Saturday, December 3, 2016

Prormpt #269 – The Enduring Appeal of Holiday Poems

Holiday poems and stories have an enduring appeal, and most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

With this prompt, we’re going to do some variations on the past, present, and future theme, and you’ll need to think about your own past, present, and future Christmases, Chanukahs, Kwanzaas, or other annual winter-season celebrations.

Note: Did you know that Nobel Laureate, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so taken with Christmas that he wrote a Christmas poem every year (now collected in his book Nativity Poems)? Click Here to Order

Here’s an example:

Star of the Nativity
By Joseph Brodsky (December 1987)

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

And here’s one of my all-time favorite winter holiday poems:

Are We Done Yet?
By Gail Fishman Gerwin (from Dear Kinfolk)
When my daughter was four
we lit the Chanukah candles
on the wedding-present menorah
atop the Lane record cabinet,
our first purchase as a married couple.

In our new home we could peer
out the window at the house below,
where the Todds’ Christmas tree
in their den blazed lights of every
color, reflected by glossy ornaments,
all leading to a star on top that seemed
to descend directly from Heaven.

We chanted our prayers,

Barukh atah Adonai,
Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam,

allowed Karen to hold the
shamash, the service candle,
for her first time, hustled Katey
to the other side of the room
lest she set her pajamas aflame.

Our ritual complete, we gifted
the girls—a doll, a book, a toy
schoolhouse—sang songs
from preschool (only a hundred
sixty-four dollars for an entire year,
reads the bill I unearthed in the
basement as I rummaged through
that crowded cavern where we
store our past).

Dinner, I told everyone, the greasy

latkes already burning at the edges
as they sat in oil on the new gold
General Electric range.

Wait, Mommy, I have a question,
Karen said, what’s that in the window
over there? It’s a Christmas tree, I told her.

Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?
Because we’re Jewish, I said. She wanted

to know then, before eating brisket
cut into small pieces so she wouldn’t
choke, before crunching the latkes,
now on the edge of soggy,

           When will we be finished being Jewish?

1. Write about a holiday from your past (dig deeply into family memories).
2. Write a poem in which you compare winter holidays of the past, present, and/or future.
3. Write about seasonal ghosts that haunt you.
4. Write about people from your past who are no longer with you and how that impacts your present holiday season; or, write about one special person with whom you always associate the winter holidays.
5. Write about aspects of winter holiday traditions that remain part of your annual celebrations.
6. Write about the faith and/or cultural aspects of your winter holidays.
7. Write about one unforgettable winter holiday.
8. Write about holiday food treats and how they sweeten your memories.
9. Write about a holiday song that replays in your mind because of its associations (or, write your own words to a Christmas carol or other winter holiday song).
10. Write a poem based on an old Christmas, Hanukkah, or other winter holiday photograph.
11. Write about a historical holiday-time event.
12. Write about a winter holiday yet to come. You might consider a fantasy poem with a futuristic sensibility.


1. Keep in mind that holiday literature can be tricky—be sure to sidestep the pitfalls of sentimentality, schmaltziness, nostalgia, and clichés. 
2. Work toward fresh and original language, figures of speech, and an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
3. Show through examples and imagery—don’t simply tell.
4. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
5. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too). 
6. Think about your poem, what it reveals about being human, and how your readers may relate to it.

Additional Examples: 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

An Advent Reflection by Guest Blogger Joe Weil

This week’s guest blogger is Joe Weil, an old and dear friend whom I met at Barron Arts Center in 1981. Winner of the 2013 Working People’s Poetry Competition (Partisan Press), Joe is the author of several full-length books of poetry and chapbooks. Widely published and a noted performer, he appeared in Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary, “Fooling With Words” and has been featured in the New York Times and in notable quotes for the New Yorker. He is currently a lecturer at Binghamton University. Husband, father, poet, musician, composer, performer, and teacher, Joe and his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, live in upstate New York with their children Clare and Gabriel (Gabriel, whose birthday is December 9th, is my godson). Joe's most recent poetry collection is A Night in Duluth.

Joe’s faith, which has always been an integral part of his poetry, is eloquently expressed in this Advent reflection that brings art and spirituality together in prose and poetry that speak to this very special time of year. 

I first posted this reflection a few years ago, and thought this Advent (which begins tomorrow) 
would be a nice time to revisit it. Thank you, Joe, for sharing with us!

From Joe Weil

An Advent Reflection

In one of my poems I called it “that dark season where poverty is blessed.” Or something like that. It is literally the season of early darkness, of least hours of light, though the sun is closer now, and if, like me, you are a watcher, you will note it is a purer light on those days when it is cold and the air is clean and clear. The leaves have all fallen. We can see decay and smell the mulch everywhere. The rocks on my way through the Delaware water gap are my favorite grey. I always joke with Emily that I can close my eyes and hear the black bears snoring in their dens of fallen oaks or small caves and crevices. As we drive through the Gap to go to one of our readings, I say: “There’s bear up there.”

The bears have gone to sleep—not a true hibernation, but a modified shutting down of vital signs. On days of false spring they may even wake for a few hours. They are like us in this respect: dozing, depressed in the sense of low energy. The message of Advent is: Shemah! Listen. Hear the weak pulse of life flowing where the water is too swift to freeze. Observe the pin oaks that do not relinquish all their leaves, and the pines, and the boughs trembling because a squirrel has just leapt from shade into shade. Christ is coming. Christ does not come in the obvious place or the obvious light. He is not in Jerusalem in mid summer. He is in the midst of darkness and poverty. He comes to say: there is nowhere, not even in all this seeming death that I do not abide—and abide more richly with my grace. Or as I think my poem on Advent says: “Despair more deeply into joy.”

Because of my faith, my life is still tied to the seasons. This wintering cannot mean less to me. I am awake each night to the stars, and to the rocks. I know what it means to be alone, even in the midst of my family, and to feel the full madness and beauty of the song “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” They don’t sing it very often in my church anymore because we have become this manically cheerlessly “cheerful” country that treats any deep and beautiful sadness as if it had cooties. They sing these inferior songs that have none of the truth of Advent. It is a dark season. Our hearts are broken. We hunker down and long for something that will console us in our exile from joy. “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Oh Israel. To thee shall come Emanuel.”

Rejoice does not mean cheer up. It means to hear the trickle of water still rushing in the stream. It means to be the thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush:” Joy unlimited (a joy of which Hardy is unaware). It means to intuit Bethlehem—that nowhere town—and to believe in the deep cave of one’s being that something good, something to redeem us can abide there—in the dark, not in spite of it. To see Bethlehem and know its worth is the whole of Advent: this little place of poverty, this nothing town in the shadow of Jerusalem. If we were going to quote Williams: “this star that shines alone in the sunrise towards which it lends no part.” It is the light lit from within that the world can not teach us to see. Grace is there. It is what Whitman meant when he said he preferred the air to its perfumed distillation:

“The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it has no taste of the distillation.... it is odorless. it is for my mouth forever... I am in love with it,/ I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked./ I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

This is a great poet defining his own Bethlehem—the little place where poverty, where the not distilled and free air of the naked and visible is blessed.

So, for me, Advent is a season of being ambushed by grace. I stay watchful and yet am ambushed. I am alert yet am taken unaware. God shows me my blindness. God grants me the dark I need to know what light I have dismissed. Today my wife is getting the lights and I am hanging them. When I was little, I loved the way the cold air gave the lights a halo. I was made for it as Walt suggests. I am still mad for it. My poem “Christmas 1977” was written when my mom had been dead almost a year, and we all thought it was going to be a terrible Christmas, but our love and mutual grief made it one of the best Christmas Eves I ever had:

Christmas 1977
By Joe Weil

Here, where it is always Bethlehem
grimy and grieved—a slum lord’s kind of town,
I watch old Mrs. Suarez string her lights
against the common vespers of despair.

I watch her nimbly snub the cold night’s air,
thwarting a fall into the snow ball bush
beside which Mary calmly stomps the skull
of Satan. Look! Her lights are coming on.

Blue with white specks where the paint has chipped
and yellow, green, all rising to full glow
big gumdrop lights draped from post to post,
haloed where their heat meets the cold.

And something in me tears or has been torn
a long, long time though I have read Rimbaud,
and have been known to chew on my own spleen
and spend an evening jesting at such a God.

Something in me tears and will not mend.
Take up this broken hymn and sing it there
for Mrs. Suarez wobbly and infirm,
who, soon, will be too old to climb her chair.
For her I hang this broken Christmas hymn—
here, where it is always Bethlehem.

 This Week's Prompt

For your prompt this week, write a poem (using Joe's poem as inspiration) about a particular Christmas or any other winter holiday that holds a particular place in your memory.  If you observe the Advent season, try writing about this time of year.

Note: Below is one of Joe’s best-loved Christmas-season poems, the title poem from his book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved). 

Painting The Christmas Trees
By Joe Weil

In my odyssey of dead end jobs,
cursed by whatever gods
do not console,
I end up
at a place that makes
fake Christmas trees:
some pink, some blue,
one that revolves ever so slowly
to the strains of Silent Night.

Sometimes, out of sheer despair,
I rev up its RPMs
and send it spinning
wildly through space—
Dorothy Hamill
disguised as a Balsam fir.
I run a machine
that spits paint
onto wire boughs,
each length of bough a different shade—
color coded—so that America will know
which end fits where.

This is spray paint of which I speak—
no ventilation, no safety masks,
lots of poor folk speaking various broken tongues,
a guy from Poland with a ruptured disk
lifting fifty pound boxes of
defective parts,
a Haitian
so damaged by police “interrogation”
he flinches when you
raise your arm too suddenly near,

and all of us hating the job,
knowing it’s meaningless,
yet singing, cursing, telling jokes,
unentitled to anything but joy,
the lurid, unreasonable joy
that sometimes overwhelms you even in a hole like this.

It’s a joy rulers
mistake for proof of “The Human Spirit.”
I tell you it is Kali,
the great destroyer,
her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.
It is Rachel the inconsolable
weeping for her children.
It goes both over and under
“The Human Spirit.”
It is my father
crying in his sleep
because he works
twelve hour shifts six days a week
and can’t make rent.

It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
sans green card.
It is a nation that has
spiritualized shopping,
not knowing how many lost
to the greater good of retail. It is Marta the packer
rubbing her crippled hands with
Lourdes water and hot chilies.
It is bad pay and worse diet and
the minds of our children
turned on the wheel of sorrow—

no language to leech it from the blood,
no words to draw it out—
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
and who can stop it, who
unless grief grows a hand
and writes the poem?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Prompt #268 – Remember and Give Thanks

Thanksgiving will take place this coming week and is a day set aside here in the United States (other countries have similar days) to remember and give thanks—it's a time when families and friends gather, a celebration of sharing, community, and gratitude.

For this prompt, I invite you to write a poem about something for which you are grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of grumbling about what we don’t have, miss, need, etc., that this is a great time to take a step back and acknowledge the gifts and blessings that we have in our lives. Instead of focusing on deficits, let’s focus on abundances.

A form that lends itself to this prompt is the kyrielle. Once very popular, the kyrielle originated in France, dates to the Middle Ages, and takes its name from kyrie (found in many Christian liturgies). Many hymn lyrics were written in this form, but kyrielle content is not limited to religious subjects. A traditional kyrielle is often short, octosyllabic (each line contains eight syllables), and is typically presented in four-line stanzas. A traditional kyrielle also contains a refrain (a repeated line, phrase, or word) at the end of each stanza.


1. Begin by thinking about things for which you're grateful. Think in terms of particulars and details—not ideas, but specifics (i.e., not love, but an example of love that you've known; not friendship, but a particular friend).

2. Think of places in which you've been especially thankful (the “geography of thanks”). Think of the people who were part of the story.

3. Write a few ideas for “thankful” refrains (repeated line, phrase, or word) before you begin writing the poem. You may want to use this refrain in your poem.

4. Write a quatrain (four-line stanza) about a particular thing for which you're thankful. Each line should contain eight syllables. If you wish, you may create a rhyme scheme. The last line, phrase, or word in your first stanza will become your refrain.

5. You may write about one thing for which you're grateful, or each quatrain may be about individual things that have inspired your gratitude.


1. Remember that with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not “drive” your poem.   If the form begins to feel forced or unwieldy, you may switch to something less deliberate (i.e., free verse, prose poem).

2. There is no limit to the number of stanzas a kyrielle may have, but three is the generally accepted minimum. So … your poem should be at least three stanzas long.

3. Try to work with a rhyme scheme —a good way to exercise your poetic muscles. However, if rhyming isn’t your thing, go with what works best for you.

4. The kyrielle is exceptionally versatile, and you can have a lot of fun experimenting with this prompt. Just keep in mind that the theme and tone of your poems should be thankfulness.

5. If the kyrielle doesn’t appeal to you, feel free to write your “thankful” poem in any form that you wish!


Kyrielle by John Payne (1842-1916)

A lark in the mesh of the tangled vine,
A bee that drowns in the flower-cup's wine,
A fly in sunshine,--such is the man.
All things must end, as all began.

A little pain, a little pleasure,
A little heaping up of treasure;
Then no more gazing upon the sun.
All things must end that have begun.

Where is the time for hope or doubt?
A puff of the wind, and life is out;
A turn of the wheel, and rest is won.
All things must end that have begun.

Golden morning and purple night,
Life that fails with the failing light;
Death is the only deathless one.
All things must end that have begun.

Ending waits on the brief beginning;
Is the prize worth the stress of winning?
E'en in the dawning day is done.
All things must end that have begun.

Weary waiting and weary striving,
Glad out setting and sad arriving;
What is it worth when the goal is won?
All things must end that have begun.

Speedily fades the morning glitter;
Love grows irksome and wine grows bitter.
Two are parted from what was one.
All things must end that have begun.

Toil and pain and the evening rest;
Joy is weary and sleep is best;
Fair and softly the day is done.
All things must end that have begun.

Poems about Thankfulness and Thanksgiving:

“Te Deum” by Charles Reznikoff

“Thanks” by W. S. Merwin

“When Giving Is All We Have” by Alberto Ríos (audio)

“Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis 

“Thanksgiving Day” by Lydia Maria Child

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Prompt #267 – Writing from an Emotional Place

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.
— Robert Frost

Emotion is poetry can be a tricky thing that begs the question, “How does a poet convey genuine emotion without being ‘emotional’ or sentimental?”

This week’s challenge will be to write a poem in which you convey an emotion without stating what that emotion is. In other words, your poem will show rather than tell the emotion.


1. Think about a time in your life that was characterized by a high level of emotional response (e.g., marriage, birth of a child, divorce, death of a loved one).

2. Return to that time in memory. What did you feel (joy, happiness, love, anger, depression, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, grief)? How did you express your emotion? What other people were involved? What were others’ reactions to the emotional trigger? What exactly happened (not an emotional interpretation—just the facts)? How did the emotional time return to normal? Are there lingering effects even now?

3. Begin by asking yourself what you want your poem to “do.” Where do you want it to go? You might make a few notes of things you want to include. Importantly, what do you want your readers to fee when they read your poem?

4. Begin writing by setting a time, season, and/or place, and then move your poem forward.

5. After you have completed several drafts, experiment with a stanza pattern (3, 4, or 6 lines in each stanza—don't do this too early in the writing process or you may find yourself writing to accommodate the stanza plan rather than the poem’s meaning).

6. After you’ve written what feels like a complete poem, set the poem aside for a few days. When you come back to it, think about what the poem doesn’t need and remove rather than add. most importantly, is there any overstated emotion that you can work out of the poem?

  • Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
  • If you're writing a poem about a time that you were angry, remember that this isn't a rant poem. Instead, examine the memory of an angry time and to show it as it was without telling it overtly.
  • Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
  • Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.
  • Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything—leave your readers room to enter the poem and personalize it.
  • Avoid “preachiness.” Don’t worry about what your readers might learn or not learn about the joys or pitfalls of a particular emotion.
  • Be wary of concluding with a sentimental or emotional statement, no matter how heartfelt such a statement might be. Emotions, blatantly stated, can detract from the power of a poem.

Example (a villanelle written by Dylan Thomas to his dying father):

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Prompt #265 – Behind the Mask


With Halloween just a couple of days away, masks and their particular psychology seems an appropriate subject for this week's poems—not literal masks, but the emotional and psychological variety.

In ancient Celtic times, people believed that they needed masks as protection against evil spirits that appeared around All Hallows’ Eve. Masks are still popular, and this time of year is characterized by every kind of mask from Snow White and Elvira the Vampire to Robin Hood and Freddy Krueger. However, there are masks that people wear year round that are psychological masks to protect themselves from various insecurities. 

At one point or another, we all fear revealing our true selves, and so we hide behind masks of seeming indifference when we care too much, anger when we’ve been hurt, bullying when we feel we have no power, wearing expensive or outré clothing when we feel inferior, and outward shows of success when things like jobs and marriages are failing. Just as children (and many adults as well) do on Halloween, we all (from time to time) mask who we really are and take on a sense of being something other than our true selves. The “masks” we wear protect us from our vulnerabilities.

This week’s prompt deals with acknowledging a “mask” you’ve worn at some point in your life (past or present) to hide your true feelings from others, to hide something imperfect about yourself from the rest of the world, to make yourself feel better about something going on in your life, to hide emotional scars, or to help you move forward. 


1. Begin by thinking about times you've worn a metaphorical "mask." Then, on paper, generate a simple list of those times.

2. Look at your list and pick a time to write abut (only one time). 

3. Consider the emotional reasons you wore a mask, reasons you felt a need to hide your true feelings from someone (or several "someones").

4.  How did you hide who you were or might become? What was the nature of your "mask?"

5. Here’s a formula for starters, which may be helpful. Remember that this to get you started if you’re not sure how to beginyou’re not bound to this in any way.

Line 1 (or more): Set the scene or time.

Line 2 (or more): Identify who else figures in the “story.”

Line 3 (or more): What happened to make you feel a need to hide something?

Line 4 (or more): What was it like behind your mask? 

Line 5 (or more): How different are the masked you and the real you?

Line 6 (or more): How did you (or perhaps you haven’t) let the mask drop?

6. After you've worked your poem into a form that feels close to finished, give it some time away and then come back to it. Read it out loud. Edit and tune it. 


When you start writing, you might consider using paragraph form. This may develop into a prose poem, or you may wish to work out lines after you’ve drafted the paragraph(s).

Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly.

Leave your reader something to reflect upon.

Challenge the ordinary—connect, reveal, surprise

Create unique and startling imagery.

Avoid the passive voice and "ing" endings; remove prepositional phrases whenever you can.  

Remember that too many adjectives can ruin an otherwise good poem.  

Point toward something broader than the obvious content of the poem.

Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

Example:  We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
              We wear the mask!

And now, for some Halloween fun,
my distinguished poet friend, BoneYard the Poet Ghoul,
wears the "mask" of his ghoulishly delightful persona in this Elegant Skulls video.