With prompting

Hearing new writing, even before the ink has dried, before the coffee has turned cold, we imagine bright lights into a newly formed sky. In the free-write group that I host every Friday afternoon, I invite participants to engage with a simple writing prompt for a 15-minute composition (it usually goes a little longer). Then the glorious sharing begins. Yesterday I brought in the New York Times weekend arts section and distributed the pages for inspiration. Connecting a creative discipline with a daily phenomenon can help keep inspiration flowing, especially if self-doubt tends to undermine you, as it does me. Here’s the poem I wrote (yes, I write and share too in these groups) on American art~

The Little Peach

studied as though across
a vast page of unfamiliar
script, letters turned 90 degrees
and written over again. Turn and
turn the stone until the summer
cloud tastes sweet and drips
juice on gingham. We only
wanted to fill the trees,
again and again.

Waters and stars

The collaborative poems in last night’s salon lengthened over pages into overlapping dreamscapes. Some wonderful new works shared, including a reading of a 21-minute narrative poem and, um, some digital code. Writers and appreciative listeners are welcome to join us in the next salon, and, as a taste-tease, enjoy this little bit of the exquisite, masquerading, line-bending poetic feast~

I.

The smarmy gentleman cracked his fat knuckles.
He knew the night held promise.
Cheshire cat smiling from behind clouds,
Cassiopeia winking suggestively,
swaying with the wind
telling me every little secret,
opening memories I’d discarded,
conjuring melodies out of nowhere.
He floated a balloon in the conversation
hoping the damage would be minimal.
Let’s lift our glasses to the setting sun,
and the burn of the beach at the end of the day
becomes fire. Under stars turning
above the floor of the night—
the disco ball we call the Pleiades
and the clock face we call the moon.
Spin it to black, renew the month.
December approaches
and then unfolds, a whisper, a prayer.
There is no new year, no resolution or remorse.

II.

Crossing town today we passed the shrine
the neighbors built on the spot you died
and I’m not praying at your tombstone anymore
I dance with a black veil, a black hymn
my rhythm is in the ink
my syllables syncopate in iambic
stress turning to unstress and dripping from my fingers
pools of no regrets
waves floating me, floating me away
past a horizon, to some shore in a distant season
where time ripples back, and intersecting waves puzzle back
step on a crack… try to stay on track.
It’s back, have a snack. There’s just, a lack.
Maybe I need another cat to fill this empty space in the corner
or maybe I just need to change the music
and soar beyond the stars and sing the darkness down
where the crystals hoard water
and the deep itself drowns.

How-to

My shelf of how-to-write-creatively books is pretty small, but since someone asked me today, I made a quick list:

Claims for Poetry, ed. Donald Hall. Some of my favorite essays on poetry are collected here.

The Making of a Poem, eds. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. Lovely to read this primer on poetic forms, partly because it includes excellent examples of each.

Words Overflown by Stars, ed. David Jauss. Covers poetry, prose, and creative nonfiction in essays by faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. Love this one. Essays on poetry and everything else.

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver. Comprehensive, compact, and lovely in a witty kind of way.

Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover. Everything necessary about prose explained here.

Naming the World and other exercises for the creative writer, ed. Bret Anthony Johnston. Prompts! Great for fiction writers.

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. Cheers me up when writing just seems like a pointless exercise in rejection.

Confessions of a Young Novelist, by Umberto Eco. I haven’t read all of this, but it’s entertaining sometimes since I’m not a novelist.

And there’s The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, plus a bunch of solid anthologies of poetry and fiction. Reading and observing good writing very closely is the best how-to.

Undermined silence

I try to explain, as at dinner today with my kids. I said, “I don’t like to hear arguing or complaining, so I don’t do either of those things. I like to hear poetry, so I make poetry.” I suggested then that they speak in poetry if they really expected me to listen. That resulted in a few minutes of silence, which erupted into a discussion of how many syllables are in “duh,” and whether it is a trochee or a spondee. And all of us laughing.

The poetic silence in the middle is what I try to explain sometimes, when I talk about poetry instead of making it. I recently found a little gem of an essay by Rae Armantrout on this. As a preface to her discussion, she lists some of the types of human silence:

There is the silence which admits mistake.

The silence which concedes personal limit, or finitude.

The silence which indicates the presence of the ineffable. Heidegger says, “The earth appears as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by its nature undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.”

There is the silence which is silenced by the presence of another.

The silence which waits for an unknown response. [Max] Picard says of a poet he admires, “He leaves a clear space into which another can speak. He makes the subject his own, but does not keep it entirely for himself. Such poetry is therefore not fixed and rigid, but has a hovering quality ready at any moment to belong to another.”

There is the silence that occurs when someone you have been considering from a distance turns and stops you with their look.

“The gleam that surrounds the word enclosed in human silence,” she explains, quoting Max Picard to describe the quest of this aesthetic in poetry.

Center stage

IMG_3400

At last night’s benefit performance of Indian classical dance by the students and teacher at my daughter’s dance school, Naatya Ranga Performing Arts, all the young dancers’ talent and hard work delighted a packed auditorium. Poetry took the stage, too, with poets Meerabai and Andal serving as inspiration for two of the dances. I wish someone would post their videos of the performances on YouTube already! In the meantime, here’s a window into one of my favorite Indian films, Meera, a Tamil film from 1945, starring M.S. Subbulakshmi as our poet-heroine.

Shortened sail

View of the Tappan Zee from the Nyack Boat Club

Ghost stories and river imagery blew a few gusts in our free-write group yesterday afternoon. Among the paper coffee cups and notebooks, the lyric conversation turned to silent sketching of scenes and memories. Better than candy.

The writing prompt I offered was a quote from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, a beautiful description of our Hudson Valley landscape, with a little sweet encouragement:

It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.

I’ll be blogging more, if not every day, for National Blog Posting Month. I’m looking forward to highlighting my local writing scene, exploring poetic process, and sharing some poem-drafts.