

Indeed. And here is the text of Elizabeth Alexander's poem, "Praise Song for the Day."