Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

The Power of Collaboration

Tidal RiseSince 2nd grade, from the age of seven (7) I have known instinctively deep down that there were three things I wanted to be when I grew up: a singer, a teacher, and a writer, in that order. However, although I still might not be a “grown up” since I believe we must all fight the impulse to ever really become one, there are a few enduring “take away” lessons I’ve learned in the process of realizing each of these ambitions that stick with me like my AARP card. The happiest moments I’ve been privileged to experience were always shared. In studying music, my goal was to be an operatic diva. But the best things that happened always happened in rehearsals for projects that took us all outside of ourselves and our narrow, singular viewpoints, and gave us a peek at being a part of something larger. Similarly, in teaching, the times when groups of like-minded teachers had the opportunity to work together on big projects that affected the lives of many students for the good of the all form my fondest memories looking back. So, imagine my surprise when, in the highly competitive marketplace of getting into print, an opportunity to collaborate once again presented itself.

On Saturday, September 19, 2015, the results of this literary collaboration will be presented publicly at The Second Poetry Circus. The brainchild of the wickedly talented and extremely energetic Nicelle Davis, The Poetry Circus is a collaborative effortMENU that I am both proud and humbled to be a part of. No less than thirty-three poets/writers have contributed to the gorgeous chapbook that will serve as a sort of “program” to guide the audience through the evening’s presentations. The event, slated to take place at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round in Los Angeles, CA, from 5:30 to 9:30 PM, will feature the poet laureate of Los Angeles, Luis Rodriguez, and offer readings by an incredible lineup of 32 poets, including me! There will be haiku balloons, circus performers, crafts for kids, free carousel rides, a book fair, and literary organizations all coming together to create something larger than the sum of its parts: a chance for people of all backgrounds, preferences, political leanings, and/or religious (or non-religious) persuasions to come together to experience, revel in, and celebrate ART that takes WORD as its medium.

All I can say is that this beautiful dream that is the Poetry Circus proves once again that collaboration offers more inclusion, promises more memorable results, and is a whole lot more fun than competition ever was. Not only that, but it extends to everyone who ever wanted to run away and join the circus the chance to realize that dream and participate in the magic-making that is both the WORD and the circus.Balloon2


Book Review: Becoming Judas by Nicelle Davis

Becoming JudasBecoming Judas by Nicelle Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hypothetically, do you prefer compassion squarely pegged, or unconventionally rendered? If your answer is, “squarely pegged,” then Becoming Judas, Nicelle Davis’ second full-length book of poems, invites closer inspection and warrants your consideration; if “unconventionally rendered” more suits your style, then this is the book for you. A fascinating foray into iconographic studies, Becoming Judas examines, interprets, questions, challenges, and re-invents the iconography of as unlikely a conflagration as one can envision — a trio of characters (still) shrouded in enduring myth: Judas, the “betrayer,” Jesus, the “betrayed (?)” and John Lennon, who imaginably stands in for “everyman.”

Contemplate for a moment if you will, the Pietá: a persistent motif and one of the most revered icons in all Christendom, which depicts a sorrowful mother cradling the dead body of her adult son. Stripped of its classic interpretation as the Virgin Mary embracing Jesus’ frame, we are left with the image of a woman, any woman, grieving over the corpse of a man, any man. In one of the most novel conceits for a poem I’ve ever encountered, Ms. Davis offers up “The Woman Who Cut Judas Down” which presents us instead with a Pietá for Judas: “This body strung/ from a branch could be anyone―/ even hers.” Looking toward our commonalities, rather than expounding on our differences, even Judas had a mother, as we all do; which suggests that whatever his “sins,” may have been, even Judas deserves a Pietá.

Another poem in the collection, “Flash: Leibovitz’s Photo of John and Yoko,” studies a type of image, the Polaroid, to explain the culture it originated in, rather than the other way around. The poet aptly describes the composition of the famed photograph, and delivers with it this account: “Together they have survived each other…His legs, bent into inverted V’s, encase/ her torso. Captured: the sight of a man becoming a shrine.” What we are looking at in Becoming Judas, then, is the content of the images, through the artistic lens of the poet’s sensibilities, as she queries aloud our insatiable need, “to conceive an understanding/ of what all this suffering is for.”

Although the majority of the poems contained herein remain accessible, (like the two previously discussed) a few are necessarily difficult, both in terms of intellectual rigor and emotional content. The images are compelling, but hard to look at. Nonetheless, like witnesses passing by a collision in heavy traffic, or viewing televised war coverage, we also cannot bring ourselves to look away. I read right through Becoming JudasBook Bite_cropped in one sitting, as I could not put down. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and found it, including the “difficult” poems, entirely worth the effort. The imagery is spectacular. And if that weren’t enough already, the pencil drawings contributed by Cheryl Gross, and the inventive use of line breaks and white space to create “concrete” poems (that form images of their own on the page) deliver value-added bonus features. I heartily recommend this book.

View all my reviews

Poem in a Bottle


"Steerage" Anne Yale, 2009. Brushed air.

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.

Stranger Than Fiction?

Field Guide: identification of poems in their natural habitat –

Life doesn’t make any sense, and we all pretend it does. Comedy’s job is to point out that it doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make much difference anyway.
Eric Idle

Loss Prevention — I don’t know why we kept a high-theft item like Oneida flatware right by the door, but we did. One blustery day in March, Mrs. S., a salesperson in the Housewares Department, observed a young man putting boxed sets of it under his coat, while she was riding the “up” escalator, at least 25 feet away, across from the door. Stuck on the escalator, what could she do?

“STOP!” she yelled, at the top of her lungs. Standing on the sales floor, between the escalator and the door, I looked up (as did the would-be thief) just in time to see her dentures hurtling through the air, over the sales floor, toward the 11th Street exit. Forming the fricative-plosive consonant blend, s-t, and heaving it with some force had caused her upper plate to dislodge.  Seeing a disembodied set of teeth coming straight toward him so startled the potential shoplifter that he dropped the flatware and ran out the door. chattering teeth

Inventory Control — Both the dentures and the flatware were recovered. At least they fared better than the three mannequins in the Junior Department who met an untimely demise in the witching hour one cold, dark night. Arranged, as it were, like bowling pins, with one spunky teen model in the lead and her two doting companions just behind, the three of them set to head out for adventure at a main intersection in the display aisle. An insecure security guard patrolling the deserted store on the graveyard shift reported that he had heard a noise in the wee hours, (about 3:00 in the morning) went to investigate, and as his vision locked on to the shadowy figures on the darkened sales floor, he saw movement, fired, and took out all three “suspects” in a single shot.

Tempting as it may be, you really couldn’t blame the security guard, though. A few days earlier, a sweet little old lady had crept up to the girls and asked them (in all sincerity) for directions to Ford’s Theater, nearby. She leaned in closer when they didn’t immediately respond, put her glasses on to inspect the surly teens, eyes widening as she realized why the girls were mute and so ill-mannered. “Oh!” she cooed in recognition, “You’re a dummy!”

Key Performance Indicators — Although these stories may strike you as “creative” writing, I assure you they are too absurd to be made up, and do, in fact, come from my own experience working in retail (my first “real” job). Real life teems with comedic incidents, ranging from the “tickle my funny bone” kind, to the out-and-out bizarre. It might seem more like tabloid fodder than material for poetry, but I think poetry’s earned what is perhaps a well-deserved rap for being too serious, academic, and stuffy. The only remedy for this is for poets to lighten up, stop taking themselves so seriously, and throw in some hilarity, at least once in a while.

A poem I found online, Go Greyhound, by Bob Hicok, models the use of absurdly comic details:

Go Greyhound
Bob Hicok

A few hours after Des Moines
the toilet overflowed.
This wasn’t the adventure it sounds.

I sat with a man whose tattoos
weighed more than I did.
He played Hendrix on mouth guitar.
His Electric Ladyland lips
weren’t fast enough
and if pitch and melody
are the rudiments of music,
this was just
memory, a body nostalgic
for the touch of adored sound.

Hope’s a smaller thing on a bus.

You hope a forgotten smoke consorts
with lint in the pocket of last
resort to be upwind
of the human condition, that the baby
and when this never happens,
that she cries
with the lullaby meter of the sea.

We were swallowed by rhythm.
The ultra blond
who removed her wig and applied
fresh loops of duct tape
to her skull,
her companion who held a mirror
and popped his dentures
in and out of place,
the boy who cut stuffing
from the seat where his mother
should have been—
there was a little more sleep
in our thoughts,
it was easier to yield.

To what, exactly—
the suspicion that what we watch
watches back,
cornfields that stare at our hands,
that hold us in their windows
through the night?

Or faith, strange to feel
in that zoo of manners.

I had drool on my shirt and breath
of the undead, a guy
dropped empty Buds on the floor
like gravity was born
to provide this service,
we were white and black trash
who’d come
in an outhouse on wheels and still

some had grown—
in touching the spirited shirts
on clotheslines,
after watching a sky of starlings
flow like cursive
over wheat—back into creatures
capable of a wish.

As we entered Arizona
I thought I smelled the ocean,
liked the lie of this
and closed my eyes
as shadows
puppeted against my lids.

We brought our failures with us,
their taste, their smell.
But the kid
who threw up in the back
pushed to the window anyway,
opened it
and let the wind clean his face,
screamed something
I couldn’t make out
but agreed with
in shape, a sound I recognized
as everything I’d come so far
to give away.

Best Practices — I think what makes this poem so lifelike is that the poet dresses what is a rather mundane event (a long, cross-country bus ride) with concrete details that are, true to experience, far too colorful to be completely fictitious. As a result, not only do we, the audience, see the humor in the situation, but we also recognize in it (and in ourselves) a kernel of truth — a gesture that lets us scrutinize ourselves without condemnation. We drop our guard and begin to empathize with the speaker, rather than disparage the speaker’s plight. We can see ourselves in the same spot. This, like laughter, is good for the soul.


Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves  –

We live immersed in narrative,
recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions,
anticipating the outcomes of our future projects,
situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.

– Peter Brooks

Broken Record – written nearly a hundred years ago in 1915, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most beloved (and frequently misquoted) poems:

The Road Not TakenI think that what appeals to most people about this poem, and what leads to the conventional interpretation of it as supporting the very American idea of “rugged individualism,” or going one’s own way even if that means being a non-conformist, is neatly summarized in the last two lines: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Several critics, however, have offered other (thus, ironically, unconventional) interpretations which speculate on Frost’s life experience or the specific circumstances that may have served as the impetus for writing it. While the artist’s intentions can never really be known, the poem itself, as an artifact, yields some interesting clues. Take, for instance, Frost’s choice of verb tense: two roads diverged, long I stood, took the other as just as fair, was grassy — all in past tense, i.e. the speaker is looking back.

Ruts — I think that perhaps what makes this poem an enduring favorite is that we can all connect to it on a deeper, sub-conscious level. We like poems and stories we can see ourselves in, relate to. And who among us hasn’t felt the same way about making difficult decisions, especially as they relate to one’s choices or prospective paths in life? I see some parallels between this idea of looking back at the past, and being uncertain about the future in both the biblical story of Lot’s wife, and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both pay a heavy price for doubting the counsel of their respective “guide.” Both had been warned: don’t look back.

Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, forfeiting her life; Orpheus looks back and turns to see his wife, Eurydice, fading back into the underworld he was trying to rescue her from, where she will remain forever beyond his reach. The moral? Some might conjecture the point is wrapped up in separation, loss, and punishment rained down from above for disregarding the warnings, but I think it’s more about giving up attachments to what we know (which is already behind us) in order to look ahead.

Grooves – take the last stanza of Frost’s poem, for example, where the verb tense abruptly shifts in the first line: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” — that is, far into the future. Here, the speaker may imagine regaling grandchildren with the story; regardless, I find it quite curious that the speaker would be telling the tale “with a sigh,” as this detail, to me, signals (more often than not) a sense of regret, rather than accomplishment. The bottom line is that we have an immobile speaker at an intersection, looking longingly at the past and projecting himself/herself wistfully into the future (“with a sigh”) — but who, in the entirety of the poem, has not traveled anywhere. The speaker is, in a word, stuck.

— habitual thinking is hard to escape. It requires some stretching, and often some discomfort. What we’re privy to in this poem is one specific moment, suspended in the linear progression of time from past to future, in which we witness the speaker’s decision: I took the one less traveled by. And although the speaker still hasn’t moved, we have been. And that has made all the difference.

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.

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