Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Wonder of Workshops by Guest Blogger Basil Rouskas

Have you ever attended a poetry workshop? Many poets, novice and experienced alike, find that attending workshops can be rewarding. 

Not all poetry workshops are created equally, and it’s always a good idea to do some research before enrolling and paying fees. A good poetry workshop, one worth your investment of time and money should:

1. Help you discover your writing strengths and weaknesses.

2. Provide you with practical suggestions (and, if applicable, non-judgmental critiques) for improving your writing, along with prompts and other motivational and generative resources.

3. Present opportunities for sharing your passion for poetry with other poets.

For this week’s guest blog, I invited Basil Rouskas, a long-time member of the poetry group I conduct to share some of his impressions of workshops and how they’ve been helpful to him. Some of you may be familiar with Basil’s work: for the past few years, he has written a poem a day throughout April (National Poetry Month here in the US) and has posted his poems as comments. (Our workshop, by the way, is in its tenth year, and I’m so proud of our members, all of whom have published numerous poems in journals and anthologies, have won awards, and have had books published.)

Basil Rouskas has been writing poetry for over 30 years. His first poems were written in his native Greek and were protests against the military junta that took over Greece and ruled it until the mid 1970’s. He translated literature and theater during his first years in the US, and gradually his poetry became bilingual. He currently writes mainly in English. He is the author of two books, Redrawing Borders and Blue Heron on Black River. A third book, The Window That Faces South, was quarter finalist in the third (2014) Mary Ballard poetry Chapbook Prize by Casey Shay Press. Basil’s poetry has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, Princeton Public Library Podcast, Helix Magazine, Shot Glass Journal, and Tiferet. In addition to being a poet, Basil is a management consultant, coach, mentor, advisor and expert in executive development. He is the co-founder of NovAspire and has taught at several institutions of higher learning. He has been a lecturer, consultant and leadership development instructor since 1993 at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management (MBA) at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

From Basil Rouskas

What I have found through ten years of sharing with the Westfield Poetry Group is easy to articulate: special people—both colleagues and coach. What that means is encouragement, inspiration, honest feedback, resources, books, and tips. (Oh, along the way we dissect poems and suggest things to each other. All of a sudden (over a period of years) we realize that along the way we become better at the writing “craft” as well.)

Specific Things that Evolve through Workshop Experiences:

       You discover your natural preferences for the poetry writing process. I prefer to first write out long hand in a notebook that I reserve for poetry only. Then I enter the draft into my computer’s word processing program

       You develop strategies for “hearing” your own work. I read all lines aloud when I write them

       You learn to evaluate sound in your own poems. When my ear is not happy with the sound of a word, I refer to an online thesaurus and substitute the word with many candidates. I then reread the draft again using each option until I find the one that works best.

       You develop systems for organizing your work. I file my poems so I can sort them out by date of creation or alphabetize by title

Note: I have a drop box account and save my poetry chronologically (for details, visit and establish an account. It is free.) One of the benefits of,  is that when I revise a poem, I automatically see it updated on my iPhone, where I also have Dropbox installed. This way I have my poetry always portable and I have an instant copy of  it on my regular desktop computer at home, without any extra effort.

Some Things I’ve Learned:

1. When I want to bring up the “energy” of a poem, I switch it into the present tense and read it aloud. If I like it, I commit to the new tense.

2. I don’t read poems at workshops or public readings that I have not revisited at least three times.

3. I avoid predictability like the plague. If a poem takes me down that path, I abandon it.

4. I read and mark (or copy) intriguing or touching stories from digital newspapers to use for inspiration.

5. I always read my “works in progress” and ask myself how I might make improvements. (For example, how necessary are all my adverbs, adjectives, and articles?)

6. I mark websites or URLs that contain rich language; I find they are great for kick starting a poem.

7. I visit and mark good Blogsites that offer prompts and craft tips. My favorite of these is right here (The Music In It).

8. At times I read foreign language websites, and I get inspiration from the sounds of foreign words I don’t understand. In doing so, if something intrigues me, I use Google translator to see if the meaning of the poem/song still interests me. I then put something on paper and revisit it within a couple of weeks.

9. I’ve learned to edit, edit and re-edit. And when I am editing, editing and re-editing, I cut, cut and re-cut. I’ve learned not to fear that I might “toss out and lose inspiration for ever.”

10. I’ve also learned not to push myself when the muse wants some time off on her own. We sometimes take a sabbatical from each other. We travel separately. When we see each other again, good things happen.

11. I read poets who are on the same wavelength and find that their work does miracles for my own new material. Some of my same wavelength poets are: George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska.

12. As an editing exercise, I translate into English poems from (my native) Greek, when I don’t have direct inspiration in English.

I realize I have been sharing a lengthy list here. If you ask me to condense it down to only three,  that have helped me the most, I would include:

A)  Form a community of honest competent poets and learn from them. Like other arts, your poetry stands on the shoulders of others’ work, book recommendations and balanced feedback.
B)  It is human to want to be published and share our work with the world, but I try to not lose  my “voice” just to make it more publishable.
C)  Cut, cut and re-cut (counts for only one word !)

PS. Here is an exercise you may try: Start with a poem that you have been struggling to complete. Decide arbitrarily a percentage    perhaps 30% — of words that you want to eliminate. Cut enough words to reach your goal. Every word processor has a “word count” feature. Once you’ve reached your goal, is the poem closer to where you want it to be? If yes, great. If no, cut more or consider “tossing” the current version. (Sometimes I find tossing a big relief from a thankless struggle. BUT … be sure to save and “re-use” lines and images for future poems.)
Thank you, Basil! 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Prompt #218 – Selfies

You’ve all probably heard of “selfies,” pictures we take of ourselves and then post on smartphones or social media such as Facebook. Some of these are funny. I even posted a close-up of my dog’s face on Facebook and noted that it was his own selfie. In a more literary/poetic mode, I recently re-read part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and got to thinking about “selfie poems” (poems that poets have written to be specifically “definitions” of themselves). There certainly are a lot of them, but I thought that, perhaps, a “selfie poem” with a slight twist might be interesting to try. So … this week, the challenge is to write a poem in which your past self talks to your present self.

Think in terms of who you were and who you are right now.


Begin by jotting down some character traits and experiences from your past (list, scribble).

Then, do the same thing and jot down some current character traits and experiences.

Think about what made you who you were and what makes you who you are.

Think about how you define yourself. What things define you?

After you’ve gotten some ideas, you might try writing in a dialogue format, going back and forth between “past” and “present.” (Of course, any form with which you’re comfortable is fine.)


Try using a few questions as a technique for expressing content and holding reader interest.

Experiment with sound—try to create a sense of music in your poem through alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhymes, off rhyme (also called slant rhyme and near rhyme), and anaphora. Use auditory imagery: give an impression of how something sounds though images.

Be sure to use concrete rather than abstract images. Change abstract words into concrete words when you revise.

Subvert the ordinary: see and show things in a new, exciting way. Take something ordinary and turn it upside down (subvert it).

Don’t overwrite—remember that less can be more.


"Song of Myself" By Walt Whitman

"Self Portrait" By Robert Creeley

"A Dialogue of Self and Soul"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Prompt #217 – Favorite Words

When I woke yesterday morning, the thermometer on my deck read 2º F. (– 17) C.) Brrrr! As much as I love winter, that's cold! Apropos of nothing in particular, after checking the outdoor temperature and putting out some bread and peanut butter for the squirrels, I sat down with a cup of Earl Grey and thought  about my favorite word. I know—what made me think of that? Do you have a favorite word? Mine is rill. I’ve always thought that if I were to use a pseudonym, the first name would be “Rill.” Interestingly, I’ve never used that word in anything I’ve written.

This week, I’d like you to think about your favorite words and then choose one to be the inspiration word for a poem.


1. Begin by making a list of words that you like (any part of speech—noun, verb, adjective—is fine).

2. After you’ve made your list, take a look at it and choose one of the words to work with.

3. Make another list of ideas, images, and emotions that your chosen word brings to mind.

3. Does your word make you think of a particular experience?

4. Begin writing, and let your “favorite word” guide the direction of your poem.

5. Be sure to use the word as, or in, your title.

6. An alternative is to choose a word you dislike.

7. And another alternative is to choose the weirdest word you've ever heard.


1. Be sure to include fresh language, concreteness, and a strong emotional center. Find the “power” in your word and give that power its head.

2.  Show, don’t tell.

3. Avoid “ing” endings and prepositional phrases.

4. Connect, reveal, and surprise (yourself and your readers). Remember that a good poem should astonish its readers in some way.

5. Perhaps pose a question that’s impossible to answer.

6. During the editing and revising part of your process, look for the “lifeless” parts of your poem and either give them life or get rid of them.


There is a Word
By Emily Dickinson

There is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man—
It hurls its barbed syllables
And is mute again—
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
some epauletted Brother
Gave his breath away.

Wherever runds the breathless sun—
Wherever roams the day—
There is its noiseless onset—
There is its victory!
Behold the keenest marksman!
The most accomplished shot!
Time’s sublimest target
Is a soul “Forgot.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Prompt #216 – Stolen Forms by Guest Blogger Melissa Studdard

This week's prompt comes to you from Melissa Studdard, a special friend and one of my fellow editors at Tiferet. Melissa’s debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was published by St. Julian Press. She is also the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah, its companion journal My Yehidah, and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. Melissa’s poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies. In addition to writing, Melissa serves as an editorial advisor for The Criterion, an interviewer for American Microreviews and Interviews, and a host for Tiferet Talk Radio. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a professor for the Lone Star College System in Texas. She is also a teaching artist for the Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. 

From Melissa Studdard

Writing is always dangerous; defying genre makes it more so. But we writers are thrill seekers, and here we stand with one foot in the conscious realm, the other in the unconscious, weaving new worlds out of the stuff of life and dreams. Here we stand, willing to spelunk, to skydive, to swim oceans and cross deserts. Here we sit, willing to forgo food, leisure, and sleep. And we say it’s all worth it—every minute and every hour—if we can just return to the keyboard with a beautiful phrase or some small insight worth sharing.

In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Peter Johnson states that, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” The same could be said of flash fiction, and, in fact, when the forms are functioning well, it’s difficult to tell them apart.

With this prompt, I’d like you to take defying genre even further, past the prose poem, past flash fiction too, and adapt another literary or non-literary form not usually considered poetic to your poetic ends. If you are stealing a non- literary form, you may choose to present your poem as a to-do list, an intelligence test, a menu, a recipe, an emergency procedure list, an instruction manual, and so forth. Choosing to adapt a literary form means you would choose to present your poem structured in acts or chapters, or you might add director’s notes as if it were a film.

Here's the link to a piece in the delicious form of a menu.

Here's a link to Emily Dickinson's "To-Do List."

And here's a link to a site with multiple stolen-form stories.

The technique of finding form first is often a great antidote to writer’s block. If you don’t know exactly what you want to say, you can allow form to guide you there. May you have a pleasant journey!

Guidelines and Tips:

Last week we “prefaced” this prompt with list poems. This week, think in terms of various forms of writing, and choose a form for your poem before writing. 

Let the form of the poem be your first guide and, then, let your poem’s content lead you to wherever it may wish to go.

Take some risks!

 From Melissa Studdard's Flashing the Borders workshop at  

Thank you  Melissa!

Visit Melissa online at

And be sure to check out Melissa's books at 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Prompt #215 - List-Ness

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that from time to time I ask you to start planning your poem by creating a list of relevant items. This week, we’re going to work on list poems. The idea of writing a list poem isn’t original—such poems have a long history. In fact, many interesting poems are actually lists or inventories. Over 200 years ago, Christopher Smart wrote a list poem known as "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry" in which he detailed what his cat did every morning (part of the longer work One of the Great Joys of Jubilate Agno”). Here’s an excerpt:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

Walt Whitman, one of America’s greatest poets, is known for using the “list format” in a number of his poems (please see the example poems below).

Most list poems are inventories of people, places, things, or ideas (often without transitional phrases). They can read like litanies. They work through a repetitive, sometimes patterned format, and they offer opportunities to think about sequencing.

The challenge this week will be to create a list poem but to give it substance beyond its “list-ness.” That is, the goal isn’t to simply create a list and call it a poem, but to take your list into something more profound. I strongly suggest reading the example poems for some ideas of how that can work.


Consider some possibilities for lists: 
  • What’s on Your Desk?
  • What’s in Your Desk Drawer?
  • What’s on the Top Shelf of Your Closet?
  • What Items are Stored in Your Basement?
  • What are the Important Books on Your Bookshelves?
  • In What Ways Do You Procrastinate?
  • What’s Your Emotional Inventory?
  • What Makes You Nervous (the “nail-biters” in your life)?
  • What Frightens You (things that “go bump in the night”)?
Think of other list possibilities—in fact, make a list of things for which you might write list poems.

Decide on your list, and then begin listing appropriate things.

After you’ve generated a substantial list, take a look at what you’ve written. Delete superfluous items. Think in terms or order or sequencing. Is there a better order for the items in your list?

What does this list call to mind? Where do the list items lead you? Is there something (theme, tone, emotion) underlying the list?

Edit, revise, rewrite.


Understand from the get-go that a list poem is deceptively easy to write—that is to say, good list poems aren't easy to create.

Walt Whitman’s lists suggest the range of people, situations, or objects in particular poems. He mastered the “inventory” or “catalog” style by presenting numbers of images without being overly repetitive and providing freshness to each line of a given poem. Think about this in your own work.

Write with a sense of your reader’s reaction. A purely personal list might not mean anything to most
readers. How can you make your list meaningful to anyone who might read your poem?

If the bulk of your poem is pure list or inventory, create a dismount with a twist or punch. Veer off into a different direction. Don't be afraid to make a sudden shift or to create a unique and interesting juxtaposition. Conclude with a statement that brings the list together (but be careful of trying the poem up in too neat a package).


“Apostroph” by Walt Whitman

Friday, January 23, 2015

Prompt #214 – The Language of Lunes

The Lune, also known as the American Haiku was created by poet and literature professor Robert Kelly as a response to traditional Haiku. His new “form” was a self-contained, tercet (three-line poem) that consisted of 13 syllables divided into 5, 3, 5 syllables per line (five in the first line, three in the second line, and five in the third line). Unlike haiku, though, there are no rules, no required kigo (season word), no cutting word, and no conceptual break (or the shift in perception that we often see in haiku). Kelly named his form the “Lune” because the right side of most examples creates a “syllabic shape” reminiscent of the crescent moon.

Poet Jack Collom devised a variation of Kelly’s Lune in a self-contained tercet that is word-based rather than syllable-based: three words in the first line, five words in the second line, and three words in the third line. Just as Kelly imposed no other rules, neither did Collom.


Decide which form of the Lune you’d like to try (Kelly’s syllable-number form, or Collom’s word-number form).

Then, simply write an image/thought of three words or five syllables as your first line and see where the poem takes you. Here are "formats" for you to experiment with (copy and paste into your document, and then fill in the lines).

Robert Kelly Style Lune (This style doesn’t use capitalization or punctuation.)

Line 1: Five Syllables

Line 2: Three Syllables

Line 3:  Five Syllables

Jack Collom Style Lune (This style does use capitals and punctuation.)

Line 1: Three Words

Line 2: Five Words

Line 3:  Three Words

If you like Lunes, try writing a series of related Lunes or a Lune poem that contains several Lune-stanzas (individual but related "links" that line up on the page like stanzas).


Stick to the format, and work toward the leaping (and crystal-cutting) quality of haiku.

Think in terms of imagery (Lunes are great for developing a sense of image).

Don’t try to be profound—simply make a statement and then “play” with the words to “pump up” your idea. Go for a moment in time, a small enlightenment, something wonderfully ordinary.

By nature, both Lune forms require strict attention to the words you use. Choose carefully!


A Lune from Robert Kelly’s book Knee Lunes.

     thin sliver of the
     crescent moon
     high up the real world

A Lune from Jack Collom’s  “Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write.”

     When the sun’s
     rays hit the shades, it
     lights up lines.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prompt #213 – Tell It to the Birds

Everyone likes birds. 
What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears,
 as close to us and everyone in the world, 
as universal as a bird (David Attenborough)

Note: I had some issues with this prompt when I first posted it on Saturday. Title and links font colors changed to an awful neon blue and, no matter how I tried, I couldn't correct them. After much "fiddling" about, and some great advice from our friend Diane Lockward, I deleted the post and have redone it. The blog seems to have "righted" itself, and all seems okay. I apologize to those of you who left comments, which were lost with the first post. Maybe you won't mind re-posting them? Thanks, dear readers, for your patience!

I’ve always loved birds (they appear frequently in my poems), and I raised small exotic birds for many years. Although I don't have any exotics living in the house with me now, I feed the backyard birds, especially during the cold months, and I always look forward to seeing them—from the nondescript sparrows to the brilliant cardinals.

This week, I’d like you write create a poem in which you direct your comments (a kind of monologue) to a bird. You may be serious or humorous, but the idea is to come up with a theme that somehow relates to or juxtaposes bird life and human life. For example, some possible themes might include freedom, flight/flying, providing for children, and not wanting to be caged (literally or figuratively).


Think of all the bird species you know and select one (i.e., sparrow, lark, robin, canary, zebra finch, parrot, macaw, hawk, egret, heron, mourning dove, early bird, night owl, phoenix, stork).

Make a list of things that you might say to a bird—work toward a single theme and stick to that theme.

Write a poem in which you talk to a bird-member of the species you chose.

An alternative might be to address comments to more than one bird (that reminds me of the story about St. Francis of Assisi and how he preached to a flock of birds).

Or, you might want to try a conversation with a bird in which you and the bird speak to one another (dialogue rather than monologue).

You may prefer a humorous approach and address a bird that dropped a little “something” on your shoulder or head, the stork that delivered your son or daughter, the crow that stole a piece of your jewelry, or the parrot (parakeet) that learned a few naughty words.


Think in terms of no more than a 12-15 lines.

Don’t spend a lot of time in describing the bird—focus on what you have to say to it.

Depending on which source you consult, you’ll find that various birds are symbolic of different qualities. Here are a few general ideas:

Doves symbolize peace.
Eagles symbolize power, resurrection, and courage.
Cranes symbolizes long life and immortality.
Falcons symbolize protection.
Nightingales symbolize love and longing.
Sparrows symbolize hope, gentleness, and intelligence.
Swans symbolize gracefulness and beauty.
Herons symbolize self-reliance and determination.
Hawks symbolize guardianship, illumination, and truth.
Woodpeckers symbolize magic and prophecy.
Robins symbolize joy, hope, and happiness.
Cardinals symbolize loved ones who have passed.
Crows symbolize trickery, cunning, and theft.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Prompt #212 – Whatever You Do, Don't Read the Articles

If you’ve ever written for a newspaper, you know that newspaper articles must have headlines that say, “Stop and read this article.” They have to be accessible and engaging. The same is true for poems—“stop-and-read-me” titles (and first lines that invite you in) are imperative. And, like good newspaper headlines, good poems are driven by strong verbs. This week’s prompt uses newspaper headlines as the springboard for your poems.


Pick up any newspaper (current or old) and write any headlines that “jump out at you” on a piece of paper. Whatever you do, don’t read the articles, only the headlines.

Jot down headlines that immediately flash an image for you or cause you to remember something from your own or someone else’s past.

Jot down headlines that “speak” to you either figuratively (metaphorically), creatively, or remind you of actual events.

After you’ve written 5-10 headlines, sit back and read through them slowly. Make a few notes for each one.

Now, choose one and begin to write a poem based on what the headline suggested to you. Feel free to make up the content of the poem—you aren’t limited to actual experience.

For an interesting twist, check online for a foreign language newspaper, find a translation of the headline, and see what you can do with a headline in a language other than the text of your poem.


Use the active, not passive voice and strong present-tense verbs to create a sense of immediacy.

Try working with a “first, then, next” format to give the poem a sense of chronology or sequence, possibly formatting your poem in three stanzas. Feel free to make your stanzas long and closely packed.

Consider writing a narrative poem (though this is only a suggestion and not a requirement).

Work on strong verbs and a few, well-chosen adjectives.

Watch out for “ing” endings and prepositional phrases—eliminate these wherever you can.

Work on sound in your poem—that is, concentrate on alliteration, assonance, and a few internal rhymes or anaphora to give your poem a kind of music. Read your poem aloud with each bit of editing and revision and think about how it sounds.

The exact text of the headline that inspired you needn’t be included anywhere in the poem.


Couldn’t find a single one, so please send me some!