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.
I’ll let you in on a secret. My mother has always hated William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say…” She always thought the speaker in it did something terribly annoying (eating someone else’s treat) and wasn’t truly sorry.
So, when you encounter a classic poem you dislike, what can you do? Write a parody of it! For a great example, read Kenneth Koch’s answer to “This is just to say…” entitled Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams. So, how does Kenneth Koch make this poem so funny? He finds a game in what WCW is doing and escalates it to an absurd level! In WCW’s poem and Koch’s poem, the game is a pattern—the speaker is apologizing for doing something annoying to the person to which the poem is addressed. Koch escalates by making each instance more offensive. He also throws in details about the original poem and the author of the poem which adds to the absurdity, for example, the “the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold,” alluding to the plums in the original poem. Also note the crowning laugh in the parody, that the speaker is so cruel that he would injure the other person in order that he would have a patient (WCW was a doctor as well as a poet).
For another example of a parody, take a look at Billy Collins’ poem Workshop. This one is a bit more complex of a parody, and not of one poem in particular, but it is also a lot of fun.
So for this prompt, I encourage you to take a classic poem in which you notice an interesting pattern (you don’t have to dislike it, really), and try to escalate that pattern in a new poem humorously. Try to carry out that pattern at least in three different instances to heighten the effect. Make sure to make your parody obvious, so someone who has read the original poem will recognize the allusions you are making to the original. Have fun with it!
Tuesday evening I attended a Dharma gathering at Shambhala NYC. It was pleasant to meditate in a group setting and listen to David Nichtern speak, especially since I haven’t attended Shambhala in a while. I got the opportunity to ask David Nichtern a question about meditation and creative pursuits (including writing) and had a great conversation with him about spontaneity and creativity. He signed a copy of his new book Awakening from the Daydream, and inside it he wrote a koan of sorts “Spontaneous means being properly prepared.” What a fascinating concept!
So how can we prepare ourselves to be ready for the muse, to be spontaneous in our writing? By practicing daily, or as often as we can. Natalie Goldberg describes an exercise in her book on creative writing, Writing Down the Bones, where you do a free write for a certain length of time on a regular basis, just writing the first thing that comes to mind, and keeping the pen moving on the page. My prompt for you this week is to try this exercise for at least 15 minutes. Maybe even try doing it once a day for week! Some of what you write may not be worth revision later, but sometimes you will generate seeds which you can develop further. The important thing is to turn off the judge or the editor during the free writing session, and just allow your thoughts to flow.