write after reading

Write After Reading: Coming to a Close

Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic has been a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It has alternated between my blog and Laura Salas’s blog.

For a couple of months now Laura and I have worked our way through reading and writing poetry together. The exercises have been both fun and enlightening. It seems the more I struggled against the exercises the more I got out of it once I actually did the work. Having a buddy to read and discuss the book with made it more fun and, of course, made me accountable to actually doing what I said I was going to do.

We’ve reached the end of our journey with this particular book. It feels like the right time. And now that we’re in the midst of summer, many readers have summer activities on their plate. I want to thank those of you who read along with us, whether or not you posted, and those who joined us in sharing our exercise here on the blogs. Poetry really can be a universal conversation.

The book we used, Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen, is so accessible. The chapters are short and the exercises are full of variety. Even if you didn’t get the chance to read along with us this time, I highly recommend the book.

Thank you again, to all who participated and cheered us on. Stay tuned for further adventures in Write After Reading. If you have a book you’d like us to consider for the club, please let us know.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: |2 Comments

Feed Me

For the past few months and I have been working our way through the wonderful  book, Writing the Life Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen. We alternate hosting the discussion on our blogs on Wednesdays.

Sage’s book has a lot of juicy bits of knowledge for us and many fun exercises. One of my favorites was an offshoot of Mad Libs. Another favorite was song lyrics as poems or where we used titles as jumping off points for a poem. Today I wanted to share an original poem I wrote by this week’s exercise using word list.

My words were: pilgrim, universe, kneel, fly

Once trapped
in a carbohydrate prison
I am now a pilgrim in a new world,
a universe of edible wonders.

Stomach growling anticipation
I fly to the farmer’s market
and kneel before the Produce King.
“Please sir, may I have some more?”

Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Carol, at Carol’s Corner.

Friday, June 24, 2011|Categories: Susan's Original Poems|Tags: , |8 Comments

Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic (Chapter 63)

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura’s blog. Last week, over at Laura’s blog, we talked about chapter 58 and writing the Zeitgist. Today I picked chapter 63, Taking Shape, Experimenting with Poetic Forms.

This chapter talks briefly about how the constraints of a form can actually improve your poetry or at least lead you down some interesting paths. Though I haven’t yet devoted the time to mastering some of the longer forms I do agree that having that structure often helps me focus my poetic attention in much the same way that we found when we did the Mad Libs.

Here’s an online source with easy explanations of the forms of verse – Poetry Handbook.

I opted to go for haiku since I’m writing this late at night after a crazy-making day but I hope to come back tomorrow and try some other forms as well.

sleeping dog whimpers
chases squirrel shadows, barks
hunter triumphant

one week, no flour, sugar
bad habits need undoing
how will I survive?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: , |49 Comments

Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic (Chapter 48) Titles

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura’s blog. Last week, over at Laura’s blog, we talked about chapter 43 and played with another Mad Lib sort of exercise. Today I picked chapter 48, Writing Poems From Titles.

There’s not a lot to read here because the fun is all in the writing. 🙂 The chapter talks about how titles for poems can come before the poem is written, after it is written, or changed somewhere in-between. But for this exercise she gives what she calls a book of matches with a list of titles of poems by mostly contemporary poets. The idea is to write a poem based just on the title (hopefully a poem you don’t know) and then go find the original and see how it compares. She gives a list of 33 poems. For those of you who don’t have a copy of the book, I’ll post a few of the titles for you.

But before that, I’d like to talk a bit more about titles for poems and how you perhaps come up with your titles. I almost always title my poems after they are written when I am pretty sure I have reached the point I was trying to make with the poem. Though there have been a few where I got the title and it just spoke to me and I had to write a poem to live up to the title. I’m not sure how I feel about poems where the title is actually the first line in the poem. Quite often it confuses me. I read the title and I set it apart in my mind. Then I read the first line and I’m confused and my brain has to process that method the poet is using and I have to go back and start over. It all happens very fast but sometimes it can be distracting to me. The exception (for me) is usually when it is a verse novel and the author is using the same pattern throughout the book. My brain gets used to it and it seems less distracting.

So what about you?  When do you title your poems? Do you use a line from the poem? How do you know when you have the right title for a poem? (For me it’s all about going with my gut.)

I’ll post some of titles for folks now and will be back later to add my poem in the comments.

The Zero at the Bone (Karen Holmberg)
The Partial Explanation (Charles Simic)
Good People (WS Merwin)
What the Angels Left (Marie Howe)
Give the Drummer Some (Christopher Luna)
Key to the Highway (Mark Halliday)
Ladies and Gentlement in Outer Space (Ron Padgett)
The Blue Bowl (Jane Kenyon)

Okay, here’s my poem. I picked the title last night and was really expecting to write a softish poem perhaps based in nature. What came out is something completely different. I have to say that this one surprised me in a way that a poem hadn’t surprised me in a long time.
How to Listen

Put down that stinky cigarette,
the one you promised to stop smoking.
Quit fiddling with the piano
and no, you don’t need another drink.
You never need another drink.

Pretend if you have to
you’re at work,
inspection time,
uniform neatly pressed,
just like all those lies you told me.

Eyes straight ahead.
Must. Not. Move.

Look at me, no, really look at me
in the eyes, those windows to my soul
you tried to crush.
I know I’m angry.
I want you to know it too.
I want you to hear what I’m saying
with my entire body.

I may not get this brave again.

Don’t look down
or away with that
“you just kicked a puppy” expression on your face.
It doesn’t work any more.

Focus on me,
the way you used to focus on me,
before vodka became your lover.

That pause between words
isn’t an invitation for you to interrupt and tell me
how the world is against you.
I don’t care.
Not anymore.

You don’t have to listen long.
Just long enough
for me to say goodbye.

© 2011 Susan Taylor Brown.
All rights reserved.

The original poem is How to Listen by Major Jackson and you can read it here:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: |67 Comments

Inside Great Families

Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic (Chapter 30 and 38)

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura’s blog. Last week, over at Laura’s blog, we talked about song lyrics as poems.

This week I wanted to touch on two chapters.  Don’t sweat it too much. 🙂 They’re short. Chapter 30 really hit home with me as Sage discusses the idea of redefining “real work”. It took me back to March, when I took a month off to just play with no pressure to produce any writing at all. I did write, some, but it was writing for fun, for me and I enjoyed it a lot. I wrote snippets of poems that may grow longer or may linger in a journal. I wrote pages that don’t belong in any book I’m working on, at least not yet. But I admit that I still felt guilty for not working on a work-in-progress. I felt like I was cheating on myself.

In this chapter Sage says, “For the most part, the writing I do for love exists in the very small margin of the writing I do for money.”  This is the way it is for most of the writers I know, especially the poets, because there’s not a lot of money in writing poetry so you ought to be doing it for love too. Or as Sage puts it, “Because it is rare to be paid for poetry, especially early in one’s journey, you do not owe anything to anyone but yourself”

What this chapter helped me to remember is that I came to writing by way of poetry back in the 7th grade, with no idea that I would ever publish poetry. Sometimes I pull my verse novel (Hugging the Rock) off the shelf and still feel that surprise that it was published. Because when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking about the publishing, I was working out my life the way I best knew how to do it, with words and poems. My real work was in the writing of the book, the answering of internal questions and the putting many things to rest. This is what poetry does for me, it helps me sort out who I am at a particular point in my life and how I feel about that moment in time. I think that’s my real work when it comes to poetry.

Okay, on to chapter 38 which brings me back to junior high in a different way, Mad Libs. Remember them? Those goofy fill-in-the-blank word games? Sage doesn’t talk a lot in this chapter, it’s all about the exercises. The idea is to take the structure of one poem, remove some of the words, and following that structure, fill in the holes like you would have with a Mad Lib. Having much of the poem in place already makes this a quick exercise yet one with a lot of impact, especially if you keep playing with it. Somehow the idea that you only have to come up with one word here or another word there gives you a bit more confidence to push yourself outside the comfort zone you might normally write in. She shared three poems turned into Mad Libs. I chose one to play with.

Here is the original poem.

From Inside Great Distances
By Walid Bitar

From inside great distances (don’t call them dreams)
midnight is smaller than usual,
as are the ponies. Inside great distances,
unlike airplanes, are not seats
and the people far away enough
to shout to (at least the talk isn’t small)
have no laps or throats when they sit beside
their donkeys and Don Quixotes, pretending
to be mirages in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like a pencil in my ear.
It sketches itself, and I hear of this
a bird you can color with the whites
and marbles of villas back home, bird otherwise
invisible as the price of land.
An hour, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your breast, growing
it into days, months, years?
Leave it alone; visit me a little to
the North; people shave their heads
into mirrors here; I
remain (on the outside) myself.



Here is the template for the revision. My poem is below. Give it a try. Don’t think too much.

From Inside Great _______________

From inside great ______________ (don’t call them _____________)
________________ is smaller than usual,
as are the ______________. Inside great ______________,
unlike ______________, are not ______________
and the people ______________enough
to ______________ to (at least the ______________ isn’t small)
have no ______________ or ______________ when they sit beside
their ______________ and don ______________, pretending
to be ______________ in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like a ______________ in my ear.
It ______________ itself, and I hear of this
a ______________you can color with the whites
and marbles of ______________ back home, ______________ otherwise
invisible as the price of ______________.
An ______________, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your ______________, growing
it into ______________?
Leave it alone; ______________ me a little to
the ______________; people shave their heads
into ______________ here; I
remain (on the outside) ______________.

* * * * *

Okay, here’s my version:

From inside great families  (don’t call them ancestors)
the sun is smaller than usual,
as are the stars. Inside great families,
unlike friendships, are not individuals
and the people don’t care enough
to save you  (at least the memory isn’t small)
have no hope or dreams when they sit beside
their sons and daughters, pretending
to be happy in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like an icicle in my ear.
it melts, and I hear of this
a tragedy you can color with the whites
and marbles of grandmother’s parlor back home, tragedy otherwise
invisible as the price of love
a stray dog, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your back door, growing
it into something you will love, something that will still die?
Leave it alone; remember me a little to
the future; people shave their heads
into crystal balls here; I
remain (on the outside) alone.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts, Susan's Original Poems|Tags: , |19 Comments

Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic (Chapter 26)

I’m going backwards a step this week, to chapter 26, because I think the lesson in it is important one for me to remember and perhaps for you too. (I have a feeling Laura already has a habit around this idea but I’m working to develop one.)

This chapter is all about small stones. Now that caught my attention right away because I am forever picking up stones. When we removed the lawns from our yard I had a field day collected little tiny no bigger than your thumb pieces of smooth stones. I have a pile of them in the yard I keep adding to.

The other thing that spoke to me in this chapter is that it is all about doing something that I am trying to get better at doing, slowing down and being in the moment so I can notice what is right in front of me. I am really trying to make the effort to do that because every single time I do, poetry and words just spew forth. It’s like they were just hanging around waiting for me to open my eyes.

This very short chapter talks about how another writer, Fiona Robyn, started a website (http://asmallstone.com) to record her small stone thoughts. On that website she says, “a small stone helps me pay proper attention to one thing every day. I hope it will help you to do the same.

I have tried more times than I can remember in the past to keep some kind of regular journal or something to record my daily thoughts and outside of this blog, that doesn’t work for me. But small stones, poetic fragments, perhaps that’s doable.

She suggests trying for three thoughts per day. 1, something in nature. 2, observe yourself in a relationship with someone or something and 3, seek out something you might not otherwise notice because you’re unconsciously filtering it out.

I really like this idea because it fits in with my idea of slowing down and being in the moment while also trying to train myself to observe the ordinary around me. It also goes hand-in-hand with the other habit I am trying to cultivate, ala Beth Kephart, which is to write 5 metaphors a day.

I invite you to share your three poetic fragments for the day in the comments below.

And a note from Laura about next week’s conversation. She’d like you to start thinking about a song whose lyrics really touch you. You”ll want to have one in mind for her post next week.

Okay these are quickies. I want to come back try to add to these fragments but here’s a first pass.

1. something in nature.

Wasps building holey huts under the eaves.
They work as hard as the bees but for much less credit.

2. observe yourself in a relationship with someone or something

Letting paint spill across the page makes me feel like I have just taken a humungous breath of fresh air.

3. seek out something you might not otherwise notice because you’re unconsciously filtering it out.

Dust on the white moldings reminds me beach sand.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: |15 Comments

Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic (Chapter 33)

Now, on to Chapter 33 and the discussion of line breaks. I was so glad to see this chapter because line breaks is one of the things I most struggle with in my poems. I felt a bit better when she said she thought ten poet laureates would break a poem in ten different ways. But of course, being a rule follower, I wanted to know the RIGHT way to do it. But I think the message here is there is no right or wrong way, there is only the way of the individual poet based on what they want the reader to feel, to take away, as they read the poem. Some line breaks will be a leisurely stroll and some will feel like you’re on a runaway train.

The line breaks that confuse me most of all are the ones that break mid-idea and leave me hanging. I keep studying the poem to see if I can discover the answer to why it breaks a certain way but usually I can’t. This is part of what makes me feel dumb about poetry because I want to understand that which often can’t be understood but only felt. I like the idea she gives that you want to end the line on the word you want the reader to linger on a bit longer.

I think line breaks will always be hard for me until I learn to trust myself as a poet.

I chose the first exercise she listed. She took the poem Lake and Maple by Jane Hirshfield and wrote it in paragraph form and then suggested that we try putting in the line breaks. I haven’t read that poem before so it is all new to me. I’ll go looking for a copy after I play with my own line breaks with it (in the comments.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: |37 Comments

Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic (Chapter 11)

Welcome to chapter 11 of Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic.

This chapter is about thinking outside the box when it comes to using sensory descriptions. Instead of thinking what lonely feels like, we try to imagine what it tastes like, sounds like. By using unusual and unexpected sensory definitions we get a richer experience. I loved the idea behind this chapter. It’s something I’ve been doing with students for years but, as often happens with me, I don’t practice it nearly enough myself.

I will say that kids amaze me when I use this sort of writing with them. When I’m doing a residency, one of the first writing exercises we do is to identify the senses and then brainstorm expected words/phrases to go with them. Then I have them them throw out a word and I write it on the board…say “honesty” and then they have to use each of their senses to tell me what home looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like and smells like. I will often preface this exercise with a reading from the fabulous Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler.

I think this chapter reminded me of what I am trying to accomplish by doing this Write After Reading project – actually WRITING the exercises. Exercises are good for us. Physical ones and written ones. I don’t do them enough. I think what happens to me after reading an exercise such as this is that there’s a soundtrack in my background that says, “Yes, that’s a great idea. Wow, look at those examples. Those people are so creative. If I do these exercises I will be more creative too. Except I hear the dog asking to go outside and it’s almost time to go to the dentist. And I’m not really awake yet….” And so I close the book and forget about it. I’d like to be kinder to myself and take a little time each week to play with some no pressure exercises like the ones in this chapter.

I am off to the dentist to fix a lost crown but when I come back, I think I’ll work on the following exercise:

Who does red love?
What kind of shoes does anxiety wear?
What does jealousy eat for breakfast?
Where does fear live?
What did blue borrow and why?
How does pink sing?
What does truth taste like?

The idea is to answer the questions very fast….don’t over-think them.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: |34 Comments

Learning to Paint

I chose Chapter 7 from Writing the Life Poetic because I have always been fascinated by the original poem, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (by Wallace Stevens) and the many variations it has spawned. I confess, I’ve wanted to do my own take on it but have been a bit too lazy.

These are very short chapters so if you haven’t read this one yet, you have time to go read it and come back. Really. It’s just a couple of pages long. I’ll wait.

What stood out to me in this chapter is the phrase, “Writing poetry is discovering ways of looking.” It’s all about learning to be here, now, and in the moment during days when we are usually busy racing around trying to get more things done in less time. If you are going to look at something in 13 different ways you’re going to stay with it for a while, long enough to slow down and get up close and personal. And while you’re looking at whatever has captured your poetic mind, you may (and will likely) wander away from the original subject. And that’s okay.

I think one of the reasons I love writing poetry is that the nature of it forces me to slow down and be more in the moment.

This chapter advises that when you want to write about a particular subject and you’re feeling stuck that you can utilize one or more of the various ways of “looking” at the subject to jumpstart your poem. I won’t list all the ways of looking. They’re in the book. 🙂

I’m not going to try and use all 13 ways of looking that are listed in the book but I’m going to pick one and do a poem around it. I think I’ll go with #2, which says, “If it moves, how does it move? In what direction? Using what energy source? Toward or away from what? If it doesn’t move, describe the quality of its stillness.”

I hope you’ll play along. You can do the same exercise I’m doing, or if you have the book, feel free to pick a different way of looking at your subject.

This is just rough draft play time. No need to stress over this. Have fun!

If you want to be prepared for next week, Laura will be doing chapter 9.

Okay, here’s mine. I would call this more of a poetic thought than a poem but it’s something I might go back and play with at a later date.

Learning to Pain

Thick, like butterscotch pudding,
paint pools on the canvas
until I push the brush
making waves from corner to corner
drops of yellow to drops of orange
a droplet of red, then another,
swirling the bristles until the colors
blend then burst
across the page
like a sunrise
calling for me to come out and play.

Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved

Wednesday, March 23, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts, Susan's Original Poems|Tags: , |16 Comments

Write After Reading

Today is the first installment of a joint blogging conversation between Laura Salas and myself. We both tend to buy a lot of books with writing/poetry exercises in them and we actually read the books but somehow we never quite get around to doing the exercises. We’re hoping that reading the same book together will help us follow through on the exercises. We’ll alternate the Wednesday conversations between our two blogs. Laura and I will take turns posting a bit about a chapter and then sharing an exercise that we’ve done from the book.

This week Laura got things started with chapters 1 & 3. Even if you don’t have the book to read along with us, you can certainly participate in the conversation and the exercises.

So I invite you to join us as we read and write our way through the book, Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011|Categories: Poetry Prompts|Tags: |3 Comments