Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adding Escalators to Your Poems

I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop, and I see that this woman likes her escalators.  The poems contain a moment when the ostensible subject is revealed to be just the starting point, and the poem delves deeper or lifts higher.  It's a moment when the reader feels momentum under her feet, carrying her forward.  Escalator moment!

Here's an example from Bishop's "In the Waiting Room."  It begins:
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
As she waits, she reads a National Geographic.  She is amazed at the images of volcanoes, native peoples, and European anthropologists.  It dislocates her.  She goes on (bold font mine),
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918. . . .
The poem continues, but right there, the poem pulls the reader to a new level.  To me, it's a deeper level.  We've taken a quick escalator down into the collective unconscious, ridden toward the foundations of human nature.  Read the rest of the poem at: poets.org

Escalator moments take us up as well.  It's common for that up-escalator to appear in the final lines, as here, in Kim Addonizio's "Mermaid Song."  (bold font mine)
Mermaid Song
by Kim Addonizio
for Aya at fifteen

Damp-haired from the bath, you drape yourself
upside down across the sofa, reading,
one hand idly sunk into a bowl
of crackers, goldfish with smiles stamped on.
I think they are growing gills, swimming
up the sweet air to reach you. Small girl,
my slim miracle, they multiply.
In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love's hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

We, too, are hauled up.  Into hope, I think, and into appreciation of this young woman's potential -- maybe humankind's potential.  The escalator is love, and we ride it to a new vantage point.  The girl reading on the couch becomes something more than just a girl reading on a couch.

I want escalators in my poems.  Moments of new perspective on the starting topic.  Moments of depth and height.  But how can we do this without sounding fake or inflated?  Here's what I'm going to try:
1) Keep the language concrete, even as the ideas soar.  Objects, like Addonizio's hook, resonate with meaning, whereas abstractions run the risk of sounding holier-than-thou or more-insightful-than-thou.
2) Don't set out with a predetermined idea; let the process surprise you.   Surrendering to the creative flow leads us to surprising places.  Frost says, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."  Let the writing itself lead you.
3) Take imaginative leaps.  Addonizio leaps with "I think they are growing gills, swimming  / up the sweet air to reach you."  This fantastical turn makes the escalator moment possible.
4) Shock yourself and the reader by writing the truth.  The truth of our lives is something we need courage to face and to speak.  Once a poem is underway, ask, "What is the truth of this situation?"  Boldly go there.  Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Insist on yourself; never imitate."  Your reality and your individual understanding of this life should show in your work.  Be real, even as you work with fictions.

Enjoy those escalators!

Books of the poets I mention here:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Learning Sound Devices from Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee -- a rock star in the poetry world.  I'm a huge fan, so when I saw that Lee was reading in my state, I packed my suitcase and drove five hours. 
That evening, he read poems and mused about poetry.  He read with a measured, deliberate tone.  Then he talked, pausing a lot and thinking aloud.  He said that we speak poems with the outgoing breath, which is the dying breath.  Maybe he meant that we make art out of death.  Or we make art out of life passing through us.

Back in my room, I propped myself on the bed and reread his work.  I noticed a deliberateness on the page.  An intentionality that I'd hurried over.  Now I slowed down and read the poems aloud.  With his voice in my mind, I noticed an attention to sound that had escaped me before.  I noted the shape of my mouth pronouncing each word.  I listened to air leaving my body, sculpted by vocal chords, tongue, and teeth.

Here's the first stanza of "Early in the Morning" from Lee's 1986 book, Rose.   In just eight lines, I hear a lot going on.  Vowels ooh and ahh.  Consonants thump and click.  Here's a look at the assonance alone:

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

And check out the consonance and alliteration:

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee 
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

There's more.  Did you see the rhyme in lines one and two?  And the repetition of "before"?

I notice, too, that these eight lines make one sentence.  But Lee withholds the main part of the sentence until line six -- "my mother glides an ivory comb."  That's a long way into the poem!  How does he sustain momentum for five lines before finally coming to that main clause?  With rhythm, he builds a ramp that launches line six.  Let's ignore the line breaks and look at the phrase lengths:
While the long grain is softening in the water (long)
gurgling over a low stove flame (short)
before the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced for breakfast (longer)
before the birds (shorter)
my mother glides an ivory comb (we've arrived!)
The longer phrase pulls the energy farther out, then compresses back into the shorter phrase like a spring, ready to release the heart of the sentence, "my mother glides an ivory comb."

Another thing.  By breaking the lines in the middles of phrases, Lee pushes us forward at the ends of lines one through four.  We're in suspense, so we read on to find the phrase ending, then another phrase begins and we must read across the line break to find ITS ending.  Momentum accomplished.

Last observation.  I like the way Lee lets us rest for a moment on line three, the half-way point.  The rest stop is "low stove flame."  These single-syllable words make a platform on which we can land and from which we can leap into the next phrases.  Take a look.  Without that rest stop, we wouldn't make it all the way to the sixth line where the kernel of the sentence is waiting.

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

With that kernel, Lee has answered our curiosity.  We no longer wonder where the sentence is headed.  Having arrived, we're refueled enough to go on through lines seven and eight to the end of the sentence.

So how can we make our next eight lines as amazing as Lee's?  One way is to tickle our reader's ears with 1) vowels that echo through the line  2) consonants that repeat themselves  3) rhyme and repetition 4) line breaks in the middles of phrases  5) creating momentum and rest stops.

Li-Young Lee's work can teach us much more, but I've got to stop typing this and work on a poem!  If you've discovered a favorite technique in a Lee poem, please share it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing Prose Poems

Welcome to my prose poem binge! In the last few weeks, I've written most of my poems in paragraphs rather than lines. I start a sentence and just keep on typing, ignoring phrase endings, commas, weighty words – all places where I usually press RETURN. The momentum carries forward like an ocean wave, not breaking until the shore of the final period.  One reward: figuring out which topics lend themselves to prose poems and how to use this form effectively.

Poems that tell a story lend themselves to prose poems.  Makes sense, right?  The difference between fiction and the prose poem, though, is brevity and language play.  Instead of a full story, we usually get a single scene.  Or just an action.  Or one memory.  Also, most sentences contain sensory details, figures of speech, creative turns of phrase, or sound devices.  This is where the "poem" part of "prose poem" earns its name.

Poems with a strong voice make good prose poems.  If a character starts speaking and won't shut up, give her some free rein by letting the line run all the way to the margin and wrap around to the next line.  Create a persona.  Readers enjoy hearing a particular personality express itself -- as long as the language is tight, rings true, and captures interest.

Casual poems benefit from the prose form.  A lined poem seems to announce itself as a serious item, just by its form on the page.  Meanwhile, the prose poem greets us with a familiar wave.  It uses humor, sentence fragments, and slang with nonchalance.  Since a short paragraph doesn't intimidate, you can write one of these in your flip flops.  Just don't forget the basics of strong writing: active verbs, specific nouns, few adjectives, and fewer adverbs.

Sound-rich poems work well in prose.  Try repeating consonants in clusters to create sonic interest.  Do the same with vowels.  Rhythm and momentum make the poem flow or jerk or tumble forward.  Direct that flow with punctuation.  Without the line and white space to control pacing, turn to the period, comma, semi-colon, colon, and dash to speed up and slow down.  Try following a long sentence with a short one.  Like this.  Consider using repetition.  Repeating a word or phrase creates a series of dots for the reader to connect, so it benefits structure as well as sound.  A prose poem is an especially good place to use rhyme because no line endings will draw undue attention to it.

The best way to learn how to write prose poems is to read some.  I enjoy Mary Oliver's.  My own "Guatemala" is a favorite of my readers, which I'm reading below.  Enjoy writing one of your own!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rhyming Well

This is such a challenge that I often discourage first-timers from trying it.  Sorry to start with a downer, but it's true.

After all, the case against using rhyme in contemporary literary poems is strong.  I've read a good number of serious poems whose rhymes created accidental humor.  Doh!  I've also endured rhyme-machines, masquerading as poems, that wallop me at the end of every line.  Duh-da-duh-da-duh-BAM.  Duh-da-duh-da-duh-WHAM.  In these poems, rhyme bullies every other element, pushing the content around and locking even figures of speech in the bathroom.

But Rhyme can use his power for good.  A well-turned rhyme can take the reader's breath away.  Plus, rhyme is fun to work with.  And for spoken word and slam poetry, you gotta make this bully into a buddy.

Step 1:  Don't WHAM-BAM.  Enjamb!
Enjambment simply means breaking your line in the middle of a phrase rather than at the end.  Shakespeare did it.  You can too.  Here's an example from Sonnet 130.  It's a love poem that makes fun of love poems.  Shakespeare's always goofing around!  Here he talks about his beloved (italics mine):
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight (not done yet!)
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Here's another example from hip-hop artist, Big Daddy Kane.  This is his response to the fierce competition between rappers (italics mine):
I relieve rappers, just like Tylenol
And they know it, so I don't see why you all (not done yet!)
Try to front, perpetraitin' a stunt
When you know that I'll smoke you up . . .
Notice how enjambment makes the reader wonder how the phrase will end.  That makes the poem less predictable and more fun.  Beginning poets tend to write toward that end rhyme, land on it hard, and stop.  This is "end-stopping."  Instead of all end-stopped lines, lend variety to your poems with enjambment.

Step 2:  Use long words for end rhymes.
A sophisticated rhymer goes beyond those one-syllable thud words.  Instead of great--wait, try ingratiate, calibrate, celebrate.  Happily, the Internet can help.  Click on http://www.rhymezone.com/ for an easy search of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, even 6- and 7- syllable words and phrases.  When I typed in "great," they listed "circumnavigate" and the phrase "physiological state."  They also provide a search for near rhymes, such as laughter--bachelor.  Throw some longer words into the mix; you will sound and be more accomplished.

Step 3: Mesmerize When You Internalize
Poor rhyming words.  :-(  They get stuck out there at the end of the line every time!  Bring them into the middle once in a while.  Called, internal rhyme, this can give a free verse poem some juice.  It gives rhyming poems texture as well.  Here's a line from a poem I'm working on:
"Mom and I surf an escalator wave to the store's second floor where"
It's not an exact rhyme, but it's in there.  Store--floor.  Here's another example from the Academy Award-winning "Lose Yourself" by Eminem:
"All the pain inside amplified by the fact
That I can't get by with my 9 to 5"
He puts the rhymed words back to back.  Inside--amplified.  And he's using our Step 2 technique by using a long word like "amplified."  The point is that you can sprinkle rhymes in for flavor anywhere.

Step 4:  Don't Just Rhyme
Using enjambment, longer words, and internal rhyme will go a long way towards making a strong poem.  But don't let rhyming be the only trick your poem has up its sleeve.  Give it figurative language, interesting word combinations, and a point.  Give it concrete objects and people, sensory details, and voice.  Rhyme can't do it alone.

If you have a favorite poem that uses rhyme well, I hope you'll share it in a Comment.  Meanwhile, happy rhyming!

P.S.  Thinking of checking out some Shakespeare?  This is my favorite edition of the sonnets, loaded with scholarly discussion and dissent.  Original spellings and fonts, with modern font on the facing page.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Revising Your Poem: Four Ladders to the Next Level

So your poem is good.  Clever ending, a few cool metaphors.  Why isn't it getting accepted for publication?  Or making your loved ones dab their eyes and beg for a copy?

Now that I've published over fifty poems in journals and magazines, I'm starting to figure out why certain poems find a home and others sit in my files.  I'm also getting better at turning good poems into great ones.  When I want to polish up a poem, I reach for these four tools:

1) Voice:  Inject the poem with voice, baby!
We tend to start a poem using everyday language, then spruce it up with two or three figures of speech.  I call this the polka dot approach.  The poem is mostly plain with a few spots of color.  For a next-level poem, you want total coverage.  You want every word colorful.  Find places that use language in ordinary ways, then freshen them up with unusual word combinations.  Find places that sound -- let's just say it -- generic.  Punch up the personality.  Say it like only your imagination can.  Would your poem's speaker call clouds gauze or is she more of a cotton ball person?  Look at every blah phrase as a chance to rewrite and inject voice.

2) Adjective jacking:  Take 'em away!
"A bored-looking woman."  This is a phrase from a poem I'm working on this week.  I know it's weak because it makes the reader do all the work of imagining what "bored" looks like.  Instead of the adjective, "bored-looking," I need to use body language, action, or sensory detail.  I could try,
  • a slouching woman  (body language)
  • a snoring woman  (action)
  • the woman rested her chin on one hand and stared into space, seeming to focus on the place where the wall met the ceiling (visual sensory detail)
Find the places in your poem where people or situations are described in one-word adjectives.  Replace these words with crunchier stuff.  Don't say she's obsessive.  Tell us she color-codes her To Do lists.

3) Gift for the Selfish Reader
News flash!  Readers care nothing about your experiences unless those experiences enlighten their own.  Your traumas, your joys, the loved one you lost, the new baby -- none of these are powerful enough on their own to make a great poem.  Maybe a good poem, but not a next-level-er.  What you need is a gift for the selfish reader.  Something for her to take away.  Great literature offers insights into life.  Next-level poems make readers feel that, having read your poem, they must look at life in a new way.  Examine your poem for the take-away.  You can think of this as your poem's mission statement.  You might not write it into the poem directly, but make all the elements of the poem serve this mission.  Decide what you want your poem to convey.  Remember that readers don't want to learn about the poet; they want to learn about themselves.

4) The Knife:  Cut a lot
While I love excess, overflow, and voluptuousness in some places, most poems are just plain flabby.  To make your poem lean and mean, remove throat-clearing openings and spell-it-all-out endings.  We tend to to "ramp up" rather than jump in.  We tend to explain the meaning of our poems to make sure the reader gets it.  Give your readers some credit; no need to hand-hold.  You can also cut "the" in many places.  Cut "of gold," and use "golden."  "Of " is a wordiness alarm!  Get rid of author commentary too -- noise-some parts in the middle that explain stuff.  Let the poem embody the message rather than preach it.  A warning: Don't let the knife cut out the heart of your piece, nor every bit of whimsy or flair.  Whatever adds to the poem should remain.  Whatever obscures your larger intent should go.

OK, writing this post has inspired me to go do something better with that "bored-looking woman."  Wish me luck!  And I wish it for you, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What the Judge is Looking For

A renovated warehouse + cookies + guitar music + people reading poems.  It adds up to a lovely evening at Trinity Valley Community College's Poetry Festival.  I just drove home from it, and I can report that the creative vibes of the evening are still with me!

To celebrate National Poetry Month, TVCC invites a poet to give a reading and judge their student poetry contest.  The top student poets receive recognition, and all the poems appear in a journal.  This year, I was honored to be their visiting poet and judge.  THANKS to everyone who made the event such a success!

As I listened to the winning poems tonight, I remembered the qualities that made me choose each one.  A great image here, a clever line there.  An unusual topic.  A musical cadence.  They sounded even better in person!

In the back of my mind, though, I also recalled poems that fell short of their potential.  Actually, I didn't recall the poems themselves, but the missteps that landed them in the "no" pile.  Any of the contest entries could have been great poems, but only a few stood out.  How did those few grab my attention?  I'll tell you.

A few weeks ago, a bulging envelope arrived, and I sat down with a two-inch stack of poems.  My assignment: whittle it down to ten.  In the first pass, I hoped to find
1) sensory language that made me imagine sights, sounds, smells, and taste
2) metaphors, simile, personification, or other figures of speech
3) interesting topic choice
4) concrete details
5) sound play beyond predictable rhymes

With this, I eliminated more than half.  Poems that used all abstractions or rhymed in a nursery way, I set aside immediately.  Poems about love (which was most of them!) got boring fast.  Very short and very long poems felt like drafts.

Next, I reread.  Now I looked for:
1) complex emotional situations
2) heft or gravitas in the issues raised by the poem
3) humor that made me laugh, but also revealed a new perspective
4) a strong voice that used fresh language
5) harsh situations articulated with harsh sounds, like "t" and "ck"
6) gentle situations articulated with gentle sounds like "sh" and "w"
7) meaningful line breaks
8) meaningful arrangement on the page and use of white space

This gave me a stack of about twenty.  I read a third time and a fourth.  Only a handful of these twenty revealed a little more every time.  Those turned out to be the winners.  Poems that kept me coming back.

I've judged about twenty contests in recent years, and I'm going to confess something:  There's no foolproof way to rank or even fairly compare equally solid poems.  Sometimes a clear "best one" emerges, but more often I'm left agonizing, trying to find a reason to choose one over another.  At this point, each judge will go with her gut.  For me, this means asking myself crazy stuff like which poem I would want a copy of or which poem I wish I had written.  I might feel pulled to poems that touch on experiences I've had or philosophies I agree with.  I might pick a poem that seems more novel and unusual or one that attempts something challenging.  It's just plain unpredictable.

But, this is comforting.  It means that your poem might be very good and still not take first place.  Once it's polished to shine as much as possible, you can relax and not worry so much about what the results mean.  I enter contests, too, and I'm going to try taking my own advice.

Meanwhile, I hope the students at tonight's Festival enjoyed themselves, win or lose.  Just the act of writing is life-affirming and worthwhile.  To all the writers in that room:  Stay creative and keep writing!

Monday, April 11, 2011

What's a chapbook, should I publish one, and what makes a strong entry?

Today my e-mail inbox contained an announcement:  Chapbook Contest Deadline Extended!  I'm glad because I was thinking about entering; now I can.  But should I?

Chapbooks are little volumes of poetry, about fifteen to twenty pages long.  (They can be longer, but not more than forty-eight pages, or even as short as ten pages.)  Unlike books, they are usually staple-bound, giving them a fold rather than a spine.  Think of them as either mini-books or hefty business cards.

So why have one?  For one thing, it feels great to hold a printed volume of your work.  Secondly, you are more likely to be invited to give poetry readings if you have a little book for the audience to buy.  Third, a poet with a chapbook is taken more seriously by publishers.  On your way to that first book, the chapbook makes a handy pit stop.  Include this credit on those cover letters!

My own first chapbook came out in 2002.  I'm indebted to a professor-friend who put my work in front of Richard Sale of Trilobite Press.  This tiny press publishes annual chapbooks.  For being so small, they'd published a couple of big names, like Naomi Shihab Nye.  When my professor phoned to say that the press would publish my chapbook, I jumped up and down.  Danced in my driveway.  Called my writer friends.  Called my mom!  I'm still grateful, and that first volume gave me both confidence and credibility.

If you want to enter a chapbook contest, you'll find lots of them listed in Poets and Writers Magazine.  Here's the one I heard about today: Dallas Poetry Community Chapbook Contest

For a strong entry, follow these tips:
1) Make your title interesting, but not pretentiously artsy.  I've seen lots of titles like, "Azurite
Monkeys" or "Dream Hallucinations with Cloud."  Puh-leez!  It's fine to take the title of your best poem -- which is what I did.

2) Put a strong poem first.  Give judges a reason to keep reading!

3) Create a narrative arc with the poems or arrange them in pairs and clusters that work together.  Alternatively, you can sprinkle similarly-themed poems throughout, giving the reader a thread to pick up multiple times.

4) Don't hide weak poems; cut them.  If you don't have fifteen solid poems, wait until you do to enter.

5) Reread these poems as a group to catch language tics and repeated metaphors.  If you've written these poems over a few years' time, you might not realize that two of them contain similar phrases.  Revise where needed.

6) Polish every line of every poem.  Don't let any flabby, music-less lines live!

7) Realize that the last line of the last poem is also the last line of the chapbook.  Ideally, this line will leave the reader wow-ed.

If you have a decent pile of poems, and you're thinking about entering a chapbook contest, you're probably ready for it.  Why not try?  If you win a chapbook contest, let me know!

Should I join writing group?

Every year or so, I ask myself this question!  Here's my answer.

Writers of all levels can benefit from sharing their work with a trusted reader.  As a beginning writer, I found those trusted readers at a local writing group.  I'd print out a new poem and carry it breathlessly to the meeting.  If even one person gave a positive or helpful comment, I was thrilled.  I gotta admit, though, that as I gained in confidence and experience, I drifted away from established groups and switched to sharing my work with a couple of writer-friends.  Still, I'd encourage folks to try a group.  The company of other writers can nourish us like nothing else!

A Google search will help you find a local group.  Public libraries often host writers' groups, too, or can point you in the right direction.  Writers meet online as well.  I like http://poetry.meetup.com/.  Just type in your zip code and - shazam! - you'll see a list of writing organizations near you.

If you do try a writing group, keep a few things in mind:
  • Each group has its own culture.  If you visit once, and it feels like a fit, great.  If not, there's probably another group out there that will suit you better.
  • The critique you receive will vary in quality.  You're the AUTHORity on your own work, so be open to suggestions, but trash comments that are unhelpful.
  • Not all writers in the group are going to write much.  Realize that some of them gather for social reasons, putting that first and writing second.
  • Some groups charge dues or fees; others don't.  Check the group's website for details.  If the group does collect money, find out what it's used for.  Typically, the cash covers the costs of renting the meeting space or bringing in guest speakers.
  • Be ready to separate people's work from their personal identity.  Don't assume that the poem reflects the poet's life or you'll offend someone.  When you critique, focus on the craft (word choices, metaphor, sound play, etc.), not the political views or cultural values of the poem.
Participating in a writing group gave me:
1) deadlines for writing new poems
2) permission to focus energy on writing
3) a sense of community

Though I don't belong to a formal group right now, I'm glad I did.