A tanka walk with Haryette Mullen

photo-1462774603919-1d8087e62cadInspired by Los Angeles poet Haryette Mullen and her book Urban Tumbleweed, today a group of students and I took a tanka walk around the Metropolitan Learning Center building in NW Portland.

Each writer made notes about their exterior and interior landscape. Walking quietly and carrying a small piece of paper, we wrote down what we saw, heard, touched, smelled, thought, and felt as we moved through the building.

This is one of my favorite activities, because I love writing and I love walking. Last year, I took a tanka walk with students at Cleveland High School, and I was so inspired by their creativity that I decided to take the project with me into my own backyard. Continue reading “A tanka walk with Haryette Mullen”

Why I Write

When I was eight or nine, my favorite book was How I Came To Be A Writer, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I was fascinated by her story about being my age and writing, and how she managed to make her life as a working writer whose books I loved. This is a “spill” I did two summers ago, just before I gave a talk about “the writer’s desk” at show:tell, a summer camp for teen writers and artists. In it, I tried to answer some questions about why I write, how I write, and what success means to me as a writer.

I’ve written since I was very young. Before I could write, I would tell my parents stories and they would write them down for me, or make cassette recordings. Did they do this because stories spilled from me and it was a way to focus my young energy? I don’t know. I have a story called A Walk in the Woods, which I must have told my dad at age 4 or 5, and which he typed up so I could paste it (backward) into an old calendar and draw the illustrations. (It’s a funny mix of the plot for Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, with a few horses thrown in and a cameo by my mom, eating a cheese sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. I think I hated alfalfa sprouts at the time and was working it out through story.)

When I began writing for myself, I would ask my parents for Mead spiral notebooks in bright colors from the drugstore, and fill them with poems. I liked to find a corner of the yard or the front stoop, away from the family bustle, usually at a quiet time of the day like just before or after dinner. Sometimes I wonder if the need for solitude and introspection came first, and writing simply became the means to facilitate that communion of self and bigger world.

My time on the porch was meditative, though I didn’t know anything about formal meditation. I sat and felt. I watched the light sink behind our suburban hill, lighting up the scrawny trees and washing the windowless sides of the stucco split-levels. There was some seed of fear planted in me, and a seed of tenderness and sweetness. I intuited that the world of adulthood that lay before me meant broken dreams. I was afraid of this, and I didn’t understand. So I sat on the stoop and tried to tune into this sadness and sweetness.  I loved the light, the birds, the flowers, even though everything in my neighborhood was pretty ordinary and repetitive.

I wrote it down, poem after poem about sunsets, clouds, trees, sky. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I wrote rhyming poems. I followed rhyme schemes and syllabic patterns without thinking much about it, just adopting whatever I picked up from songs and the little poetry I read at that point (Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson).

Poem-making can be like braiding a rope and then climbing it, then continuing to braid as you go. The strange and mysterious part is how it bears your weight. You use it to bear your own weight. You are somehow held up even when you haven’t finished it yet. I write because making shape, form, sound, texture in language makes me feel supported and held in a world that can often feel unfocused, scattered, chaotic, confusing.

Growing up I filled notebooks with poems, occasionally revising them, sometimes making little books of the ones I especially liked. I didn’t share them with others at all. I wrote stories, kept journals, and read and read and read.

I think all of that early practice seeped into me and still shapes what I write, even though I mostly write in free verse, a loose kind of blank verse, or nonce forms—forms I make up as I go, and often deviate from as the poem dictates its own agenda. I think my attraction to rhyme and meter tuned my ear for opportunities to rhyme and make sound links, but I’m not often interested in adhering to a form in the finished draft. Sometimes I use form as a way to climb into a subject or a line. I’ll play with sonnets, haiku, villanelles, sestinas. Sometimes I’ll copy a favorite poem’s form, or write between the lines of a favorite poem. Sometimes, rarely, an exercise leads to a final draft that’s close to the original form assigned. More often, it’s a springboard to get my tongue loosened again.

I can be perfectionistic, and get temporarily obsessed by the time-card approach to process. How many hours should I spend at the desk per day? What time of day? So many writers insist on the same number of hours at the same hour, as a way to train the muse to meet you, to make a date with inspiration. I’ve courted this off and on during my life as a poet so far.

I don’t know what my definition of success is right now. I feel like it always changes. When I was younger, I assumed I would publish several books before I hit 30. Everyone said it would be difficult to make a living as a poet, but I mostly tuned them out and figured they just didn’t know I was destined for greatness. I would show them. I think there’s part of me that secretly still believes that (maybe everyone does?).

What I hold most fiercely to, and what hasn’t changed, is that writing is first and foremost a form of meditation for me. Especially when it comes to drafting poems. The best times are like a kind of self-hypnosis. Mary Oliver has written that she has come to understand that her job is just to pay attention. This is why I started writing poems and still write them. To pay attention. It becomes increasingly difficult to do.

“Writing is an act of attention. You are being conditioned all the time toward distraction and acceleration and away from contemplation. Fight it.” -Carolyn Forche

Summer 2014 show:tell Workshop

Hey Marylhurst campers!

I’m so glad to be writing with you at show:tell 2014. Here are those links I mentioned in class, for further explorations. May you get lost in the kinship between poems and poets, may link lead on to link and especially on to more of your own poems.

1, 2, 3 Make a Poem workshop

Day 1: More practice for getting words on the page

Read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” and circle all of her metaphors and similes. Create metaphor “templates,” then write lines that use the same kind of metaphor for each image. Use one or two of the resulting lines to lead you into a poem.

Get inspired at Hazel & Wren

Day 2: More practice for re-vision

Try rewriting your poem in a different form, such as a villanelle, sestina, or ghazal.

Try this nonce form, the  “semi-glosa,” invented by poet Barbara Crooker. Then invent your own form!

Day 3: How do you know when a poem is finished?

The drafts of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stings”

The drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”

Draft, a really cool lit journal that’s all about first, second, third (etc) drafts


Tattoo & Identity workshop

This workshop on tattoo, writing, and identity was inspired by metal/enamel artist Martha Banyas’ concept of “invisible tattoos” and her short video “The Mysterious Lives of Makers.” In her metal sculptures and paintings, Banyas uses botanical imagery in tattoos on human figures.

We’ve all had experiences that have ‘marked’ us, either visibly or invisibly. Where do these experiences live in our bodies? How do they shape our identities? How can we carry them in our writing and visual art?

These are big questions, and we try a lot of different exercises in this workshop. Here are additional resources and ways to use some of the passageways we explore:

A Thousand Words, an essay about writing from photographs, The New Yorker

self portraits, body image: photography

Shelley Jackson’s skin quilt, a collective tattooed poem

a video about her project

personality quizzes as fodder for poems

The tattooed poets project

Tattoo Highway lit journal

Try Jeanne Murray Walker’s Tulips Exercise

When I was in graduate school, I had the pleasure of working with poet Jeanne Murray Walker. She gave us an assignment for working with metaphor that I found profoundly helpful. It involves reading and observing metaphor in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips,” which you can read here.  

Here are Jeanne’s instructions:

“Okay, here we go.  This is to show you how to go through a poem to create metaphor templates that you can use to generate your own metaphors.  I’m looking at Plath’s “Tulips.”

The first metaphor is “The tulips are too excitable.”   So you might formulate the template like  this.   The X (the given term) is described by an adjective which attributes to it the characteristics of a Y (a human trait).

For the exercise you would write a bunch of metaphors with that format.

Examples:  The sun seems too anxious to rise in the morning.   Why is the watch so eager to race ahead?   The turtle seems oddly philosophical.

The second metaphor in “Tulips” is “Look at how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.”   Actually, that’s a series of normal adjectives that leads, in the end, to a metaphor:   “how snowed in”.

The template for this metaphor might be this:   The X (everything in this hospital room) is described by a verb (“snowed in”) which gives it the characteristics of Y (ie whiteness, quietness, emergency, etc.).

For the exercise you would write a bunch of metaphors with that format.

Examples:   How the sun got hemmed in by the gossiping of the big stars.    How unremarkable the chair is, how undistinguished, how—well—belittled by its surroundings.

You go on doing that kind of work through the whole poem.  “Tulips” is built out of metaphors.  To work through it  might take you two weeks.  But it will be two weeks well spent.

Does this give you the idea?   I’m inventing the examples as I go along here, so they’re probably not very good.  But you will do better than this when you do the exercises in your journal.

I made up this metaphor exercise for myself a long time ago and it has been most useful to me when I could follow the format of the original metaphor as exactly as possible.  But all my reading in semantics suggests that metaphor is a slippery and wily animal.  Don’t use that as an excuse to get discouraged.  Just do as well as you can.  Any practice, even if you’re not quite accurate, will help you.  Accuracy is not the ultimate goal.  Try to make good metaphors rather than ones that won’t be useful to you in a poem.   And the ultimate point is not just to gain metaphors you might use, but above all to get a mind nimble for metaphor. Practice in your journals.   And be well.”

Try Writing a Semi-Glosa

Try writing a semi-glosa like Barbara Crooker’s poem, “A Woman is her Mother.” Crooker is the author, most recently, of Gold. Find out more about her work here. The semi-glosa is a “nonce” (or invented) form. You’ll need 4 short lines from favorite poems, stories, or songs.

I asked Barbara Crooker how she wrote the poem and this is what she replied. Thank you, Barbara!

“The glosa is a 15th c. Spanish form most commonly seen in English by Canadian poet P. K. Page.  It uses a 4 line stanza from another poet. Each line appears at the end of a ten line stanza (4 stanzas to the poem).  Lines 6, 9, and 10 are supposed to rhyme.  \

So I was really messing around with the form in this one; first, I’m not using a 4 line stanza, but rather, 4 lines from 4 different writers, 4 different poems.  And none of them end the line, nor do I follow the stanza length or rhyme pattern.  Instead, I really “nonce it up,” creating my own pattern.

I’m doing something more like a pantoum, where line 2 of the first stanza becomes line 1 of the second; line 3 of the 1st stanza becomes line 2 of the second, line 4 in the 1st becomes line 3 in the second, etc.  It’s loose, but I wanted the lines to be interwoven.  I’m also using a muted rhyme scheme:  other/air weather; other/everywhere/here; flowers/for us, branch/flesh; back/talk; forward/everywhere, telephone/alone.  So, it’s both formal, and “not,” in that I’m doing something pattern-like, without actually following a pattern exactly, whether a “received form” or one I’ve made up. . . .