Saturday, October 14, 2017

Prompt #294 – Autumn & Halloween


 
It’s that time of year again! Autumn and Halloween! Time for colorful leaves, pumpkins, a special crispness in the air, as well as ghosts, goblins, ghouls, a touch of suspense, a bit of mystery, and poems to fit the occasion! Located on the calendar between autumn and winter, harvest and scarcity, Halloween is associated with early festivals and traditions, especially the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st.

Because Halloween falls on the 31st and is coming up soon, I thought I’d post two Halloween prompts for you to enjoy this week and next.

BTW, did you know that the poet John Keats was born on Halloween in 1795? His last poem is an untitled, eight-line fragment that seems chillingly well-suited to Halloween:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

It’s widely believed that Halloween was influenced by western European harvest festivals with roots in earlier traditions, especially the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st. According to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, the Celts gathered around bonfires lit to honor the dead. At Samhain, the Celts believed that the wall between worlds was at its thinnest and that the ghosts of the dead could re-enter the material world to mingle with the living. At Samhain, the Celts sacrificed animals and wore costumes (most probably animal skins). They also wore masks or colored their faces to confuse faeries, demons, and human spirits that were thought to walk among them.

As Christianity began to replace earlier religions, the feast of All Saint’s was moved to November 1st, making the night before All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Originally celebrated on May 13th from 609 AD, the date of All Saints’ was changed by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD to November 1st, the same day as Samhain. All Saints’ was followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd and, by the end of the 12th century, these days together became Holy Days of Obligation—days in the Church’s calendar set aside to honor the saints and to pray for the souls of the recently departed. Related traditions included groups of poor people and children who went ”souling” from door to door on All Saints’/All Souls’ to beg for traditional soul cakes (mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentleman of Verona when Speed accuses his master of puling [whimpering] like a beggar at Hallowmas). In return for the soul cakes, the beggars promised to pray for the households’ dead. “Souling” is very likely the older tradition from which today’s trick or treating evolved. Click Here for a Soul Cake Recipe

Halloween history notwithstanding, how about writing  a poem that “remembers” an autumn or Halloween time in your life? That is, a “historical” poem based on your own history.

Guidelines:

1. Touch base with an autumn or Halloween memory, think in terms of a narrative poem (one that tells a story), and let the memory guide your poem. 

2. Be sure to evoke a mood or tone that’s compatible with your subject.

3. Imagine that you are an object of Halloween lawn décor. What would you be? Why would you choose to be that?

4. Autumn may also be an alternative subject that powers your poem. Create imagery that expresses autumn.

Tips:

1. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

2. Create a tone or mood that appropriate to your subject. Remember that the verbs you choose will give your poem momentum and a sense of trajectory.

3. As you develop your poem, move away from the obvious and work toward deeper meanings.

4. Work to engage your readers by using precise imagery and by layering meaning through similes, metaphors, and sound value.


Examples:

“Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern”  by David McCord

“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg


And … by way of sharing, here’s a Halloween prose poem from my book, A Lightness, a Thirst, Or Nothing at All.

Halloween

Trick-or-treaters come to the door repeatedly—little ones early, older kids into the night until she runs out of candy and turns off the outside lights. The wall between worlds is thin (aura over aura—stars flicker and flinch). The woman buttons her coat, checks her reflection in the mirror, and stands cheek to glass (eye on her own eye, its abstract edge). She leaves the house (empty house that we all become)—shadows shaped to the trees, crows in the high branches.






Saturday, September 30, 2017

Prompt #293 – Pick a Picture


Have you ever looked at the Mona Lisa, or at any other painted portrait of someone you know nothing about, and wondered what the person was like at the time the image was created? We all see images differently. When we look at a photograph or a painting, we see something literal. The ways in which we interpret a photo or painting depends on a wide range of variables as we engage our individual experiences, perceptions, differences, ages, and cultural backgrounds and bring them into the interpretive mix. This week’s prompt will begin with a picture (painting or photo) that you will choose to write about.

Guidelines:

1. Look through a newspaper, look at photos online, or select a painting (contemporary or time honored, there are many from which to choose online) of a person—someone unfamiliar to you. It’s important that the picture or portrait not be of a well-known person—in other words, choose a picture of someone you know nothing about. There should be only one person in the photo (like the photo above).

2. Either free write about the picture or make a list of words that describe the person in the picture.

3. Next, make a list of things that the picture suggests to you. When you look at the picture, what do you see? What does the person’s expression imply (the eyes, smile, frown, etc.)? What emotions do the picture bring to mind? Physical features will get you started, but then begin think about what the person’s story might be.

4. Does the person in the picture make you think of a particular emotion, an issue, a social injustice, a tragedy, or perhaps a happy ending?

5. Write a word “portrait” about the person in the painting or picture. You may even try writing in the first person, as if the person in the picture is speaking. (You might want to try a humorous approach.)

Tips:

1. 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).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

Example:








Saturday, September 16, 2017

Prompt #292 – "From Here to There" by Guest Prompter Penny Harter



As you know, I like to offer you prompts and poetry-related posts written by poets other than me.  Back on August 2, 2014, poet Penny Harter wrote a guest prompt that dealt with haibun and the spiral image. I’m very happy to post, with my sincerest thanks, another prompt, "From Here to There," that Penny recently wrote for us.
____________________________
  
Earlier, at Adele’s invitation, I sent her the following paragraph for her blog about the various ways we poets end our poems. I’d like to expand on that with some suggestions and sample poems:

"How I end a poem is not usually a conscious decision. However, I do know that I want my poems to take a turn toward (or at) the end, similar to the turn in a good haiku. At the heart of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images or ideas across a kind of "spark gap". And these images connect in a way that both startles and seems inevitable. When I look back at poems I wrote some years ago—or even at occasional recent work—I find myself saying, "Well, I like the imagery, or the sound, rhythm, theme, etc., but if I reach the poem's end and it hasn't gone anywhere, hasn't taken me from here to there (wherever here and there are), it doesn't satisfy me." For me, writing a nice representational poem doesn't feel like enough anymore."

As poets, we know that all things are connected, one way or another. But sometimes those “connections” within our poem are like quantum leaps—the path of our writing suddenly taking an unexpected turn. For this to happen, we have to be open to where the words may be leading us.

Speaking of connections reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do about a difficult relationship. I wasn’t even writing about it; perhaps, I was afraid to do so. After a poetry reading when I told a poet friend about my dilemma, she asked me, “Where is your life in your writing? Your poems will know what you are going to do before you do!” And the shock of her question gave me permission to begin writing about it. Once that door was open, I wrote so many that the poems became a book—and discovered my solution in the process.

Just as what we write often reveals to us aspects of ourselves we didn’t know were surfacing, so, too, the turn in a poem can reveal to us an aspect of our poem it didn’t know it had. We won’t know where it’s going until it gets there.  

Example:

Here’s one of mine that leaps toward the end:


When I Taught Her to Tie Her Shoes

A revelation, this student
already in high school who didn’t know
how to tie her shoes.

I took her into the book-room, knowing
what I needed to teach was perhaps more
important than Shakespeare or grammar,

guided her hands through the looping,
the pulling of the ends. After several
tries, she got it, walked out of there

empowered. How many things are like
that—skills never mastered in childhood,
simple tasks ignored, let go for years?

In the Zen tradition, When the student is ready,
the teacher appears. Perhaps that is why this
morning, my head bald from chemotherapy,

my feet somewhat farther away than they
used to be as I bend to my own shoes, that
student returns to teach me the meaning

of life: not to peel my potato, though that,
too, counts, but to simply tie my shoes and
walk out of myself into this sunny winter day.

Copyright © 2016, Hospital Drive, http://hospitaldrive.org/2016/12/when-i-taught-her-how-to-tie-her-shoes/

This poem was triggered by my reminiscing about years of teaching high school English. I suddenly remembered the surprise (and irony) of the sophomore girl whose shoelaces were dragging, and how when I suggested she tie her shoes before she tripped, she said she didn’t know how.

I started writing about that, and suddenly, my being in the midst of a course of chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis, which I hadn’t wanted to write about...yet...thrust itself into the poem.  I named it right then and there with, “Perhaps that is why...” , and the connection fell into place. In the process, I found myself affirming that I was going to "walk out of myself" into a sunny day" (versus a dark night of despair).

Guidelines:

1. Think of a memory that has stayed with you. It need not be a "big moment". Sometimes the most simple and ordinary moments are redolent with meaning for us. On the other hand, you may recall a challenging or sorrowful memory, or a very happy one.

2. Jot down as many images and feelings associated with that memory as you can. Make sure to list both nouns and verbs, as well as short phrases. Try to avoid tried and true emotional judgmental words like "beautiful, exciting, sad, scary," etc. Be as specific as you are able, and your reader will  "get it" without being told.

3. Start free-writing your poem. It may come out in verse or prose format. That doesn't matter in the beginning.

4. At various points throughout your draft, ask yourself, "What else does this remind me of?" Or, "How does this connect with my present life?" If you can answer either or both of those, your poem can make a turn right there. A poem can make more than one turn, sometimes earlier within it as well as at the end.

5. Decide whether you want to break up lines from a prose format into verse, or leave your piece a prose poem.

6. Look at your stanzas or prose blocks and see what you can do without. I often find I delete the first verse, or even more. Sometimes the engine of a poem has to rev a bit before you find the real poem several lines or verses into it. Also see whether you might want to rearrange your stanzas or blocks of prose. Sometimes a middle or final verse can work as a powerful beginning.

7. When you think you have finished your draft ask yourself whether you have ended up somewhere different, found an unexpected destination or revelation. Assess whether your poem goes beyond merely painting a pretty word-picture, taking both you and the reader somewhere new.

8. Keep writing :)!


About Penny Harter:

Penny Harter's poetry and prose has been published widely in journals and anthologies, and her literary autobiography appears as an extended essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 28, as well as in Contemporary Authors, Volume 172. Her essays and poems also appear in the writing guides Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, The Crafty Poet I: A Portable Workshop, and The Crafty Poet II.

Penny’s most recent books include The Resonance Around Us (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013); One Bowl (prizewinning e-chapbook, 2011); Recycling Starlight (2010); and The Night Marsh (2008). A Dodge poet, Penny was a featured reader at the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Arts Council, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).


Be sure to visit Penny online at the follow websites:


To order Penny's books:



Saturday, September 2, 2017

Prompt #291 – Poems for Summer's End



I recently listened to an old song called “So Long, Sweet Summer” by Dashboard Confessional, and realized that August came and went, and it’s already September.




There’s always a certain sadness when summer ends, but there’s also also a kind of hopefulness that heralds the celebratory comings of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas.

Of course, the end of any season may bring with it a mix of emotions, but the movement from August to September means that the abundant season will wind down and despite the brightness of autumn, we all know that winter is coming. For me, the reality of summer’s end has always happened at the beginning of September (even though here in the US, autumn doesn’t officially begin until September 22nd).

For this prompt, I thought it would be interesting to think about summer’s end and to write about an “end of summer” memory, things left to do before autumn arrives, one last visit to the beach, one more getaway—something still-summery for content but with a hint of autumn in the imagery.

While every season is a good time to take stock of our lives and to think about things that need to be changed and improved upon, the end of summer seems an especially appropriate time to me—a good time to think about things and to put a plan for change into action as we prepare for autumn and winter.


Guidelines:

1. Begin by generating a list of things (words and phrases) that you associate with summer.

2. Next, make a list of summer memories (good or bad).

3. Then, select one of your memories to write about.

4. You may want to start with a free write. If you do, incorporate some of the things you noted in your first list and see how you can turn them into appropriate images for your poem.

5. After you’ve done your free write, read it and look for ideas and images that you can use in your poem.

6. Try to begin your poem with a line that invites (or lures) your readers in.
7. Keep in mind that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

8. Think about how you can create a sense of relationship with your readers. How can you re-create your memory in a way that will enable and encourage readers to make a connection to it?

9. Give your readers something to reflect upon.

10. Point toward something bigger, more universal, than your personal experience.


Tips:

1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements.

2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to good poetry. Create a “wow factor” that lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple.

3. Watch out for clichéd images. Examine your poems carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, and how you can use these to enhance your images.
4. Don’t merely “ornament” your poems with images. Good imagery isn’t a pair of Louboutin shoes or a Rolex watch. Imagery doesn’t “dress up” a poem and should be only be used to present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Imagery that’s too deliberate or self-consciously “poetical” can ruin an otherwise good poem. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.
5. Be wary of “imagery overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image.

6. Don’t conclude with a sentimental or emotional statement (both sentiment and emotion may be heartfelt but, when they’re blatantly stated, they can detract from the power of your poem).
grateful.

Examples:

A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball by Christopher Merrill

End of Summer by Stanley Kunitz

Three Songs at the End of Summer by Jane Kenyon

End of Summer by James Richardson


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Prompt #290 – Reflections (Summer Re-Run #4)



The process of writing a poem is a process of reflection. Many, if not most, poems are reflections on one subject or another. This week, the prompt is to write a poem about reflections. Obviously, the “territory” is wide with lots of possibilities for content.

Guidelines:

1. You might write a reflection or meditation about a particular subject or you may write about a literal reflection (the moon in a window, your own face on a pond, a stranger in a mirror, etc.). Try to focus on the “here and now” of your reflection (stay in the moment to create a sense of immediacy in your poem), and remember that a good poem has two parts to its content: the obvious and the underlying.

2. Be conscious of caesuras in your poem (a noticeable pause in a line of poetry). Be aware that all of your pauses don’t have to occur with lines breaks. Caesuras are strong silences within lines of poetry. One of the best examples is Alexander Pope’s “To err is human || to forgive divine.” The vertical lines indicate the caesuras.

Here are examples of caesuras from an old nursery rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

And here are examples from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.’

3. Work on a sense of rhythm in your poem. By that I don’t mean a sing-song rhythm but something subtler—a deeper kind of music. Read your poem aloud to yourself as you write it. Try writing in iambs.

Tips:

1.  A reflection is a kind of meditation (What do you think about or meditate on?).
2.  A reflection may be heat, light, sounds, or an image.
3.  A reflection might be careful or long concentration or thought.
4. A reflection may be thought, idea, or opinion that results from concentrated thought on a  particular subject.
5. A reflection may be a manifestation or result (for example, His achievements are a reflection of his  hard work.)
6. Reflections may be theological (religious), philosophical.
7. Reflections may be on one’s own character, (flaws, strong points).
8. A reflection may be based on a quotation or popular saying.
9. A reflection may be based on a memory (the past) or a person.
10. A reflection may be funny.

Examples:

“Reflections” by Yusef Komunyakaa

“Reflections on History in Missouri” by Constance Urdang

“Interrupted Meditation” by Robert Hass

“Meditation Under Stars” by  George Meredith



Saturday, August 19, 2017

Prompt #289 – Letting Go (Summer Re-Run #3)



Some people believe holding on and hanging in there
are signs of great strength.
However, there are times when it takes much more strength
 to know when to let go and then do it.

— Ann Landers

In any context, letting go can be a painful (but sometimes necessary) part of life.  On the flip side, letting go can free us in much the same way that forgiving does. Have there been times in your life when you let something go and felt better for it?

In many ways, the past informs the present, but letting go is about much more than the past. Importantly, letting go is about freeing ourselves from fears, from impractical expectations, from uncertainties about ourselves, and it’s about affirming our value in the world.

This week, write a poem about a time that you let go.

Guidelines:

1. Is there a dream you’ve let go?

2. Is there a person or group of people you’ve let go? Have you ever ended a relationship that wasn’t working? Have you ever deliberately said “good-bye” to someone or something and felt better (or worse) for having done so?

3. Has there been a job you had to let go?

4. Have you ever let go of any personality traits, ways of thinking, old habits?

5. Has there ever been a hurt or an anger that you let go?

6. Has there ever been something that you couldn’t let go?

7. Is there something (or someone) in your life right now that you’ve thought about letting go?


Tips:

1. A poem should astonish its readers, either with an amazing story, with a unique view of something, or with insights that challenge (or change) the reader’s thinking.What insights can you share about letting go? What can you "let go" in your poem?

2. Your poem should contain at least one image or idea that takes the reader’s breath away.
  
3. Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense).

4. Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing.”

5. Be specific—avoid abstractions and generalizations. Imagery is key. Write about things, not ideas. William Carlos Williams wrote: “No ideas but in things.” Tell it “like it is” in specifics, not through philosophical musings on the “meaning of it all.

6. Work on a dismount that elicits a “wow.” 

Example:

This beautiful poem by my dear friend Linda Radice (1952-2017) describes having to "let go" of the family home in which she grew up and which she loved


Little Enough by Linda Radice

I don’t know why I drive by the house.
The new owners painted over my mother’s

blue doors, butchered her beloved Chinese Maple.
They tore off the steps my dad built. The circle

of rhododendron bushes my brother and I played in
were ripped out by the roots, discarded

with ivy yanked from the brick on the shadiest
side. The light colored roof was replaced

by a black one; the peak over the porch is gone.
There is little left familiar enough to call home.

Maybe the spruce my grandfather planted the year
I was born knew something I don’t. It fell in a

hurricane just months before the sale, barely brushed
the house, dented a gutter, gave in gracefully.