Prompt #33 “I Love My Hair” Steven Foster & Lady Gaga

Last night (at the San Jose subZERO festival) I sat at a table writing poems on demand with key words provided by the poem demanders. It was fun. It was hard work, too, oh boy oh boy. One woman wrote that she wanted a poem about being anxious about the future, graduation, “but I love my hair.” I was intrigued, and wrote her a poem about her wonderful hair — even though she had disappeared and I had no idea what she looked like (by the time her poem prompt got to me, furiously typing behind the screen…).

Hair is a very sensual human characteristic, right up there with lips and eyes. People do love their hair. Or they hate it. Hair is the subject of song and painting, story and myth. And yes, there are many poems about hair. Go to The Poetry Foundation and type “hair” in the search box. Then limit the 1786 items found by “poem” and you still will be offered 1000 choices. Click this link if you don’t believe me.

So, your prompt today is to write about hair. Write about your hair, how much you like it, miss it, what it’s like to get it cut, the way it falls in your eyes when you’re working, or the way it falls across your lover’s cheek. Write about your lover’s hair. Write about the hair that flies across a garden to be found by a bird, making part of a nest. Write about cat hair on your best suit coat. You can do it.

If you need inspiration:

Stephen_Foster

Or, if you’ve gotten this far in to this post, check out Lady Gaga singing “Hair” and then see if you can write a poem about something that means that much to you. (Have fun, love your Cup PL)

Prompt #32 Your Parents in Your Poems

I’ve embarked on a series of poems about my parents — in particular their early life together. I have visual memories, stories, photos, a few letters, and my memories of them as young people — and for some reason I am compelled to write about them now. It’s not an exercise in history as much as a way to orient myself in the overwhelming mythology of my childhood. And, no matter how much I want to ground the poems in reality, I can’t. There’s no reality left, just poetry.

Many remarkable poems exist about poets’ parents. Here are two of my favorites:

It can be daunting to write about your parents, so if you’re not sure how to begin, find an old photo of them. Imagine you are an unseen observer just outside the photo — what do you see? What sounds, smells, tastes are there? Is there music? What’s the weather like?

Have fun and don’t be afraid. Much of what we remember about our parents has nothing at all to do with us — they had lives we can never know. As Dar Williams sings about in her great song, “After All” —

Sometimes the truth is like a second chance
I am the daughter of a great romance

I can’t wait to see what you come up with! (Your ever hopeful Cup PL)

Prompt #31 Getting Up in the Morning and Looking Out

You may have noticed that I was offline for a couple weeks. I visited my mother in Maine. I had a nice break and enjoyed time with my family. Everyone needs to do that as much as possible.

While I was there, I continued to write a poem every day, or to try to, which amounts to the same thing, I hope. Several mornings I got up and sat outside my bedroom door, or on my mom’s porch, drinking my tea and just looking at her view. Typically I start my mornings with a book, or with my phone and email, but to start the day without language — just with observing and day dreaming — was a strange and powerful experience. A gift I didn’t know I needed.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d taken a workshop with Sharon Bray. One of the things she talked about is the difference between writing in a journal as a way to brain dump or emotionally vomit and writing in a journal as a record of observation. She described a process like this: get up, go on a walk, make tea, open the curtains and look out, write about something you see. The process of looking out before you start writing will do what she called “hijack the dump” — that tendency in us to complain in our journals, to whine, to criticize, to navel gaze, to think about ourselves first and foremost every time we pick up our pencils or open our computers. I know I’m guilty of it. How many of my poems have the “I” in them? How many of yours do?

While I was in Maine with my mom I tried this. It’s much harder to do than you might think. I was only able to do it a little bit. I had tried it at home in California a few mornings when I’d woken up with nightmares, and sitting in the yard and looking around me was a way to try and focus on something besides those bad dreams. It’s hard. The “I” keeps creeping back in. Something in your ego wants to be the center of your poems, the center of your art, no matter how much you don’t want to sound like you are so full of yourself you might just have to scream.

For prompt #31 I urge you to try it. Get up and before you read, look at email or Facebook, before you let language in, look out. Describe the old chair in the yard, the bird making all that racket, a single leaf on a tree. I described a broken flag pole in Maine. Eventually I wrote a draft of a poem about my father and the waxing moon. I don’t know how much I managed to stay out of the poem, but I like to think I took my muse out and gave her a new kind of exercise.

Here’s a photo of the view from mom’s house, and if you look closely you can see the flag pole. The photo at the top of the post is of me, trying to get in to and stay out of the view.

IMG_3204

Prompt #30 Anna Akhmatova and The Muse

Dear friends. I am released at last from the tyranny of NaPoMo, and I am wondering what to do with myself. I missed a couple of submission deadlines that I’m sad about, so I’m thinking I may take some time off from writing new things to focus on revising and preparing another manuscript. But, I promised that I’d be writing a poem a day, from 10/10/13 all the way until 10/10/14. It just seems like so much hard work. I bought a new journal. I’ve got some ideas, maybe a poem a day based on all the cards in a pack. What is this malaise? Where is my muse? Does she have a NaPoMo hangover, too?

And then I read this article in the New York Times, shared by a friend. About Anna Akhmatova and the night Isaiah Berlin visited her in Leningrad in 1945. About the love of literature, of a life of the mind. I think maybe I’ve been trying to cram poetry into my life in a way that just can’t be done — a way that hurts both me and poetry. No wonder my muse has left the building.

As David Brooks writes:

The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.

Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.

So, I’m going to see if I can think of poetry again not as data, but as the great work of my life. Maybe my muse will condescend to me, if I wait on her.

Here’s a poem of Akhmatova’s on the subject. If you click through to The Poetry Foundation, you can read it in the original Russian, in a French translation, and in this English one, translated by Stanley Burnshaw.

The Muse

by Anna Akhmatova (translated by Stanley Burnshaw)

When in the night I await her coming,
My life seems stopped. I ask myself: What
Are tributes, freedom, or youth compared
To this treasured friend holding a flute?
Look, she’s coming! She throws off her veil
And watches me, steady and long. I say:
“Was it you who dictated to Dante the pages
Of Hell?” And she answers: “I am the one.”

 


 

Your prompt for today, is to read the article about Akhmatova and her poem. Think about what it means to have a muse, a spirit that comes with poetry (or art or music) in her hands as a gift for you. Write about that. Go slowly.

Prompt # 29 : Postcard Poems

I attended a workshop on Saturday. I took a break from being the Cupertino Poet Laureate, from being a poet/teacher with California Poets in the Schools, I went back to school and was just a poet who needed to remember her muse. It was heaven.

The workshop was hosted by the Stanford School of Medicine Program in Arts, Humanities and Medicine. The workshop leader was Sharon Bray. We did six writing exercises in eight hours. It was exhausting. But revelatory. And I made new friends. And the lunch was yummy.

One of the exercises, which I can safely snatch and share here (I don’t think Sharon would feel it is her patented idea) was to write a poem on a postcard. She had us sit outside, walk around, and then write on the postcards she brought. Of course, she infused the exercise with her signature calm, love, humor and wisdom. But there are other (many!) postcard poetry spaces in the world; here are a few:

Anyhow — it’s an easy challenge. Look outside your window and write a tiny poem that fits on a postcard. Then send it to someone you love. Be sure to take a photo of it first. Share it here with us! I’ll post mine in a few days.

Poem postcard image by David Lehman on the poets.org site.

June 8, 2014 Note: Here’s a link to my collection of postcard poems. Enjoy!

Postcard from David Lehman. Postmarked July 27, 2011, New York. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22474#sthash.0OOPRYto.dpuf
Postcard from David Lehman. Postmarked July 27, 2011, New York. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22474#sthash.0OOPRYto.dpuf
Postcard from David Lehman. Postmarked July 27, 2011, New York. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22474#sthash.0OOPRYto.dpuf

Al Young & Gabriel Garcia Marquez (PAD #28)

Al Young is California Poet Laureate Emeritus. He’s a huge spirit, a deep soul, a purposeful poet. Read one of my favorite poems by him, “Birthday Poem” at the Poetry Foundation. I love especially these last two stanzas, and especially on this day, over this weekend, when I’m remembering how the suffering of each of us, through compassion, empathy and imagination, can be remembered and experienced by all. This I see as the function of art.

How I got from then to now
is the mystery that could fill a whole library
much less an arbitrary stanza
 
But of course you already know about that
from your own random suffering
& sudden inexplicable bliss

Image

This entry on Al Young’s blog offers a variety of thoughts about and images of the late great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One of the delights he’s collected is this interview with Isabele Allende about how Marquez “gave us back our history” — meaning primarily the history of the people of Central and South America, but also, I think, the history of anyone who chooses to re-imagine a history other than that which is told by the conquerors.

Image

There are many photos of Marquez in the press now, some in which he’s obviously frail but sporting a lovely yellow rose in his lapel. Some show him flipping off the camera. I like this one (above). I think I understand what it means to wear a book on your head. To wander around in life, worried that those words might clatter to the ground in a pile of pages and board, to lose your mind.

Rest in peace, Sr. Marquez. Thank you for the gifts of your imagination and your hard work. Rock on Al Young, keep telling us like it is.

(For your poem-a-day prompt, try writing a poem in which you address both your random suffering and sudden inexplicable bliss. That should keep you busy.)

A Poem from Nothing but Words : The Column Poem (PAD Prompt #27)

In honor of my daughter’s anthropology qualifying exams, which you can read more about in this Cupertino Poetry Exchange post, I wanted to write her a poem that celebrated anthropology. But, not being an anthropologist, I wasn’t really sure how to go about this. So, of course, I went to Wikipedia. I always start either there or at Stanford’s Green Library. General consumption of information that might be accurate or the deep deep scholarship of the ages. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other.

So, Wikipedia defines anthropology nicely enough but didn’t give me much inspiration for writing a poem. Then I remembered a prompt/tactic/exercise I’ve taught and that I’ve also been taught by others (probably in the other order). Take a piece of prose (or write your own piece of prose) about a topic. Then circle 5, 7, 15, 31 of the best or most interesting words in the prose. Always an odd number. Don’t ask me why. Then put those words in a line down the center of the page in a single column and write whatever comes to you on both sides of those words. Voila, your poem. Like a column with wings.

I took Wikipedia’s definition of anthropology, picked the words that spoke to me, and came up with this funky, silly, sexy, and rather delightful poem. I doesn’t have much to do with my daughter, except perhaps the last two lines. And it’s got 14 lines, so I didn’t even follow my own advice.

Here’s what the prose looked like and then the messy wing-y column first draft. Finally, the poem (at the top of the post).

Your challenge, if you want to write today, is to write prose, pick your favorite words, and then make your own “column poem.”

Anthropology Poetry

In honor of my daughter, who is this very moment taking her anthropology qualifying exam, I’ve found some anthropology poetry connections.

In this short essay, Robert Peake thinks about how poetry can be a kind of anthropology — the idea of “poet as anthropologist” — in contrast to the recently popular confessional poetry point of view — “poet-as-person-who-confesses.” The author makes the point that poets might be tired of gazing at their navels, and are now more likely to gaze at the navels of others.

“[…] American poets are no less united in the cause … to “extend the imaginative franchise”–with its power to renew our understanding of what it means to be human. It is in this pursuit that poetry and the actual science of anthropology intersect. At the end of postmodernism, having our ideas of objectivity and centrality blasted to bits by the Second World War, we are beginning to pick up the pieces.

But simply gluing them back together is no longer an option. Having examined our own little fragment ad nauseum through confession, we are finally beginning to relate more inquisitively to our own, and the other, shards. In what I hope history will regard as our current period of “late postmodernism” or perhaps “post-postmodernism,” we return in poetry to the one question a Google search can’t answer for us: what is it, this thing called “being human?”

And because I want to give my daughter (to whom I have mailed a copy of this poem) and you, gentle digital reader, a moment to slow down with a poem and consider what it means to be human, here is a wonderful mysterious poem I found, just for you.

Anthropology
By James Galvin

Remember the night you got drunk
and shot the roses?
You were a perfect stranger, Father,
even my bad sister cried.

Some other gravity,
not death or luck,
drew fish out of the sea
and started them panting.

The fish became a man.
The archer’s bow became a violin.
I remember the night you searched the sofa
for change

and wept on the telephone.
Some other gravity,
not time or entropy,
pulled the knife down for centuries.

The archers dropped their bows,
harmless as pine needles in the snow.
The knife became a plow
and entered the earth, Father.

Later it became a boat
and some other things —
It isn’t a dream but it takes a long time,
for the archer’s bow to become a violin.

James Galvin, “Anthropology” from Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. Copyright © 1997 by James Galvin. Copper Canyon Press, http://www.coppercanyonpress.org.

For future exploration:

(In case you came today to get a prompt to write a poem, read this related post.)

“Negotiations with a Volcano” by Naomi Shihab (PAD Prompt #26) Nye

Today I went looking for a poem to go with world events. Browsing email this morning, I was struck by the power and beauty of the images of Tungurahua volcano that erupted in Ecuador yesterday. ( Incredible images courtesy of EarthSky.org). According to the Associted Press, Tungurahua is from the Quichua word tunguri (throat) and rahua (fire): “Throat of Fire.”

Tungurahua-volcano-4-4-2014-Henry-Aldaz-e1396688409420

I know of many references to volcanoes in poetry; Emily Dickinson alone wrote many poems about the terrifying possibilities. I love Naomi Shihab Nye’s work, but was unfamiliar with this poem. I especially like it for its domestic details and its prayer-like quality. And that wonderful title, the idea that one might negotiate with the natural world, with whatever gods or goddesses might be listening — such a great tradition of poetry she is following.

Negotiations with a Volcano
by Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

The volcano referenced in this poem is Agua, in Guatemala. This great site (Smithsonian Institute) has great information.

For anyone who is used to writing a poem-a-day with me, and comes on Saturdays to look for a prompt, try writing a poem of prayer, bargaining, or negotiation with a force of nature: oh dear mountain; please deep ocean; no, no, not me snow and rain! What exactly would you be asking for? What are you hoping to be spared from?

Prompt #25 Ekphrasis : Poetry Confronting Art

I love ekphrasis. I love saying it, and I love writing ekphrastic poems. Simply put, ekphrasis is the the process of writing about a piece of visual art: a dramatic or poetic response to a painting or sculpture. I like the way the Academy of American Poetry discusses the process: as confrontation. Poetry confronting art. If you click through to their site, you can read all about the history of the form (back to Homer) and check out over a dozen examples.

The following ekphrastic poem will appeal (hopefully) to everyone: “Stealing The Scream,” by Monica Youn. The painting is so famous it has become a pop culture icon — The Scream, by Edvard Munch. There are several versions of the painting (lithographic prints) and, as Wikipedia, explains, “The Scream has been the target of several high-profile art thefts. In 1994, the version in the National Gallery was stolen. It was recovered several months later.” Monica Youn’s poem contemplates the irony of something actually happening to the painting — and to the people involved in the theft and its alarming discovery — as being suddenly worthy of the horrified check-slapping image we all know so well.

Stealing The Scream
by Monica Youn

It was hardly a high-tech operation, stealing The Scream.
That we know for certain, and what was left behind–
a store-bought ladder, a broken window,
and fifty-one seconds of videotape, abstract as an overture.

And the rest? We don’t know. But we can envision
moonlight coming in through the broken window,
casting a bright shape over everything–the paintings,
the floor tiles, the velvet ropes: a single, sharp-edged pattern;

the figure’s fixed hysteria rendered suddenly ironic
by the fact of something happening; houses
clapping a thousand shingle hands to shocked cheeks
along the road from Oslo to Asgardstrand;

the guards rushing in–too late!–greeted only
by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls;
and dangling from the picture wire like a baited hook,
a postcard: “Thanks for the poor security.”

The policemen, lost as tourists, stand whispering
in the galleries: “. . .but what does it all mean?”
Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame,
saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky.

Isn’t that fabulous? Your challenge today, is to write an ekphrastic poem. If you’re not at a museum, look up art on the internet or open a book. I’m going to be writing an ekphrastic poem based on an art exhibit “Initial Public Offering” I visited yesterday at the San Jose Museum of Art. It’s a special poem for a special event, coming up April 17. Come back and read the poem later this month. Now, get writing!

 

 

Stealing The Scream

by Monica Youn

It was hardly a high-tech operation, stealing The Scream.
That we know for certain, and what was left behind--
a store-bought ladder, a broken window,
and fifty-one seconds of videotape, abstract as an overture.

And the rest? We don't know. But we can envision
moonlight coming in through the broken window,
casting a bright shape over everything--the paintings,
the floor tiles, the velvet ropes: a single, sharp-edged pattern;

the figure's fixed hysteria rendered suddenly ironic
by the fact of something happening; houses
clapping a thousand shingle hands to shocked cheeks
along the road from Oslo to Asgardstrand;

the guards rushing in--too late!--greeted only
by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls;
and dangling from the picture wire like a baited hook,
a postcard: "Thanks for the poor security."

The policemen, lost as tourists, stand whispering
in the galleries: ". . .but what does it all mean?"
Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame,
saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16477#sthash.qS5hIPDk.dpuf

Stealing The Scream

by Monica Youn

It was hardly a high-tech operation, stealing The Scream.
That we know for certain, and what was left behind--
a store-bought ladder, a broken window,
and fifty-one seconds of videotape, abstract as an overture.

And the rest? We don't know. But we can envision
moonlight coming in through the broken window,
casting a bright shape over everything--the paintings,
the floor tiles, the velvet ropes: a single, sharp-edged pattern;

the figure's fixed hysteria rendered suddenly ironic
by the fact of something happening; houses
clapping a thousand shingle hands to shocked cheeks
along the road from Oslo to Asgardstrand;

the guards rushing in--too late!--greeted only
by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls;
and dangling from the picture wire like a baited hook,
a postcard: "Thanks for the poor security."

The policemen, lost as tourists, stand whispering
in the galleries: ". . .but what does it all mean?"
Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame,
saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16477#sthash.qS5hIPDk.dpuf

the figure’s fixed hysteria rendered suddenly ironic by the fact of something happening; – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16477#sthash.qS5hIPDk.dpuf