WORKSHOP IN A COLUMN
© 2003,2004 Sol Magazine
"Epigraphs from Anywhere"
by Mary Margaret Carlisle, Managing Editor
An Epigraph (a succinct quote from a poem or prose piece) often precedes a poem.
When a quote is so famous that no one can mistake the author, or so well-known that it has become common property, citing the author is not really necessary. In this case, the structure is simple:
First of all, do no harm.
When you must cite an author, the structure is a bit more formal:
The dog never likes what I feed him.
Epigraphs can provide excellent inspiration for writing new poems. A poem can argue against or agree with an Epigraph you find, or it may merely set the tone for the rest of the poem. They can come from overheard conversations, books, other poems, newspapers, almost anywhere.
The American Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who often uses a conversational style, has been known to use anything, even an ad, as an Epigraph. "Public restrooms give me the willies," is the Epigraph to his poem titled “The Wilies.”
Be careful when using Epigraphs. If your poem cannot stand alone, or if your poem is not long enough to warrant using one, or if the chosen Epigraph is more interesting than your own poem, keep working.
For practice: Write a titled ten-line poem that uses an Epigraph. First, find a famous writer who interests you and take a brief quote. Then write a poem whose tone was set by the Epigraph, or one that argues for or against the Epigraph, or even one that parodies your chosen poet’s viewpoint. Or simply emulate Billy Collins and find a quote from anywhere then go from there. Or just write a poem then find an Epigraph to go with it.
Keep in mind, you can also use an Epigraph with a short story or essay, so why not try it with one of those forms?
“Anthimeria: Verbing Weirds Language”
by Elizabeth Barrette, Guest Editor
The title comes from a Bill Waterston “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon, and demonstrates the technique of Anthimeria – the colorful use of one part of speech as if it were another part of speech. Anthimeria jumps off the page. It jostles the mind out of its accustomed track, and pushes the limits of language itself by morphing a single word through as many parts of speech as possible.
In this example, “green” is used in its original form as an adjective, but also as a verb, an adverb, a noun, and an interjection.
Green leaves appear everywhere,
Sprouting suddenly from ice-rimmed mud.
Spring regreens the world,
Restoring what autumn’s rains washed away.
Each plant reaches out, greenly growing
Upward toward the sun.
Into every eye, green spills a salvation of
Vivid color splashed over winter’s charcoal canvas.
Green! Green! Green! In the face of its foray,
A thousand snowscapes melt into memory.
Anthimeria works best when used sparingly, but here the relentless repetition of “green” is balanced by the word’s changing form, just as spring’s trademark color is balanced in its myriad different hues.
Language is a living, growing thing. Poetry explores language not only by following the rules, but also by illustrating what happens when we step outside the rules. Anthimeria takes a natural aspect of linguistic evolution and uses it for literary effect. Give it a try. Verbing funs language.
For more about Anthimeria, see:
"Free Verse Ain't Free"
By Roy Schwartzman, Assistant Editor
Most literary dictionaries define free verse as poetry having the cadence, tone, and word choice of speech, but it is not that easy. Everyone hears speech every day, yet few can translate the richness of oral language to the page.
Our interpretation of a poem deepens when we understand a poem’s structure. A poet can craft free verse effectively only with a thorough understanding of structure and form. Why should structure precede free verse in a poet’s development? "Free" has two designations: freedom from constraint and freedom to express.
Although many may believe that poetic license means the positive freedom to do whatever one wants, it actually refers to the strategic violation of forms so that they do not become formulae. If free verse meant nihilism, it would be sheer expressiveness, but art lies in lassoing freedom so it serves specific literary objectives. "Free" in free verse might indicate freedom from some conventional forms, but it obligates the poet in other ways.
Some techniques may help translate verse from ear to pen. The first and most essential skill in crafting effective free verse is to listen. The more a writer can imagine the speech of a live person, the more that person becomes vividly real, and the better chance the speech will come to life on the page. This faithfulness to the ear renders free verse oral: it works best when read aloud. Sometimes such an oral quality looks strange, but the visual aberration signifies subservience to speech.
Two lines excerpted from “Metarecipe for Southern Cuisine”:
Gotta cook it ‘til you kill it.
Pee-can pie so sweet your teeth ache.
This Southern regional dialect may look natural and relaxed, but it is the final distillation of untold hours listening to chefs extoll their recipes. In order to distill complex abstractions and instructions into pithy phrases, the poet must contrive these gems that seem to spurt from the lips of seasoned chefs.
Another effective way to develop free verse skills is to take an ordinary phrase and revise it visually and linguistically so it fits the speech and thought pattern of different characters.
Free verse also disciplines writers to use the page, just as accomplished speakers manipulate their voice. Concrete poets such as e. e. cummings called attention to how the visual arrangement of words on a page can support a poem’s thematic content. In free verse, the visual arrangement of words can convey various oral qualities. For example, a slow talker could be portrayed with frequent line breaks that prolong the reading as if listening to one letter at a time.
Free verse is not simply an escape from literary responsibility. It disciplines pen and page to translate from ear to eye.
“Denouement, Whatever that is”
by John Gorman, Guest Editor
Poets, hello. I’m John Gorman. This is the first in a series of workshops
I’ll be offering in this column for Sol Magazine. Who am I to be offering advice? Well, I’ve been a poet for about thirty
years. I teach creative writing and
preside (in a loose way) over a monthly working group in
Terrie Leigh Relf of
“Denouement” is a French term (it means untying a knot) that both translates and changes a Greek term, lysis, Aristotle uses in his Poetics. Aristotle saw lysis as starting with the turn of fortune itself, and said that the denouement should come out of the character of the protagonist, not from external force. It’s here that he famously speaks against resolution by “the god from the machine” (deus ex machina in Latin.)
If you know the Poetics, you know that Aristotle is writing about plots in plays when he introduces the term. So what is it doing in poetry? Well poems, too, have plots—at least psychological ones. If they don’t, they’d better be awfully good some other way, because people like stories.
A = Exposition: A flat place where we learn the who/what/where/when of a situation and see an initial problem. The line is flat because little or nothing is happening.
B = Rising Action: Some system of both conflict and suspense, a possibility of both good and bad outcomes, comes into the play and we become tense and engaged as if the outcome will affect us too.
C = Crisis: At this turning point, only the bad outcome (in tragedy anyway) is left.
D = Falling Action: The hopes of the protagonist (or “hero”) collapse and his or her fate is revealed and made actual.
E = Denouement: As we, since the time of neo-classical French theatre understand it, this is another “flat” place, in the action where we see just how things now stand, post-catastrophe.
Let’s look at the Hopscotch poem.
Hopscotch and other Playground Games
left foot, left foot
left and right feet
left foot loss of balance
two feet crumple then regain
right foot, right foot
wish I could be on the other less wobbly
right foot--return to what foot?
somewhere in the middle
i lose my balance, fall
but not before i turn around
see you watching from the sand
one boy, two boys
where'd the other boy come from?
now where did that other boy go?
and who is this boy?
tumbled over and over again
in the sand, sand, sand
in the grass, grass, grass
the jump rope stings my legs
i trip and fall
one girl tries to catch me
the others watch me land
laugh at the blubber ball
the blubber ball
the blubber ball
they laugh at the blubber ball
until she starts to cry
they laugh at the blubber ball
bleeding on the asphalt
the bike chain is stuck in my head
my thoughts play freeze tag
and simon says
just doesn't make any sense
i don't wanna be a statue
Terrie Leigh Relf, San Diego, CA, USA
Ms. Relf’s poem has a very good story line. Current taste often prefers a poems starting with action. This happens very effectively in Ms. Relf’s text. “left foot, left foot / left and right feet / somewhat together . . . .” We’re thrown into the physical experience of jumping through the lined-out boxes—and jumping a little inexpertly. There’s a splendid hint of the phrase “two left feet.” This, with the title is enough “Exposition.” A poem doesn’t have the leisure of a play. It has to develop quickly.
There’s a nice complication in stanza 2. The girl finds herself being watched by a boy (or two boys, but one does not seem to matter.) She doesn’t want to seem moving incompetently, and her confusion is very deftly rendered. You might say we’ve now had the Rising Action and that her actually falling in the game (a big humiliation) is the Crisis.
The same thing happens again in a slightly different context. I like the force of the line “the jump rope stings my legs,” but, arguably, what the French call “unity of place” is broken. I’m not sure I object to this—and certainly the second part of the title takes such a shift into account. Nevertheless there’s a certain loss of focus when it’s no longer hopscotch on sand but jump rope on asphalt. Are the boys (is The Boy) still there? We don’t know. We do get a nice addition to the psychological and dramatic database. Here the other girls ridicule the speaker (though one tries to help her.) The ground of ridicule is extended from clumsiness to overweight –“blubber ball.” It’s a part of the skill with which the poem is composed that “blubber” also means “cry.” The speaker is made to feel graceless, fat and a crybaby all at once. This is worse yet if The Boy is still there to see that her physical downfall is also a social rejection.
The poem might be stronger if it stopped at the end of stanza 3 with “they laugh at the blubber ball / bleeding on the asphalt.” This would be crisp and compelling in its low-key brutality; but the poem still wouldn’t really have a “denouement,” so I’m not recommending it. Besides I love the first line of the short last stanza, “the bike chain is stuck in my head.” This, which can’t be taken literally, restores us to the interior life of the speaker. Remember what Aristotle said about the denouement coming out of the “character” of the main character.
“My thoughts play freeze tag” is a very nice follow-up. We now have a strong psychological moment, an instance of what the Greeks called stasis, unmovingness. The speaker is overwhelmed with shame and disappointment. The force of these two quick child-world metaphors is almost that of a death image. When she comes out that with her next thought, died and reborn, we should have the denouement.
For poetry purposes we can rework the French as the French reworked Aristotle. In 20th/21st century poem, the denouement is often a sort of leap beyond the new set of facts, a psychological clarification that shows a quality of change: resolution to think and act, to be slightly differently as a result of new learning, self-understanding, insight gained by enduring a largely negative process.
This almost happens in the existing lines. The “simon says” reference could be taken to mean that the speaker will resist social pressure to conform to one of those sets of standards that playground cultures of children –children are charming in one way, of course, but little packs of fascists in another—enforce. But you have to dig in and make this be true because the poem hasn’t emphasized, though it contains, the theme of Being Directed by Others.
The very last line with its “wanna” is the only instance of slang or kid-dialect on the speaker’s part. “Blubber ball” is something the other girls say first. I think the change of language tone undercuts the authority of the speaker here. She has been addressing us in a way that makes us imagine a child; but she comes at us with the sophistication and precision of adult language—note the “crumple” and “regain” of stanza 1. I think this is a very good way to defend against the possibility of sentimental soppiness that always threatens poem about one’s childhood. (I’ve published a chapbook of such poems of my own, so this is a matter I’ve thought about.)
Then there’s the “statue” image. It may come from freeze tag or from a game called “Statue Twirler” I played m’ownself (see how the intrusion of dialect changes things?) when I was a kid. The problem is it prolongs the stasis when the point is to get beyond it.
“Denouement” means untying but an effective last passage, last image, can also involve “tying up loose ends.” We know the speaker is unhappy after her ill fortune. We want to see how she reacts and recovers, what she thinks and/or does next.
Ms. Relf’s poetic instinct
to keep to the world of childhood games is certainly right. Maybe it’s only the last line that
needs to be changed. “From now on
I’ll play ___________.” What
fills in the blank? “Hardball”
would be too hostile and aggressive, but maybe it suggests a direction in which
the Perfect Image might lie. Or maybe
the concluding image could involve a less social (therefore less coercively
conformist) game of a sort not played on a playground. Swimming the
I do like the jump-rope stanza. I don’t think the action should be restricted to hopscotch. Maybe the title should be “Playground Games,” suggesting mind games and the game playing of first romantic interest as well. In that case a new first line might be simply “hopscotch” to do the contextualizing I’d praised earlier.
I think The Boy should be there to see the jump-rope catastrophe too, or else the speaker should imagine him there or express relief that he’s not. Sexuality, heaven knows, introduces new problems to life; but it’s also an escape hatch from the tyrannical enclosures of childhood that Ms. Relf’s poem notices so well. Maybe that’s the game (and denouement) her speaker is aiming at.
Long walks with the Beloved can be the best revenge.
NOTE: Our thanks to Sol Magazine Member Terrie Relf for permission to publish her poem in this column.
ABOUT JOHN GORMAN
Professor John Gorman lives in
© Sol Magazine 2003
”This Place I've Never Been – The Motion of Word Association”
by Maryann Hazen Stearns, Guest Editor
Association plays a major part in word choice; one thing reminds you of another. The sound of rain on the roof may remind you of having to get out of bed on a dreary morning, which in turn may bring to mind a childhood memory of waiting in the rain for the school bus, which may then be associated with travel, a journey, or possibly an adventure. It's not very difficult to let the imagination take leave with an idea, to let word association take us to places we've never been. This course of action is akin to the actual process of motion, travel, or exploration.
Take a mental trip to
Visit a less exotic place: the grocery store. Images of aisles stocked with cans, boxes, bottles and bags. There might be shoppers pushing carts, perhaps one has a child in the seat. Is the child laughing? Is a little sister nagging Mom for a treat? Is Mom aggravated or having a good time with her children? Perhaps she's stressed because she doesn't have enough money for the items she needs. Perhaps she's a carefree shopper, searching for the ingredients to make a scrumptious dinner! This is another example of word association and the journey our imaginations can travel.
When a poet creates a poem, specific word choices can help create movement; as the poem develops, it becomes active with word choices and associations. An almost imperceptible momentum builds and carries a reader along for the ride. If the reader does not feel compelled to continue reading, is not swept away in the current of the content, the poem may have grown stagnant. The poet always faces the challenge of composing a poetic journey for the reader, a journey that is either tranquil or exhilarant; either way, the poem requires movement. For example:
greedily suck ice cubes
in the back of the hearse
as raw tires pop sticky black blisters
over macadam mirages
like a mizzle of merciful angels
whose wings sprinkle sunstroke
into oblivion while we travel
farther than the next day would bring us
and further than the road laid behind
Maryann Hazen Stearns,
Perhaps you have never journeyed to an exotic place, but that's no reason you can't write a poem about one! Why not select a place of origin, a mode of transportation and a final destination? Then write a one page (30 lines or fewer), titled poem about an excursion to this place you've never been. Stay aware of your word choices and the associative connotations they may have. Try to propel the reader through the poem to the very end by using careful word choices as a devise to help create movement. Enjoy the trip!
Books For New Poets"
by Betty Ann Whitney, Poetry Editor
with remarks from other Sol Magazine Editors
There is no secret magic in writing poetry. Just as a quilter does not master the art of creative stitchery overnight, poetry is a process learned not just by practice, but also by listening to experts. While many published poets share their knowledge in classrooms and workshops, and hundreds of books on the subject of writing line bookstore shelves, you might wish some insight into which books to choose.
Here are some suggestions from the Editorial Staff of Sol Magazine.
From Betty Ann Whitney, Poetry Editor
"Writing Down the Bones," by writer, poet, teacher Natalie Goldberg, is a great "workshop" for both beginners and experienced writers. The book is filled with instructions and assignments, tips and examples, and begins with a chapter on tools for writers. These exercises focus attention on topics challenging every writer to improve.
"The Poet's Handbook," by Judson Jerome, is a good tool to keep close at hand, for it is a detailed instruction book on the mechanics of poetry, and offers valuable information on form and structure. The book lists many technical terms, shows why they are important, and how they may be used. This is a guide that is sure to sharpen the skill of any writer.
From Paula Marie Bentley, Features Editor
"Making Your Own Days" is a celebration of the literal music that poetry forms through tonality and rhythm; Koch emphasizes how poets should view their work from an artistic and aural point of view, as opposed to a literal one. Koch sings of poetry as its own language, where music and sound are as important as grammar and syntax. His enthusiasm is contagious.
"Sleeping on the Wing," a unique poetry "how-to" book, interweaves poetic forms, actual poetry and essays on the conceptualizations and understandings of both. Koch believes poetry can be learned and lived, and his writing exercises will enliven any class or poetry session.
From Craig Tigerman, Editor-in-Chief
One may gain much by reading the best examples of poetry from past generations in the anthology "Immortal Poems of the English Language." It should go without saying that a serious poet will strive to become familiar with as much of the craft as possible, not just for inspiration but also for the sheer enjoyment of reading fine poetry. This book provides that opportunity, bringing together so many great poems all in one pocketbook volume.
"The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms" is a handy compilation of explanations and examples for seventy-five different poetic forms. This book is easy to read and relatively thin, making it attractive for quick reference.
From Mary Margaret Carlisle, Managing Editor
In "A Crow Doesn't Need A Shadow: A Guide for Writing Poetry From Nature," Lorraine Ferre asks us not simply to record what we see, but to pass that imagery through our imaginations and share a more personal view of nature and our lives. By pointing out proven techniques, she gently pulls the reader into the larger world of nature. This is an excellent book for any writer to read and own.
"Grammatically Correct: The Writer's Essential Guide," by Ann Stilman, does seem to be an "essential guide," for it covers every possible aspect of punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar needed by any writer. It is of particular value to new poets, for everything is laid out in a direct and easily accessible fashion. A must read for those with an interest in writing well in any genre.
There are many excellent self-help writing books. The material is presented more efficiently and interestingly in some than in others. We hope our own favorites will help demystify what to look for in the books on the Writing Reference shelves of your local bookstore or library.
"A Crow Doesn't Need A Shadow: A Guide for Writing Poetry From
"Grammatically Correct: The Writers Essential Guide," by Ann Stilman, (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1997.)
"Immortal Poems of the English Language," edited by Oscar Williams (New York: Washington Square Press, 1952.)
"Making Your Own Days, " by Kenneth Koch, (Simon & Schuster, 1999.)
"The Poet's Handbook," by Judson Jerome (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1984.)
"Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern
Poetry, with Essays on
"Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms," edited by Ron Padgett (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.)
"Writing Down the Bones," by Natalie
Goldberg, (Boston & London: Shambhala,
Phone number: 281-316-2255 Call weekdays 9-5 (CT)
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