Saturday, May 30, 2015

Prompt #224 – Therapy Poems

I haven’t thought about it for many years, but my master's thesis dealt with the use of creative writing as an ancillary therapeutic technique for gifted and talented students. I have, from time to time after, used the term “therapy poems” when speaking about poems that serve a  “healing” purpose for adults and younger poets alike. Such poems are helpful in, among other things,

1. Developing self-awareness and an understanding of self perception,
2. Establishing a “safe” venue for “venting,”
3. Defining and clarifying situations and feelings,
4. Helping to increase coping skills and to encourage positive change.
5. Working toward spiritual wholeness (creatively and cognitively).

This is the technical bit, though, and there’s much to be said for not over-thinking the process and simply sitting down and writing a poem that brings a sense of catharsis, healing, and peace (even if the central issue hasn’t been resolved).

From the time humankind learned how to write, poetry has been a way for people to express their deepest emotions, and poetry as a healing tool was known among ancient shamans who chanted poetry for the well-being of both tribes and individuals. And did you know that Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in the US (founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751), included reading, writing, and publishing patient writings. I suspect that for each of us, there’s a personal poetry pharmacy from which we can draw for our therapy poems—a little word chemistry that we can mix up to help us define and clarify at least some of the experiences that trouble us.


Think about the poems you’ve written and identify any that fall into the category of “healing” poems.

Did writing those poems help you to feel a little a better about an experience or a relationship?

Did those poems bring you a sense of release?

It’s important to understand that writing a poem about something troubling isn’t necessarily going to solve the issue, but it might help you to feel better about it.

Now, think about something in your life right now that’s troubling, worrying, or otherwise an issue of one kind or another (a relationship issue, a work-related situation, a family conflict, health concerns, grief, loss).

Begin with a free write in which you tell about something that’s troubling you and how you feel about it. Wait an hour or two and then go back to what you wrote. Is there anything there that you might work into a poem? Give it a try!


1. Write in the active, not passive voice.

2. Write in the first person.

3. Don’t just tell about the issue; rather, try to show it through images and figures of speech.

4. Don’t give too many details—allow readers an opportunity to identify with your issue.
5. The best poetry offers opportunities for readers to see things in a new and different way. think about that as you write.

6. Don’t forget that concrete words are better than abstractions. For example, instead of simply stating that you feel sad (an abstract word), how might you convey that idea more concretely?

7. As you develop a strong emotional center, be careful to avoid sentimentality and overstated emotion.

Examples (a few of my own “therapy poems” by way of sharing):

“Survivor” (health issues)

“Like I Said” (general stress)

“Twilight and What There Is” (coming to terms)

“If It Hadn’t Been” (loss)

“As Simple As” and “It Should have Been” (relationships)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Prompt # 223 – Person, Time, and Place

This week’s prompt deals with a particular memory and how you write that memory into a poem. There are three main components: when the event occurred (time), who the key player other than yourself was (person), and where the event happened (place).


1. First, think of a person who has been important in your life. This may be someone with whom you’re still in contact or someone who is no longer part of your life. Select only one person.

2. Then, spend time thinking about that person and one special occasion or event related to him or her.

3. Next, think about the time the event happened (season, month, date, time of day—you don’t have to include all of these, just enough to provide a sense of “when”).

4. Now, identify the place where the event occurred.

5. Move forward to jotting down some images that connect you back to your person and time. You may want to free write for a bit or perhaps just begin with a list of memories.

6. Work from step 5 to focus on specific details (remember not to overload your poem with too many), and let your poem begin to take shape.


1. Decide what type of poem you want to write: narrative, lyric, prose, etc.

2. After you’ve gotten your first draft ready for editing, look for overuse of adjectives, prepositional phrases you can delete, “ing” endings, and too many articles and conjunctions.

3. Decide whether you want to write in the first person or possibly the third. Which will give the poem greater power?

4. Decide on stanzas—do you want to divide the lines into stanzas, or would you prefer to use stichic format.

5. As you near your finished poem, consider how your memory, your, person, and your event might move beyond the personal into the universal. How will potential readers relate to your poem?

6. How does your poem reveal, connect, and surprise?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Prompt #222 – A Sense of Place by Guest Blogger Margo Roby

This week, I’m very happy to introduce Margo Roby 
who joins us with a guest prompt about place in poetry. 
Margo, poet and blogger, has written in her poetry journal:

“I, as far as I knew, did not have a poetic bone in my body, although I always loved reading the stuff. Dimly, in a well-buried brain cell, I remember writing a nativity poem, in quatrains, many quatrains, for my parents. There was a drawing on the card, too. I cannot draw. But that was long, long ago and definitely far, far away.

In 1992, a miracle happened in the shape of the poet Jack [James, if you are Googling him] Penha, who arrived to teach English lit and Creative Writing, in my department. He was, and is, an internationally published writer. I was a brand new teacher not at all sure how one analyzed a poem, never mind taught it. I asked whether I could attend his poetry writing semester in the hopes that if I knew what went into writing a poem, I would be able to analyze a poem. I was right. Bonus: I discovered I had an ability to write poetry. I have been in thrall ever since.”

Be sure to visit Margo’s blog Wordgathering:

From Margo:

Think about what you mean when talking about place, in poetry. Is it physical, emotional, or facts? How do you go about establishing, or creating, a sense of place?

Place, or a sense of place, is one of the aspects of poetry that continually gnaws at the corners of my brain. Place fascinates me because it encompasses everything: time, past, present and future; a locale’s inside and outside; whether it is natural or man-made, landscape or city; as well as, what makes each place unique. A sense of place includes the history of each place, what has happened in the past, how the place has evolved, what it might become. A sense of place includes its geography, everything from its topographical features to its weather.

I saw it referred to—on the now defunct blog, Inkseeds—as a sense of “whereness.” Where we fit, how we fit, wherever we may be. The author speaks of building our personal mythologies and our identities “largely from the materials of where we are from, where we have been, where we are, where we wish we were... place is formed by our personal and cultural myth, which in turn creates the very concept of place.” No place, no us. Place is our context for being.

Jennifer (no last name) goes on to say: “Place [is] also the impact of human presence – people who are in a place now, people who lived there before. Place includes politics, environmental concerns and community. It includes both the effects of time, and our changing perceptions over time. Any stories we have or poems we make about place include us, as poets, as part of the landscape whether we are just passing through or are a permanent resident.” That’s something to consider, isn’t it?

Place is informed by all our senses. Think of the place you say you are from, or the one you call home. Along with images are going to come smells and sounds. In some cases, like mine, taste might come into it. I grew up eating Chinese food. It informs my sense of place when I think of where I am from, Hong Kong. I tried to grapple with capturing Hong Kong in a poem, my sense of Hong Kong, for others to experience. I ended up with a list poem of imagery. All the senses. A long list.

With all the digital access to places, we have entry points to anywhere we wish to be, but a sense of place requires feet on the ground to anchor a place’s persona. We have to experience a place, its history and its culture, the aspects that make it Tuscany, not Wisconsin, Chicago, not Paris, a coffee shop, not a five star restaurant.

Dr. Thomas Woods (Making Sense of Place, Inc.) describes it as “The feel of the sun on your face or the rain on your back, the rough and smooth textures of the land, the color of the sky at morning and sunset, the fragrance of the plants blooming in season, the songs and antics of birds and the cautious ramblings of mammals are environmental influences that help to define a place. Memories of personal and cultural experiences over time make a place special, favorite objects that shape to your hand or body with use, songs or dances that emerge from the people of a place, special skills you develop to enjoy your area—these too help to define a place and anchor you in it.” (

You can tell I can go on, but I want to start you thinking about place in your life. Get out your pen and notebook, your tablet, your recording device and let’s go. List places you have lived. As you list, jot notes, sensory details that define a place, for you. List places you have visited. List places in your day to day life. Yes. More notes. Sensory details. While you are jotting, your brain will continue pulling up details for places on your list. Here are some possibilities for what you can do with your discoveries:

You can either choose a single place and give us a sense of the place;

Or, you can find commonalities, a thread that connects more than one place, and focus on that thread;

Or, you can write about your connection to a place, but remember the sensory details that will help us be there with you (remember the speaker is never the writer -- if you need to change facts for the good of the poem, do so);

Or, maybe you have a truth you want to convey about a place that is being/has been lost, whether for natural, economic, or political reasons;

Or, you can look at a poem such as Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’ (link below), choose a place of your own and mimic the poet’s structure.

When you consider establishing the sense of place in your poem, remember sensory details and think about whether a specific form will work to enhance the content.

You will notice that a sense of place is inextricably tied to a poem’s mood as well as a speaker’s tone. Here are a few poems that give a strong sense of place. Their authors tend to focus on place in their poetry. Go through the poems after you read them and study how each poet establishes a sense of place.

Robert Frost  “A Late Walk”

Elinor Wylie  “Sea Lullaby” (if I were a child and read, or heard this, I’d never go near the sea again)

James Wright  “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (The title, alone, gives a tremendous sense of place.)

Seamus Heaney  “Bogland”

Many thanks, Margo!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Editors Look For

Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

We all know that poetry’s appeal is largely subjective and that publishers and editors naturally, and understandably, have individual preferences when it comes to the poems they choose for publication. Publishers and editors may not be the ultimate arbiters of what is and isn’t good work, but if seeing your poems published is among your goals (and it is an important part of the “poetry life” for most of us), then it’s not a bad idea to think about what makes particular poems compelling enough to publish.

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to poll some poetry journal publishers and poetry editors (print and electronic) to gather some ideas about the qualities of poetry that editors want for their journals. These represent the specific “criteria” of certain editors, but I suspect that many editors look for similar things. Here’s hoping that these will be helpful to you! (Be sure to click on the links given with each entry to visit the journals and editors/publishers online.)


John Amen—The Pedestal Magazine
“We’re certainly looking for compelling images, rhythms, particular kinds of cohesion and non-cohesion, paradoxes, juxtapositions, new angles on old themes. Definitely there’s something to be said for solid craft, too; still, originality, while incorporating craft, also perhaps transcends it, making craft “its own,” so to speak. The unique perspective delivered via a compelling voice goes a long way. Balance of composition, which is obviously somewhat of an abstract and subjective term, also comes to mind as an appreciated element. It’s hard to offer clear criteria, though there are qualities, values, even aspirations that seem to push a piece of work in a memorable direction.”

John is founding editor of The Pedestal; visit John online:  

Renée Ashley—The Literary Review

“Generally, I look for language that surprises and delights me; I call it “language that lifts its head off the page”—and I want an interesting mind working behind that language.  I want the sense that I’m in good hands, that the author knows exactly what she’s doing, that there’s a sure-footedness about the piece, that it’s active rather than passive, that along with humor, should there be humor, there’s a sense of gravitas, of consequence, of complicity. Tess Gallagher once said that contemporary poetry was “flat-footed and too full of sunlight.” I agree, and so what I’m looking for is an impressively high arch and deep, meaningful shadows. I want all these elements to work seamlessly and the poem to leave me, when I’m back in the real world, with my jaw hanging open and my head shaking back and forth in awe. If all that comes together, I say the poem has “tooth,” and if it has tooth, it’s a poem I’ll take seriously.”

Renée has been poetry editor at The Literary Review and Tiferet, and is now an editor-at-large for The Literary Review; visit Renée online: 


Laura Boss—Lips

“For almost 35 years, since I first founded Lips, I am still drawn to narrative poems I find emotionally moving and where the poet is a risk taker in terms of subject matter and candidness. Clarity and freshness are a plus. Most poems in Lips lean toward specificity rather than the abstract. Lips still looks for the strongest unpublished work of a poet.”

Laura is the founding editor of Lips; visit Laura online: 


Maria Mazziotti GillanPaterson Literary Review 

“I look first at the work. I do not care about bios or professional affiliations. I read the poem, the story, the essay and decide whether it is a piece of writing that moves me to tears or laughter or makes the hair on my arms stand up. If it doesn’t do that, if it is only polished language, it's not writing I want to publish. I read all submissions myself, and the journal reflects my strong narrative bias.”

Maria is the founding editor of Paterson Literary Review; visit Maria online: 

Mary-Jane Grandinetti—Shot Glass Journal and The Fib Review

"What I look for in a poetry submission is first how well the poet has acknowledged the submission policy and is respectful in their submission. I can’t tell you how many poets have replied sarcastically when I’ve asked them to resubmit their poems according to our policy. That tells me that the poet is only out to get “published.” I look for poets who instead feel their work is their best work and they want to share that with the world. I look for submissions that speak from the heart; where the poets express themselves in an experience that the reader can relate to, rather than the poet’s own singular, personal experience. In other words, I look for the “universal” experience. I prefer a poem that has a sharp ending or turn that makes the reader go “Ah” or “OOh” at the end. I don’t particularly like sentimental love poetry that can’t translate to the universal experience. I look for wit, humor and a focus on the poet’s knowledge of the mechanics of poetry. I find too many poets don’t know how to use metaphor or enjambment, etc. to benefit the poem or make it better." 

Mary-Jane is editor of both Shot Glass Journal and The Fib Review; visit Mary-Jane online:


Gina Larkin—Edison Literary Review

“I look for poems that make me want to read them a second and third time, not because they are difficult to understand, but because they grab my mind and don't want to let go. Shorter poems stand a better chance only because our journal is small in size. I hope that poets have read our journal and/or have checked the web site for the latest information. I look forward to reading your work. We are presently reading for our 15th Anniversary Issue—check web site for specific needs for this issue.”

Gina is founding editor of Edison Literary Review.

Priscilla Orr—The Stillwater Review 

“So, we have three editors who choose, Jeannie, David and me.  We go through the poems individually pulling out the poems that are strong and that speak to us; then we meet and we spend a day together choosing poems. We read them aloud to one another. In the process, the manuscript begins to take shape.  We have a balance of narrative and lyric preferences on our team.  A strong poem has an energy that comes through the pile with its synthesis of music, image and language—syntax, diction, etc. As we work, the poems begin to speak to one another.  Sometimes a poem may be strong but not a good fit. But we love the process, seeing new work from writers we know, and work from writers new to us.  It’s a labour of love.”

Priscilla is the founding director of the Betty June Silconas Poetry Center, The Stillwater Review’s home base; visit Priscilla online:


Tom Plante—Exit 13 Magazine

“In college I focused on the study of geography and poetry. I'm attracted to the mystique of the landscape and the way people react to their surroundings. In poetry, especially poems I would publish in Exit 13 Magazine, I look for the universality of human experience in a variety of locations. I'm looking for the reflections of wide-eyed travelers—how we communicate our experiences and reflect on the geography around us, whether we're in our backyard or we're on some fantastic voyage. What catches our eye and how it reflects our search for meaning and joy in life.”

Tom founded Exit 13 in 1988 and has been its publisher/editor since.


Nancy Scott—U.S. 1 Worksheets

“We are a poetry journal and we look for work that follows our guidelines, is formally submitted, not hand-written on lined yellow paper (yes, we get some of those), and demonstrates knowledge of craft, e.g., we get prose masquerading as poetry, although we do publish prose poems by poets who have mastered the distinction. We also look for unique voices, an original twist we don't expect. We like images, not abstractions. In the last issue, we published work about buttons and popcorn, tigers, Brooklyn, and Van Gogh.”

Nancy is the long-time managing editor of U.S. 1 Worksheets; visit Nancy online:


Donna Baier Stein—Tiferet Journal 

At Tiferet, we look for poems that offer even a glimpse of a spiritual experience. We believe that such experiences are unique to the individual and not confined to any one religion. Our world is terribly divisive now, so we make an effort to find poems that express our common humanity. What most excites me is when I sense that the poet is doing his or her best to explain the ineffable. Personal peak experiences may come from traditional religious rituals, nontraditional paths like meditation or yoga, or simply being in nature or with a loved one. 

Donna is the founding publisher of Tiferet; visit Donna online:


Emily Vogel—Ragazine

“I do my best to publish the poetry of both well-known and emerging poets. I publish the work of nationally recognized poets, the work of lesser known poets, and the work of student poets who are struggling to make their voices known. I do not have a limited aesthetic for the work that I publish. If it strikes me as something that might resonate with Ragazine’s audience, I send out my acceptance. I like inventiveness as well as the narrative tradition. When a poem is good, a poem is most certainly good, regardless of aesthetic discipline—I just have an intuitive hunch.”

Emily is poetry editor of Ragazine.


Many thanks to the editors who shared their comments!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Prompt #221 – Dazzling Dismounts

If this prompt feels familiar, it probably is. It was originally posted on March 28th, three days before the annual National Poetry Month post. I decided to remove the post on April 1st, post the annual Poetry Month "inspirations," and re-post this prompt in the event that you might like to spend more time with it after the Poetry Month reading and writing.

Have you ever read a poem that fell flat at the end? A poem, perhaps, that failed to come to closure in a memorable way? In my workshop groups, I always encourage participants to “dismount” with a punch. That is, to conclude their poems with something powerful, stunning, remarkable. This isn’t about simply “summing up” or coming up with a clever ending. This is about not letting a poem slip through a crack in your keyboard but, rather, creating a poem that looks for and finds a substantial way out—what I call a “dazzling dismount.”

Take a look at these last lines by famous poets. What is it about them that makes them memorable? What ineffable quality do they possess? 

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
—T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
—W B Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” 

I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.
—Edna St Vincent Millay, “Sonnet” 

Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
—Christina Rossetti, “Remember” 

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted ­– nevermore!
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” 

If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
—William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 116” 

I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” 

What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
—William Blake, “The Tyger” 

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music – do I wake or sleep?
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” 

And then my heart with pleasure fills And dances with the daffodils.
—William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” 

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
—William Ernest Henley, “Invictus” 

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
—Seamus Heaney, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” 

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
—Mary Oliver, “Breakage”

This week, the challenge is to write a poem starting with the last line. I know this sounds contrived, and perhaps it is, but remember that this is an exercise to be used in working toward the goal of writing a good poem. Several poets I know agree that there are times when a last line “appears” before any other part of the poem, and it is from those lines that their poems develop.


First, “play” with some last-line ideas—just think up what might be great last lines. Write them down.

Then, think up some first lines. These first two steps will give your poem its “bookends.”

Next ... think, think, think ... and write the body of the poem.

Finally, read and revise. Make changes. Toss lines and phrases, even the first and last lines if you come up with better ideas.

Tips (dos and don’ts):

Don’t: End with a moral.

Don’t: Close with an “I’m going to tell you what this poem is about” ending.

Don’t: Go with an expected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.

Don’t: Use up all the air in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.

Don’t: Undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.

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).

Don’t: Close the door on your poem; leave it slightly ajar.

Do: Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.

Do: Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.

Do: Use more one-syllable words than multi-syllable words in your last couple of lines (think in terms of strong verbs and no superfluous language).

Do: Try (minimal) repetition from another part of the poem—sometimes this can work very well.

Do: Resist the urge to apologize (or to even suggest apology).

Do: Leave your reader something to reflect upon.

Do: Point toward something broader than the body of the poem.

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


Go back to some of your already-written poems and check out their dismounts. Are there some that might be better? If so, try working on them!