Poetry Workshop Wonders: List-Definition Poems & Defining Home

This afternoon, I had the privilege of spending time in one of my favorite places with my favorite people: a community creativity workshop.  This October and November, I’m leading my last Lunch Hour Language Artists Workshop Series as Cupertino Poet Laureate.

Perhaps it’s because the end of my term is drawing near, or perhaps it’s because the group of attendees at these workshops never fail to inspire and humble me, but I find myself looking more and more forward to each session.

46R4BWGDYUI6NJK7YYP2B6SSAQThe theme for LHLA 3 is “Poetry of Place.” In the first session, we wrote about our childhood homes. Today the focus was on finding and defining home, and I introduced the concept of List-Definition Poetry — a form I made up that combines the list poem and the definition poem.

I structured the workshop so participants would consider the juxtaposition of “Home Then,” and “Home Now.” I like to join in during writing time whenever possible, and I was amazed by how my brainstorming around “Home Now” centered on the people I’ve met and worked with during my time as CPL and how much I’ll miss hosting these community events.

I feel truly blessed to have had my life touched by so many amazing people and their moving poetry. I can’t wait to see where the poem I started today leads as I continue to work on it over the next few months.

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At the start of our writing period, the group and I brainstormed words and phrases related to the concept of “Home, Then and Now” to generate ideas for our own List-Definition poems. If you weren’t able to join us, you can use the same concept as a poetry prompt!

I thought it would be interesting to turn our brainstorming lists into a poem using every word and phrase generated.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Then and Now

Then we were fearless
running in clean air
with the outside cats
through mustard yellow fields
playing with the neighbors
on rope swings in fruit trees.

Then we were joyful and safe
in our backyard adventures
our trust in friends expansive
jumping from diving boards
into swimming pools.

Then we were playful
trudging through white snow
splashing into cedar hot tubs,
seldom lonely and only
sometimes confused.

Now we are isolated
amidst the tall green spires
in a sea of dusty earthquakes,
suffocating in politics
and exhausting chaos.

Now our expensive empty nests
feel claustrophobic and tiny,
leaving us alone but safe
in our book-filled havens.

Now, as then, we find love and gratitude
hidden in Sunday dinners and boba tea,
waiting between cracks on the sidewalks
and countless cars parked on freeways.

Then and now we are Cupertino.
                                                            © 2019 Kaecey McCormick

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Writing Poetry with Warm Ups

writing exerciseThere are many parallels between writing and exercise. With both, it can be challenging to get started. We’ll swear tomorrow’s the day we get going, we’ll do it every day for at least an hour, and we imagine grand results in record time… only to quit after a day or so. We worry we’ll look foolish next to the “experts” out there. It can be hard to find a routine that works for us, especially with the constant demands from work, family, and friends on our time. We hit plateaus, and physical or mental obstacles can set us back or derail us.

It’s no wonder many people who have always wanted to try writing (or exercise) shy away or give up when their first draft (or workout) is less than stellar (hint: almost all first are less than stellar!). In teaching writing, I’ve found one mistake new writers make is diving into composing a piece without doing any pre-writing work. This is the equivalent of setting out to sprint a mile without warming up. Your muscles are cold, your blood flow is slow, and you’re bound to get hurt or, at the very least, you won’t set your best time.

Think of these warm-up exercises as getting the brain ready for the real work by clearing the creative passageways of any junk warm upfloating around. Sometimes the “junk” might actually be precious gems that can be used in finished pieces, and sometimes the junk is just junk. And that’s okay. By getting it out of your system, you have warmed up your brain and can focus on the next thing.  Working through warm-up exercises is also a great way to beat writer’s block.

Here is one quick warm-up routine I sometimes use. You should spend no more than 15 minutes total on the group of exercises – in other words, write and write fast. The trick is to not think before you write. Just write. Let whatever comes to mind come out on the page without worrying about whether or not it’s good or makes sense. No judgments, just the pen moving over paper.

Ready? Let’s go…

brain-exercisesPoetry Warm-up Routine #5 

Required equipment:

  • A timer or clock
  • A pen/pencil and paper (do warm-up exercises by hand!)
  • A space to work in

Exercises:

    1. Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “I wish…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
    2. Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “Once…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
    3. This two-minute warm up is split: Spend one minute writing lines that begin with “Now…” then spend one minute writing lines that begin with “I remember…” Write the lines as a combined list going down the page.
    4. Spend two minutes writing a list of lies.
    5. Spend no more than six minutes total!
      – For the final warm up, fold your paper in half to create two columns.
      – Next, write a list of five concrete nouns in the right column (30 seconds). (Concrete nouns are nouns that are tangible. To figure out if the noun is concrete, do what I call the “Drop Test.” Ask yourself, could this noun be dropped on my foot? For something like a mug, the answer is yes. For something like love, the answer is no.)
      – Then, write a list of five verbs or adjectives ending in -ing (e.g., biting, singing, dashing) in the left column (30 seconds).
      – Now randomly draw a line from each noun to one -ing word. When you’re done, you should have five word pairs.
      -Finally, write a sentence for each pair. Do not spend more than one minute on each sentence! The sentences do not have to be related, though if you’re looking for an extra challenge you can layer this in.

To help you see what the result of these warm-up exercises look like, here are some excerpts from the last time I used this warm-up routine. Remember – these are warm-up exercises, not polished pieces of writing!

ONE – “I wish…”

  • I wish I could function on four hours of sleep every night.
  • I wish guns had no place in our world.
  • I wish it were easier to find size 10 ballroom shoes.
  • I wish I could answer the question “Why?”
  • I wish my children never had to face loss.
  • I wish I could fall asleep each night watching stars streak across the inky sky.

TWO – “Once…”

  • Once I believed unicorns and dragons were real and leprechauns lived at the end of rainbows.
  • Once I found five dollars at the bottom of a river.
  • Once I laughed until I couldn’t breathe and the black spots burst on the backs of my eyelids.
  • Once I believed love was enough.
  • Once I dropped a pink ribbon into a pot of soup.
  • Once I wanted to be a firetruck with a tall ladder and loud bell.
  • Once I was able to run for miles and miles.

THREE – “Now…” followed by “I remember…”

  • Now she pays for groceries with borrowed pennies.
  • Now I wipe away their tears with my apron strings.
  • Now I know the joy of giving in at the right time.
  • Now I know the only thing at the end of a rainbow is wet grass.
  • I remember the weakness of small people in a large crowd.
  • I remember the slice of a knife through my finger.
  • I remember the taste of being five and the warm rain as it fell on the field.
  • I remember the banter of the geese on the pond in the early hours of November.

FOUR – “Lies”

  • I never to go bed angry.
  • My patience flows from a bottomless well.
  • I’ve never regretted a decision or action.
  • I love my name.
  • I never struggle to find words.

FIVE – “Concrete Nouns & Descriptive Words”

  • cutting eraser – My sketch disappeared without hesitation under the cutting eraser.
  • biting bed skirt – The scratchy fabric burned the tops of her sensitive feet like a biting bed skirt.
  • longing pencils – The blank page called liked a siren to the longing pencils sitting idly in the dusty cup at the edge of the desk.
  • searing wedding band – Her entrapment after his betrayal was like a searing wedding band melding flesh to bone.
  • enveloping coffee – I closed my eyes and allowed my senses to be overwhelmed by the enveloping coffee.

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National Poetry Month: PLAYING WITH FORM!

national poetry month 2It’s April and that means it is National Poetry Month! Even though I love a good celebration as much as the next person, I can’t help but wonder what does it really mean to have a National Poetry Month?

On one level, it means there’s an increase each April (since 1966 when NPM began) in poetry awareness and appreciation, which means it can be easier to find a poetry-related event in our community or a book about poetry at the library. This is exciting and fun to see because poetry often gets overlooked amidst the prose. And during April, most schools teach poetry-related lessons, which is phenomenal because I love thinking about kids having fun with poetry.

But still I wondered, What does it mean for me, the aspiring poet, at the most basic and personal level?

I’ve decided that beyond the sense of belonging a month of national celebration evokes, NPM meant for me, personally, it is time to try new things, new forms, new language, new ideas. A time to be a bit reckless and whimsical. A time to truly embrace poetry as a means of capturing the abstract, of painting with language, of experimenting with sound. A time to be brave with words.

Hand-drawn light bulb over bright colorful blots of paint, on wh

In the UK, they celebrate National Poetry Day in October, and it just so happened one October a few years ago in honor of the UK NPD I was flipping through The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop and learned about a form of poetry previously unknown to me – the sonnenizio. It was a moment of pure joy – a new form, a sparkly name… time to play!

Poet Kim Addonizio made up the form by playing with a sonnet. Thus the name, sonnenizio (sonnet + Addonizio) was born.  The rules are simple:

  • Borrow a line from someone else’s sonnet
  • Take a word from that line and repeat it in every other line (in some form – homonyms work!) in the poem
  • In true sonnet form, the poem should be 14 lines and the last two should rhyme 

try-something-newIn honor of National Poetry Month, I encourage you to play with the form. Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet, stretching yourself with a little poetry will work wonders for the rest of your creative life.

And if you do write something, let me know! I’m collecting poems inspired by Cupertino Poet Laureate events for publication in a community anthology. So email me with “Anthology” in the subject line with your sonnenizio (or poem in any other form!) or use the contact form on this website if you’d like to see your work included!

For inspiration, here’s an example by the inventor of the sonnenizio, Kim Addonizio, I found on Genius.com:

Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton
by Kim Addonizio

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
or kiss anyway, let’s start with that, with the kissing part,
because it’s better than the parting part, isn’t it –
we’re good at kissing, we like how that part goes:
we part our lips, our mouths get near and nearer,
then we’re close, my breasts, your chest, our bodies partway
to making love, so we might as well, part of me thinks –
the wrong part, I know, the bad part, but still
let’s pretend we’re at that party where we met
and scandalized everyone, remember that part? Hold me
like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
yes, the ardent partisan, let it win you over,
it’s hopeless, come, we’ll kiss and part forever.

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