Holding on and Letting Go: A Year in the Life of a Book

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
~”Seasons of Love”, from Rent

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Ann with the first book I unpacked

“I love the song “Seasons of Love,” and I remember humming along with it  well before I ever saw Rent.  The opening lines came back to me when I began to think about how to measure my first year with a published book. Was it really only a year ago that I had my opening reading on a cold February night at Zu Coffee in Annapolis? Cliff Lynn and Rocky Jones emceed the evening, with Cliff introducing the readers and Rocky providing music with his bongos. So many of my friends came to cheer me on, and I have special thanks to each of them. To Grace Cavalieri for her unfailing support and belief in my work, to Laura Shovan for her keen insight and good ear, and to Debby Kevin for her help with marketing and promotion.  My children were there at the first reading–Brian took care of video taping the reading and Christella sold the books for me so that I could talk to people while I signed copies for them.  The evening was magical, and I was humbled to have so many folks attend my first reading and buy my book, The Altar of Innocence.

I think that I could perhaps measure the year in friends–old friends who have celebrated with me and new friends that I’ve met while doing my readings in Baltimore, Annapolis, and DC.  To begin the list, I want to thank three good friends who are part of the meditation group that has become such a valuable part of my life.

Jane Nitsch and her husband, Gerry Cohee, have been steadfast in their support and love.  Jane and Gerry invited me to read my poems as I was shaping them and they offered both critique and support in a safe atmosphere. Additionally, they hosted my book party last May, graciously opening their home to many other friends who attended  my reading party. Thank you, Jane and Gerry.

Renee Rogers is another friend from the mediation group. Her special contribution came in the form of beautiful bookmarks that she designed and produced as party favors for all of the guests. The bookmarks are elegant and graceful, and now I give them  as a special treat included with every book I sell. Thank you, Renee.

Barbara Morrison invited me to read with her and to design a program  exploring memoir using our poetry. The program is called “Looking Back to Move Forward,” and we explore the themes of innocence, secrets, and burdens that emerge in both of our books. Barbara’s book, Terrarium, looks at her life through the lens of place. She does an amazing job of capturing both the joy and the sorrow of childhood as she leads readers to her favorite childhood haunts in Roland Park. Thank you, Barbara.

I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come to my readings and shared their stories with me. It is deeply humbling to write a book that delves into difficult personal and family issues–alcoholism, depression, and verbal abuse–and to find that my stories touch my readers’ lives and create a bridge of experience that we can share. No writer could ever ask for more.

Here’s a shout-out to all of my guest-bloggers who have so faithfully contributed their talents and stories, helping to expand my readers’ horizons with their fresh perspectives. Here’s to Patricia Van Amburg for her thoughtful guidance as my critique partner and for the many hours she has worked with me to refine my poetry. Here’s to Peter Brunn of New Day Campaign, who invited me to be part of his work of using the arts to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.

Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hamden
Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hampden

And lastly, here’s to my wonderful children, Brian and Christella Potts. They have always believed in my work and encouraged me to write poetry when no one else thought I could. Most importantly, Brian and Christella encouraged me to resist the urge to censor my story. I am so grateful for the advice that they both offered: “Mom, no one can tell you how to make your art.”  Thank you, Brian and Christella.

How do I measure my past year?

In friendships, and laughter, and fearless abandon. It was all about love.

Enjoy the music!

Sarah Browning and Grace Cavalieri: Poetry Workshops Full of Heart

Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is Co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, her first poetry collection. Sarah studied poetry with the masters–mostly by reading their work and exploring the techniques they used in her own work. Sarah, a big fan of the short poem (under 15 lines), led us in a workshop where we read work by Lucille Clifton and then wrote our own short poems riffing on the ideas of lamenting the loss of something dear in our lives or talking about the birth of something–longing, love, and careers were all favorites. As one who tends to work in narrative forms, I really enjoyed writing very short poems and found the condensed poems both challenging and powerful.  Sarah chose Lucille Clifton’s poem “the birth of language” as one of her models.

the birth of language

and adam rose
fearful in the garden
without words
for the grass
his fingers plucked
without a tongue
to name the taste
shimmering in his mouth
did they draw blood
the blades did it become
his early lunge
toward language
did his astonishment
surround him
did he shudder
did he whisper
eve

Mariposa Poets, 2015
Mariposa Poets, 2015

Grace Cavalieri, host of The Poet and the Poem, playwright,poet, and author of the memoir Life Upon the Wicked Stage, took us on a journey through life’s charged memories during the Mariposa Retreat. Grace worked with the theme of fathers in poetry and used Stanley Kunitz’s haunting poem “Self Portrait” as her entree into the past. She talked about the importance of psychological action in a poem and how both action and reaction create a spiral effect drawing the reader deeper into the poem’s world. Robert Lowell’s pome “Father’s Bedroom” reveals the deceased father’s character through the objects he has left behind–“…blue dots on the curtains, a blue kimono, Chinese sandals with plush blue straps.” So much can be gleaned about a person’s life from the objects they leave behind.

After we all read those powerful poems, Grace led us in a brief mediation which wound us back in time to an event or a memory we had about our fathers. All of us accessed potent memories and worked to use either objects or psychological action to explore those memories in a poem. For some, it was an emotional experience, and Grace seemed satisfied with that response and encouraged us to explore the feelings that surfaced. Her firm belief in the power of poetry to frame life’s experiences held all of us in a safe cocoon where we could write and share our work.

Here is “Self Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time in a public park,
that spring I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out, though i could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave mustache and brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year I can still feel my cheek burning.

What memories are calling to you?  Try using either a short poem like Lucille Clifton or objects from the past to talk about one of your parents. Enjoy the challenge!

In the Company of Poets: Reflections on the Mariposa Poetry Retreat

Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly. In the mind of Maritza Rivera, Mariposa is also the name of a wonderful poetry retreat she organizes and hosts every year in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania at the Capital Retreat Center. This year I was lucky enough to attend with a group of marvelous poets and friends–Patricia Van Amburg, Sue Silver, Grace Cavalieri, and Stephanie Lowery. We renewed friendships, shared meals and wine, and wrote poetry together. Here’s a recap of two of the  featured faculty and a glimpse of the wonderful work we all did together. I’ll feature two more folks in a later blog.

Mariposa Poets, 2015
Mariposa Poets, 2015

Cliff Lynn, a poet from Annapolis, is also co-host of the Evil Grin Poetry Series and the Poet Experience, both held in Annapolis. Cliff has had over 50 poems published in both print and online journals and is an all-around poetry fan. Cliff’s workshop on persona poems, poems in the voice of an inanimate object or a character other than yourself, was popular and inspiring.  Using his usual blend of humor and sensitivity, Cliff led the group in both reading and writing poems. My favorite of Cliff’s poems is about his superhero, “One Sixteenth Man.” Ask him to recite it for you.

I offer Nikki Giovanni‘s persona poem  in the voice of a quilt as an example of a persona poem.

Quilts

(for Sally Sellers)

Like fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
Reflection
I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near.

P1010020

Robert Giron, teaches English and creative writing at Montgomery College and is the editor of several literary magazines, including ArLiJo and The Sligo Journal. He is the author of five collections of poetry. Robert’s workshop focused on the formal poetry of villanelle and pantoum. Robert provided all of us with several model poems to illustrate the forms and led us in a discussion. Then he offered everyone a bit of inspiration when he invited us to select a picture from his amazing collection of images and work on one of the formal poems  we had just discussed. As is standard with modern poets, many of us write free verse, so exploring formal structures was both challenging and fun. Many people produced wonderful pantoms or villanelles on the spot.  Once you read this poem, I’m sure you’ll be inspired to try a villanelle.

Here’s my favorite villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop called “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Part two of Mariposa will feature Grace Cavalieri and Sarah Browning. Stay tuned!

 

The Playdough-Poetry Connection

PlaydoughImageThis is a popular post that I am reposting due to requests. Have you ever thought of using Playdough to help you reimagine a writing project? Sometimes when you’re stuck, trying a different creative pathway opens new insights. Let me know if you try it and have fun!

What do you think of when you hear the word revision? For most writers, revision signals that you’ve already completed at least one draft of a piece of writing and now it’s for pruning and polishing the work to get it ready for publication. To many of my college students, it seems to mean a painful process that the teacher recommends to get a better grade. And to the fourth graders I worked  with in a poetry residency, it seems to mean recopying a piece of writing and fixing spelling errors.  But as I’ve grown in my writing skills over the years, revision has come to mean something very different to me. Revision means I’ve already done the hard work of thinking up an idea and committing it to paper.  Getting the first draft is much more likely to scare me then revising what I’ve already written. But I’m a seasoned writer with lots of revision experience tucked into my writer’s backpack.  How could I teach this skill to fourth graders?

I knew my best bet for finding teaching resources was to do a web search, and I found a wonderful, hands-on activity on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  As I read through the post entitled “Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!” by April Halprin Wayland , I knew I’d found my lesson.  But even April’s well-structured lesson needed a bit of revision for the group that I had in mind.  Here’s a description of the lesson I did at Swansfield Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, as part of a five week poetry residency in the fourth grade sponsored by the PTA and funded through a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.  While I thought the playdough activity would be fabulous, I realized that the teachers might need a heads-up, so I sent an email the day before telling them what to expect.

When I walked into the room carrying a plastic tub of small Play-Doh cans, the kids were immediately excited. After I assured everyone that they would indeed get to make something with the playdough, I wrote the word “Revision” on the board.  Then I broke it down into the prefix “re” and the root “vision” to explain that  revision is the act of seeing a piece of writing in a new way and making it better.  The students were used to seeing me wear my purple poetry glasses—to help me see the world with different eyes—so it was not a big leap for them to imagine seeing a piece of writing in a new light.  We had constantly revised as we worked on our group poems—changing words, selecting phrases, and deciding what to keep and what to set aside. But what did playdough have to do with writing poetry? Let me recap the lesson and you’ll find out.

Here’s what you need:

  • construction paper for a smooth and clean work surface
  • one can of Play-Doh for each child
  • a writing sample to revise as a demonstration
  • drafts of  student work to revise

 

  1. Each child places a piece of construction paper on the desk to provide a work surface and to keep the desk clean.
  2. Classroom helpers pass out the cans of playdough. It’s nice if you have enough cans for each child to select two colors, but the students seemed very happy having one can to work with.
  3. Direct the students to make a sculpture of anything they want. Most students made animals, food, or people.
  4. Tell the children that since they are creating a piece of art, it needs to have a title and when they finish the sculpture, they write the title on the artist’s mat. I allowed about 12-15 minutes for this portion of the activity. Most students seemed to need this much time.
  5. Next, the students take a gallery walk around the classroom to observe everyone’s sculptures.  They consider the question, “What inspires me?” as a way to cue themselves to think about revision. I allowed about 5-6 minutes for this portion of the lesson.
  6. Once they complete the gallery walk and sit down, students are directed to make one change to their sculpture, any change that they can imagine (except to squish up the work and begin again). Then there are to make a note about what they changed.
  7. Select several students to present their sculptures to the whole class using the title of the work and then describing the one change they made.
  8. Demonstrate your revision process on a poem that the class drafted together; discuss why you chose to make certain changes.
  9. Allow the students to revise a draft from a previous lesson.

 

The room buzzed with possibility and excitement as the children tore open the jars of playdough and began squishing it around.  The process was the same in every class—some students got to work immediately and had a definite result in mind while others just held the playdough and said they didn’t know what to do. I advised them to “Just roll, pinch, and squeeze it until an idea comes to you. Let the dough guide your imagination.”  Within a few minutes, everyone was completely absorbed in the activity and quietly lost in the world of possibility.  The gallery walk provided a space for the students to admire everyone’s work before revising their own and  sharing with each other.  Due to the time constraints imposed by a 45 minute session, I had to limit the sharing and moved on to demonstrating the writing component of the playdough-poetry connection.

For my revision process, I selected the previous week’s class-poem on telling a fairy tale in a different voice.  The students had co-written a poem based on the story of Aladdin and told the tale in the voice of the genie. During that lesson, we had worked on the poetic devise of repetition, including sounds, words, and phrases. Additionally, many students wrote their draft poems in a paragraph format, so I showed them how to make the poem look pretty on the page–an idea that my friend Grace Cavalieri shared with me—a much simpler concept than explaining formal linebreaks and very visual—which connected nicely to the playdough session.

While I had to move on to the next class before the students completed their revisions, I felt that the goal of the lesson had been achieved-to show that revision is something all artists do and that it provides an opportunity to make changes to something that is already good.  Happy revising! And if you get stuck for some inspiration, you can always count on playdough.

 

Resource: See the April Halprin Wayland’s version of the lesson here:

“Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!”

on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing. 

The blog originally ran on September 9, 2011.

Play-Doh image courtesy of: http://d3gqasl9vmjfd8.cloudfront.net/56b8aa77-0b48-4971-a222-dfddb7266154.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Poet Needs a Great Tool Kit

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A couple of weeks ago I posted a link to an Tweetspeak article discussing a toolkit to help poets when they are stuck. The article explored five online tools –rhyming dictionary, reverse dictionary, thesaurus, dictionary, and Google—and discussed the merits of each. This week I want to talk about my favorite tool for charging up my writing and it’s about as low-tech as you can imagine. Yes, I still use a paper dictionary, paper thesaurus, and paper rhyming dictionary. For me, there’s something comforting in the heft of the book and the chance to find words next to words that might lead to a new place…like sorting through old buttons and finding unexpected treasures.

This tool is simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, and my friend Grace Cavalieri shared it with me as one of her go-to tips. She calls it “points in space” and I just call it the ten word game. Collect ten words from anywhere-a newspaper article, a novel, a label, a poem. Use them to write a brand new poem or to help you revise a poem that isn’t working. I actually wrote one of the poems in my new book using the ten word technique to shift me into the right space.

There’s something about the limit of the ten words and the idea of forced association, a creativity tool widely used in problem solving that really helps to get me moving. I usually write the ten words on slips of paper or notecards and actually move them around until some kind of an association forms. Other times, if I’m blocked and just don’t feel like anything is working, I set a timer and write whatever comes to me with the ten words.

Here’s one I wrote last summer using the words habit, banal, sliver, outhouse, weep, crazed, plead, insanity, fading. I managed to use seven from this bunch.

You’re a Habit
impossible to break, no matter how I plead
insanity or dance crazed as a dervish in a hurricane.
Lock me in the outhouse
put the bell out of reach
hide the Precious –I’ll fight my way
back to you like an Iron Girl in a triathalon
water, roads, rusty bicycles
just to see the silver of your fading smile.
No more banal weeping
over what might have been.

Try using the same ten words above or select ten of your own at random. Give the technique a try and see if it helps you with either rewriting a poem or coming up with a fresh idea. I’d love to hear about your experiences

The Playdough-Poetry Connection

 

 

 

PlaydoughImage

 

What do you think of when you hear the word revision? For most writers, revision signals that you’ve already completed at least one draft of a piece of writing and now it’s for pruning and polishing the work to get it ready for publication. To many of my college students, it seems to mean a painful process that the teacher recommends to get a better grade. And to the fourth graders I just finished working with in a poetry residency, it seems to mean recopying a piece of writing and fixing spelling errors.  But as I’ve grown in my writing skills over the years, revision has come to mean something very different to me. Revision means I’ve already done the hard work of thinking up an idea and committing it to paper.  Getting the first draft is much more likely to scare me then revising what I’ve already written. But I’m a seasoned writer with lots of revision experience tucked into my writer’s backpack.  How could I teach this skill to fourth graders?

I knew my best bet for finding teaching resources was to do a web search, and I found a wonderful, hands-on activity on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  As I read through the post entitled “Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!” by April Halprin Wayland , I knew I’d found my lesson.  But even April’s well-structured lesson needed a bit of revision for the group that I had in mind.  Here’s a description of the lesson I did at Swansfield Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, as part of a five week poetry residency in the fourth grade sponsored by the PTA and funded through a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.  While I thought the playdough activity would be fabulous, I realized that the teachers might need a heads-up, so I sent an email the day before telling them what to expect.

When I walked into the room carrying a plastic tub of small Play-Doh cans, the kids were immediately excited. After I assured everyone that they would indeed get to make something with the playdough, I wrote the word “Revision” on the board.  Then I broke it down into the prefix “re” and the root “vision” to explain that  revision is the act of seeing a piece of writing in a new way and making it better.  The students were used to seeing me wear my purple poetry glasses—to help me see the world with different eyes—so it was not a big leap for them to imagine seeing a piece of writing in a new light.  We had constantly revised as we worked on our group poems—changing words, selecting phrases, and deciding what to keep and what to set aside. But what did playdough have to do with writing poetry? Let me recap the lesson and you’ll find out.

 

Here’s what you need:

  • construction paper for a smooth and clean work surface
  • one can of Play-Doh for each child
  • a writing sample to revise as a demonstration
  • drafts of  student work to revise

 

  1. Each child places a piece of construction paper on the desk to provide a work surface and to keep the desk clean.
  2. Classroom helpers pass out the cans of playdough. It’s nice if you have enough cans for each child to select two colors, but the students seemed very happy having one can to work with.
  3. Direct the students to make a sculpture of anything they want. Most students made animals, food, or people.
  4. Tell the children that since they are creating a piece of art, it needs to have a title and when they finish the sculpture, they write the title on the artist’s mat. I allowed about 12-15 minutes for this portion of the activity. Most students seemed to need this much time.
  5. Next, the students take a gallery walk around the classroom to observe everyone’s sculptures.  They consider the question, “What inspires me?” as a way to cue themselves to think about revision. I allowed about 5-6 minutes for this portion of the lesson.
  6. Once they complete the gallery walk and sit down, students are directed to make one change to their sculpture, any change that they can imagine (except to squish up the work and begin again). Then there are to make a note about what they changed.
  7. Select several students to present their sculptures to the whole class using the title of the work and then describing the one change they made.
  8. Demonstrate your revision process on a poem that the class drafted together; discuss why you chose to make certain changes.
  9. Allow the students to revise a draft from a previous lesson.

 

The room buzzed with possibility and excitement as the children tore open the jars of playdough and began squishing it around.  The process was the same in every class—some students got to work immediately and had a definite result in mind while others just held the playdough and said they didn’t know what to do. I advised them to “Just roll, pinch, and squeeze it until an idea comes to you. Let the dough guide your imagination.”  Within a few minutes, everyone was completely absorbed in the activity and quietly lost in the world of possibility.  The gallery walk provided a space for the students to admire everyone’s work before revising their own and  sharing with each other.  Due to the time constraints imposed by a 45 minute session, I had to limit the sharing and moved on to demonstrating the writing component of the playdough-poetry connection.

For my revision process, I selected the previous week’s class-poem on telling a fairy tale in a different voice.  The students had co-written a poem based on the story of Aladdin and told the tale in the voice of the genie. During that lesson, we had worked on the poetic devise of repetition, including sounds, words, and phrases. Additionally, many students wrote their draft poems in a paragraph format, so I showed them how to make the poem look pretty on the page–an idea that my friend Grace Cavalieri shared with me—a much simpler concept than explaining formal linebreaks and very visual—which connected nicely to the playdough session.

While I had to move on to the next class before the students completed their revisions, I felt that the goal of the lesson had been achieved-to show that revision is something all artists do and that it provides an opportunity to make changes to something that is already good.  Happy revising! And if you get stuck for some inspiration, you can always count on playdough.

 

Resource: See the April Halprin Wayland’s version of the lesson here:

“Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!”

on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing. 

The blog originally ran on September 9, 2011.

Play-Doh image courtesy of: http://d3gqasl9vmjfd8.cloudfront.net/56b8aa77-0b48-4971-a222-dfddb7266154.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Washington Review of Books by Grace Cavalieri

Grace reviews many wonderful and provocative books in her most recent posting. For anyone who is concerned about the rising tide of sexual assault–in dating relationships, on college campuses, in the military, and  in marriage–this review will encourage you to add Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence to your list of must-have poetry books.  The poetry is suitable for use in a women’s studies course, a domestic violence center, or a counseling center as well as a personal library.