Saturday, August 30, 2014

Prompt #198 – Poeming the Blues

While recently listening to B. B. King, it occurred to me that blues lyrics are akin to poetry in many ways and have, in fact, lead to a type of poetry known as “blues poems.” Such poems embrace subjects that include resilience, strength in the face of hardship, oppression, and human sorrows.

According to,

“One of the most popular forms of American poetry, the blues poem stems from the African American oral tradition and the musical tradition of the blues. A blues poem typically takes on themes such as struggle, despair, and sex. It often (but not necessarily) follows a form, in which a statement is made in the first line, a variation is given in the second line, and an ironic alternative is declared in the third line.”

One of the first poets to think in terms of blues poems was Langston Hughes, who first heard the blues played by a blind orchestra in Kansas City; he was eleven years old at the time. When he moved to the East in 1921, he heard the blues again and later wrote of it in his autobiography (The Big Sea), “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on 7th street.” According to Hughes, those songs “had the pulse beat of a people who kept on going.”

This week, let’s give blues poems a try.


1. Listen to a few good blues tunes (YouTube is a good online source), and get a sense of what typical blues lyrics are.

2. Blues lyrics are typically twelve bars, and focus on pain, suffering, subjugation, sadness, or loss. A typical blues poem stanza contains three lines. For this poem, you may have as many three-line stanzas as you wish.

3. While blues poems originally highlighted African-American troubles, the blues sensibility can be applied to tragedies and wrongs of many kinds.

4. Begin by making a list of blues-worthy subjects in your own life or in the general world today.

5. Choose an item from your list and compose your poem.

6. Keep in mind that blues poems often have a kind of heartbeat rhythm, ta, dum, ta dum, ta dum, ta dum—like the iamb in formal poetry.


1. Anything “bluesy” carries with it both lyrical and rhythmical suggestions. Work on incorporating a blues-type rhythm in your poem. See # 6 above.

2. Considering the definition, begin with a structure that starts with a first-line declarative sentence, repeat that sentence or give a variation of it in the second line, and use that sentence to begin a third line that expands on the first two. The intention is to express an emotion. For example:

I couldn’t believe he/she was gone.
I couldn’t believe he/she was gone.
I couldn’t believe he/she was gone, and I was left with nothing.

and this from Lead Belly's “Good Morning Blues”:

Good morning blues. How do you do?
Good morning blues. How do you do?
I’m doing all right. Good morning. How are you?

3. Don’t be afraid of repetition. Just be sure to expand in the third line of each stanza. 

4. Continue to build your poem using this structure (understanding that changes may be made when you begin to edit and tweak). In each new stanza, the problem may become larger and your explanation more detailed.

5. Include some metaphors or other figures of speech.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Prompt #197 – Ekphrasis Revisited

Every so often, I like to work with ekphrasis (using other art forms as inspiration for poems)—we’ve done it before on the blog, and I thought it might be a nice time of year to relax and revisit the process of writing ekphrastic poems. So, fix yourself a tall glass of lemonade, choose an artwork that “speaks” to you, gather your writing materials and a picture of the artwork, and find a comfortable place indoors or outdoors where you enjoy writing.  

If you’re not familiar with ekphrastic poetry or need a quick refresher,  click here.


1. Simply choose a work of art (painting, sculpture, musical composition, photograph, etc.) and write a poem based on it.

2. Be sure to include a reference to the artwork somewhere in your poem (at the beginning, within the text, or at the end).


1. Don’t just describe the artwork you’ve chosen; let the artwork be your guide and see where it leads you.  Relate the artwork to something else (a memory, a person, an experience, a place).

2. Speak directly to the artwork; that is, address the subject (or subjects) of the art. 

3. Write from the perspective of the artwork, or adopt the persona of the artwork itself (i.e., write as if you were the Mona Lisa).

4. Write in the voice of the artist who created the artwork.

5. Work with strong images and, if you tell a story, be sure not to overtell it.

6. Think about including some caesuras (pauses) for emphasis, and leave some things unsaid—give your readers space to fill in some blanks.

7. Pose an unanswered question or go for an element of surprise. Let your poem take an interesting or unexpected turn based on something triggered by the artwork.

8. Look at the “movement” of the artwork you’ve chosen and try to represent that movement in your line and stanza breaks. For example, if a painting “moves” across the canvas, find a way to suggest similar movement in the way you indent and create line breaks.


"The Shield of Achilles" by W. H. Auden
"The Painting" by Jon Balaban

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats
"Photograph of People Dancing in France" by Leslie Adrienne Miller 
"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by William Carlos Williams

By way of sharing, 
the jacket cover illustration 
on my book What Matters was based 
on the painting Beata Beatrix 
by Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here’s the poem the painting inspired:

In Memory Of

(After Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix)

No movement but this: subdued luminosity, sunlight
from the distant city. River. Bridge. There is always
a background (that far, this close), and what memory
does – like the dusky lines of a double shadow,
it multiplies loss.

In Rossetti’s Beata, a sundial casts its metal wing
on the thin, blown hour when leaving begins.
Red dove, white poppy: the woman, transfixed,
slips – diffused like light through darkened glass –
her hands open and soft.

I am here and you aren’t. It is summer –
the sky is clapper and bell, the lemonade sweet.
I can almost hear you singing. In that voice
without margin, the notes I remember most
are high and low.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Prompt #196 – Perchance to Dream

Asleep or awake, I suspect that most poets are dreamers, and our dreams are a rich source of inspiration and creativity.

Much has been written about dreams and their interpretation, and dreams have offered an infinite wellspring of ideas for writers of every stripe throughout written history. This week, let’s write  a poem inspired by an actual dream (happy dream, emphatic dream, nightmare, surreal dream, waking dream, precognitive dream)—any dream that you’ve had.


1. Dig deeply into your dream recall (your ability to remember dreams) and write down as much of a particular dream as you can remember (perhaps even a recurrent one).

2. Reflect upon the imagery and symbolism of the dream you’ve chosen. Think about the details. To explore some dream symbols, click here.

3. What did the dream mean or suggest to you?

4. Then re-dream your dream in a poem.

5. Alternatively, recall times when you’ve watched a beloved pet sleep, and imagine what that pet’s dreams might have been. Write a poem about a pet’s dream.


1. Focus on imagery and on creating a sense of your dream’s mood. Mood and tone will be important in this poem.

2. If the dream didn’t make sense to you, don’t attempt to force it to make sense in your poem.

3. If the imagery of the dream was surreal, then use surreal imagery in your poem.

4. You may want to write in the past tense, but think about switching to the present tense to create a sense of immediacy, as if the dream is happening now.

5. Be aware of “ing” endings and overuse of prepositional phrases.

6. If you write about a recurrent dream, be sure to include some elements of repetition, including anaphora (the deliberate repetition of the first part of a sentence). Repetition can be used for emphasis, as well as to create tension, and to enhance the sound quality in a poem.

7. Let your poem use space on the page in the same way that it uses space in your mind. If the dream components are scattered, scatter their word counterparts across the page with interesting line breaks, indents, and stanzaic arrangements.


By way of sharing, here's a dream poem based on a neighbor's suicide
(from my forthcoming book, A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All).

So Much Life 

The girl who killed herself, her dog, and son speaks to me. She tells me that this death is only sleep. I’m not sure what she means by this—what other death? I stand above her grave, not knowing if there even is a grave (a place to put her—perhaps just ash, the newspapers didn’t say); but, no, I see her face. Her lips move before the words: So much life, she says, is dead before the body follows. She looks at me through stippled eyes and, reaching up, she trims the moon with pinking shears. Light, unraveled, falls (a perfect circle) around the dog beside her—the dog’s spirit scratches its jaw. I don’t know how she came to be inside my dream or why she haunts me—I barely knew her. From my front porch, I see the house in which she lived—the storm door open. Snow that is ice, that is glass, covers the lawn; the lawn splinters and cracks.

(Acknowledgment: Exit 13 Magazine, Vol. #20, 2014)


Photo: Grateful acknowledgment to Renée Ashley for permission to use 

"Steve and Mona."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Prompt # 195 – Historical High Jinks

You’ve heard about revisionist history, I’m sure. That is, the reinterpretation of traditionally accepted views on documentary evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event—the idea that things didn’t happen exactly as we think they did.

This week, let’s try something amusing and fun. Many historical events changed the world— here’s your chance to change history, to put your own spin on the thoughts, ideas, and experiences behind actual historical events.


1. Think about historical events that interest you, and make a list of some.

2. Choose one historical event from your list and think about that event in terms of what no one can ever know.

A. What were the people central to the event really thinking. For example, what do you think Mary Queen of Scots was thinking just before her head was severed. What were the builders of Stonehenge thinking as they transported and lifted those huge stones into place?
B. Consider what happened moments before the event to one of the people central to it?
C. Tell how did the event happen to be recorded incorrectly.
D. What did people misunderstand at the time the event occurred?
E. What if there had been computers and cell phones, email and texting, when the event occurred? How might things have happened differently?

3.  Free write for a while just to get some ideas into written words.

4.  Take a look at what you’ve written and work the best of it into a poem in which you give a different interpretation, description, or understanding of a single historical event.

5. Consider assuming the persona of a historical figure and write from that person’s “invented” perspective.


1. Funny, flippant, and just plain silly are okay for this poem, but don’t get so caught up in the fun that you sacrifice quality.

2. After you’ve got a fairly good draft completed, look at what you’ve got and work on arranging the poem into lines and stanzas. Don’t become bound by a particular format. Let your poem “speak” to you, and because you’re “fracturing” history, let your lines and stanzas be “fractured” (uneven, broken, emjambed) as well.

3. Here are some historical events you might consider: the death of Cleopatra, the signing of the Magna Carta, DaVinci painting the “Mona Lisa,” Shakespeare writing one of the plays or sonnets, Columbus landing in the “New World,” Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, the Wright Brothers flying the first motorized plane, Fleming discovering penicillin, the first moon walk.

4. For some added fun, include at least one anachronism (something that belongs to a period in which it didn’t yet exist; for example, a plane flying over Alexandria as Cleopatra lifts the asp to her neck or Columbus checking his watch at the precise moment of landing).

5. An alternative idea might be to rewrite a famous poem about a historical event (i.e., “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow).


Imagine Mary Queen of Scots

Imagine Mary Queen of Scots, dressed in red
beneath the black cloak—her short gray hair
covered by a wig as she walks in silence to the block.
Her ladies stand aside, the executioner
holds his axe. No one will ever know the truth,
she thinks (about who set the plans in motion
for the evil husband’s death and how the queen, yes,
“good queen Bess” was frightened to the core).
The executioner swings three times before her
head is severed. A train rumbles in the distance.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Prompt #194 – Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Image by Guest Blogger Penny Harter

Following Ken Ronkowitz's guest blog on “ronka (July 12, 2014), I'm happy to introduce you to Penny Harter, a distinguished poet whose work in haiku-related forms is internationally known. Penny has been widely published in journals and anthologies throughout the U.S. and abroad, and she has been awarded three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and a fellowship from VCCA for a residency in 2011. She visits schools for the New Jersey Writers Project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. This week, Penny leads us through a detailed understanding of the Japanese poetry form called haibun. I hope you'll  enjoy writing some haibun of your own, and I hope you'll visit Penny online: Penny's WebsitePenny's BlogPenny's Books at

From Penny:

Although I write free-verse poems, prose poems, short stories and mini-stories, reviews, essays and educational articles, in recent months I have increasingly fallen under the spell of haibun. Haibun, with its mix of prose and poetry fascinates me. Originally conceived by Basho in his Narrow Road to the Deep North as a travel journal—and still sometimes written as one—haibun in the west can also capture an interior, spiritual and /or emotional journey.

The Haiku Society of America defines haibun as follows: “A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai [all haiku-related literature] style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.
“Notes: Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse . . . .” (HSA Definitions).          

In our book, The Haiku Handbook, my late husband, William J. (Bill) Higginson, reflects on haibun written in the West: “Like haiku, haibun begins in the everyday events of the author’s life. These events occur as minute particulars of object, person, place, action. The author recognizes that these events connect with others in the fabric of time and literature, and weaves a pattern demonstrating this connection. And if this writing is to be truly haibun, the author does this with a striking economy of language, without any unnecessary grammar, so that each word carries rich layers of meaning.”  (221) Bill goes on to say: Bringing the spareness of haiku poetry to prose gives us the best of autobiography and familiar essay—the actions, events, people, places, and recollections of life lived—without weighing them down with sentimentality, perhaps the greatest enemy of art and life.” (221)
What haiku contribute to haibun prose feels akin to the process of linking in the communal poetry called renku. I've always enjoyed writing renku—a process that requires one to come up with verses that turn a corner—”move away”—with respect to each preceding verse, but still connect in mood, tone, image, or theme. In renku-writing, this is often referred to as “link and shift.” If the haiku in a haibun work well, they both anchor the piece and let it go. Or, they simultaneously frame it and break the frame.

I deliberately decided to experiment with writing haibun in three ways: writing original haibun, shifting longer narrative poems into haibun, and turning prose poems into haibun. Hopefully, sharing my process with you will encourage you to experiment in similar ways.

I. Writing Original Haibun

I wrote the following two poems as haibun. My husband, died in October of 2008. While writing my way through grief into healing, I often found myself using haibun. Here’s a piece from December of 2008, only a few months after Bill’s death. It’s now published in Recycling Starlight, my chapbook of poems processing grief. I was seeking light and had heard that there was going to be a huge moon that December:

Moon-Seeking Soup
Last night when the December moon was closer to the Earth than it had been in years, huge on the horizon, blazing hills and craters, I saw it too late, too high in the sky. Still, I could almost count the peaks that held the sun.

Tonight, after slicing red  potatoes, yams, carrots, onions, and garlic into a base of chicken broth; after shaking a delicate rain of basil and tarragon onto the surface and stirring those sweet spices in—while the soup simmered, I threw on a jacket over my nightclothes and ran out to look for the moon. My slippered feet were cold as I searched the sky, wanting to raise my face into white light.

But there was no moon, no glow over the apartment roofs to say it was rising, so I came back in and stirred my soup, raising the ladle to my lips to taste again and again the dark fruits of the Earth.
        moon-seeking soup—
        my own face reflected
        in the broth

I wanted to see that light after two months of deep mourning, wanted to be lifted up and out of myself into that sky. But I was also deeply involved with the “fruits of the Earth” as I stirred my soup—and that’s why I listed all its ingredients. The final haiku came as I bent over the cauldron of soup—although I didn’t actually see my face. Instead, I realized that I was still bound to the Earth, and that rather than escape into the sky, I needed to stay in the place I was, grieving and healing. This haiku is more closely related to the main narrative than those in many haibun, though it does jump to “my own face.”

Interestingly, a year later, having moved and begun a new life, I found myself again writing a December haibun, this time reflecting the kindness of a neighbor who brought me light:
Winter Stars
My neighbor fills her winter garden with oaktag cut-outs of red and yellow stars—hangs them from her bird feeder or glues them atop the planting sticks she's left in the dirt between withered blooms. Yesterday, she knocked on my door, and I opened it to find her hands overflowing with stars—each hole-punched and threaded with yarn—a new constellation for these days of early dark.
“These are for you to hang places,” she said simply, knowing of my need for joy this Christmas season. As we smiled and hugged one another, I received them in my cupped hands. Now stars dangle from my doorknobs and brighten shadowed corners—an unexpected gift of light.
     moon splinters
     on the river—the glint
     of ice floes

Here, the haiku is also both literal and metaphorical, and it does shift farther from the narrative than the haiku in the preceding example. I live near a river, and there had been ice floes floating in it. The river’s current that winter seemed akin to my process of healing—my encountering more and more glints of light—as in my neighbor’s kindness. The haiku does not focus on her and the gift she brought, yet it connects in mood and theme.

II. Shifting a Narrative Poem Into a Haibun

When one takes a narrative poem and transforms it into a haibun, something quite different happens to the original poem. A good poem may already reverberate in several directions, ripple with associations. But recasting that poem into poetic prose and adding haiku opens it up even further—precisely because the haiku shift the focus enough that it becomes a different work. They expand upon the original perception. In the following two examples, you can see how my original narrative poems changed when I translated them into haibun. The following poem felt unfinished, lacking enough “punch” to capture the experience”

    Estell Manor State Park
    That gray day, wind soughed in the pines,
    and oaks arced full over trails that faded
    into green or snaked into a density
    of swamp and lichened trunks.
    We walked a narrow road around
    the wooded heart, wondering which trail
    would claim us first until the wind
    caught a dead limb and tossed it
    down before us—the loud crack
    fusing with its swift descent.
    We said the usual things: what if
    we’d been a few yards further along,
    or a car had been there—then cautiously
    pressed on, although we stopped
    to drag the heavy branch aside
    before we left the loop road for a trail
    that led us deeper in.

The haibun version, for me, has more power because of the haiku framing it:

             Estell Manor State Park
    turkey buzzard—
    red beak into its own
    black wing          
That gray day, wind soughed in the pines, and oaks arced full over trails that faded into green or snaked into a density of swamp and lichened trunks.
We walked a narrow road around the wooded heart, wondering which trail would claim us first until the wind caught a dead limb and tossed that full weight down before us—the loud crack fused with its swift descent.
We said the usual things: what if we’d been a few yards further along . . . or if a car . . . then cautiously pressed on, although we stopped to drag the heavy branch aside before we left the loop road for a trail.   
    night thoughts—
    my heartbeat quickens
    in this dark

In first draft, this haibun included only the last haiku. However, a friend suggested it needed something more at the beginning. I added the opening haiku because I did see that turkey buzzard in the park, and the irony of the fact that it usually sinks its red beak into carrion struck me at the time. Thinking about how close my friend and I had come to being seriously injured, or even killed, it seemed a fitting intro to the mood and content of the haibun. The closing haiku, though amplifying the earlier fear, can also be a universal experience. We all know about those thoughts that can visit us in the pre-dawn hours.

III. Turning a Prose-poem into a Haibun

The same reverberating circles of meaning can happen when haiku are added to open up a prose-poem. Since I felt the original needed more punch, I shifted the following prose-poem into a haibun. In the process, I even changed the title:

No Other Place
Two hawks circle far above, afternoon sunlight gilding their wings as their shadows swiftly cross the road before me. In red canyons of the West, ravens ride the thermals, their harsh calls dark as the storm clouds that shadow the ridges.
There is no other place but here where the gas burner spurts blue, steam hisses from the kettle, and a clock on the wall keeps time above a granite counter-top chilled by mountain winds.
Here where hawks prey on the living, ravens descend on the dead. Between my palm a cup of black tea deepens.

And now, the haibun version:

Keeping Time
Two hawks circle far above, afternoon sunlight gilding their wings as their shadows swiftly cross the road before me.

In red canyons of the West, ravens ride the thermals, their harsh calls dark as the storm clouds that shadow the ridges.

    again that dream
    of refuge in a cave
    above the river
There is no other place but here where the gas burner spurts blue, steam hisses from the kettle, and a clock on the wall keeps time above a granite counter-top chilled by mountain winds.
Hawks prey on the living, ravens descend on the dead. Between my palm a cup of black tea deepens.

    squatting beneath
    the hammock, a child
    digs a hole to China

The title change happened because I felt the entire piece was, as is much of my work, about the mystery of time passing vs. the eternal present—perhaps feeling both are one. The first haibun emerged from memories of caves seen in the walls of several red-rock canyons of the West, and the desire for safety from any kind of storm. And the second haiku, from a childhood memory of me doing just that—as well as an association between the tea “deepening” and the deepening hole I, the child, believed I could dig in the dirt.
For me, the basis of all poetry writing begins in synthesis—like Indra’s web. One can pluck the web of one’s experience at any node, and the whole thing vibrates. A good poem connects the thing perceived with the perceiver, as does a good haiku. Basho is reputed to have said, “To write of the pine, go to the pine.” But in a good haibun, we go to the pine—and then through the haiku we follow the pine’s roots, or needles and cones as they fall—spiraling farther and farther afield while still orbiting the pine—still linked to the original image.

I encourage you to try writing haibun in any of the ways I’ve shared. You may also fall under haibun’s spell. It can be an exciting and rewarding process.

IV. Tips for Writing Haibun

1.  A haibun is not a short story. A haibun relates a journey, whether the travel is a physical exploration of the world or an internal journey of spiritual and/or emotional discovery. It should take the reader somewhere—from here to there.

2. Both the prose and haiku should be image-centered. Trim the language in the prose section to its essence. The prose portion can be written in sentence fragments or complete sentences.

3. The haibun prose should be more akin to a prose-poem. And rather than in paragraph format, the prose is usually presented in blocks. Some contemporary haibun are even in verse form with haiku indented before and between stanzas, or at the poem’s end.

4. There is no set length to a haibun. It can be one paragraph with one haiku, or several pages with haiku interspersed throughout.

5. Many haibun are simply narratives of special moments in a person’s life. Like haiku, haibun often begin in everyday events—minute particulars of object, person, place, and/or action. Haibun are usually autobiographical and personal, and most often written in present tense.

6. However, some haibun published in contemporary journals also recount actual travels,  memories, dreams, and fantasies.

7. The haibun’s haiku do connect to the prose, but in the best haibun, the haiku do not directly continue the narrative. Instead, they relate in theme, mood, or tone. Inserting the haiku into the haibun is like throwing a stone into a pond—causing ripples of association.

8. If you google “journals that publish haibun” you will find plenty of examples on-line.

Works Cited

The Haiku Handbook. Tokyo, Japan:  Kodansha International: Penny Harter co-author with William J. Higginson. 25th anniversary edition 2010, non-fiction. Kodansha USA, 2013. 

Recycling Starlight.
Eugene, Oregon: Mountains and Rivers Press, 2010, poems. 

One Bowl. Ormskirk, United Kingdom: Snapshot Press, 2012, poems (prizewinning e-book of haibun). 

The Resonance Around Us. Eugene, Oregon: Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013, poems and  haibun.

Special Thanks and Acknowledgment

Thanks to Wiggerman, Scott and David Meischen for permission to quote portions of my essay “Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Web” from Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry.  Austin Texas, Dos Gatos Press, 2011. 


Thank you, Penny!