Questions That Have No Right to Go Away

Yosemite forest
Yosemite forest

David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. I love the simplicity of his language and the power of the images he uses. Like the idea of walking noiselessly through a forest, like an explorer stalking important prey. In this case, David asks you to confront a question, but not just any question.  A question that has not right to go away.

We all have such questions. Did I marry the right person? What is my true calling? How can I live more authentically?  For me, the time around the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are the perfect time to ask such deep questions. Surrounded by family and friends, memories and family photos, I often look back on my life or take stock around the holidays. This time of year is ripe for reflection. Full of possibility. Enjoy the poem.  Everything is waiting for you!


by David Whyte

if you move carefully
through the forest

like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
where the only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

~ from Everything is Waiting for You

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

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!

Poet Pat Valdata Explores the Mysteries of Revision

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”
~Translated from an anonymous Ojibway by Robert Bly and Frances Densmore

Dorothy Parker, bless her soul, was addicted to revision. She could not move forward with a piece of writing until the line she was working on was perfect. Although the end result was usually marvelous, this practice made writing a painfully slow process for her. Although I am not one to put down anyone’s writing process, especially not someone as talented as Parker, I would never recommend that any of us emulate her.

Pat Valdata

Writing is one process, editing quite another. They require different skills, and trying to conflate the two, I think, more often results in writer’s block than good writing. That’s why Anne Lamott famously urged us to give ourselves permission to write a “shitty first draft.” Poet Peter Murphy tells his workshop students to simply “lower your standards.”

Lowering one’s standards can be easier said than done for anyone who, like me, went to Catholic School and contended with formidable English teachers like Sister Jean (8th grade) and Miss Clark (9th grade). But it’s essential to let that internal editor go away (or at least go to sleep) when sitting down at the computer and facing a big white block of empty space on the screen, or when you first open a new notebook and see empty line after empty line of smooth paper waiting for strokes of a pen or pencil.

It can be helpful to remember that no one (except oneself) ever needs to see a first draft. It absolutely does not matter what that draft looks like, if it is punctuated, if it is grammatical, or even if it makes sense. The only thing that matters: putting words on a page. Any words. Nonsense words. Quotations. Words chosen randomly from a dictionary. (A paper dictionary, so I can close my eyes, open the book, and plunk a finger down. I tried it three times today, resulting in graphic, inauspicious, sequel. I can do something with those!)

Once the words are on the page or have been saved on the computer, the thing to do, of course, is let them go utterly out of your consciousness. Write something else, clean a closet, walk the dog. Come back to them tomorrow, next week, next month. Then you can let your inner editor go to town, and figure out which lines, or at worst, which words, are worth holding onto because there’s the germ of a poem in there.

Often, I start out with a shapeless batch of lines in penmanship that has only gotten worse since Sister Jean used to shake her head at it. Then I type it, which helps it take form. Maybe the lines need to be skinny. Maybe they need to be long. If I have a short poem of say, 13-16 lines, then I see if it wants to be a sonnet. Editor me and writer me alternate the work, usually pruning it back, sometimes needing to add. If I have to cut a line I’m crazy about, I’ll copy and paste it into a “hold” file in hopes of maybe using it someday. Other lines are easier to let go.

Sometimes, a poem will seem hopeless, but I still hold onto it. I put it in a file and don’t even look at it until I am so desperate to procrastinate that I actually let a fit of cleaning take hold of me, and then I sort and file and stumble across that draft that didn’t work. Most of the time, it still doesn’t work, but once in a while, I have an aha! moment and see what needs to be pruned or grafted on, and a successful poem emerges with deceptive ease—in some cases, years after I wrote the first draft.

Every writer has times when we sit in front of the computer, or tap our pen against an empty college-ruled pad, pitying ourselves because the poem/story/scene just isn’t there yet. That’s when we have to remind ourselves: let go of that internal editor, and lower our standards at least for a while, so the writer in us can be carried by those great, creative winds. Only then can we let the spirits of Sister Jean and Miss Clark back in the process as we turn that inauspicious sequel into something satisfyingly graphic.


Pat Valdata is poet and novelist. Her new book of persona poems in the voices of women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, received the 2015 Donald Justice Prize and was published in June. Pat recently completed a two-week writing residency at the Dickinson House in Olsene, Belgium.

Ann Bracken, Barbara Morrison, and Pat Valdata will reading and signing   their books on November 14th from 2-4 pm at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble

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.


(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
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


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!


What Can Poets Change?

I just returned from a wonderful conference called 100 Thousand Poets for Change in Salerno, Italy. The event organizers and driving forces behind the international gathering of poets for social change are Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion of Guernville, California. Their idea? Invite poets and organizers from all over the world to gather in Salerno–to  meet, socialize, and network to discuss ideas for how we can all facilitate social change. And they made it all work in a beautiful place called the Santa Sofia Complex, the site of a former monastery now used as an exhibit center and a gathering space.

Unlikely, you say. What can poets change? I used to think that as well, back when I was an activist marching in the streets and demonstrating at politicians’ offices. Show up, resist, use civil disobedience—that’s how you change things. And, yes, that’s still a vibrant and important model for social change. But we’re not all called to engage in the same way, especially as we move through different seasons in our lives. The poets that I hung out with in Salerno are an eclectic, international group of activists who are using the power of words to change hearts. And often a change of heart is more powerful than a change of mind. This week and next week, I’ll be sharing stories of two amazing poets I met in Salerno. I hope the following story makes you smile.

Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion
Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion

Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey is a bright, friendly, and kind young man from Ghana who has a warm smile and lots of wisdom to share. He impressed me with his story about being an orphan at the age of 7 and how he used his faith and determination to overcome all the hardships a child alone is faced with. Richard is one of those people about whom you might say, “He didn’t just survive, he thrived.” And Richard is passionate about taking his message of hope for orphans on a grand tour. In 2013 he published his memoir called The Tale of an Orphan: A Lesson To Learn and received much praise and critical acclaim for his personal story of triumph. Richard now works to help other orphans, especially in Ghana, and has established a trust called Orphan Trust Movement, which has helped over 10,000 young people in Ghana. Richard calls all of us to action with his quiet courage when he says, “You are the one who can stand up and do something to bring everlasting difference. …if you are not an orphan, you can still use this book to learn how to stop reflecting on the past and improve your life today.” Richard is changing the lives of orphans and many others with his book, his poetry, and his quiet determination.

Dear Readers, whose writing has inspired you? Whose work has touched your heart in some profound way? I love to hear your stories, so please share in the comments.





Sometimes You Just Need the Right Container

modern-vasesI have a lovely collection of vases., some are tall and wide at the top, perfect to hold large bouquets of blue hydrangeas, a flower that always reminds me of my grandmother. Some are shorter and fluted, to hold cradle a few select roses. I even have a flat Japanese vase where I can arrange the last few blooms that survive a special arrangement. So many women I admired in my childhood taught me this lesson as they arranged flowers moving them to different vases until they found the perfect fit—sometimes you just need to find the right container.

It’s the same way with poetry. I usually write narrative poems in free verse, like my poem “Adultery.” But when I consider a poem about a difficult topic, I often freeze. I avoid writing because the memories are painful and to write about them, I have to revisit them. Is there laundry to do? Bills to pay? A lawn to rake? I’ll wander around doing anything but writing that difficult poem. So when it came time to describe what it was like deciding to get Electroconvulsive therapy treatments (ECT), the best way for me to process my feelings and get the job done required me to find the right “container.” I wrote “The Shock Machine” using a pantoum poetry format.

To write a pantoum, you repeat certain lines from one stanza to the next, changing the order in which they appear. The second and fourth lines from one stanza repeat in the next stanza as lines one and three and so on throughout the poem from stanza to stanza.)

Why does choosing a form poem, or container poem, as it is sometimes called, help one to write about difficult feelings? For one thing, as a poet, you have to observe the rules of the form, similar to the way you have to follow a recipe for a cake to turn out successfully. You can’t just dump everything in the bowl and swirl it around if you want chocolate cake. First you cream the butter and the sugar, then you beat in the eggs one by one. And so it is with difficult feelings. If you dump everything on the page, it’s messy to deal with. You also need to consider the reader. If your feelings overwhelm you, they may surely swamp your readers. Form poems provide that space of safety. They’re a way of being a trusty guide into dark places.

How does the form help the reader and writer to deal with difficult feelings?

As a writer, I know the experience I want to convey and I know the details. Writing in a specified form not only provides me with safety, it forces me to pay attention to something other than my feelings. Structure matters. So in a way, my attention is split. I still talk about the feelings, but only in such a way as is appropriate for the form.

As a reader, if a poet wants you to experience something difficult, the poet offers you some kind of lifelinein the form of repetition of lines from stanza to stanza in a pantoum, which guides you step by step into unfamiliar territory. You know what to expect as you venture deeper and deeper into the experience. All the while, familiar repetition breaks the tension every so often allowing you catch your breath. You’re willing to keep reading.

Here’s the beginning of my poem, “The Shock Machine” found in my recently released book, The Altar of Innocence.

First they take away your shoes
when you come seeking life.
Like a child you cling to your red quilt
inside a heavy fog of fear.

When you come seeking life
the doctors don’t know the self you were.
Inside a heavy fog of fear
you whisper pleas of hope.

The first pantoum I ever read was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. In the poem, Bishop takes the reader on a journey into the land of losing things, from your keys to names to cities and beyond. One of my favorite poems. I hope you enjoy it.

“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.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.