By Jeff Walt
"Each Morning I Rise Like a Sleepwalker & Rot a Little More."
Two packs of Pall Malls while leaning
on this window sill all day
& hollerin', Choco, take me down
the Hershey Highway! instead
of looking for work.
Between Cloves & men, my dear Chocolate
Transsexual Goddess of Delight—"Best Blow Job
on Lemon Street"—thrusts her usual hula
at tourist cruising in a Humvee limousine. Prince
somewhere singing Tick, Tick Bang.
Tonight my budding career is standing here—rent's due
on this room and Mr. Manager
tacked a pink slip to the door.
So, I say it aloud: I've missed the bull's-eye in this life.
Never chased a tornado.
Not one tomb unearthed.
No Lotto blown.
I remember being saved.
There was a priest kneeling; he read prayers
from gilded pages.
Now I worship down
at Tony's liquor store
where that cleft-lipped kid
on the donation box stared
the last bit of lint
outta my conscience
for buying a pint of skunk instead.
In Group my brothers handed me
an invisible hammer & nails, told me to build
a house on the inside.
I love Chocolate.
She owns her dark alley.
& she knows how to work it.
In this essay at The Review Review, creative nonfiction writer Megan Galbraith discusses the unavoidably subjective and emotional nature of memory, and the delicate balance between preserving family ties and telling your truth.
Editors say, "Our focus is on communities traditionally underserved by literary programming and underrepresented in contemporary literature. We recognize that the exclusion of so many voices from literary programming limits our understanding of the world in which we live and deprives us all." They are seeking workshop proposals to bring the project to more communities in the US, with a special interest in the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley areas of California.
By Danez Smith. This debut full-length collection is a furious love song to black men, whom he embraces as lovers and mourns as brothers slain by racist violence. An award-winning slam poet, Smith is superlatively skilled at translating the rhythms of spoken word to the page, with double-entendre line breaks that snap from comedy to tragedy, or back again, in the space of a single breath. These poems are inspired in the religious sense of the word, revealing the sacred in the body's earthiest moments, and sounding a prophetic call against injustice.
[Spoiler Alert] is the online book club of The American Scholar, a well-respected magazine of literary criticism and essays. "We're a forum for swapping book recommendations, meeting editors and authors, and connecting with other readers across the country, culminating in regular livestreamed discussions about our book of the month." Read the forum guidelines and submit a request to join their private Facebook group.
Novelist and creative writing professor Susan Straight created this book recommendation list at StoryMaps, organized by the location in America that is the novel's setting or cultural milieu. View the map to find a book for a particular place, or browse her essays about the 11 cultural regions into which the Library is sorted. "The idea for this 'library of America' was born in 2016, when the news and the elections told of a country being irrevocably divided by politics, by ideas of red and blue, by arguments over who is American and who is not. For me, those arguments ignored the vast geography of our stories and novels, the ways people search for belonging, leave home or stay, and how every state is really many places. Those arguments also ignored our common dreams, fears, challenges, hopes and everyday experiences, which unite us, regardless of where we live," she says in this May 2023 Los Angeles Times opinion piece about the project.
In this 2018 article from the blog of self-publishing and marketing vendor BookBaby, Michael Gallant interviews Jill Santopolo, an executive editor at Penguin Young Readers Group, about the essential elements of a successful picture book. Key advice: keep the text short and make every word count, like a haiku, but don't dumb down the narrative. The fundamentals of storytelling—a relatable character, emotional arc, and plot through-line—apply to books for all ages.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor of Writer's Digest. In this September 2019 post on their website, he defines 100 common publishing terms such as simultaneous submissions, work for hire, log line, and much more. Useful for understanding contest guidelines and publication contracts.
By Mark Bibbins. This multi-layered yet accessible book-length poem is an elegy for the author's late partner, Mark Crast, one of the many casualties of the AIDS crisis at its height in the 1980s and early 90s. From the vantage point of 2020, a middle-aged gay man looks back on the ghosts of his community and surveys a youth culture that knows of the mass devastation only as history, if at all. Brief unpunctuated lines give the poem the contemporary immediacy of a social media newsfeed, while the everyday embodiments of grief have a timeless relevance.
Whether you're writing a real or parody 19th-century historical melodrama, or seeking some levity while studying English literature, this algorithm will make you smile, and possibly alert you to cliché tropes in your work. What happens when the Troubled Squire who is in Love with a Duke meets the Mysterious Governess with Homosexual Tendencies? Let your imagination run wild.
20.35 Africa is a resource institution and publisher for African poets, particularly younger and emerging writers across the continent. They began in 2017 with their annual electronic anthology series featuring African writers aged 20-35. Newer features on the website are the Conversations series of interviews about the role of poetry in Africa today, and the New Poets series showcasing individual writers.
Edited by Safia Elhillo and Gbenga Adesina. Published as an online PDF anthology by Brittle Paper, this diverse and emotionally affecting anthology features emerging African and African-diaspora poets aged 20-35.
By Thelma T. Reyna
have you foreseen the decade 'round the corner,
looming with teeth fully bared,
partisans lined in gauntlets
with elephant memories of grievances deep,
of sick people crying in congressional halls,
of brown people dying in paradise lost
on the other side of the divide,
hoodless men with leather straps on chests,
with shields not board but military-grade,
boots of steel tramping city streets,
german cries with arms to skies,
plots to ram not once
but blocks and blocks and blocks
of protest signs
Reprinted from Reading Tea Leaves After Trump (Golden Foothills Press, 2017)
This article at Open Culture features links to short films animating such literary classics as an Emily Dickinson poem, the parable of Plato's Cave, and excerpts from Kafka's diaries and Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf.
Kaitlin Curtice is a poet and spirituality writer, and an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Citizen Band Nation. Her book Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places was published in 2017 by Paraclete Press. In this article on her blog, she recommends contemporary books of poetry, fiction, spirituality, and children's literature by indigenous authors. "If you want to break cycles of colonization and assimilation, you must take the time to learn from Indigenous experiences, through our own words." Visit her website here.
3:48 AM, THE REAL REASON SHARING A BED WITH YOUR BABY IS HIGHLY UNADVISABLE; or, MAMA'S LITTLE HEARTBREAKER by Jenny Sanders
Pink petal, concave curl,
So that I set the illusion
She is more a part of me.
But those days are over.
She is mostly apart of me.
Often in her infant slumber, reputed for its
Sweetness and tranquility,
She bucks and claws,
Writhes with tortured neck and arch
To draw around herself a circle,
Some clear air.
Yes, even in her dreams
Our recent separation
Is, for her it seems,
Not only fact, but desirable fact.
Soft fall of lashes on softer cheeks,
Lips parted in imperceptible breath,
This ambrosial drop of crushing sweetness
Is crusting over,
Portcullis slowly closing,
An inside joke to which I am no longer privy.
Copyright 2011 by Jenny Sanders
Critique by Jendi Reiter
For this month's Critique Corner, it seemed appropriate to begin 2011 with a poem about new birth and the passage of time. Jenny Sanders of Mount Airy, Georgia sent us this poem about her newborn daughter Lizzie. She told us that she uses poetry to "tap the myriad of intense emotions" engendered by motherhood. Where prose seeks to make experience transparent and orderly, poetry "almost always taps into a knowledge that cannot be defined as sense, but that operates on some other plane of knowing."
Sanders' reflections are a good place to begin our discussion of the use of emotional ambivalence to add dramatic interest to a poem. Coming off the holiday season, we can probably all remember moments when we experienced a disconnect between how we were supposed to feel and how we actually felt. When a poem makes room for the shadow side of an event that has been whitewashed by sentimentality, not only does it freshen up an old topic, but it wins over the reader by promising the relief that truth-telling brings.
Few milestones in life are surrounded by as many high-pressure expectations, both sentimental and judgmental, as motherhood. Recalling our own helplessness as infants, we would feel safer believing that the mother's passion for her child is always only innocent, harmless, and unselfish. As Freud and the Brothers Grimm would agree, though, all intimate relationships have other baggage: sensual desire, fear of separation, fear of mortality, and anger at the beloved for making us thus vulnerable. Like the new year, the new child is a fresh start but also an unwelcome reminder that time passes, and eventually we will die and be replaced by the next generation.
Some renowned poets who have mined this taboo territory include Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. For instance, in Olds' poem "My Son the Man", the narrator suddenly sees herself as a cast-off trunk from which her son is making a Houdini-like escape. Sexton's 1971 collection Transformations reinterprets familiar fairy tales to highlight the psychosexual tensions between parents and children.
Sanders clearly means to join this company, based on the signals she gives us in the title. "Sharing a bed with" and "heartbreaker" come from the language of romance. The concept of duality, of splitting, is also common to both phrases. Now that the child is out of her body, their perfect union is broken. A piece of the mother is missing, the literal image of a broken heart. They must share a bed because now there are two of them.
What makes this loss interesting enough to build a poem around is, again, ambivalence: both the mother's, and the reader's, uncertainty whether it is acceptable to acknowledge and grieve this loss at all. Shouldn't she want her baby to grow up and become a person? Ought we to sympathize with this character? Like the mother's sensual pleasure in her child, which Sanders conveys well through the tactile delight of the alliterative opening lines, the conflict of interest between mother and child is a truth we'd rather not look at head-on.
The baby in this poem, too, defies our wish for a simplistic greeting-card picture of infant sweetness. "She bucks and claws,/Writhes with tortured neck and arch/To draw around herself a circle,//Some clear air." Sanders effectively uses line breaks for a visual reminder of the baby's expanding personal space. From the beginning, she too is a wholly human mix of affection and aggression.
I felt the poem could be strengthened by cutting the next stanza: "Yes, even in her dreams..." Further explanation of the subtext is not necessary, and these more prosaic lines suffer by comparison with the strong images preceding them.
Critics of co-sleeping, to whom Sanders alludes in her title, sometimes fret that the parent might roll over on the baby and suffocate her. Images of devouring and crushing color the closing scene of the poem, where the baby is envisioned as an edible sweet treat. I like the sound-echo of "crushing/crusting", and the realistic detail that babies and their surroundings become encrusted with all sorts of fluids pretty quickly.
"Portcullis" is a great word, but perhaps not the most germane metaphor in this context. Nothing before it has really primed us to picture the baby as a fortress—a hard, inorganic object. When I saw the words "slowly closing", I thought of the fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby's skull that enables it to compress in the birth canal, and closes up during the first two years. I would suggest substituting "fontanelle" for "portcullis", because then you gain the idea of the skull as another boundary, without pulling the reader out into a new set of metaphors. The child's thoughts are becoming less transparent to the mother as she ages, as evinced by the last line about the private joke.
Of course, the mother has her own private joke to share someday, when her daughter begins to perceive the universal conflicts that give this poem its resonance: "Just wait till you have children of your own!"
Where could a poem like "Mama's Little Heartbreaker" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
Long-running award offers $500, web publication, and invitation to awards ceremony in NYC in April
Able Muse Write Prize
Entries must be received by February 15
New contest from California-based small press offers $500 apiece for poetry and flash fiction
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Prize
Entries must be received by March 1
Online journal Melusine offers $500 for poetry "that explores all angles of the contemporary female experience"; enter online
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
By Zeina Hashem Beck. Winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, this Lebanese poet in exile keeps her heritage alive through lyrical tributes to famous singers of the Arab world. These multi-lingual poems weave together phrases in English, French, Italian, Arabic, and the new hybrid language Arabizi, a creation of the younger generation to represent Arabic sounds in English-character text messages. These poems are hopeful elegies, political dance tunes, nostalgic manifestos.
This self-publishing company promises quick turnaround and responsive customer service. Pricing is easy to calculate on the website.
Straddling the line between satire and a useful marketing tool, 500 Letters is a bot that generates "artist statements" based on your genre and minimal biographical details.
At the Submittable blog, poet John Sibley Williams gives useful advice for selecting and performing your work in public. Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize) and Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize) and the editor of the Inflectionist Review.
81Words began as a flash fiction website hosted by Adam Rubenstein and is now curated on author Christopher Fielden's writing resources blog. Submit your 81-word short stories for online publication and possible anthology inclusion.
Featured authors include Truman Capote, Chinua Achebe, Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, and Norman Mailer.
Writers' resource site Authors Publish released this list in January 2023 of 95 traditional poetry presses (i.e. not self-publishing or hybrid) that have fee-free submission periods. Not all the presses are open to entries at any given time, so check their websites for updated rules.
The website CouponChief compiled this list in 2020, with links to numerous free online mini-courses and full semester classes in business communications, creative writing, technical writing, and journalism. Sponsors include well-known universities like Yale, Wesleyan, MIT, and UC-Berkeley, as well as online workshop providers like Creative Writing Now and The Crafty Writer.
99 Designs connects self-published and indie authors with freelance designers to create a professional-looking book or magazine cover. Set your price (minimum $299), describe your concept, and choose from proposals by 10 or more designers.
Publishing expert Jane Friedman explains the legal requirements for quoting or excerpting copyrighted material in your own published work. Topics include fair use and how to request reprint permissions.
Lush poems, at first heavy with the weight of memory and responsibility as the author nurses her dying parents, then laden with a sweeter burden of nature's ripeness and the enjoyment of her own body. A mature and trustworthy voice. This book was published by Cloudbank Books in their Northwest Poetry Series.
Part novel of ideas, part romantic comedy, this book begins with a young skinhead walking into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human-rights group run by a Holocaust survivor, and saying he wants to help them "save guys like me from becoming guys like me." The events that follow reveal each character to be a very human mix of vanity and genuine altruism, with the latter most often emerging in small moments away from the spotlight. The novel raises provocative questions about the tension between service to grand causes and caring for the individuals in one's personal life, though Prose could have accomplished more with this theme by introducing a true villain to raise the stakes in the conflicts between characters.
More than just a style guide, this book discusses how creative writers can use punctuation for artistic effect. Lukeman, a literary agent and author of bestselling writing manuals, explores such questions as how dashes enhance Emily Dickinson's poems, or how Melville used semicolons to convey tension in Moby-Dick. Includes writing exercises.
We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;
We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act.
Heights lined the horizon like drums
Tolling the knell of another man's war.
"Just give us time," Air-command demanded;
And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales
Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret.
The skies churned black as if vomited
From the bowels of the earth.
Then the words from the wireless
Wafted through the silence
"Move in after me!"
Columns of armor and swift moving armaments
Lurched into action.
No one could boast that the going was good;
Slopes steep as they were,
And our guns probing the sky
Beyond enemy bunkers, antennae
Impotent as blind insects.
Yet when we'd surmounted ravaged slopes,
With barrels of our arms
Still shining and cold,
The plateau stretched ahead
All bleak, charred and shelled. No cohorts
Were gleaming with purple and gold,
But the Syrian lay strewn
Like a frieze out of hell.
Copyright 2006 by Mike Scheidemann
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "A Day in the War" by Mike Scheidemann, blends firsthand war reporting with literary and historic allusions to depict not only the immediate sensations of this Israeli soldier, but the tradition that he draws upon to explain to himself why he fights. Though he would like to mythologize his actions, the predominance of mechanical and insectile imagery suggests that the contemporary conflict is only a mocking imitation of more-heroic battles of yore.
The vivid opening lines take us right into a scene of darkness and conflict, hinting at a reverse evolution that has turned men into insects and civilization into decadence: "We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;/We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act." The first thing we learn to situate ourselves is that we are fighting "another man's war". This phrase suggests the soldiers' lack of personal belief in the mission. It could also be read as "another of Man's wars"—which one, it scarcely matters. As the title suggests, this could be any day, any war; the idea of human progress is a joke.
Later details, such as Lake Kinneret and the Syrians, let us know that this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, most likely the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. The last four lines rework a famous quote from George Gordon, Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib", which itself is based on the Biblical account of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
In the original story, God sends angels to slay the Assyrian warriors. "A Day in the War", like the Bible passage, ends with the soldiers discovering that their enemy has already been killed, but the culprit is more likely a disorganized military bureaucracy that was unaware that the protagonists' campaign was redundant. By giving his poem such an anticlimactic, absurd ending, Scheidemann calls into question the ideology that would cast the Israeli soldiers as modern-day warriors for the Lord.
While this poem says something important and has a number of elegant lines, there are a couple of missing elements that might keep it out of the running in our annual War Poetry Contest. This is the hardest kind of poem to judge, one that has clear poetic merits but somehow doesn't knock me out. I would probably reread it a dozen times before marking it down as a semifinalist, or perhaps a finalist. (The next War Poetry Contest will open for entries on November 15.)
For starters, I felt it didn't take me far enough, in terms of storyline or emotional connection. We began this contest after 9/11 in hopes of finding poems that could help a modern audience make sense of the political, ethical and personal significance of war. Scheidemann's poem expertly depicts the dehumanization and pointlessness that became the dominant focus of war poetry after World War I. But then it just leaves me there, without an emotional resolution or a new understanding of what lesson to draw from such experiences. Having tracked down the literary narratives with which "A Day in the War" is in dialogue, I can appreciate its hidden complexity, but I also feel that a great poem should provoke a powerful response on a first reading, before looking at the footnotes.
I'm no fan of tacked-on last lines that explain the meaning of a poem, and I think the ending of this poem works well in terms of scansion and a powerful final image. Perhaps more development of the speaker's personality and inner conflicts, interspersed with the external action of the strike preparations, would have given me more of a stake in the outcome. When he realized the men he was preparing to kill were already dead, did he feel disappointed, ashamed, powerless, relieved, triumphant? Some mysterious mixture of the above? "A Day in the War" keeps me at arms' length from these questions.
The other element that drags on a poem like this one is that a few lines lacked rhythmic momentum, which stands out more in a poem this short. The opening lines (through "Kinneret"), and the lines from "Yet when we'd surmounted..." to the end, fall into a strongly accented, orderly-sounding march of iambic and anapestic feet, echoing the Byron poem's four-anapest lines. When this pattern was broken by the insertion of more irregular, conversational cadences, I found it jarring. The lines from "The skies turned black" to "Lurched into action" sounded prosy compared to the rapid, complex meter and sharply textured consonants of "And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales/Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret."
How much music is packed into those two lines! The open, bright sounds of "razed/blazed/waves" help me visualize the sunlight on the water, while the hum of M and N sounds in "sun/strum/Kinneret" and the alliteration of "symphonic scales/sunlight strumming" produce the drowsy lull of an afternoon by the shore.
Anapestic lines can sound quite sing-song to modern ears, especially in a poem that presents itself as free verse. I would suggest Scheidemann either transform "A Day in the War" into an overtly formal poem, or loosen up the predictable rhythm of the final six lines (the ones that most closely track Byron's version) while adding more poetic imagery and psychological depth to the middle stretch of the poem.
Where could a poem like "A Day in the War" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
The Bridport Prize
Entries must be received by June 30
One of Britain's largest awards for poetry and short fiction, offering 5,000 pounds in each category; enter by mail or online
Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30 (formerly July 31)
UK-based online writing school offers top prize of 1,000 pounds in each genre, plus several runner-up awards; online entry option new for 2006
Erskine J. Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: January 1
Award for unpublished poems from the journal Smartish Pace offers $200, print and online publication; online entries accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
This winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize rediscovers the glorious art of invective in the title poem, comprising several pages of (footnoted) insults such as "your brain is the Peanut of Abomination" and "suing you would be like suing a squirrel". This book is a uniquely uninhibited burst of creativity which reminds poets how much firepower we're not using.
This month, we're departing from our usual format to share some insights from one of our subscribers about stylistic choices in free verse. In the May and June critiques, I said that poems with very short lines (one or two words) often didn't work for me. I've found that beginning poets overuse them as a shortcut to making prosaic diction look poetic without sufficient attention to the cadence and meaning of the phrases. Not every word in a poem is important enough to carry a whole line by itself.
Newsletter subscriber Bruce Wilkerson felt my criticism of this technique was over-broad, and sent one of his poems along with an eloquent explanation of how he used line breaks to enhance the meaning and sound of the piece. We appreciate his allowing us to reprint the following correspondence.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
...I've been reading through your critiques and I do find them very intelligent and insightful - I've even become convinced that you are truly human. You can't know how much of a relief that is! I hope you don't mind if I say though that you make one affirmation that I have trouble fully accepting; I'm not so sure though that I agree with you concerning the "super short verse" (the May 05 critique) which certainly has the inconveniences that you mention but which does have some advantages (well I often like using it). As far as trying to sound profound, whatever the length, a "poet" - if you like the word - that wants to sound profound, generally comes across as some two-bit prophet. I hope to God I never sound profound! Please tell me if I do.
...Here's a poem I took out and tried to dust off, it has still got a little grime under the fingernails though. I know it's in a style that is very different from what you seem to like but it's the one in which I used the most one word lines. If you are interested in a few reflections about why I like them, you can go down and read after the poem - but don't say I didn't warn you.
once in the dark
camouflaged under my cover
from dangers imagined
I would ring my haven
with tigers and bears
until the relief of day
let me bolt from my bed
believing all was
be together with my
so I lie here waiting
the clock has rung
recalling those monsters
that would scare me
the lights went out
my head under my pillow
hoping they might pass
to where they roamed
they rule the world by day
and so must I
hide my face
under my brow
knowing I will be
to this cold morning
the alarm has sounded
when I only want
to rest in peace
I like using [short lines] because they interrupt the syntactic chain, and thus the phonemic one, giving the reader the choice to interpret the word as an isolated element, the notion(s), or one whose scope is dependent on the other elements in the chain of speech (sorry about the jargon). In other words, it's a nice way to underline the polysemy of a word or eventually bring to mind homophones of the same word. For example, if you add a pause after the word "once", its meaning is quite different from the word "once" when it is integrated into the melody of the phrase. Another example is the preposition "to" in a sentence, the vowel will be realized as a schwa, whereas isolated, it will become a long U sound like in the words "too", "two".
To: Bruce Wilkerson
Thanks for your poem and thought-provoking "defense" of the short line. You make a good case! I've taken aim at this stylistic choice lately because I see less-experienced poets relying on it too much to break up their prosy phrases into something that looks like poetry. I'm trying to provoke them to listen more closely to verbal rhythms; they may still end up with short lines, but hopefully will have put more thought into why the lines break where they do.
In your poem ("once in the dark...") the short lines generally worked for me, because the rhythm is tense and taut, fitting the subject matter. I initially questioned whether "to" deserved its own line in the first stanza. But after reading your explanation, I went back and realized that the sounds "won" and "to" in the first stanza were punning echoes of the "once" and "twice" in the next stanzas. Clever.
I was going to take a vacation from "critique corner" in July, so I wonder if we could mix things up a bit in the newsletter and reprint this exchange between you and me (plus your teddies poem of course). I liked the high-level theoretical way you defend your stylistic choices. I'd also be interested to hear about writers who have influenced you.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
Thank you, I would be very honored if you reprinted it and feel free to do any editing you wish.
Excuse me if I avoid the question of influences - I can't pinpoint anything neat and precise. I would like (egotistically) to believe that it came purely from artistic necessity, some skimpily clad muse sitting by my shoulder, but more realistically I realize that we all have "a virtual library" in our head, often very badly cross-referenced like mine, from which we borrow most of what we utter or write without realizing it.
On the question of line length, I do have to agree with you that cutting up sentences like sausages doesn't make poetry, even if we could come to an agreement on what poetry really is. I find choosing the right length very difficult though; what you gain on one side you often lose on the other. So, if you don't mind, I'll add a few quick reflections and you can keep what you want. If you ever have any responses to my questions, I'd love to hear them.
I like longer, more lyrical phrases too but what I often find difficult with long lines (and with short lines for different reasons) is the division of the sentences or phrases into intonational groups, something the reader will do naturally anyway. Unfortunately these more chewable pieces don't often correspond to traditional punctuation and a change in the intonational group, or a displacement of the nucleus, can alter the message radically. How much do I want to guide this segmentation and impose one interpretation? Short lines can often be too restraining. On the other hand, if I leave it to the reader, (s)he will choose the most obvious. I don't know how well it works but I sometimes isolate a word between two lines with the hope that this will make the reader click out of automatic pilot. You'll notice that the interpretation of the word "once" has to do with the choice of intonational groups. If I had put it with line above, we would have had one thing, and with the line that followed, yet another. The problem was similar with "…a dream/now/they rule…" in which the scope of the adverbial remains ambiguous. I'm just not sure that this sort of thing would work well with longer lines and I’m not even sure it's understood here. I'll give it some more thought myself but I'd love to have other opinions too.
All the best,
[End of excerpt]
Bruce's poem illustrates an effective use of frequent line breaks to create ambiguity and multiple meanings. For instance, in the first stanza, the one-word line "still" could signify different things depending on whether the reader connects it to the preceding or the following line, or sees it as a separate adjectival phrase. "From dangers imagined/still" foreshadows the later part of the poem where the speaker is still tormented by nighttime fears, whereas "still/I would ring my haven" treats the word as equivalent to "nonetheless" (despite the camouflage, he also needed the teddies to protect him). "Still" by itself describes the child lying motionless. A similar effect takes place in the lines "they rule the world by day/and so must I/hide my face", where the first two lines set up an assertion of adult mastery that is exposed as make-believe in the third line.
During the process of writing, you may be someone who chooses images and techniques in an intuitive, subconscious way, or someone more analytical. I'm not suggesting that every word choice should be the subject of conscious internal debate. But as an exercise, during either the writing or the revision stage of a poem, try to explain to an imaginary other person why you chose a particular method of expressing yourself. Why was the sunset "red as a rose" and not "red as a tomato"? Why was your love poem a sonnet and not a limerick?
Look back over a selection of your poems. Are there words, topics or sound patterns that you return to as a matter of habit? Write a piece that deliberately shuns these familiar tools. Whether or not you like the result, you will have increased your awareness of your own thought processes as a writer, which will help you develop more control over your material.
This dialogue appeared in the July 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.
By em jollie. This poetry collection is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can't do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling--in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss--is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Liuling is pottering around naked because he lives between heaven and earth. He feels his house suffices in bundling him up. Da-Ren is in the house too, reshelving The Homeric Hymns under Depth Psychology. He likes the way verse translations help him hum about things he would never hum about like subway tokens and bad directions. Old journals end up in the in-tray and the dictionaries? They now line up under Creative Nonfiction. Liuling hasn't taken a bath in a long time because he perspires into no shirts that put his own dirt back on himself. "They must go back a long way," the archivist thinks to himself, reading a Thank You card that was never sent out. There are food coupons and utility bills and warranty cards strewn across the sideboard. The dishwasher is plugged into the kitchen tap where water flows in and siphons out. The computer monitor is covered with stickers like a screensaver that never blinks. "I made that myself," Liuling gesticulates towards the wind chime of cowbells, seashells and paper cranes. In his wine, Liuling sees the entire world for what it is and then tries to drink the memory.
By Helen Leslie Sokolsky
I wander through carpets of heather and primrose
leaving behind a discordant arena
my salve is found locked in this garden
where a single flower can restore the soul
no strife present in this cloister of tranquility
as a soft breeze shakes marigold petals
forming a wreath of gold around my ankles.
Standing in a meadow of solitudes
one can absorb the peacefulness of earth
watch the landscape begin to soften
the flowers standing monastic in parallel rows
their stems posed as soothsayers, pensive, pondering.
I inhale the fragrance of this colorful mosaic
extend my palms to embrace their beauty
ready to move into a different space
gatekeeper to those forgotten fields
where clusters of white blossom into an Eden
a shepherd's purse.
From that purse pockets of solace will be gathered
and when there are enough
all the branches with an Easter promise
will be carried to the world outside.
The ghazal is a poetic form from the Arabian Peninsula popularized in the modern West by the late Agha Shahid Ali. This essay shares Ali's insights into this challenging, rewarding structure, whose literal meaning is "flirtation".
This e-anthology edited by Singaporean poets Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé and Eric Tinsay Valles was launched to commemorate the Philippine quincentennial and Singapore bicentennial of Catholicism in 2021. Free to read online, this collection's 100 contributors from around the world include well-known authors such as Diane Glancy, G.C. Waldrep, and Paul Mariani.
Bob Newman has found exquisite forms to frame your words. Bone up on Chant Royal, Domino Rhyme, Rhopalics and Rubaiyat. An idiosyncratic links page presents treasures like Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate on-line prosody resource, a great resource to learn about important verse forms.
A Hundred Falling Veils is the poem-a-day blog of Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Her poetry collections include Naked for Tea (finalist in the Able Muse Book Award), Even Now, The Less I Hold, The Miracle Already Happening: Everyday Life with Rumi, Intimate Landscape, and Holding Three Things at Once (Colorado Book Award finalist). Visit her Word Woman site for information on her writing workshops and speaking engagements.
These quiet poems are charged with a sacred attention to healing the wounds sustained by our bodies and ecosystem. In the aftermath of war or illness, the human spirit finds wholeness by recovering our common bond with whales, dragonflies, and even worms. This chapbook was published in the New Women's Voices series from Finishing Line Press.
By Geoffrey Heptonstall
The words, already written,
are now in the process of being
opened and heard at random,
to write with a momentum
of their own choosing.
And so begins an impossible hour
imbibed with passion—
the fear of not knowing
as others say they have known
how it will end when finally...
Those dreams were sung by everyone
drinking metaphor as spoken
by several personae, each with his name.
Later in the early hours he confesses
the ice complements a bourbon dawn,
smiling at the thought of everything
Waking to hear the well-remembered,
let us whisper the proper tea values
of English princes Shakespeared
by a Harvard man
so near the music of devoured dreams.
Knowing those neighbours,
they had a common source.
Approaching them, he died.
By Jackie Smith
You must know this.
I remember it all.
Paula was your favorite
But you taught us both to whittle
With your pocket knife.
"Don't tell Grandma," you warned.
We sharpened sticks
Bled milkweed sap onto the points
Poison darts for a game we never played.
You walked us to the drug store
Sat us at the counter with Cherry Cokes
While you went next door for a beer.
"No need to tell Grandma."
Our little secret.
Your breath smelled like beer
The night you held me on your lap.
We picked tomatoes with you
The pungent scent burning our nostrils
Hairy vines brushing our thighs
Leaving red welts like scars
Warm fruit, juice running down chin
Crimson, acid tears.
After fourth grade
I never wanted to see you again.
That last time.
You knelt before me crying
Writing this, you gone extinct
Me exhausted from cursing you
Is as unsettling as the kiss you
Placed on my forehead
Yet I say, "Dear Grandpa"
Because that is what good girls say.
And I am always a good girl.
By Victoria Leigh Bennett
He was a man
Rich in tea bags
And paper napkins.
His days were bounded
By thoughts of Caesar
But he was none of them.
Most of his friends
Thought he must at one time
Have been British,
For the accent was hard to place.
And when the little moustache quivered
At some frustration
With a daily happenstance,
In secret, they found it funny,
Though they didn't want to hurt him,
Oh no, never to hurt him.
He liked some alcohol in moderation,
Going to the local bar to have it
And always saluting the waitress politely,
Though he longed for a male presence
To be at his elbow, solicitous.
In token of her womanhood,
He always used the cardboard coaster
She brought him under his pint,
As if it had been her house and he her guest,
Convinced that she found him
More gallant that way.
He took his landlady's grim lace curtains
Down to be washed one day
When she had left them up just too long;
One day in winter, when the weather
Was damp and drear,
And he got soaked through, and his feet wet.
Then he sneezed once and was promptly ill,
As he would have expected.
When he signed into the hospital
The doctor wrote "chest complaint";
How quaint! As if he belonged
To another, untechnical era indeed.
And when he inexplicably sickened and died
A few days later,
"No family" was written on his card at the morgue,
Though a few well-meaning acquaintances
Held a brief and noncommittal
Over his ashes.
His little bird, as if she had been
A secret mistress no one knew about
Or had forgotten in the dull excitement,
Chirped with mysterious forebodings
For three days more
And then gave out from lack of water;
She only knew that she had nothing to drink,
Couldn't get out,
And there was nothing to be done about it.
When the ones appointed
Went to clear out,
They found her, and
"What a pretty pet!
How nice it would have been
For the children to take her!" they said.
She, whose little claws had stiffened
Into predatory shapes,
So gentle as she was.
Gentle, as he had been gentle,
And sometimes annoyed without conviction
At the bounds of her cage,
Just as he with his life.
No greater conqueror than he of her,
She his only claimed territory,
The only living thing he even lightly controlled.
His friends, shrugging in amusement
At the cabinet of tea and coffee supplies,
The paper napkins and the cans and jars
And boxes of tea and coffee,
Ended by dividing them up,
Each grateful, but not unduly,
For his or her share,
"To remember him by,"
Not one of them wondering
How long they might remember him
When the stuff was gone.
The landlady, satisfied that the tenant
Had kept the premises clean
Contented herself with a mere sweep
And a few swipes
With a lemon polish rag,
Putting her notices up in the paper again.
By Diane Elayne Dees
My long-term memory is a collage
of shadows and dimly visible colored lights.
Atmosphere and emotion occupy
most of the space, but there is clarity
in random details.
We are sitting in your living room
in the house near the levee,
listening to saxophone music
oozing out of your ancient German speakers.
It is the cleanest, most resonant sound
I have ever heard.
We are at a dinner party
at the Columns Hotel,
and a rare New Orleans ice storm hits.
A few brave souls drive home,
but the rest of us rent a room,
stay up all night, and order endless drinks
from a woman we insist on calling Babette.
We are in the office of the weekly newspaper,
exchanging gossip, or at Tipitina's,
chatting with James Booker,
or we are at an art show
where all of the artists are our friends.
I long to remember more details,
but must be content with savoring
the ones I recall, and with knowing
that so many of my days were richer
because you were there.
Literary agent Mark Gottlieb currently works at Publishers Marketplace's #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group. In this article from The Write Life, he explains seven essential publishing-industry and contract terms.
By Patricia Blanco
as I lie like a frayed baby
you balance the abstract of your bones
with one eye at my stone hand
the other sweeping the riddle of dust
dodging dog bites to his toes
our son jumps like a crimson god
gathering the cats' narrow hisses
behind shadows unsettled
a suspended tale in time
pressing each breath
neither forward nor behind
there seems to be no more else
to ease the moment
not one moment left
to meet your eyes again, yet
you take my hand
heavy and unloading
and make a moment
inescapable from flowering
By Shobana Gomes
I found a place to dream,
It was a long time ago,
In an illusory setting, masking the clouds,
Where trees were leafless,
As they had fallen on the ground.
I found a bridge to another realm,
It brought me to a never-ending path to freedom,
Where no one could hurt me,
Or torture my kindred soul,
Where I met dreamers like me in quietude.
We talked and we laughed,
We shared and we loved,
We were in a secluded spot away from the prying multitude.
Have you heard of loneliness amongst a million?
Amongst a million-distracting vision,
A stilled mind can find the solitude of peacefulness,
And there I reside,
Most of my life in seclusion.
I found a place where my heart resides in stillness,
It is a quiet place among the trees leafless,
Where the surroundings are deep in mysticism,
There is love, no hurt,
There is joy, no sadness,
There awaits someone for someone.
A Quiet Courage is a journal of microfiction and poetry in 100 words or fewer. Submissions are also accepted in Spanish with exact English translations. Contributors have included James Penha, Adrian S. Potter, and Patrick Williams.
By Don Mitchell. Humorous, poignant, and enlightening, these linked short stories are set among the Nagovisi people of Bougainville Island in the Southwestern Pacific. The young American anthropologist in their midst learns as much about himself as about the villagers who have indulgently accepted him as an oddball member of their community. He mourns the collateral damage wrought on this small but culturally rich island by international wars and mining companies.
PRAISE POEM by Stephen Derwent Partington
We praise the man who,
though he held the match between
his finger and his thumb,
beheld the terror of its tiny drop of phosphorus,
its brown and globoid smoothness
like a charred and tiny skull
and so returned it to its box.
So too, we hail the youth who,
though he took his panga on the march,
perceived it odd within his fist
when there was neither scrub
nor firewood to be felled,
so laid it down.
An acclamation for the man who,
though he saw the woman running, clothing torn,
and though he lusted,
saw his mother in her youth,
restrained his colleagues
We pay our homage to the man who,
though his heart was like a stone
and though he took a stone to cast,
could feel its hardness in the softness of his palm
and grasped the brittleness of bone,
so let it drop.
We laud the man who,
though he snatched to scrutinise
the passenger's I.D.,
saw not the name—instead, the face—
and slid it back
as any friend might slide his hand to shake a friend's.
And to the rest of us,
may you never have to be that man,
but if you have to,
Copyright 2011 by Stephen Derwent Partington
This poem is reprinted from his collection How to Euthanise a Cactus (Cinnamon Press, 2010).
QUILTS by Thelma T. Reyna
Mother plugged up the coffee spout
with foil after dinner
to keep the cockroaches out
and laid a pile
of patchwork quilts on the chilly floor
for us to sleep on and urinate.
She hung them on the doors
colorful, stinky banners hanging
room through room
them next night so the most pissed
would be on the bottom of the stack
and we could sleep without the stench
of too much wetness.
coffee sometimes had a baby cockroach
drowned in its bitters. Got through the foil, I guess,
damned little fool,
got through the plug to mess
her brew, as we messed her quilts—
growing kids lying shoulder to shoulder
on the floor,
still peeing, still wrapped in each other's arms
to keep warm.
Copyright 2011 by Thelma T. Reyna
This poem is reprinted from her collection Breath & Bone, which was a semifinalist in the 2010 New Women's Voices Chapbook Competition and was published in April 2011 by Finishing Line Press.
TWILIGHT OF THE SWORD SWALLOWER by Dana Curtis
The metal ground sharp and
sparks: a brand new constellation: "Fire
Opal," "Ruined Lizard," "Eye's
Inner Sanctum." In the sweet
illumination, I work at the saw
cutting fish out of silver
for jewelry or some soon to be invented
weapon. Everything is manipulated,
softened by heat, hair caught
in the polishing wheel, glitter
of new set jewels. Titanium,
treated with flame or electricity, turns colors
no bomb would wear: consumptive nova
bursting myriad blades. It takes skill
to split small things. Let the new sky
bless the new stars.
Evening, what is known
as golden hour, the film crew
rush to get the shot while Seraphim
walk their small mad dogs.
So attracted to the camera's
rigid intent blinking their watery eyes,
spoiled by wingspans: a sexy use
for archaic weapons. Visit me
at my pretty house where I'll serve
grapes and whisper
something no one remembers, hopes
never to hear. Not the inevitable
edge, the intimate comprehension
of swallow and remove, my presence
on a red cushion in the black and white
night. We cut our throats on
the new sky, old angels.
Copyright 2011 by Dana Curtis
This poem is reprinted from her new collection Camera Stellata, which was recently published by WordTech Communications.
COMPOSITE COLOR by Robert Savino
The night sky is black, perforated by bb holes
of light, sometimes under a blanket of doubt.
Perhaps it will change to African American night;
and Indian Summer to Native American autumn.
Why not...ask Crayola!
prussian blue changed to midnight blue
flesh is now peach
indian red, chestnut
and while green-blue, orange-red and lemon-yellow
were retired and enshrined in the Hall of Fame,
pink flamingo, banana mania and fuzzy
wuzzy brown were added to the list.
Segregation has become a tempered memory.
A double scoop of chocolate and vanilla,
once packed like fists of Sugar Ray
and Jake, now melts in handshakes.
Sammy and Frank; Martin and Bobby—
forging connections, a slow crawl
of tap dance steps to gigantean proportions,
a mixing bowl with no sense of separation.
Crayola brands, ice-cream stands,
playful minds, shaded hues of humanity.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Savino
This poem was first published in the Fall 2010 issue of North American Review.
NEWS OF THE NAMELESS by Veronica Golos
I climb marble steps worn to the shapes of waves.
I follow those with the loudest voices.
I am a dry broom
an old man sweeps his floor with; the sunlight speaks in Braille.
All Bethlehem is a child's tale: the crisis-crossed road,
the man in the white robe, the donkey,
the already dangerous dust.
Now the news is full of splinters.
Graffiti scars my palms, my wrists—
I walk through the library of forgetting.
I am my own news and nothing's
Who was he, naked and bound on the ground?
He is gone now.
Disappeared into the crowd of other news,
disappeared into someone's home,
where he sits, hands flat on the table—
pierced by a brilliant sun.
Where is the solider, the helmet, the hands, the threat
that pulled him naked from his cell
as the choker clicked like a timepiece?
Who carries the dead weight, the iron cuffs,
the chair in the center of the room,
the whisper behind the earlobe?
I hear particulates strung along air, vibrating:
What is his name?
What is his name?
Copyright 2011 by Veronica Golos
This poem is reprinted from her collection Vocabulary of Silence, which was released in February 2011 by Red Hen Press.
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Some poems rise above. This month in Critique Corner we are happy to announce a new feature in this series: occasional essays in which we consider why this is so. Rather than revising a piece offered by a contributor, we will, from time to time, offer an appreciative reassessment of poems reprinted elsewhere in our pages, poems that have either won awards, or received significant publication, or been included in award-winning collections.
To launch these new appreciations—as well as bid farewell to 2011—let's take a look at five poems reprinted in the Winning Writers newsletter during this last year in our Recent Honors for Subscribers feature: "Praise Poem" by Stephen Derwent Partington (February 2011), "Quilts" by Thelma T. Reyna (March 2011 supplement), "Twilight of the Sword Swallower" by Dana Curtis (July 2011), "Composite Color" by Robert Savino (March 2011 supplement), and "News of the Nameless" by Veronica Golos (February 2011).
One characteristic common to all of these poems is their artfully selected and occasionally outstanding diction: the descriptive precision of "its brown and globoid smoothness/ like a charred and tiny skull" from "Praise Poem"; the emotional connotation added by the final word in the phrase, "a baby cockroach /drowned in its bitters" from "Quilts"; the economy of "consumptive nova" from "Twilight of the Sword Swallower"—such a big idea conveyed in just two words; the specificity of the proper nouns in "Composite Colors"; the punning "crisis-crossed road" (as opposed to criss-crossed) in "News of the Nameless".
Diction can always benefit through revision. Ask yourself if your verbs are active and interesting, if there are more specific or less prosaic ways to convey ideas, if your descriptions really help a reader visualize. Take the time to use a thesaurus, especially for adjectives. Words with connotative meanings add layers to a poem.
But beyond diction, each of these poems offers some insight into what works effectively.
Notice, for example, how repetition is used in "Praise Poem". In the April 2011 Critique Corner, I claimed that repetition is poetry's most powerful device, and warned that, because of its strength, it should be used with care. Partington's recurring construction "who,/though" demonstrates a light touch which unifies the piece and imparts a song-like quality without becoming overbearing. In part this is because it is merely a two-word phrase which occurs mid-sentence grammatically and is enjambed, as opposed to a complete sentence repeated verbatim. To save his poem from falling into predictability, Partington slightly varies the full phrase in the second stanza by choosing "youth" instead of "man". He also lets go of it in the final stanza—a way of signifying that it is, in fact, the final stanza.
As elegant as I find this particular use of repetition to be, I actually do not believe it is why this poem rises above. Rather it is its "generosity". In the October 2011 Critique Corner, I defined this quality, in terms of poetry, to mean a sharing of our common humanity. With this praise for a pacifist, Partington offers up a poem that can give voice to all of us.
Which is not to imply that a more personal poem cannot also be generous. Thelma Reyna's poem "Quilts" shows how this is done. As Jendi Reiter wrote about Jack Goodman's "Jubilate Agno" in the February 2011 Critique Corner, the poet "sticks to describing the action in concrete terms instead of editorializing." In other words, especially with its final line, this poet generously refrains from instructing the reader how to feel.
Though, of course, its generosity is not all that makes this poem rise above. Perhaps obviously in this case, what makes this poem outstanding is its sensory detail. I feel as if I can hear their "brew" percolate beneath the sounds of many kids waking up.
Less obviously, this poem is successful because it is tightly written, every part reused. The coffee comes back, its smell a foil to the stink of urine; the mess of quilts on the floor overlap like the limbs of the children. Yet, despite the clutter it depicts, this poem remains uncluttered in its focus. Reyna understands the capacity of her poem and so chooses to leave the hot plate and bare light bulb and the absence of dad for another piece. Furthermore, she has paid attention to form and selected one that propels the reading forward.
The same can be said of Dana Curtis's "Twilight of the Sword Swallower". Notice where the poet has chosen to end her sentences. Because she frequently does so mid-line, she can race the reading along in a way that either full stops or predictable grammatical phrase line-breaking would foreclose. In addition, she can take advantage of interesting and surprising enjambments, for instance "sweet/illumination" from lines four and five or "invented/weapon" from seven and eight. Since we don't expect "sweet" to modify light or "weapon" to follow "jewelry", the line breaks reinforce a sense of discovery in this poem, making it consistently fun to read.
Such challenges to our logic are a large part of what makes a poem a poem. The August 2010 Critique Corner addressed the difference between poetry and prose more fully. There, we noted that the word "verse" means to turn and that such turns are the essence of poetry.
To understand what such versing can lend to a poem, have a look at Robert Savino's "Composite Color". For the first three stanzas, this would seem merely to be a poem exploiting the rich diction family to be found in a box of crayons. What lends the poem its gravitas—as well as its generosity—is the leap in stanza four to the topic of racial segregation. By landing the reader in a new place, this poem rises above.
Veronica Golos's "News of the Nameless" uses a similar strategy, moving in its second stanza from a personal narrative to a meditation on an unknown soldier. But even before she gets there, Golos shifts perspective line by line moving from the subject of the poet in line three, to an old man in line four, to the city in line five, and so forth. Notice that in this poem, most of the lines end in either periods or commas. The few lines that don't are thereby imbued with an implied buffer of quiet, demonstrating how line breaking can be used as effectively to slow a reading as to speed it. Nevertheless, we find in this poem a sense of surprise similar to that in "Twilight of the Sword Swallower", on account of its many fresh images. "I am a dry broom" and "the sunlight speaks in Braille" are both original and evocative, elevating this poem.
As we have seen, each of these poems is excellent in several ways—not just one. In particular, it is evident that their authors gave some thought to the best form for their poems, the most effective way to shape the reading of the piece so that it might be faster, slower, or more song-like. Such choices are generally made in revision. Taking the time to reconsider our poems, perhaps to focus them by removing what is extraneous or to enliven the text with startling diction—this is what allows them to rise above.
These poems and critique appeared in the December 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).