Saturday, February 27, 2016

Prompt #247 – What If

Last week, Deborah LaVeglia, my friend and fellow poet, posted the Coleridge poem below on her Facebook page, and I was so grateful to her for reintroducing me to a poem I've always found intriguing but haven’t read in years.

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in you hand
Ah, what then?

The whole "condition" of "if" in this poem fascinates me. Some time ago, in prompt #188, we worked with "if" clauses. (Click here for prompt #188.) That prompt, was intended to address the specific ways in which conditional clauses create mood, conditions, limitations, dependencies, and expectations. The Coleridge poem suggests something different, and our goal this week will be far from the same.

Poems like the one above can empower our imaginations (and surprise us) as we briefly leave what we know and move into a place of fabricated experience where we aren’t bound by geography or time.

Accordingly, this week, let’s write “What If” poems. Not “if, then” poems in which an idea put forward is followed by a result. Instead, simply consider a single “what if,” and don’t speculate on what happens because of it. In other words, try to write a poem based on the poem above but make it your own.  This will call for some special thinking and planning.


1. Spend time thinking about an occurrence with unexplainable connotations (read the Coleridge poem again).

2. Once you have an idea, begin by free writing for a while.

3. If you have trouble with this one, try working your poem around the pattern of Coleridge’s poem. Set your poem up, initially anyway, to look like Coleridge’s. Here’s rough idea of what I mean:

What if _____________
And what if _____________
In ______________
You ____________
And what if ________________
In your _____________
You _________________
And ___________________
And what if ______________
When ________________
You had ______________
Ah, what then?

(Notice that all lines begin with caps and there's no terminal punctuation until the last line.)

4. Keep in mind that the idea is to pose the question of a “what if” but not to offer any answers, results, or “what happens after.” Leave your readers with an aura of mystery and something to think about!


1. Create an impression of the unexplained. Leave your “what if” unanswered—don’t even hint at answers.

2. End with a question.

3. Think in terms of image and sound, pace and nuance.

4. Include details—but not too many, and beware of using too many adjectives. Remember that your goal in this isn’t to create a picture but, rather, to create a sense of mystery and question.

4. After you’ve written a few drafts, let the poem sit for a while (a few days even). When you go back to it, take out anything that isn’t absolutely essential.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Etiquette for Soliciting Poetry Readings by Guest Blogger Joe Weil

This week, I’m happy to introduce (or re-introduce) you to poet Joe Weil.  If you're a long-time blog follower, you may recall Joe's previous blog contributions (click on the titles below to read):

I’ve known Joe since 1981 and have long admired his amazing poetry, his quick wit, and his uncommon intelligence.

Joe was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey and has been described by The New York Times as personifying that town: "working-class, irreverent, modest, but open to the world and filled with a wealth of possibilities." After atttending St. Mary of The Assumption grade school and high school, he worked the graveyard shift at various factories for more than 20 years, mainly at National Tool and Manufacturing in Kenilworth, New Jersey. During this time, he became involved in hosting poetry readings in both New Jersey and New York, and founded the literary magazine Black Swan Review. He is currently a lecturer in the creative writing department at Binghamton University. He and his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, have two children—Clare and Gabriel (Gabriel is my godson).

Often, when I conduct workshops, I’m asked how poets go about getting readings. Readings are important to those of us who write. They offer opportunities to share our work "up close and personal" and to connect in real "poetry time" with our audiences. As a reading series director since 1998, I think I've probably "seen it all" when it comes to poets looking for reading venues. There are definitely "dos" and "don'ts."

When I saw that Joe had written something about exactly that, I knew I wanted to share it on this blog. So … here it is, with my thanks to Joe for his permission to post it. 

Enjoy, learn and, hopefully, get some readings going.


Etiquette for Soliciting Readings by Joe Weil

1. Before sending a brochure online or hard copy of what you have to offer as a featured reader, it's always good to get an email address and send a query letter to the host asking if he or she or they wouldn't mind getting a brochure or packet via online or hard copy. These are materials. A simple packet may include:

a web site address where they can behold your glory, or, if sans web, a packet of sample poems, brief bio, a nice JPEG, list of previous readings and name of the book you may be trying to sell. You can also include press clippings, an actual video of you reading, anything you think will impress the host. But first inquire. Don't bombard anyone. As a host of readings for over 20 years I hated the hard sell. The poets who were good never pressured me. Remember some series are booked a year in advance (this seems to be the fact of funding and organization), so, if the host does not book you right away, be patient, and, if the reading is near you, why not go and support it? Do the legwork. If there's an open, read a poem in it—one really good one. Half my readings came from initially reading in the opens.

2. Make sure, if you're doing several readings in an area that, you don't book in such a way that you diminish one series for another—in short, try not to read within 20 miles of the same series at least three weeks before the gig. If you're reading in Philly and New York City, or some other place crowded with readings, then that's a different ball game. Show up early. Don’t pull the “show up late and therefore be the headline feature.” I hate when poets show up late for their own gigs. It's all too often a power game. They want to control the event. If you are late, call and let the host know you're lost or brain dead or whatever. Don't just flutter in with your three names and your Ezra Pound cape.

3. If possible stay for the whole event. Be gracious if there's an open, stay and listen. What you receive for your graciousness and presence exceeds any snobbishness or loathing you might experience. I HATE snobs whose elitism exceeds their talent. If you're truly a genius, I might tolerate it. Otherwise, I'll never have you feature for me again because you took off and left the people who came to see you high and dry. If you have to leave early, please be slavishly apologetic about it. I love slavishly apologetic. Even when it’s insincere, I prefer it to "Sorry. Have to go! See you later!"

4. Never, ever, over-read! Under-read by about a minute. If someone gives you an hour, they've made a pact with boring. Can you honestly hold a crowd for an hour without the little coughs and groans mounting? Never, never, say: “Four more poems!” or “Two more poems!” or anything other than "This is my last poem." I hate when I'm sitting there and my attention span is already stretched into transparency and I hear: “four more poems.” NOOOOOO! Don't do that to me (or to any other sentient creature).

5. Practice your readings, get an idea of how much time each of your poems takes, including intro, chit chat, etc. Good chitchat is part of the performance. Bad chitchat (such as a five minute speech before a haiku) is awful. If you're going to riffle through pages looking for a poem (and we all do that sometimes) be coy and flirtatious and as attractive as possible while doing so. Adjust your glasses, take a sip of water. Use that space to center the audience. Don't just fumble.

6. If possible, include one poem by another poet—a favorite, preferably one you know by heart. Dylan Thomas filled half his famous readings with the works of other poets.

7. Keep a log of how your set went. Keep track of how many books you sold. Observe the crowd. Old, young, academic, townspeople?

8. Right now, people underplay reading, but it’s the best way to reward your publisher for putting out a book—get out there and sell it.


Joe's books are available via—
no poet's library should be without at least one! 

 Click on the titles to order.

Gabriel, Emily, Clare, and Joe

By Joe Weil

The winos rise as beautiful as deer.
Look how they stagger from their sleep
as if the morning were a river
against which they contend.
This is not a sentiment
filled with the disdain
of human pity.
They turn in the mind,
they turn
beyond the human order.
One scratches his head and yawns.
Another rakes a hand
through slick mats of thinning hair.
They blink and the street litter moves
its slow, liturgical way.
A third falls back
bracing himself on an arm.
At river’s edge, the deer stand poised.
One breaks the spell of his reflection with a hoof
and, struggling, begins to cross.

(Reprinted by permission of the author.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Prompt #246 – At the Touch of Love

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.

— Plato

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and, although the idea may seem just a bit trite, this is always a good time of year to read and write love poems.

To get inspired, there’s a great site selection of love poems on the Poetry Foundation’s website, which you can access by CLICKING HERE.

Of course, the prompt this week is exactly what you might expect: write a love poem.


1. Think about different kinds of love that you’ve experienced personally (romantic, familial, love of nature or animals, friendship, platonic), and choose one that signifies a powerful emotional experience for you.

2. Start with a freewrite (and remember that freewriting can take place any time during drafting and, editing, and revising).

3. Try several ideas for love poems and keep the ideas that are keepers.

4. Experiment with stanza breaks but not too early in the writing process. Stanzas can help expose weak spots as well as wordiness and unnecessary repetitions.


1. Often, love poems get a “bad rap” because some have been written that are overly sentimental, “mushy,” too personal, too confessional, or grossly overwritten. The challenge for you this week is to write a poem that involves love in some form or another and to observe the following:
  • Strive for uniqueness (not the typical “How Do I Love Thee?” fare). Find ways to distinguish between the individual and the common.
  • Create a sense of revelation without being overtly revealing. Remember the old poetry adage, “show don’t tell.”
  • Remember that one of the biggest difficulties in writing love poems isn’t writing about love but, rather, writing about the feelings that underlie the love we feel and our attempts to recreate those feelings in ways that are understandable and believable.
  • If you choose to write a romantic love poem, make sure you write between the lines and go beyond the first blush of romance.

Happy Valentine's Day! 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Prompt #245 – Take Five

I’ve always felt that reading poetry can go a long way toward generating poetry. We’re often inspired by what we read, we discover new forms and styles, and we find interesting examples of how language can be used in different and engaging ways.

Inspiration comes in many forms. Often, when we read another poet’s poem, we feel inspired, encouraged, and perhaps even compelled to write something of our own. In general, derivative works are frowned upon, but finding bits of stimulation here can be a very good thing. It's how we use what inspires us that makes the difference.

This week, to encourage poetry reading and to explore some ways in which other poets’ words can motivate us, we’re going to begin with poems that other poets have written.


1. The first thing I’d like you to do is select five short poems from books you have or from the Internet. Try to use poems that are under 40 lines each. The poems may be old favorites or new discoveries—you decide.

2. Read all five poems carefully.

3. Jot down 5 interesting things about each of the poems you selected. 

  • Write down one stunning, startling, or otherwise noteworthy image from the poem.
  • How does the poet invite you into the poem? Is there a “hook” in the first line?
  • How does the last line, the dismount, bring the poem to closure?
  • What’s unique about the last line? 
  • What has the poet written that resonates for you?
  • Make a note of anything else that stands out in the poems you’ve selected.

4. Now, in the spirit of writing a cento, borrow a meaning, metaphor, simile, line, phrase, image, or word from each of the five poems you chose. Altogether, that’s only five things—only one from each of the poems you chose to read.

Note: Cento is the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be rhymed or unrhymed. Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well-done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).

5.  Reflect on your five “borrowed” items. What do they suggest to you? Do they, in any way, lead you to a subject for a poem of your own? Establish the subject for a poem.

6. At this point, begin to write a poem in which you incorporate all five of the “borrowed” items; but, here’s the challenge: unlike writing a cento, you can’t quote anything directly. In other words, the things you chose for the poems you read are purely for inspiration. All the words in your poem must be completely your own.


1. Let yourself be inspired gently, take whatever suggestions the poems you read might have to offer, but don’t be locked into anything.

2. Spend a lot of time, playing” with the ideas you gathered from other people’s poems. Where do they lead you? What moments of inspiration do they bring? How can you “piggy back” from these ideas into something spectacular of your own?

3. Be sure to reject anything that doesn’t fit the poem you begin to write.

4. Keep your poem short, don’t ramble.

5. After you’ve written a draft, look for “lifeless” parts of the poem and delete or rework them.

6. In the end, your new poem should bear little or no resemblance to any of the poems you read. 

7. Remember, this isn’t a prompt about “grand theft poetry”—it’s a prompt about how other people’s writing can inspire your own!