Monthly Archives: May 2011

Writing Exercise: Memorize

Poetry is meant to be spoken, and it is meant heard. So this week, memorize a favorite poem – preferably one of your own. Make memorizing fun by trying any of the following approaches:

  • Sing your poem out loud in the shower.
  • Write it a hundred times in a notebook.
  • Post copies of it on the refrigerator, on the bathroom mirror, or on your car’s dashboard.
  • Perform it in front of a mirror or in front your stuffed animals or portraits of your family and friends.
  • Record yourself reciting the poem and listen (or watch) your performance – repeatedly.
  • Prepare as if you were going to perform in front of a live audience of hundreds. Someday, you might.

Feel free to share the poem you choose to memorize in the comments section below.

Celebrate Children’s Day with a Poem

Children’s Day was observed by South Koreans earlier this week, so for this week’s poetry prompt, consider the following poem by Eugene Field:

Little Boy Blue

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
            But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
            And his musket moulds in his hands,
Time was when the little toy dog was new
            And the soldier was passing fair,
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
            Kissed them and put them there.

“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
            “And don’t you make any noise!”
So toddling off to his trundle-bed
            He dreamt of the pretty toys.
And as he was dreaming, an angel song
            Awakened our Little Boy Blue, —
Oh, the years are many, the years are long,
            But the little toy friends are true.

 Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
            Each in the same old place,
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
            The smile of a little face.

 And they wonder, as waiting these long years through,
            In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue
            Since he kissed them and put them there.

Use Field’s “Little Boy Blue” to inspire a poem suitable for a child, perhaps one you know personally (as Field did).

My Stepmother, Having Returned to This Earth, Becomes Hannya, by Tara McDaniel

Culling through the Winter/Spring 2010 volume of the Crab Orchard Review, published twice yearly by the Department of English, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I found this darkly whimsical play on Japanese imagery and knew I had found this week’s poetry pick.

According to the Contributors’ Notes at the time publication, the author of this poem – Tara McDaniel –  is a student at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her previous work has been featured in Cimarron Review, Marginalia: The Journal of Innovative Literature and Gloom Cupboard.

My Stepmother, Having Returned
to This Earth, Becomes Hannya

When my stepmother unzips her body bags and snaps
The rubber tag from her toes, I know
She’ll creep into the kitchen and slake her immortal
Thirst with 6 bottles of beer. She’ll sucker at the glass
Greedily to get at its yeasty fizz, remembering – quite
Exactly – where they keys to my gate are. Down
Into the basement she’ll trundle, her tail
Growing long beneath her pile of dressings,
Making a hollow sound
Where her serpent-belly slaps at the stone. A likely darkness:
Black cabinet, squeaky doors, stale air, and Hannya
On a bed of velvet. A little key behind one eye.
Her claw will lift this wooden mask
To her face: slavering jaw, hard-boiled egg eyes
Cheekbones shaped like mallets,
Crescent horns rising from the wild hair
Weeping over her forehead and shoulders
Like spilled Japanese ink. She’ll put the key
Deep inside her throat, for safekeeping. Tomorrow,
When the sun rises again over my back garden,
She’ll wait out the morning till I’ve returned dozing
To cough up the key, graze her claw over my door.

Note: Hannya is a mythological Japanese character, a vengeful and jealous female demon. She is represented in traditional Noh theater by a horned mask.

For more information regarding Crab Orchard Review, including submission guideline, contests, and awards, follow this link: Crab Orchard Review

Interview with Poet Lisa Chavez

This month’s featured poet hails from the East Mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Described by fellow poets as supportive and possessing a particular intuition for sequencing poems in a collection, Lisa weighs in on such topics as the creative process, the role of the MFA and the genesis of her poetry. Here then, following a poem from her most recent collection, is this month’s poet interview:

In an Angry Season

They’ve gone to witness the river’s mad
descent into spring. The heave and thunder
as the ice shakes itself from the shore,
the way the frozen slabs–pachyderm grey
and similarly sized–shear one into
another as the Yukon shudders awake.
From a hawk’s height the pipeline bridge
mocks the river’s riot and churn. Perched
there, they watch–then his pale hand
turns her tawny face to his and
they kiss, roar of loosed ice echoing.
They are both just nineteen.

And now they sit, hands clutching brown
bottles, in a one-room cabin turned
tavern. A wooden counter, scabbed over
with men’s names. A naugahyde couch,
slouching by the door. One man at the bar,
face flat in a puddle of beer.
His phlegmy snores. The room choked
with smoke. The one they call Dirty Dave
is telling a story: “We picked up this squaw
hitching her way into town. Weren’t no room
in the cab, so she crawled in back. I went after her.
I said, whatever you hear, boys,
don’t stop this truck.” Laughter.  He grins,
gap-toothed and mean. Leers at the girl.
“I like it when they fight.”  She shivers.
Twists at a strand of her black hair.
Her boyfriend draws her closer.
Six men–they’ve been drinking
all winter. One girl. One nervous
boyfriend. A mining camp a hundred miles
or more from town. And Dave stares
at the girl. “What do you think of that?”

And she thinks: There is so much evil
in this world. And she thinks of her hand,
squeezing the bottle till it breaks, scraping
this man’s face to bone with the shards.
And she thinks of the river, how in some
angry seasons it could not be contained–
bridges snapped like thread, whole villages
devoured by the Yukon’s flood and fury.
And she hears the river shift and growl.

1. Tell me a little about your inspirations. In other words, what, or who, inspires you to write and create poetry? 

My inspiration has changed over the years. I used to write more out of a sense injustice: I believed, and still do believe, that poetry can be a vehicle for change.  I haven’t given that up, but I’ve also written a lot about issues that were really personally compelling: on issues of race, gender and class, for example, and now I find it easier to address some of those big topics in creative nonfiction rather than in poetry. One thing that has not changed, however, is my love of story and character: poems often begin because I become fascinated by a character and his or her story. I see the poem as a way to live another life, however briefly, and to really get inside someone else’s head.

When I’m looking for inspiration, photographs are a great trigger – photographs of people are great for creating characters. Several of the poems in my second book come from photographs. Reading poetry is also great inspiration.

2. Often poets and writers are involved in a number of creative projects beyond writing. Tell me about some of the other ways you express your creativity. 

For years, writing was pretty much all I did, and when the writing wasn’t going well, I felt creatively stuck. I think I had that kind of perfectionism that some artists have: I know I’m not nearly so skilled in other art forms, so I tend not to try them.  But in the past few years, writing had gotten much too serious and it just wasn’t fun anymore, so I decided to try some other creative projects, with absolutely no expectations.  And it was really fun!  I’m not a good visual artist by any means, but I enjoy a number of crafts, from paper crafts and altered books, to fabric art. I still can’t draw or sew very well, but I make do, and have fun.  I particularly like anything that involves collage and found art:  making new things out of old stuff.  In some ways it reminds me of writing: rearranging things until they make a pleasing pattern, the same way I may move words around on a page.

3. What has been the role of poetry in your development as a creative person?

You might say poetry has been the extended metaphor for my creative life. It is not all of it, but it has been a long-lasting mode of expression.  I started writing stories at 4, when my grandmother taught me how to write, and I never stopped. I thought I’d be a fiction writer, because mostly it was fiction I read and was nourished by, but even though I am very much a narrative poet, fiction is by far my weakest genre.  I never even tried to write poetry until I was an undergraduate, but once I discovered it, I felt like I’d found my form, and kept going with it.

Still, not everything works in poetry. Sometimes I want to “tell” rather than just “show” and I’ve been writing creative nonfiction almost as long as I’ve been writing poetry.  The two genres go well together, I think, and when I want a larger palette, creative nonfiction is a good option.

But writing is just one aspect of my creativity. I don’t hear people talking about this a lot, but for me one hazard of being a writer and academic is how professionalized writing becomes, and how tied to the job it is, and for me, this has stolen some of the magic of writing.  It seemed like work, not fun.  I’ve considered switching to genre fiction to get some of the playfulness back (I could literally write about magic then, if I’m writing fantasy!) and I do have some fantasy and sci-fi projects in the works.  I also regained some pleasure in writing about dogs on my blog—it’s so far removed from my work that I can feel free to just follow my interests.  But much of the rest of my creative life is something that is not professional in any way:  it’s the various projects I work on at home–dying cloth, making collage paintings or artist’s books, gardening, or whatever.

4. What is your view on education in the creative process. Is an MFA an important credential for artists and writers to attain?  

I think an MFA can be very useful, but it is certainly not the only route for artists.  What it does best is give artists and writers a time to fully devote themselves to their art in a way they will likely not be able to do again.  The best part of the MFA is the time immersed in writing, in taking classes, in writing, in critiquing writing, in teaching writing.  It’s a great gift, and a great way to hone craft.  That said, it certainly won’t guarantee people an academic job, nor will it even guarantee publication.  It’s an apprenticeship, and what comes after is up to the individual writer or artist.

5. What are your current creative dreams and goals?  

My current interests may not initially seem related to art, but I think they are. I’m really interested in holistic healing and a more holistic lifestyle in general; in fact, I’m planning on taking classes in things like aromatherapy, herbalism, etc.   From what I’ve discovered so far, holistic healers are incredibly creative people, working in a way I’d never considered, as their creativity is focused on health, both spiritual and physical.  They are also very intuitive in a way that really resonates with me as an artist, as so much of art begins in intuition. This kind of study will open up a new way of looking at the world that is rooted in the physical and energetic, rather than in just the intellect. I don’t know where this will take me as a creative person, but I do know that it has already energized my life, and I know that for me, health must be based in the physical, spiritual AND creative life, and I’m looking forward to what comes next creatively.

Lisa D. Chavez has published two books of poetry: Destruction Bay and In an Angry Season, and has been included in such anthologies as Floricanto Si! A Collection of Latina Poetry, The Floating Borderlands: 25 Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Fourth Genre, The Clackamas Literary Review and other places, and has also been included in several creative nonfiction text books. Her most recent essays appear in An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working Class Roots and The Other Latin: Writing Against a Singular Identity, forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press.

Writing Exercise: Reminisce by Proxy

Photo Courtesy Moriah Beagel

Look through someone else’s old photo albums for photos of people and places you know little to nothing about. Old black-and-white-turned-sepia photos work well for this exercise. The less information you have about the context and the people in the photos, the less likely you are to just retell the “true” story leading up to the moment the photo was taken; the less information you have, the more your imagination can fill in.

Not sure where to find old photographs? Consider asking your grandmother, or your aunt, or even your friend’s brother’s mother-in-law for a gander at their old albums. They will likely be thrilled that you are interested in looking at something that is personally important to them, and in fact took pains to preserve over the years. If this is not an option for you, consider cruising antique shops in your area for boxes of old photographs. In many ways, these are the best. You can develop full characters and entire histories for the individuals whose likenesses appear on these little squares of photo-finished paper.

Post your resulting character sketch, narrative, poem or paragraph in the comments section below.

Holiday Poetry Prompt

May is host to a number of holidays, and in keeping with April’s first poetry prompt, this week’s poetry prompt also suggests you write a poem inspired by a holiday – any one that occurs this month. There are, of course, the American holidays of May Day, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Then there is Cinco de Mayo, as celebrated in Mexico, and Children’s Day, as celebrated in South Korea. Or you could opt for a lesser-known holiday, such as Bird Day, which is May 4th (and rather established in certain circles) or the even more obscure Twilight Zone Day, which is celebrated on the 11th (for no obvious reason). Whatever holiday you choose, celebrate it with style and honor it with a poem.

*Today’s featured photo is by Moriah Beagel. Learn more about Moriah from the contributors page.

In the Field by Rebecca Aronson

This week’s Poetry Pick comes from Rebecca Aronson’s 2007 collection of poetry Creature, Creature, which holds the honor of first recipient of the Main-Traveled Roads Poetry prize. This first collection of poetry reflects the author’s familiarity with the landscape and inhabitants of both the Midwest and southwest regions of the US. They juxtapose picturesque scenes with honest appraisals of the people which inhabit them, and provide the weight of truth and a measure of clarity. In the following poem, Aronson effectively captures a culmination of images and notions leading up to the kind of moment many a Midwesterner would recognize as genuine:

In the Field

Where cows graze
among mud and stones
and their own droppings
we spread our blanket
and sit close
for the first time
this whole week spent
in your mother’s house,
we put our hands
on each other and slide
quiet under the enormous eyes
of cows, fogging up as I
spread my skirt (your mother said
as skirt for walking? yes I said
it’s a walking skirt), and we
are moving together, the skirt
around us so the cows might wonder
but not the ruddy-faced man
bobbing suddenly over a hedge
or the one with him who
tipped his hat, later introduces
as your mother’s favorite
neighbor at the market where
he shook your hand
a long time.

Formerly with Northwest Missouri State University, Rebecca Aronson continues to act as contributing editor to the Laurel Review. She currently teaches and resides in the Albuquerque area.

“Creature, Creature” is available at Barnes and Nobel online