Poetry, process, progress.

Month: September 2015

How to grow a poet

How to grow a poet

In my other, more academic life, I teach some graduate courses within rhetoric and composition with this semester’s offering being “Literacy Theory and Composition.” My students just completed their family literacy reports and I would like to do one too, one that traces a specific literacy.

Like most English professors and most writers, I had a childhood filled with books and more importantly in my view, filled with storytelling and analytical talk. Yes, I have the Golden Books memories common to the U.S. middle class upbringing, but we also had bookcases full of hardbacks and I was never stopped from reading anything that otherwise might have been considered above my level. A little bit of skullduggery was involved too. For example, we moved every few years and in one house when I was six or seven, I remember standing on a chair to get at some books on a closet shelf above the clothes. That was when I found  Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and probably more than one volume by Walter De la Mare, which I remember enjoying more because of all the nature imagery. I also found Shakespeare’s plays. I remember reading “The Tempest,” which astounds me now, but then I read it mainly for the action and for the rhythm of the lines. Iambic pentameter had a pull for me even then. Here is what I wonder–how does this rhythmic sense develop without reading and hearing it? I do not think children get this anymore, not to the degree I did. It makes a difference. The hardest assignment by far in a university-level Intro to Poetry class is the blank verse assignments. Students claim they just can’t hear it, and they certainly don’t hear the nuances that make up the shifting caesura within the iambic pentameter lines. I hear it though, loud as the slap of a jump rope against asphalt in a Kansas schoolyard.

That was one way rhythms played out besides reading poems. Chants, jumprope rhymes, taunts, rhyming fortunetelling rituals–wordplay was a big part of growing up. Being bored was too, and I don’t discount how the length of a Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas summer day could lead to playing with words or going down to the basement where it was cooler to read. My father was a natural storyteller and that comes into play also. I don’t remember enough of what he said, but I do remember how quick he was, and an example I do remember is how on the farm when my son asked what the big door above the barn door was for (the hayloft door, for those without a rural background), he did not hesitate. “That’s so the giraffe can look out.” My son looked at him sideways a bit, but no one, not even that young realist could deny the power of what could be.

School was not always a rewarding place for me as a child, but some things were, mainly music and drawing. I wasn’t necessarily good at either, but I liked them and that meant I tried. I was good at metaphor even then, but trust me, a metaphoric view of life is not rewarded in school.  In third grade my teacher asked me what clouds are made of and I said cotton. Now, I knew they were water vapor, of course I knew, but have you ever seen a Kansas sky in April? The blue is so blue and the clouds bunch and ball up in wisps that look like you could go to the corner drugstore and buy a bag of them. I was laughed at so thoroughly that I kept my ideas to myself for some time to come.

This may be part of the trouble, part of the reason why we tend to see far more creative writers who aspire to be fiction writers than poets. Now, I was doomed. I couldn’t be anything else, and nothing else can express what needs to be said like a poem can. For those who don’t feel the rhythms right from the start or those that do but don’t have it nurtured through reading and community/family support, it’s hard to find it later in life. And, as I found out, seeing life this way is not necessarily rewarded in school or professionally. The stereotype of the dreamy poet who can’t deal with real life lives on, and the short, sharp insights that lead to poems can be very disconcerting to others if said out loud. A balance is needed between learning to keep one’s mouth shut and ignoring the insights altogether. I still struggle with that a bit, and it may be that my introversion grew out of the interior life of a poet and the need to not talk about it much lest other thing you’re a loon.

I believe specific literacy acts in childhood add up to poetic skill later in life. Some of them are still common, yet others are dying away as childhood becomes more of a series of after-school activities and sports teams. I suppose those activities are helpful, but I regret the loss of the long stretches of time children used to have to ruminate, do nothing, or make up stores and rhymes as part of play. Books are fine, but without the incremental growth that comes from practice with wordplay, taking up poetry successfully as an adult can be much harder, perhaps impossible.

More poems, more bacon

More poems, more bacon

When I was waking up today, I dreamed that there was only five years left until the end of the world. In my dream, I had a copy of an agenda of events handed to me in a meeting and I wasn’t that upset either. I remember looking at it and thinking, “Well, in that case I need to write more poems and eat more bacon.” I think the bacon was a life-aspiration that the dream self instinctively just knows. Writing more poems is always a good idea, but after the writing is done, I must also send them out and let others read them in journals and books. (more…)

Thirteen Tweets

Thirteen Tweets

I’ve used Twitter in many classes for extending/creating a conversation about a text in online classes or to encourage English Ed or graduate students to develop a professional network. The following is probably one of the most fun ways to use Twitter in the classroom. It gets to the core of what longterm Twitter use can do for your use of language. Out of necessity, it tightens it up, a common goal for creative writing where words are to be used, not wasted. Here is what my Fiction II students will be doing over the weekend. This was first developed as a poetry exercise that centered on images and concrete language. (more…)

Goodbye, Jane

Goodbye, Jane

This was a hard day in Springfield, and indeed across the country as those touched by Jane Hoogestraat and her poetry have to deal with her death. Jane was a tremendous mentor and very good friend to me, one that I think taught me much about friendship and even more about compassion. She was the best of mentors for my teaching life and for my poetry, apparently having a deep well of patience and a great deal of incisive editing ability. I don’t know how I’m going to accept Jane’s death. I know I must, and I know it is very selfish of me to wish she could go on when her time is done. I must think about what she would want me to do. There is so much left to do, so many poems yet to write and it just kills me that she won’t be writing them too.

This, then, is to the other poets, many of them young but not all, who are doing what they do in large part because of “Dr. Jane.” Here is what I think she would want us to do. Keep writing. Be fierce in your ambition and dedication to this life as a poet. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Band together and help each other be the best poets you can be. Be kind. Listen more, and know that the energy you give helping others with their writing only turns into more energy for your own writing. Write with honesty and take great pains with each image, each turn in the precise narrative. In the end, it is the best thing, possibly the only thing we can do that reaches beyond self.

3-card writing prompt

3-card writing prompt

I bought the Poet Tarot from Two Sylvias Press and am integrating it into the things I do to get started writing. The deck, which has well-selected poets for the major arcana cards and muses, quills, mentors, and letterpresses for the suits, comes with a guidebook full information and suggestions for how to use the deck to inspire. I decided to use the three-card layout to set goals for the fall semester. I went with the first suggestion for the layout, which seemed to lend itself to planning. Card one gives “a creative opportunity or idea,” card two gives “a potential challenge to this potential opportunity or idea,” and card three gives “a possible solution or change of direction” (75). I meditated on the question for a moment, gave a good shuffle since they were still in order, and this is what I drew: (more…)

It’s always something

It’s always something

Taking a trope from Gilda Radner’s character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, it’s always something. Either you’re hanging on a cliff hoping for your fingernails to grow in or you’re at the bottom, wishing you’d tied that rope a little better. The lack of broken bones is nothing compared to the feeling of sheer foolishness.

I started my serious return to published poetry in 2013 when I taught a literary publications class. At the time, I felt that encouraging students to submit work while I wasn’t doing the same was just wrong. I still feel that way, and have additionally set new goals each year. That first run of submissions got quick, positive results followed by the long, dark night of the soul called rejections, or as I call it when I’m an editor, declines. (more…)

Dual blogging, dual life

Dual blogging, dual life

This is post one for my newest site, one that is centered on me as a creative writer. It’s called This Poet’s Life since that is where I started as a writer and is the writing that most consistently happens for me. Believe me, if I am not writing poems, all else gets out of balance. (more…)