Archive for the ‘Planting Zone’ Category

Lost in Translation

Planting Zone: guidelines for poem-culture enthusiasts –

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water
into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.
– Bruce Lee

In our sped-up, technology-driven society, it can be difficult to slow down, take some time off from connectivity, and be still enough to engage in contemplative reflection or any kind of meditative practice. Well worth the investment of time, thoughts arise in the quieted mind in the form of images. I find it a good poetic exercise to translate these mental pictures into words:


Cirrus strafes the snow-capped peak:
feather-breath ribbons
early spring, conceiving
snow-melt streams
down through the conifers
rimming a looking-glass lake.

At the shoreline, peering
its reflection – a pentimento:
when I am still,
I see the mountain in me.


Uncommon Gold

Planting Zone: guidelines for poem-culture enthusiasts

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say. 

Anaïs Nin

Prima Materia — the parallels between the Medieval process of alchemy and writing are somewhat striking, on reflection. The alchemist’s objective in working with the prima materia, that is, “essential” or “primal” material from the subconscious, is to distill “gold” from lead. Once mined, the material would be plunged into various solutions, heated and boiled down (reduced) and then Alchemist with Bellowsthe alchemist would blow on it with a bellows. Those who tried to hurry the process were referred to as “puffers” because they had a tendency to use their bellows too much.

Philosopher’s Stone
— remarkably similar to the writing process, at least for me, as I’ve often been accused of trying to “bully” a poem — to shape it intellectually (puffing) too soon — before it’s ready; before all the prima materia has been allowed to completely bubble up from liminal (or perhaps, subliminal) space. In my mind, creating the lapis, or elusive “philosopher’s stone” that signifies the ability to turn base metals into silver and gold lies in the development of “critical eye” or “lens”. Turned inward, this lens works and re-works, “sees” and re-imagines, (visions and revisions?) each poem or piece of writing with the dispassionate observation of a keen outsider.

— the finished poem, then, is like the non aurum vulgaris, or  “not the common gold,” having been distilled, at last, from the prima materia. Thought to be the abundant, living source of the entire universe, there are rivers of this sub-conscious material flowing just beneath everyone’s waking awareness. The quest, therefore, becomes how to gain easy access to it. Certainly, it makes itself known nightly through dreams, and in daylight through the “idle” mind’s daydreams, reflections, and/or meditations — when, in “free-fall,” the imagination is allowed to operate.


Exquisite Corpse — dozens of writing exercises are devoted to this: gaining quick and easy access to the rich deposits of prima materia just beneath the surface. One of these, called an Exquisite Corpse, is derived from an early 20th century parlor game. Devised by André Breton and his cadre of Surrealists, it has been adapted so that classrooms full of people from grade school to graduate school can play along, always with amazing results. Here are the DIY instructions:

You’ll need a piece of (preferably lined) paper. The corpse is initiated by writing down one line —

  • At the time, we knew the sun at the center was exploding.

That line is passed on to the next participant, who adds one line:

  • At the time, we knew the sun at the center was exploding.
    Solace, it always makes us stronger.

and then folds the paper so that the previous line is covered up, and only his/her line shows. S/he then passes the paper on to the next contributor, who writes a line and then folds the paper again:

  • Solace, it always makes us stronger.
    And it might take us longer

etc., until everyone in the room has been given the opportunity to add a line.

  • And it might even take us longer
    but things will be fine.

Processing – once everyone’s added a line, the paper is unfolded (exposing all the lines) and read aloud, and/or typed up and distributed to all of the contributors. But this is just the beginning of the process. To get to the “uncommon gold,” (the finished poem) the individual poet, working alone, must select any (or all) of the lines s/he finds appealing and work with them to shape a poem by heating them up, boiling them down to the barest essence, plunging them in solutions, distilling them, and blowing on them.

Raw Materials – will surprise you. Regardless of the age group of the participants, the reason behind the “exquisite” in the name summarily becomes clear when the corpse is unfurled, exposed. These are the last five lines of a corpse written in Ms. Hamill’s 6th period English 9 Honors class, on February 11, 2011:

Never trust a monkey.
For it can slip you up
and however fine it seems, it would bring disaster

with you and me and eternity amnesty
I hate being the last line.

Just for contrast, here are the last ten lines from a corpse written on that same day in 4th period, with a different group of students:

As I snooze, the bees in my head inspire me to find the frayed truth.
Many thoughts occur, like the many flowers they choose to land on.
And the flowers have yet to be watered.
They call me blackenitis, I love your sushi role
love? Love is murderous, hurts like hell.
A hell the likes of which has never been felt by anyone.
Nor a hell anyone would even think of experiencing
‘Twasn’t a blissful heaven,
because if you were a star, you’d be the one I’m searching for
There are so many sides to me that you cannot see.

Sandwiched between otherwise unremarkable lines, (i.e. I wait for you, but you never come/ I start to think, “Is something wrong?”/ I’d like to go to Hong Kong./ My best friend is Joe Bobenstein) hidden gems reveal themselves:

As I lick the sweet cantaloupe and fold the goose-flesh soft linen

for example, or:

your accusing finger slowly slicing through me like the godly rays of the day moon

so that the exquisite corpse in its entirety actually mimics the way the sub-conscious itself works: in a kind of free association. After its been allowed free reign, and the prima materia is exhausted, spilled onto the page, then it’s time to let the conscious mind go to work on the materials, exerting “intellectual control” on the poem. But not before. That would be “puffing”.

I’d like to thank Ms. Hamill’s 4th and 6th period English 9 Honors classes at Highland High School for hosting me on February 11, 2011 and for being such attentive workshop participants. Truly, they possess and shared non aurum vulgaris (not the common gold) with me that day – and I have the exquisite corpses as proof.

Afternoon Collage

Planting Zone: guidelines for poem-culture enthusiasts

Ekphrasis: Creative Writing Via Visual Arts
By Nancy Carroll

It happens that very often that my writing with pen
is interrupted by my writing with brush,
but I think of both as writing.
Kenneth Patchen, on his book, Painted Poems


"Afternoon Collage, 2011" Nancy Carroll. Photo collage of "Head with Open Eyes" 1922-24, by Alexel Jawiensky; AND Helen Frankenthaler’s 1968 "Adriatic".

after "Afternoon Collage, 2011"

"A Quick Take" Nancy Carroll. After "Afternoon Collage, 2011" also by Nancy Carroll.

Graphic description — “ekphrasis” is a daunting Greek word that simply tags a poem as having been inspired by a work of art. One of the earliest known examples of ekphrasis is Homer’s poem about Achilles’ shield in the Illiad – and the relationship between art and poetry begins, and is later continued by Virgil and Dante. Also defined by James Heffernan in Museum of Words as “a verbal representation of a visual representation,” as a collaborative process between poet/artist/subject, ekphrasis not only provokes new works of art, but the very process is considered an art unto itself.

Speaking out — as a writer who relishes this process, I find that visual art offers me immediate access to imagery, texture, and story. The mere engagement with one photograph or painting can connect me to landscapes or stories I would have never discovered within the confines of my own backyard.  Between Shifts” is a short poem I conceived from Edward Hopper’s 1927 oil painting entitled Automat:

Between Shifts

"Between Shifts" (2009) Nancy Carroll. Ekphrasis.

Dramatic description — the young woman drinking her coffee alone in a New York City automat at night suggests that this portrait is more than just a quick cup of coffee. Hopper details her situation as she stares down into her coffee cup. It is dark outside and a radiator is painted to her right. Her composed, constrained posture evokes tensions (“she is folded laundry”) that I interpret as both financial and relational, giving me my final line, “and only the coffee cup is waterfall.”  This painting speaks of New York, the Depression and the quiet desperate moments that could only belong to this young woman as she is illuminated beneath the green glow of a winter city night.  Hopper provides succulent visual images that easily translate into verbal images, which provides new narrative to the original painting.

SynergySharon Dolin’s 2003 poetry collection, Serious Pink, focuses on the work of three abstract painters. She uses their engagements with color for poetic discoveries. As jazz is to music, so is abstraction to art. In her poem “Ochre,” she addresses Richard Diebenkorn’s color movements by inviting us to:

Sharon Dolin

"Ochre" (2003) Sharon Dolin.

Just as with jazz, abstraction insists on movements that are non-linear. This unconfined visual patterning frees the poet to write as Dolin writes just before the previous lines:

"Ochre" continued. Sharon Dolin. 2003.

"Ochre" continued. Sharon Dolin. 2003.

Dolin interprets the painter’s musical position between gradations of color and discovers landscape, her intrinsic response to his extrinsic expression. She challenges us to engage emotionally, rather than remaining outside as a passive observer. By asking us to embrace “ochre,” a color used by artists and house painters, we recognize the “shapes” that transport us into a larger experiential movement of language and sound.

Telling a story — in Terri Witek’s 2006 collection, Carnal World, the poet includes poems about the works of Picasso, Monet, Titian, and Cotan, as well as addressing John Singer Sargent’s portraiture of the Sitwell family (circa 1900). Witek gives us many private moments between canvas and paint layers—and as in her poem, “Bonnard on Painting Marthe Bathing,” we observe an artist embroiled beyond his art and becoming transparent with one simple monologue:

Terri Witek's "Bonnard on Painting Martha Bathing"

"Bonnard on Painting Marthe Bathing". Terri Witek. 2006.

Witek’s lyric moment extrapolates from Bonnard’s image, music and composition what possibilities lie beneath the surface—uncovering, and exposing a deteriorating marriage.

With Bonnard as the poem’s speaker, the idea of “the male gaze” is shifted from solely an artistic abstract avenue that observes female form into an emotional concrete purpose or confession. And what still fascinates me is how (as illustrated with this poem) Witek extends Bonnard’s original visual project into an ekphrastic collaborative gesture that unites arts/artists through time and space. A writer can easily write a poem about any art from any historical period or any geographical place.

Applications of Whimsy – ekphrasis also is useful for teaching creative writing to all age groups. From grade school to college, asking students to write their own stories or ideas about art helps develop language skills in an open playing field. There are no rules, except to use elements of poetry as metaphor, diction, syntax, narrative, line logic, point of view and location.

Barbara Flug-Colin teaches a poetry-writing program at a New York elementary/high school for physically challenged students.  In her article, “The Train at the Chimney: Teaching Writing by Discovering Art,” Colin discusses how the artistic process leads to the ekphrastic process, “I’ve discovered the value of discovery. Matisse said his process was one of ‘form filtered to its essential.’ I have created a class exercise call ‘Matisse Mysteries” to point out this process students must find Matisse hidden in his paintings. . . discovering this process helps us with our processes.” Colin further elaborates with the illustrative example of a fifth-grader named Lyle, who wrote funny, long-winded poems for two years, and then spontaneously wrote the following while looking at a postcard of Matisse’s The Yellow Hat:

She is a housewife

"She is a housewife" by fifth-grader, Lyle, after "The Yellow Hat" by Henri Matisse.

Creative Process — once again, ekphrasis proves an important collaborative project that provides students a viable way to learn to process what is purely visual into their own written artistic expressions. These skills will serve them well, no matter where they are in their educational development.

Artistic media — fascinating, exhilarating, provoking are all words that describe how ekphrasis continues to drive me as a poet. No matter what other projects interest me, ekphrasis remains a vital gateway for discovery, invention, and awe.

Nancy Carroll’s poetry has been published in Borderlands: A Texas Poetry Review and Prime Decimal Magazine. She received her M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge, and is a member of the L.A. based writers’ consortium, Southland Poets & Writers.  

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