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