Saturday, September 26, 2015

Prompt #232 – The End of Summer

In this corner of the world, summer ended last Wednesday, and autumn began with beautiful weather. I thought it would be appropriate this Saturday to post a prompt that deals with the end of a season—specifically summer here but, if you’re on the opposite side of the world, then the end of winter.


1. Spend some time thinking about the season that has ended.

2. Then think in terms of a specific event or time during the past season.

3. Free write for a while about the season and the event or time. Give your mind and imagination loose reins, and let your writing go where it wants to go.

4. After free writing, look at what you’re recorded and begin working on a poem based on ideas from your free write.

5. A possibility may be to write about the last day of a season (see the Merrill example poem below).

6. Consider the metaphorical and symbolic meanings of the end of a season.

7. Pull your “End of ______” poem together with a punch at the end—perhaps something that refers to the season that’s just begun.


1. Incorporate seasonal imagery that appeals to one or more of the senses. 

2. Be sure to incorporate some figurative language.

3. Avoid all the usual pitfalls (especially too many adjectives, prepositions, and articles).


“End of Summer” by Stanley Kunitz

“Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon

“End of Summer” by James Richardson

“A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball” by Christopher Merrill

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Prompt #231 – For the Feast

Over the past few years, I’ve featured a few prompts that deal with food poems and ways to “cook up” some exciting poetry based on food. On the subject of food poems, I was recently honored with inclusion in a Black Lawrence Press book titled Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner edited by Diane Goettel and Anneli Matheson. Feast is an amazing collection that’s both a poetry anthology and a cookbook—with poems and recipes to nourish body, mind, and spirit.

I’ve already gifted friends with copies and recommend the book to all as a perfect any-time or holiday gift. And ... with the winter holiday season coming along soon, I hope you’ll consider Feast for the poets and cooks on your gift-giving lists. It’s a lot of book for a very affordable price. You can order:

Directly from Black Lawrence Press (PayPal is accepted)

In honor of Feast and Black Lawrence Press, I invite you to “dig in” and write a poem about a food—but wait, you’re going to need some “gravy!” For this poem, the challenge is to use a food item (or food in general) to bring forward a meaning that’s deeper than a simple meal or nosh. In other words, create a second meaning in your poem that takes the content from food to something “other.” You’re going to start with food as your subject but then you’ll need to give your poem its head, some wiggle room, an opportunity to extend its subject beyond the obvious—look for layers of meaning and make your poem a feast of its own!


1. Think of a food that you especially like or intensely dislike.

2. Think about that food in terms of your senses: what it looks like (sight—color, size), what its texture is (touch—smooth, rough), its fragrance (smell—flowery, earthy, astringent), its flavor (taste—sweet, sour, spicy), its noise associations (sound—music, a voice).

3. What emotional connections does that food have for you? Do you associate it with a happy or unhappy experience? Does thinking of that food call up certain memories of people you know or have known?

4. What is it about this food that makes it more than something edible?

5. Alternatively, instead of basing your poem on a single food item, you may choose to use food in general as an extended metaphor in your poem


1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains. With that in mind, push past your surface subject until you find your poem’s second, deeper subject.

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


(My poem from Feast, which begins with blueberries and moves into memories of a special family relationship (BTW, the recipe that goes with the poem is for Bluemisu—blueberry tiramisu—but you’ll have to order a copy of the book for the details).

To Blueberries

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,

Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum

In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!

– Robert Frost, from “Blueberries”

Imagine the “Mona Lisa” with blueberry eyes;
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Blueberry Night;” imagine
Vermeer’s “Girl with a Blueberry Earring” and
Gainsborough’s “Blueberry Boy.” Imagine
blueberries, one at a time, between stained fingers—
sugary, tart—large or small (not all created equal).
Full in the sun, even their shadows are warm:
silvery patina, bluer than blue sky, bluer than blue. 
First the pop and then pulp between your teeth.
Listen to the birds (sparrows, chickadees)—blue
fruit sweet in their beaks. Oh, briarless bush! Bluest
fruit. No core, no seeds. Nothing ever to pit or peel.
Definitely not the forbidden fruit, no Eve down on
her knees—never the cost of paradise. Blueberry
muffins, pancakes, wine! Highbush and low—blue
on the crest of Blueberry Hill—and years ago, my
mother mixing the dough for blueberry pies, the
rolling pin round in her hands (our dog asleep
on the kitchen stair), my father at the table, and
me on his lap, close in the curve of his arm.

(From Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner, Black Lawrence Press, Copyright © 2015 by Black Lawrence Press, reprinted by permission from the publisher.)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Prompt # 230 – Picture This by Guest Prompter Gail Fishman Gerwin

When we visited Florida’s Sanibel Island a few years ago, the chilled morning air didn’t stop early risers from waiting for the first glimpse of sun. Lucky me: I caught a pelican mid-air against the orange sky, yet the memory the photo took me back to my youth, to a special person, to an affirmation of his life, to an inspiration for the way to live mine. As I stood in the cool sand, awed by the sight, the narrative was nowhere in my mind, yet weeks later the poem came to me along with a flood of emotion.

Pelicans at Sunrise

Just before sunrise at Sanibel,
pelicans gather, soar high above
the Gulf, then dive and soar again.

My high school friend swam in waters
like these as a young man. Awed by an
avian fisherman that could gulp whole
fish into a waiting gullet, he squinted
toward the sun, unaware that this circling
hunter would swoop down, pluck out
his eye.

He married much later than the rest of us,
chatted at class reunions about his progeny
as the youngest: ours were wed and parents,
his just starting their college days.

We never could tell which eye was taken,
they seemed alike, it would have been rude
to stare, but the incident was the icon
that defined him throughout his life.

You remember, we’d say when he was
out of range, a pelican took out his eye.
When I read about his passing a few years
ago, I recalled a sweet man, bespectacled,
who didn’t seem his age, whose generous
smiles belied his trials, who gave his eye
to a pelican and never looked back.

                                        —First Published in Exit 13

Take some time to look through your memories. Is there a photo that sparks a special event or a meaningful time or season in your life? Is there a box of sepia-tinted family photos with people you don’t recognize? Did you stop the car to photograph wild turkeys along a Greek roadside? Or drive (on the wrong side of the road) to Stonehenge? Wait! Look at these: you with a favorite childhood toy, you with arms around your best friend, you as a four-year-old with your first dog (what was his name?), you at your wedding, you at your youngest child’s wedding. Take some time to relish the feelings your chosen photo brings. Can you smell salt air in the background? Can you taste that birthday cake? Does the photo spark a memory outside the image?

Use the photo you choose to create your piece—as a narrative with stanzas, a prose poem, something formal . . . Tell the truth or make up a new truth. Inspire yourself as you bring your image to life. Use whatever implements you keep in your poetry toolbox and publish your poem with “the music in it” on this blog’s comment section—or continue to revise it. Click here for editing tips. Perhaps you will submit your poem to a journal.           

Here’s a link to another poem inspired by a 2010 photo of my granddaughter trying on my wedding dress. Note the allusions to an era of protests, to life’s challenges, to times lost, to times gained. Go to, click on Excerpts from Dear Kinfolk, and scroll down to “Wedding Dress, 1968.” Or check out the kid with the braids and her Dy-Dee doll by clicking here.

Time to dig out those photos now. Happy writing!


1. Write from a distance. Tap your memory to see if the photo evokes an emotion long gone. Tell your story.

2. Write from the photo subject’s point of view.

3. Write in the third person from the point of view of someone (not you or you as someone else) who finds the photo.

4. Pose questions to the photo’s subject(s).

5. Address the subject(s) by name(s).

6. Exaggerate. It’s your poem. If you don’t know who the subjects are, make up a story.

7. Is someone missing from the photo? Let that be your prompt.

8. Incorporate elements from another photo into the poem.

9. Allude to the photo’s era through images. The adage applies: show, don’t tell.

10. Use poetic devices, rhythm, repetition, stanza structure, etc. while simply describing the photo.

11. See how your poem looks on the page. Tighten it. Read it aloud.

12. Have fun!


Many thanks, Gail!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

About Open Mics

Here in the U.S., this is Labor Day weekend, many schools opened on the 3rd (before Labor Day this year) and, despite the heat and humidity where I live, there's just a hint of autumn in the air. The summer blog "reruns" have run their course. In this corner of Poetryland, readings begin to pick up again after the semi-lull of summer, and I thought a post about poetry readings might be interesting.

When I posted the above video here on the blog, a few years ago, I thought it was one of the funniest reading-related videos I’ve seen. If you’ve been to readings, especially where there are open mics, you’ve probably heard a wide range of reading styles. Revisiting the video got me to thinking about open mics and what makes a good open mic experience for both the readers and the audience members.

We’ve all been to poetry readings that include open mics. Sadly, some of these become agonizingly drawn-out events. Some time ago, I read in a venue in which the open readers after the feature were allowed to read as many poems as they liked.  I read for about 20 minutes; the open reading went on for more than two hours. Enough said!

Assuming that you read in opens or attend readings in which there are open mics, it occurred to me that letting people know what isn’t appealing might be a good way to approach the subject.

The goal, of course, isn’t to be negative but, rather, to point out things that sometimes occur at open readings—things that leave audience members wishing they’d left right after the feature.

Having directed the Carriage House Poetry Series for seventeen years, I can say with complete sincerity that being a series director isn't easy. We all hope to create venues in which poets and poetry lovers can share in a welcoming and non-judgmental environment. To do that effectively, readers (both featured and open) need guidelines, and it's helpful to know what doesn't work.

Accordingly, I invited five reading series directors (who are also distinguished poets) and asked them to make a few comments in answer to this question:

What can ruin an open mic poetry reading?

 With my thanks to the poets below, I hope you find the following comments helpful. 


Bernadette McBride 
Director of the Farley’s Book Store Reading Series, New Hope, PA

If you are a poet who likes to read at open mics, a tip or two: realize you are not the featured poet—that status has been earned in some way and is given the bulk of time; remember that others want to read too and attendees have just listened to one or two featured readers—they're becoming “poetry-ed out” for the night.  Respect this. If you notice people shifting in their seats and rolling their eyes, sit down.  


Deborah LaVeglia 
Director of Poetswednesday at Barron Arts Center, Woodbridge, NJ

  • If it's too long
  • If it's vulgar/inappropriate/sexist/racist
  • When those reading in the open, don't come to the feature portion of the program. 
It's the host's responsibility to lay down the rules and make sure they are followed. However, even though you make an announcement, newcomers may not adhere to your rules/suggestions. It's difficult to cut a person off mid-poem. I try not to, but have had to do it once or twice. Usually, I approach the person afterward, privately, and explain things. That always works for me. 

I don't like when hosts make blanket statements about rude open readers at the beginning of an open. It turns me off. After all, everyone shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable because of one or two people. Everyone can work things out with a little bit of patience, direction, and kindness. It's a difficult position for the host. I am very grateful that it is rare at the BAC [Barron Arts Center]. 


Diane Lockward
Founding Director of Girl Talk and The West Caldwell Poetry Festival, West Caldwell, NJ

1. If you haven't been there to hear the featured poet read, do not sign up to read in the Open.

2. While the featured poet is reading, please do not sit in the audience and work on your own poems.

3. Regardless of how many poems you are permitted to read, do not ever read more than two, each of modest length.

4. Do not approach the featured poet after the reading and suggest a book trade.


Laura Boss
Co-director of the Montclair Library Reading Series 
and Co-director of the Poetry Weekend Intensive Retreats

Here's what not to say at opens when you are limited to one or two poems:

"Could I just read one more poem?"


Sander Zulauf
Former director of the Great Swamp Poetry Series and former Director of the Distinguished American Poets Series and Bicentennial Poetry Readings at County College of Morris, Randolph, NJ

For starters, poet wannabes with more ego than poetry in them.  Those who read too long are definitely an open mic buzz kill. Everybody deserves a chance at the open, but in order for everybody to have a chance, the leaders of the reading should specify the number of poems or the time for each reader depending on how many have signed up.  And should warn the poets that they will be stopped if they cross the line.  Leaders have a responsibility as well as the participants.  I was once chastised while leading the open mic at the Gazebo in one Waterloo Village Dodge Festival by stopping a guy with his notebook who was reading a ten or twelve page hand-written Iliad when some young whip stood in my face and quoted Frost at me about "nobody should stop a song" or something, and I had to stand up to him by defending the rest of the people who wanted to read and who were being eaten alive and denied a time by the talentless quack.   People who write poems while the featured reader is reading and then stand up and read their tripe in the open.  I am no longer a fan of open mics—I believe they are gimmicks to build an audience for the featured poets, and they can quickly poison the poetry well.