Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith chose to read (on the air!) Aileen Bassis’s poem Beth-David Cemetery Bill. She even discusses it a bit in the clip. Congrats!
Our example poem this week is by Marilyn Nelson. Her poem Green-Thumb Boy is about George Washington Carver, a black botanist who was originally born as a slave, but flourished as a scientist after slavery was abolished. The poem is from the perspective of another scientist, Pammel, a white man who taught Carver at Iowa State. I like listening to Pammel’s perspective, as he changes his mind about Carver, ultimately ending up impressed with him, and considering him a colleague.
This week, I want you to write a poem about a historical figure, either from the perspective of that figure, or from the perspective of another character observing the famous one. What are distinguishing features about this person that you can highlight? Note, you can either tell a realistic tale, or place the historical character in a new setting (like Walt Whitman in a grocery store, ala Allen Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California). Have fun with it!
By the way, I retrieved the image of George Washington Carver from the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Dr. G.W. Carver at Work in His Laboratory” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 – 1943.
The second prompt this week is to think of a disappointment, either a real one in your own life, or one that you imagine. Write a poem about that disappointment, using at least one simile or metaphor for how the speaker feels (read about the lonely tree in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “What my lips have kissed…”).
At the latest Jersey City Writers Genre Night, which featured selected poetry, Claudia Cortese (pictured) gave me a great idea for a poetry prompt. She wrote a Mad Libs poem, which was fun to fill out in person at the reading. If you never played with Mad Libs as a kid, they are basically paragraphs where you blindly fill in blanks with nouns, verbs, and adjectives… you often get unexpected combinations, resulting in hilarity. I’m not going to assign an entire Mad Libs poem, but I am encouraging you to Mad Libs the title of your next poem, like this: The (Animal) Calls the (Type of Person) (Adjective). You don’t have to fill in the blanks blindly, as you would a regular Mad Lib, but think about an interesting scene to paint: The Frog Calls the Princess Beautiful (I wrote a poem titled this); or The Elephant Calls the Plumber Serpentine (think of the possibilities—sure the plumber uses a “snake” but couldn’t you call the elephant’s trunk serpentine as well?). Think about what the animal tells the person, and describe how the person receives this judgment.
For the second prompt this week, I’m going to encourage you to write a poem in response to Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge this month. Ekphrasis is poetry written about or in response to art. Rattle is a great journal that offers up a challenge once a month to write a poem about a piece of art (for a possible prize! Due April 30!). For an example of an ekphrastic work, read William Blake’s The Tyger, and check out the painting he made alongside it. Enjoy the prompts, and keep writing!
So tonight I attended a Jersey City Slam competition- I participated in a workshop led by Jacob Victorine (pictured) and I even got the chance to judge the semi-finals (along with a couple other judges)! I was a little nervous to judge, honestly, being more of a “page poet,” but I went with my gut, and was pleased to see Erin Anastasia win. I like her spunk. Full disclosure: I met Erin a few days ago and will be working on a creative project with her (stay tuned!), but I don’t think that interfered with my judging- I hadn’t seen her perform before.
Jacob Victorine and Will Gibson were the featured poets. I enjoyed speaking to Jacob a bit before the event and thought he ran the workshop well, using an excerpt from the Triggering Town. My favorite poem out of the ones he read was It’s Like There’s Ash Everywhere. It reminded me of the 9/11 aftermath when I was in college. My own experience was a bit more remote than the speaker of the poem, having attended The College of NJ at the time, but I do remember going into Manhattan less than a month after the disaster and visiting the Islamic Wing of the Met. The air still smelled like burning rubber, but the mosaics were beautiful. It was a strange, sad experience, to live through 9/11 while dating a Muslim and studying Islamic Art and Literature… Jacob’s poetry took me back to that time, but with wonder and reverence. My favorite line was “some kids saw the planes / and bodies / and think they’re still falling.”
Will Gibson’s (pictured) poetry was powerful, too, and as I’m looking through his collection Harvest the Dirt, I’m struck by a poem about NYC entitled I Couldn’t Make It There: “New York felt like / Atlantis before the / water came.” Haunting.
Perhaps it’s a little odd that here I am in New Jersey, connecting with these poems about NYC, but I did live there for 9 years. I’m happy to call Jersey City home now, though. Oh, and another great place to get poetry from both sides of the Hudson is the Cross Poetry Review reading! They have an event coming up on May 8th at Porta– check it out!
There is an architectural theory called prospect refuge: Humans need a space with both a view and shelter. Elaine’s work, her third full-length collection of poetry, offers both to the reader– vision and comfort. One of my favorite poems from the collection is the poem Evidence, in which she invokes Philip Levine’s classic What Work Is, painting a picture of her mother and the hard housework she performed during the day, and contrasting that work with an artist showcasing a strange, artificial seeming work of art. I had a similar experience growing up, when I realized “what work is” while interning at a pharmaceutical company with my father. I also take comfort from the poem in knowing I am not alone in wondering where the “work” is in certain pieces.
Elaine is a great mentor with whom I have had the pleasure to work the past few years, and last night was one of the rewards of working with her, being invited to her book launch at Book Culture, an indie bookstore on the Upper West Side, and the after party. Look at the view we had (see the skyline)!
I was introduced to Elaine Sexton a few years ago, by David Groff, who taught a Poets House workshop on spiritual poetry. When I told him I couldn’t get enough of the workshop, he referred me to Elaine. It was gratifying to hear him introduce Elaine at this poetry reading, and to catch up with him, learning about what he has been writing.
How do you know when you’ve found the right teacher to push you along with your writing? I think the right teacher offers you a balance of encouragement and critique. The teacher should be willing to share her own struggles with the art, and also should be attentive enough to start noticing patterns and habits in your own work. The teacher should offer opportunities for artistic growth, through prompts, and through networking. Like the theory, a teacher should offer both prospect and refuge: a vision of where you are going with your art, and a shelter to protect you and house your work when you are resting. Thank you Elaine!
So, I wrote a draft of a poem yesterday where Bjork meets Bieber. It was tricky trying to capture the essence of their voices! I got the idea to write this one from a prompt from the book The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. This is the BEST book of prompts I’ve ever encountered, I recommend it. It has a prompt for every day of the year—their ideas are rich with triggers. Another poem I wrote in response to one of their prompts was published last year—it was a poem entitled You Only Have Three, about three wishes. The book of prompts has really come in handy as I did a poem-a-day in November 2015 and also currently in April 2016, for those days when the muse is elusive. Feel free to comment if you have a book of prompts (poetry, fiction, or even nonfiction) that has inspired you—I’m always looking for new ideas!
This week (Sat Apr 16) during the Jersey City Writers poetry workshop, we will be trying out two prompts. The first is to write a poem using some geographical terms in new ways. For inspiration, read Zachary Schomburg’s THE THINGS THAT SURROUND US. You can also check out Wikipedia for a glossary of geography terms.
The second prompt is to write about a blessing or sacred text (perhaps scripture, perhaps scientific document), but focus on your reaction to the text. How does it make you (or the speaker) feel? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive reaction. For inspiration, read Tony Hoagland’s Bible Study.