Category Archives: Personal

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 9

Right up front, let me admit that today, Day 9, is the one day I allowed myself to bail on, as I’ll explain in the section labeled Writing Process below.

Today’s parameters are:

  • Prompt: landscape
  • Form: found poetry
  • Device: enumeratio

Found Poetry

Like a blackmail letter in a sordid crime novel, a found poem is made up of words and letters others have created. It’s up to you, the poet, to find them (hence the name), extract them, and rejig them into something else: your poem.

Enumeratio

it basically means constructing a list, a successive enumeration (duh!) of multiple elements in the same series.

Writing Process

I was initially completely flummoxed on how to go about using found poetry on a computer screen or on a blog. What is the digital equivalent of cutting words out of the newspaper and pasting them onto a blank sheet of paper.

So I used the suggested tool poetweet, which allows you to fill in your Twitter name and then creates a poem (I chose a sonnet) from your tweets. Here’s what I got:

Mail Online

Residue of design.” – John Milton
Cities Grew Much Like Modern Ones
With “that dreadful Terry Eagleton”
View Us “As a Joke” | Mother Jones

Of Rooting for Love – The Atlantic
Especially for introverts – CNET
Writing Is Therapeutic |
Genre help save the planet?

Avoid frailty by rebuilding muscle
Organ Transplants, Experts Estimate
Fiction e-book | Cornell Chronicle

Dark of the Moon by John Sandford
She doesn’t need from a director
Wolf Meta: The Evolution of a Word

Well, OK, but what am I supposed to do with that?

As I was trying to devise some way to handle today’s assignment, a minor crisis occurred here at home—nothing dire, but quite time-consuming. By the time I finished dealing with that, it was time for dinner.

I took this occurrence as a sign that I just wasn’t cut out for this particular exercise in the first place. But I did learn what enumeratio is.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 8

Today’s Day 8 assignment involves:

  • Prompt: drawer
  • Form: ode
  • Device: apostrophe

Ode

An ode is a laudatory poem celebrating a person, an object, a place, etc. It can come in any form these days, having shed its ancient (and much stricter) formal requirements.

At their best, odes are both a compelling portrait of something and an investigation (tacit or explicit) of the poet’s own relation to that thing.

For your poem today, focus on details — the things that make your chosen object unique — but also on the effect it produces on others (you or someone else).

Apostrophe

apostrophe (a-POS-truh-fee) … occurs when the speaker in the poem addresses another person or an object (usually personified) directly.

You can write a poem that is made up entirely of one extended apostrophe, or switch back and forth between addressing your reader and addressing someone (or something) else.

What tone and flavor will you choose for your apostrophe? Will it be plaintive, nostalgic, angry, admiring? The way you shape your address will greatly influence the feel of your poem.

Writing Process

One way to go about composing your ode would be, first, to make a list of the qualities and details you’d like to highlight, and then try to work them into a poem, crossing off those you’ve covered. Another: write as if you’re shooting a movie, following the subject of your ode from top to bottom, from left to right, etc.

My first task is to choose an object to center on. I chose the inscribed bracelet that I put on every morning because of its association with a friend of mine and also because I take it out of the drawer of my nightstand to put it on (clever incorporation of the prompt drawer).

bracelet

(The photo is the best I could do at the office with my phone.)

Here are the qualities and details of the bracelet that I’d like to highlight:

  • gold
  • inscription
  • scratched from long usage

An Ode to My Bracelet, in Memory of Frayne

Every morning after I’m showered and dressed
I open my nightstand drawer,
And take out my jewelry: a watch, three rings,
And you, my beloved gold bracelet.

You’re golden, just like Frayne,
My friend in whose memory I wear you.
She wore your sister in silver
Because she believed the inscription.

“Forever is now” she wanted to stress.
Her cancer advancing, she wanted to
Appreciate each day that she had left
And live it to the fullest.

She did. And now the scratches on you
Remind me of how very many days
I’ve worn you since…
Forever. Now. Always.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 7

Here’s the assignment for Day 7:

  • Prompt: fingers
  • Form: prose poetry
  • Device: assonance

Prose Poetry

A prose poem is any piece of verse written using the normal typography of prose, while still maintaining elements of poetry, like rhythm, imagery, etc.

The words may be arranged typographically like any piece of prose, but the sounds, the rhythms, and the imagery all pull us in the direction of poetry.

Since you can’t use the page (or screen) the same way you do with regular verse — you simply write to the end of each line — the power of the language needs to come through via other channels: repetition, well-chosen consonants, striking similes and metaphors, or any other device you feel might tip the scale toward poetry.

Assonance

the strategic repetition of vowels in close proximity to each other.

Writing Process

I can’t document why I wrote about this topic because it came to me unawares, as so often happens when I read or think about something, then leave it to percolate while I move on to something else.

But here’s an interesting aside: As a result of this course, I’m beginning to think sometimes in rhyming couplets. I thought prose poetry would be relatively easy to write because of the lack of constricting form. But the rhyming couplets keep coming out to play, making the writing sound more like traditional poetry than prose poetry.

Go figure.

Remembrances

This photo album in my lap contains memories from times past. As my fingers turn the pages I focus on the faces of those whom I’ll never see again anywhere but here.

My father is here. The fading photos mirror my fading memories of someone who died just before I turned twelve. The earliest photos, from before I was born, show him happy, handsome in his Navy uniform. Then a few show him holding me, a tiny baby. In several more I’m two or three. My father appears in only black and white, the fate of someone who died before the common use of color photography.

Grandma T., who helped raise me, is here as well. In black and white she and Grandpa stand outside the farmhouse in upstate New York, where I spent the happiest two years of my childhood life. Grandpa died early, but Grandma lived long enough to appear in color before she disappears.

My in-laws are here, too, the ones who showed me that marriage could be a bond forged in loving harmony. Their love and acceptance shaped the adult this adolescent me grew up to be and altered my view of family. They’re preserved in color photography.

And friends appear here. Anne and Frayne, the two who, for me, remain the touchstone of my definition of friend. Both lost within ten months, but here, in color, they continue to smile at me.

My fingers close this book of the people who’ve turned my world from black and white into colorful remembrances of life.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 6

The second half of our poetry writing course begins with this Day 6 assignment:

  • Prompt: hero or heroine
  • Form: ballad
  • Device: anaphora/epistrophe

Ballad

Ballads are dramatic, emotionally charged poems that tell a story, often about bigger-than-life characters and situations. They can be long, short, rhymed, or unrhymed — by now there are no strict rules — though it’s still common for ballads to have a refrain.

A ballad has something removed from daily life about it — though everyday topics can definitely be given the ballad treatment. The secret is to find the drama, the struggle, the heightened emotions of a given situation and use them to tell a story.

anaphora/epistrophe

anaphora: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse

epistrophe: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the end of multiple lines of verse

symploce: use of both an anaphora and an epistrophe in successive lines of poetry

Writing Process

The first task is to choose a hero (I’m using hero as a gender-neutral term here) to feature. I started out wanting to celebrate firefighters, but I had trouble coming up with a narrative progression to do that. One solution to that problem would have been to create a single, composite firefighter, a larger-than-life figure like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

However, as I contemplated that approach, I realized I know a lot about one of my personal heroes, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. By opening the way for women to pursue careers in medicine and other professions, she helped to change society’s views about both what women could do and should do.

So Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell it is.

The second task is to note the key narrative points in her story:

  • Decided to defy the taboo against women attending medical school
  • Expanded the Victorian notion of what was proper for women by emphasizing medicine as a natural extension of a woman’s world of home and children
  • Was careful to avoid suggestions that she wanted to overturn woman’s traditional role
  • Helped other women enter and complete medical studies
  • Established the first hospital to train women physicians after graduation
  • Contributed to societal reform by emphasizing the necessity of educating all women about nutrition and hygiene

In constructing the ballad, I’m going to start with the refrain:

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Now to build the poem around this refrain.

I’m almost too embarrassed to post the result here. Parts of it sound terribly forced, and it needs several more stanzas to do justice to its namesake. But I’ve spent the better part of the day on it, and it’s time to me give up and hit the “publish” button.

The Ballad of Elizabeth Blackwell

Crusader Elizabeth Blackwell, the first U. S. female M. D.,
Lead the way in social reform by shifting the cultural norm
Of what a woman should and could be
In the mid-nineteenth century.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Only men could enroll in medical school
When Elizabeth Blackwell applied.
Her future classmates thought it a joke
But when she arrived their laughter died.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

She graduated first in her class in 1849,
The first woman to earn a medical degree
In the U. S., where spinster or wife and mother
Were all women were told they could be.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

To avoid dissent she carefully towed the line
Of expanding, not changing, traditional roles.
She could be a physician and still maintain
A woman’s meek, spiritual, nurturing soul.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

When other women earned medical degrees
And found no opportunities for on-the-job experience,
Elizabeth founded her own hospital
And trained them there, her efforts immense.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 5

The assignment for Day 5 includes the following:

  • Prompt: fog
  • Form: elegy
  • Device: metaphor

Elegy

Originally requiring specific meters, nowadays elegies come in all shapes and sizes, though they are united by their (often melancholic) focus on loss and longing.

As much as it can mourn something that’s gone forever, it can also celebrate it.

Elegiac couplet: a hexameter (six syllable) line followed by a pentameter (five syllable) line. No rhyme required.

Metaphor

A comparison of two concepts not usually thought of together, without the use of like or as.

Writing Process

I intended to write my elegy in elegiac couplets. I gave it a try. I really did. But those syllables just wouldn’t fall correctly into place.

I did, however, manage to work in the concept of fear. There are also a couple of metaphors here: fear as fog and the window of my mind.

The Fog of Uncertainty

“It’s diverticulitis, just as we thought,” the doctor says.
“But there’s also a spot on your pancreas.
We have to find out what that could be, and so
We’ve scheduled an endoscopic biopsy for next week.”

Spot. Biopsy. Fear washes over me,
Fogging my normally clear, intellectual mind.
Pure animal fear, that shatters the fragile pane
Between logical restraint and primal despair.

The fog hangs on for a week while I await
The day of the biopsy, then thickens for seven more days
While I await the results. “Benign,” the doctor says.
The fog pulls back, retreats, disappears. I am free!

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 4

The Day 4 assignment offers these challenges:

  • Prompt: animal
  • Form: concrete poetry
  • Device: enjambment

Concrete Poetry

Also known as shape poetry, the idea here is to arrange your words on the screen (or the page) so that they create a shape or an image. The meaning of the image can be obvious at first glance, or require some guesswork after reading the poem.

Enjambment

when a grammatical sentence stretches from one line of verse to the next.

Writing Process

I was glad to see enjambment as today’s device because it’s just about inevitable when you’re playing with a demanding form. In fact, I used this device in a couple of lines of yesterday’s acrostic because I needed the second line to begin with a particular letter:

Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

Grammatically and conceptually the second line here should begin with when, but the form required me to fudge a bit. And I expect the same thing will happen with today’s poem when I need to sculpt the line length to create the visual pattern I want.

The Giant Pacific Octopus

The giant Pacific octopus, one of nature’s most intelligent creatures,
Lives an average of three to five years in the wild before she
Reproduces. Then she holds on to the male’s sperm packet
And hunts for a suitable cave wherein to lay her
One-hundred-twenty thousand to four-hundred
Thousand eggs, which she lovingly tends.
She attaches her eggs to the walls
Of the cave, then splays her
Eight arms to seal it.
For six months she
Bathes the eggs,
Never eating,
Until she
Finally
Dies.

Then
Her offspring
Swim out into a
Brave new world, like
Tiny  grains  of  rice,  to
Grow and become the legacy
Of their mother’s self-sacrifice.

The Seahawks

The Seahawks
Became in 1975 the
Name of the new Seattle
National Football League team.
This name was chosen from more
Than one-thousand-seven-
Hundred entries
By fans.

This one looked more like a football in my word processor than it does here.

OK, this one’s corny.
It uses the form
Of the day but contains
Not very much poetry.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 3

The assignment for Day 3 offers these three parameters:

  • Prompt: trust
  • Form: acrostic
  • Device: internal rhyme

Acrostic

Acrostics have been around for millennia: they’re a creative way to give order and convey multiple meanings at once while staying fairly subtle.

There have been two prevalent ways to create acrostics. In one, you follow the sequence of the alphabet, beginning each verse in your poem with a different one from A to Z (or to whatever letter you choose to reach — you’re not obliged to cover the entire ABC). This type of acrostic emphasizes the idea of seriality, of accumulation, or of a preset order.

The other type of acrostic is one in which the first (or last) letter of each verse together spell out a message: a short sentence, a word, a name (for example, medieval poets loved writing love poems with acrostics spelling out their beloved’s name).

Some interesting ways to use acrostics include writing a poem that asks a question to which the answer is the spelled-out word; one in which the “hidden” message contradicts or otherwise complicates the content of the poem.

Writing Process

I’ll start with a simple acrostic, a poem that spells out its subject matter.

Mount Rainier’s white head appears
Out of her bed of clouds.
Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

To see her in her majesty
And mystery
I find to be
Necessity.

This includes the acrostic form and the device of internal rhyme, but not the concept of trust. It also sounds a bit pretentious. I would probably never use the word shrouds, except when it’s necessary to rhyme with clouds.

But look: The first line in my second stanza must start with t. There’s an opening for trust:

Mount Rainier’s white head appears
Out of her bed of clouds.
Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

Trusting in her majesty
And mystery
I find to be
Necessity.

There’s still that pesky shrouds, but the more I read this poem, the less that word bothers me. I’m trying to convey the image of stateliness and reverence, and this old-fashioned word contributes to that imagery.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 2

Here’s the assignment for Day 2:

  • Prompt: journey
  • Form: limerick
  • Device: alliteration

limerick

Limericks are traditionally composed of five lines of verse. The traditional rhyming scheme of a limerick is a a b b a — the first two lines rhyme, then the next two, and the final verse rhymes with the first couplet.

Write a limerick — or two or five, if you wish to create a narrative cycle — and inject this form with something personal and surprising. Break the pattern if you need to — and if it serves the purpose of your poem.

alliteration

Use of the same consonant multiple times in proximity.

Writing Process

I managed to come up with two different starts. In both cases the first four lines came fairly quickly, but that final line, with its rhyme to the initial couplet, eluded me. I ended up with these, which should be read as separate, not part of a narrative cycle (although the concept of a narrative cycle intrigues me):

For two thousand miles I drove,
Ever forward I strove,
To reach my new home
From one I’d outgrown,
In a new place I knew I would love.

Writing all over the place,
Trying this memoir to ace.
“Slow down,” said my brain
In a constant refrain.
“Life writing should not be a race.”

But then there came the challenge of alliteration. I tend to use frequent alliteration in my writing. I usually don’t consciously write it, but I do notice it when it appears on the page or the screen. But where was it when I needed it?

So I put this project aside and moved on to another one. And, as so often happens, I found an alliterative line in something else I wrote:

Why in the world would …?

What happens if I start with this as a final line and write the previous four lines around it? So I completed the line, compounding the alliteration:

Why in the world would I wait?

Now for the rest of the limerick, incorporating the concept of a journey.

Rhyming words (for the opening couplet):

  • hate
  • date
  • late
  • fate
  • mate
  • straight
  • trait
  • gate
  • great
  • grate
  • state
  • rate
  • bait

Life’s journey is not always straight
Because of our fickle friend, fate.
But a journey circuitous
Is uplifting, not ruinous.
So why in the world would I wait?

And notice the alliteration in the second line!

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 1

Today begins WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class. How great it is to have such a resource available for FREE!

I write strictly nonfiction, so this class is a big stretch for me. But I’m determined to work on my writing this year, and what better way to do that than to dabble in something WAY out of my comfort zone? The course offers an assignment every weekday for two weeks. Each daily post includes a prompt (topic), a poetic form, and a poetic device. We are instructed to use whatever—or nothing—we find inspirational in these suggestions.

I’ll be working on these daily assignments and hope to publish the results of my attempts here. I’ll probably follow the suggestions in each daily prompt fairly closely, since my purpose here is to practice with types of writing outside of my usual work.

Thanks for playing along with me. I’d love to hear your comments. Since I’m not a poet by nature, I could really use some constructive criticism.

So please leave a comment if you’ve found your way here.

And here’s my attempt for Day One

  • Prompt: water
  • Form: haiku “three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively”
  • Device: simile

Waves roll in to shore
Like nature’s breath from the wind
Unceasing, always

Wow, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’m stoked!

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.