Today, I did a series of writing exercises with Jersey City Writers based on writing after loss. I’m sharing the essence of them with you here. Don’t skip reading the poem suggested beforehand—I find reading good poetry before writing it is often like “priming the pump,” it helps your creative juices flow, and your writing will be stronger from the influence of the masters.
Read Natasha Trethewey’s After Your Death, included in The Art of Losing, edited by Kevin Young, and then try think about a serious loss you’ve experienced. Can you write a series of metaphors (try to get to ten!) expressing how you feel about it? Once you’ve gotten to ten, go back to one of the metaphors, and write more about it—go deeper into the metaphor.
Read Hot by Craig Arnold, one of my favorite poems of all time. Then, think of someone whom you’ve lost, but not on account of death—someone you’ve lost to something else, such as addiction, or the end of a relationship, or perhaps to Alzheimer’s. For bonus points, try to write the poem in rhyming couplets, modeled after Craig Arnold’s work.
Read Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, then think about an object from your childhood that you’ve lost, and write about that. Make sure to decide whether the speaker is still a child or if the speaker is an adult looking back… there will likely be differences in how speakers of different ages would express the loss.
Read Mark Strand’s poem, Elegy for My Father, also available in The Art of Losing, and look especially at section 2, Answers. Try writing a poem in which you have a conversation with someone who’s passed away.
I’m thrilled to have a poem published in the latest issue of Monstering, alongside the work of many others, including the poet Ada Limón. I’m especially excited about the audio work of Katarina Scaife, who brings my poem to life and makes it more accessible to disabled readers.
This Saturday for Jersey City Writers, I hosted a poetry workshop where we used a submission call from the literary magazine Territory as a prompt. They have upcoming issues with the themes Twins and Alaska. Some past issues include fascinating work from Dan Beachy-Quick and Jenny Xie.
This week, I’m listing anagrams of some classic phrases from literature (numbered 1 through 10 below). Use one of them to inspire a poem! Contact me if you’re interested in what the original phrases are. You can also take a strong phrase from one of your own poems and make an anagram out of it using this website.
- Ghettos herd. It’s transformational!
- Bad storytellers heaved.
- Hang a ghost heart; egg aged, infertility
- Boo! To be rotten
- Ere, a depth rose complacent
- Her inner hero monastery
- One wasteland: Farsighted Orion
- Our pesky relics of Eden
- A sad rectangular realm tells
- Red mermaid hair ire
Whether you enjoy autumn or prefer summer or winter, try to think of specific images, or sounds, tastes, etc. that distinguish one season from the other. Which season do you prefer? What actions do you carry out when one shifts to the other? Do you gladly dust off the pumpkin spice seasoning when autumn rolls around? Are you excited to unearth your favorite sweaters from their cardboard boxes? Or do you sadly touch a portrait of a loved one you lost in autumn? What sort of attitude do you want to encourage the reader to take about the season? Consider using anaphora and turn it into a refrain, like Zagajewski does with Try to Praise the Mutilated World.
One writer who has had a profound influence on me is Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, who passed away from cancer in August 2015. A year or so before he died, shortly after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he and his partner, Billy Hayes, decided to record some of his thoughts on tape. You can listen to his voice via one of Radiolab’s latest podcasts. Here is a transcription of an excerpt from those tapes:
A Conversation on Dreams
Feb 6, 2015
“I’ve been having a lot of strangely archetypal dreams of a journey I have to make. Getting lost and getting found, full of surprises, maybe going through a door which I think will be a door unto another one, a door to a mountain landscape. Sometimes frightening ravines, or having to edge along very narrow ledges, but then finally coming to some gracious, heavenly mountain meadow, and then waiting. Dreams about journeys approach an end. It’s a journey from where to where?” -Oliver Sacks
The prompt, then, is to write your own dream of a journey from where to where. What do you imagine you would dream near the end of your own life?
Read Emily Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.” How do you think she feels about guns? What does her poem say about masculine and feminine nature? How does she use imagery to communicate in this poem? For this poetry prompt, I’d like you to introduce a gun or bullet into your poem somehow. Does it function as a metaphor in your poem, and what does it stand for? Or is it an actual gun, and what emotions do you feel surrounding that?
This prompt is inspired by the Jersey City Art & Studio Tour event called Loving Arms, which has its opening reception Saturday (9/30/2017) from 7pm – 10pm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 38 Duncan Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07304, and gallery hours and performances Sunday (10/1/2017) from 2pm-6pm at the same church. I will be reading selected poetry about guns by greats including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and others, around 3pm Sunday. Hope you can make it!
The Bellevue Literary Review editor-in-chief Danielle Ofri, MD, discusses why poetry and literature are important to medicine: “The creativity that comes from literature is critical to medical education… The main reason literature resonates so well with medicine is the use of metaphor. To be skilled clinicians and to get the right diagnosis, we must be able to interpret our patients’ metaphors.” Read Rafael Campo’s poem Morbidity and Mortality Rounds.
I also believe poetry can help to heal. So I want you to think of someone other than yourself, someone who is suffering. Maybe it’s someone who has cancer, or has lost a pet or a parent. Can you write a poem prescription for them? What might you say to them to help them heal? Make sure to engage the senses of your readers.
Read Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. Poet Laureate. She references a traditional song, but she also creates some music of her own in the poem by using rhyme and rhythm. Can you reference a popular or traditional song that means something to you and create some new musicality out of it?
“We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.”
This week I encourage you all to read the essay Poetry is not a Luxury by Audre Lorde. Even if you are not a woman of color, I would like you to consider how her arguments might apply to your life, your poetry. Is there a hidden power in your core, in feelings you have yet to explore? I’d also like you to read two poems of hers, Hanging Fire, and Coal. Pick whichever poem resonates the most feeling in you, and then isolate that feeling, and study how it feels. Use her poetry as a leaping off point to explore your own feelings. What situation in your own life does the feeling conjure? Or perhaps you imagine a character’s situation, or a metaphor comes to mind… write as if your life depended on it.
Picture attribution: Elsad at the English language Wikipedia
If you could ask for a special power, what would it be? Why would you ask for that one? How does your current life (or your speaker’s life) differ from what it would be like if you could, say, fly? Read this beautiful poem by Nickole Brown, A Prayer to Talk to Animals, and observe the way she envisions this transformation. Write a poem of your own where the speaker either wishes for or actually gains a special power.