In Marie Howe’s new poetry book Magdalene, she envisions Mary Magdalene living in contemporary times. In her poem “Magdalene on Surrender”, how does the child resist change? How does the speaker of the poem resist change? When does each figure (the mother and the daughter) surrender in the poem? Who surrenders first? Write a poem that depicts an interaction between two individuals who initially conflict with each other, but as the poem progresses, allow at least one of them to surrender, either to the situation, or to the other person. If you don’t have access to the full text of the poem, you can alternatively read these three lines from another part of the same book:
“How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as the resistance to change”
Study how Kathleen Kilcup ends her poem on an open note, with an incomplete thought at the end of her poem. How does this affect your experience of the poem? What do you expect the tomb to say? Can you write a poem of your own ending with an incomplete thought (without frustrating the reader)?
This week I want you to retell a classic tale with a twist. Think of a fairy tale or myth that is close to your heart. Can you tell the story in a new way? Maybe it’s not Cinderella but the prince who leaves his shoe behind. Maybe Hansel and Gretel are so hungry and greedy they try to eat the old woman in addition to her gingerbread house. When working on your poem, try using visceral language to describe a moment that is central to the story. If it helps, you may think of what fairy tale might describe your life, or instead, write a persona poem about a character you’ve encountered who reminds you of an archetype.
For an example of this, read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet Bluebeard. How does she twist this classic tale?
Start off your poem with the statement “there are two kinds of people in the world.” Dog people and cat people? People who can cook and people who can bake? Can you find an acceptable binary to work with in the poem? Remember that the speaker of the poem does not have to have the same worldview as yourself. Check out Maya Jewell Zeller’s poem from Radar for an example.
Write a poem about love without using the word love (or any derivations of it, like loving, lovely…). Instead, use as many words as you can that have “love” hidden inside of them: slovenly, glove, clover, cloven, foxglove, etc. If you choose, you could even include words like evolve and revolution, which contain the word love in them backwards.
This week I learned of a tradition of self love through poetry, after the likes of Frank O’Hara and Ocean Vuong. For this week’s prompt, I must give credit to my wonderful mentor, Elaine Sexton, who granted me permission to share this idea with you. Title your poem “Someday I will love __your name here__.” This is a great exercise to do in the wake of Valentine’s Day in particular. How would you write a Valentine to yourself? For ideas, see Ocean Vuong’s poem Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong, and also Frank O’Hara’s poem Katy. This poetic exercise, I think you’ll find, has the potential to change your life. If you enjoy this prompt and live in the NYC area, also consider signing up for Elaine Sexton’s Poets House workshop, Finding the Art in the Line, which starts on Tuesday, Feb 21, 2017.
When poetry is set to music, something magical happens to the listener’s brain. If we were watching a scan of the brain activity of the listener, you would see the brain glowing throughout. Yet even if we don’t add a melody to our poetry, we can tap into this great well of inspiration. Today I want you to borrow a poem’s title from a song title or perhaps a significant phrase in the song. For an example, this man decided to make a Spotify playlist where he wrote a poem with song titles. For another example, in Heather McHugh’s collection, Hinge & Sign, she has a poem titled “The Song Calls the Star Litte,” referring of course, to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (this poem, one of my favorites, is not available online- try to get a copy of Hinge & Sign from your local library or bookstore). Try to isolate the phrase or title you have chosen and reflect on it- how can you make it new?
In America right now, people typically think of political poetry as poetry of resistance. Robert Archambeau has some interesting thoughts as to why contemporary poets often seem to align themselves with the left. But let’s not forget that patriotic poems, inaugural poems, poems on the American Dream– all of these are political poems. For examples of some powerful political poems, check out Emma Lazarus, Alicia Ostriker, and Leonard Cohen. Consider these quotes about political poetry as well:
“There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory.”
“No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”
So, I encourage you to write a political poem, based on some recent event that has affected you. It could be based on something in the news, or perhaps you are more upset about how others are reacting to the news. Examine your emotions about this event and try to use those when writing. Is there something you have witnessed that you want to share? Also, are there any techniques you can use to make the poem less ephemeral, and more universal? I want you to delve deep this week.
This week’s prompt has a special place in my heart because it is inspired by one of the co-founders of Poets House, Stanley Kunitz. I had the wonderful opportunity to see him briefly before he died. I saw him at an event in Manhattan in May 2005 celebrating his book on poetry and gardening, The Wild Braid. In the poem I would like to share with you, The Layers, I’d like to point out the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” In the context of the poem, and in the context of your own life, how do you interpret this? What is living in the layers to you? What is the litter of your life and how do you plan to avoid it? Perhaps it will help to think of a physical object which has layers, like geological rock or lasagna. Can you make a metaphor out of something with layers in your poem? For readers of this blog in the NYC area, I hope you will join us at Poets House on Saturday, Jan 14, 2017.