View Full Version : The Poet's Craft : Subjects for Writing

November 26th, 2005, 03:57 PM
The Poet's Companion: A Guide To The Pleasures Of Writing Poetry. (Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux)-->Buy Book (http://www.cuppalove.com/Shopping/Details/0393316548.aspx)

This will be a thread dedicated to Subjects for Writing, inspiring subjects that can send our minds spiraling into the magic of life while keeping our poetry somewhat grounded. Because I don't feel it appropriate, I'll be paraphrasing and quoting from the book with an extreme respect, these published writers are trying to make a living too. So if you'd like a more accurate and professional guide, I do highly suggest buying the book. It's reccommended by many people as a great tool, and even in proffessors syllabus' to poetry courses. The subjects will include;

1.) Family & Obstacle (check!)
2.) Writing & Knowing
3.) The Shadow
4.) Death & Grief (check!)
5.) Writing The Erotic
6.) Witnessing
7.) Poetry of Place

Later, I may add another thread on more Poet's Craft. Going so far as to guide us into making images with our writing, simile & metaphor, meter rhyme and form, rythm repition and blues... If you'd be interested let me know.

Thanks to these women, Kim Addonizio and Dorianna Laux; who serve as teachers of poetry and are poets themselves so we can explore more of ourselves in our craft as writers and poets. Each topic ends with excersizes and topics for writing about the particular subject. I welcome you to try them.

Otherwise, let us remember the many ways of ourselves and recall the magic in the world, mundane as it is to the untrained eye.


November 26th, 2005, 04:29 PM
When it comes to writing, we know we've done a good job as poets when we've written something that people can relate to, and nothing is more relative than family.

We all come from some kind of family, whether our childhoods were traumatic or serene is of no relevance when it comes to making our formative years art. And that's what poetry is, it's an art of wisdom.

Writing about things helps us reflect back on them and gain some insight, some perspective. But making it art is what defines us, and what inspires us. For me, when I can make something as simple as washing the dishes a majical endeavor, I've done my job.

A family is something we all have, it's the microcosm that teaches us about the rest of the world. It introduces us to our first relationships and influences; whether they were encompassed by feelings of love, anger, reverence, sorrow, joy, isolation or cruelty. We've all had childhoods, and our experiences mold us.

But how do we write about this particularly personal group of people with the honesty and openness that is required of us as poets?

Let's look at a couple contemporary poems and see:

The Morning Baking

Grandma come back, I forgot
How much lard for these rolls?

Think you can put yourself in the ground
Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting like you
Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?
Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue
You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

I'll tell you I don't remember any kind of bread
Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep
The stars on your silk robe

But I'm glad I'll look when I'm old
Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk.

By: Carolyn Forche
(Author of Gathering The Tribes)

The first lines of the poem are a plea for the dead grandmother to return, and set us up for a poem of longing. But by the third line we begin to feel another tone creeping in, and later an anger that comes full force by the fifth line and continues a few more. But yet we since this is a love poem; why?
"You beat me up out back/taught me to dance" "Your wavy loaves of flesh/Stink through my sleep/The Stars on your Silk Robe...." Forche walks a fine line between rage and sorrow, repulsion and awe. She doesn't write this poem repressing the negative to only reflect on the positive, she includes both sides of her emotional history with her grandmother.
Let's try one more:

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron silver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but her is voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against myf ace,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I life the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not life up my wound and cry,

Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

By: Li-Young Lee

Do you see how this one is more tender and reverent for the subject of the auther? So whether it's pain or joy, our experiences can be personalized into our own art, and be equally as grasping.

November 26th, 2005, 04:40 PM
1.) Divide a piece of paper with a long fold and head the two sides with the words "good" and "bad." On the "good" side, brainstorm a list of traits you have inherited for which you are glad or feel grateful. On the other side, list negative traits. Make the list as long as you'd like, but try for at least 5 negative and positive words. Use this list to write a poem; address one or more members of your family. Steal Forche's lines to help you structure the poem: "I blame you for....But I'm glad..." Include a specific place name and give a sense of shared history.

2.) Write about a gift your family, or someone in it, gave you. It might be an actual gift-- a baseball glove, a book, a neclace-- or a more intangible one. Talk about how that gift was or could be transferred to another, passed on.

3.) Take a picture as your setting; address the people in it or have them speak. Write about what's not in the frame: What happened before or after this picture was taken? What does the writer know now that the people in the photographs did not know then? Or try comparing two photographs--one past, one present. Consider the time in between the two.

4.) Compare an actual family photo to one that was never taken, but should have been.

5.) Describe an object that you associate witha particular family member. Talk about that object and, through your description of this person's use of it, create a portrait of his or her character.

6.) Use a family anecdote or ritual as a leaping-off point for saying something about how your family or the world works.

7.) Jot down an image, a particular moment, that seems to capture the essential spirit or charcter of someone in your family. Pick one that has the most energy for you, and begin a poem with that image.

(**the first is my favourite.)

December 3rd, 2005, 04:58 PM
Death is a subject that concerns us all. From children realizing that we will someday die, to growing older and experiencing death of loved ones, relatives and friends.

Some of us are captivated by our mortality and find it easy to explore the emotions and philisophical possibilities that come along with death. While others only experience these concerns every once in a while. Either way, writing about death and grief is a tool that unearths ideas, insights, questions and memories. These can be the starting points of dealing with and expressing our losses.

Though death is a large subject, the way it enters our life is often small: an object left behind, the memory of an off hand gesture made one long-ago afternoon, the smell of a T-shirt, the silly joke or absured irony someone would have appreciated. In your writing, try to capture those intimate details that are the emblems of your particular loss.

An elegy- from the Greek word elegiea, meaning lament- is ap oem for the dead. It might be about someone who has died, or addressing that person directly. The tone is likely to be sad and melancholy. Traditionally, elegies consider the meaning of death and seek some sort of conclusion.

Let's look at some examples:

Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I'd been left behind? In the room's great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we'd loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body's messages carry farther in death,
my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in it's clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.

Tess Gallagher
(Author of "Moon Crossing Bridge")

I really enjoyed how she experienced her lovers death. With a near animals loyalty she laid beside him after days of his coldness. She says the "silver-white" voice came calling, and describes his "cold halo". I love it when people are heavenly morbid, it touches me.
Let's look at one more:

Death, The Last Visit
Hearing a low growl in your throat, you'll know that it's started.
It has nothing to ask you. It has only something to say, and
it will speak in your own tongue.

Locking its arm around you, it will hold you as long as you ever wanted.
Only this time it will be long enough. It will not let go.
Burying your face in its dark shoulder, you'll smell mud and hair and water.

You'll taste your mother's sour nipple, your favourite salty cock
and swallow a word you thought you'd spit out once and be done with.
Though half-closed eyes you'll see that its shadow looks like yours,

a perfect fit. You could weep with gratefulness. It will take you as you like it best, hard and fast as a slap across your face,
or so sweet and slow you'll scream give it to me until it does.

Nothing will ever reach this deep. Nothing will ever clench this hard.
At last (the little girls are clapping, shouting) someone has pulled
the drawstring of your gym bag closed enough and tight. At last

someone has knotted the lace of your shoe so it won't ever come undone.
Even as you turn into it, even as you begin to feel yourself stop,
you'll whistle with amazement between your residual teeth oh jesus

oh sweetheart, oh holy mother, nothing nothing nothing ever felt this good.

Marie Howe

Wow. The way she writes this agonizing elegy takes us with her into her suffering. A good poet, she brings back my own memories of a friend's cancerous death, when death just can't be so beautiful.
"Hearing a low growl in your throat, you'll know that it's started," The death gargle, and then she somewhat sadistically, woefully tells him of what will happen for him.
The way she expresses death has nothing to do with angels or silver linings.
Though, toward the end of the poem she weeps of a feeling that seems hard for even her to grasp. It's beautiful, really.

So the point these teachers want us to receive is that as poets, we shouldn't deny what we feel, supress it or try to gully it up. As poets we often need to write things out in order to perceive what is happening around us. So even if your trial at expressing your grief and loss doesn't make a great poem it certainly brings seeds for other poems, and helps us cope with what has happened.

December 3rd, 2005, 05:05 PM
1.) Write about the first experience with death that you can remember, whether it involved a person or an animal. Then write about your most recent experience with death. Combine the two in a poem.

2.) Write a poem in which you speak after your own death. Imagine what death looks and feels like, what your emotions are. What advice can you give to the living?

3.) In "Death, the Last Visit," Howe used the metaphor of a lover. Invent your own metaphor for death, and write a poem about what dying might feel like.

4.) Who are your dead? Have them meet in a poem, even if they never met in real life, and describe how they interact.

5.) What can the dead do: go through walls, see the future, move objects? What are their powers and limitations? What are their desires, fears, pleasures? Describe them in a poem.

6.) Write a poem about a ritual that accompanies a death. It might be about a traditional funeral, a wake, or some more private or individual observance. *If you find an occasion for joy or beauty in the midst of mourning, include it. (*Do this last part if it has been a part of your experience with death.)

(( **Blue is my favourite, again. ***And red; I would -love- to read someone's manifesto of this. ))

December 8th, 2005, 08:14 PM
I apologize for the delay, I'd been aiming at one subject every week... I think I'm basically on time.

I think many poets can relate to sex and the erotic as being a difficult subject to express ourselves in. It is often found taboo, and even with the current times reflecting our primal natures, writing about sex can seem offensive.

The art of sex can be found since the beginning of the human species; in cave paintings and beautiful heiroglyphs. It is such an essential part of our existence yet we find it hard to write about it without the use of slang or derrogative words.

We fear that if we 'go there', we will make our erotic endeavors casual, and cheapened.

This book encourages us to be precise, and to move beyond inhibitions. To find the scary and uncomfortable feelings we have during sex and express those as well. Even if it doesn't result in a fantastic poem, in doing so we sometimes reach a catharsis about ourselves that couldn't be expressed otherwise.

So how exactly do we go about creating a new language that moves beyond the gutter speak we're so used to hearing? In what new innovative way can we express our most intimate thoughts, feelings, and actions?

Let's look at some poems and see how others have done it:

First Sex

I knew little, and what I knew
I did not believe- they had lied to me
so many times, so I just took it as it
came, his naked body on the sheet,
the tiny hairs curling on his legs like
gine, gold shells, his sex
harder and harder under my palm
and yet not hard as a rock his face cocked
back as if in terror, the sweat
jumping out of his pores like sudden
trails from the tiny snails when his knees
locked with little clicks and under my
hand he gathered and shook and the actual
flood like milk came out of his body, I
saw it glow on his belly, all they had
said and more, I rubbed it into my
hands like lotion, I signed for the duration.

By: Sharon Olds
(Author of; The Gold Cell.)

This poem reminds me of the magic of that first brave voyerism into a region you've never explored. How fascinated she was by his pleasure, how she 'just took it as it/came', and 'signed on for the duration'.... Great poem. Very erotic.


He always bathed afterwards,
slipping his fine and sticky
genitals over the cool rim
of the porcelain sink.
She lay in the other room
smoking and staring tiredly
out the window. The tiny sounds
of the suds came to her
worrisomely. The suck-suck
sound of his hand lathering
soap into his tight, dark curls.
Then the farewell groan of the drain.
The energetic flap of the towel.
When he was before her again,
his teeth covered by a smile,
the sweat and stench removed,
she studied him from the crushed
bed, admiring his cruel
beauty, her body still marked
and odorous. His, clean
and unstained, amnesiac

By: Kate Daniels

This reminds me of the vulnerability women feel after sex, and Kate Daniels describes her lover as cold and somewhat distant. She gives the inclination she feels used by her choice of subtle expressions. "worriesomely"; "farewell groan of the drain"; "energetic flap"; "teeth covered with a smile."
She seems to appreciate the "stain" after having sex, while he was completely ready to rid himself of it.
Erotic still.

So here's a couple examples of the guards we often don't notice we leave standing; that if torn down, can help create an awesome poem.

December 8th, 2005, 08:37 PM
1.) Do a ten-minute, uncensored freewrite on incidents from you past (or someone else's) that relate to some erotic discovery you, or they, made earlier in life. Choose one from your list and use "First Sex" as a model for writing your own poem. Try for some displaced language.

2.) Brainstorm a list of mundane activities not usually thought of as erotic-
washing the dishes or the car, mowing the lawn, going to the dentist. Now, make a list of nouns associated with that activity. Then make a list of verbs and adjectives that serve you associate with sex. Stir everything together, and make the mundane activity sound positively orgasmic.

3.) Do the above exercise, but this time eroticize a landscape, astral or terran; be creative. A field or a rocky bluff would do; but something non-traditional. Again, draw your nouns from the landscape, your verbs and adjectives from sexual words.

4.) Make a list of what's erotic to you: parts of the body, traditional and nontraditional; foods, objects, clothing, words, smells, sounds. PIck seven to ten words from your various categories and make a poem out of them.

5.) Begin a poem with the phrase "I want" or "Tonight I want...." and use things from the lists you made in the previous excersize. If you get stuck, keep repeating your "I want."

6.) Write a pornographic poem- that is, one you think is pornographic. Define it for yourself; we won't begin to attempt to talk about the difference between "erotic" and "pornographic," exceptt o say that the best definition we ever heard was this:
"Erotica is what I like. Pornography is what you like."

7.) Write a poem to a particular lover- or would-be lover- designed to make him or her wild with passion. Describe exactly what you're goint to do, wear, say, and so on. Then send it to that person, I dare you.

December 10th, 2005, 08:13 PM
Humankind has recognized for centuries that as people we contain both a light and dark self. The light self, the ego, is with which we pleasantly identify; and our dark half, which most of us spend our time avoiding or fearing.

There are dark halves to entire cultures, communities and families. Much like the sunlight and all the beauty it exposes; there is a twilight hour where many, many interesting things occur but may go unseen. A writer can attempt to show people darker aspects of themselves, a culture the loose ends of it's foundation. A french novelist Colette said, "Look hard at what pleases you and harder at what doesn't."

This darker half contains not only negative character traits; but undeveloped talents and gifts. It is an untapped energy source of creativity; and to deny this reality, however unpleasant and uncomforting, is denying ourselves.

By experimenting with our shadow we gain a chance to integrate it into other writings, and we lessen our chances of being overcome by our own faults and shortcomings. By not taking that oppurtunity to just "be nice" we can spread our creative wings and put magic and appreciation where it belongs; everywhere.

To better express our darker selves we need to stop ourselves from thinking: "Where am I going next? Is that the right grammar? Does this make sense? Is this too weird? Who's going to read this after I've written it?" Such thoughts can stop the creative impulse dead in its tracks.

As writers it is in our best interest to integrate all aspects of the human experience into our writing to really captivate the beauty of, in this case, the unseen.

So how can we voyage beyond our pleasantries into a world of what it really can be? Well, it takes going beyond being a good person and the- "writing as seduction" school. It means going into territory that may be labeled "forbidden," or that may be personally difficult. It's important to censor yourself as little as possible, to let it flow once you get -there-. Give yourself permission to explore wherever the writing takes you. Sometimes we may hit a spot of something that's been burried or hidden, this is when we've reached a zenith of creative possibility.

So, let's look at some poems and see what other authors see within or without:

I. From The Nursery

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad- even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours- the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

Jane Kenyon
(Author of, "Having It Out With Melancholy.")

Kenyon addresses the "anti-urge," the weight of depression which, the narrator claims, has pressed down on her since childhood. I think many of us can relate to a feeling of melancholy throughout our lives. Kenyons is impressive and dark; the epitome of a self-shadow.

Sunday Morning

Crowded around the glowing open mouth
Of the electric oven, the children
Pull on clothes and eat brown-sugared oatmeal.

The broiler strains, buzzing to keep up
500 degrees, and the mother
Is already scrubbing at a dark streak

On the kitchen wall. Last night she'd been
Ironing shirts and trying her best to explain
Something important to the children

When the old mother cat's surviving
Two kittens' insistent squealing and scrambling
Out of their cardboard box began

To get to her. The baby screamed every time
The oldest girl set him on the cold floor
While she carried a kitten back to its place

Near the stove, and the mother cat kept reaching
For the butter dish on the table. Twice, the woman
Stopped talking and set her iron down to swat

A quick kitten away from the dangling cord,
And she saw that one of the boys had begun to feed
Margarine to his favorite by the fingerful.

When it finally jumped from his lap and squatted
To piss on a pale man's shirt dropped below
Her inroning board, the woman calmly stopped, unplugged

Her iron, picked up the gray kitten with one hand
And threw it, as if it were a housefly, hard
And straight at the yellow flowered wall

Across the room. It hit, cracked, and seemed to slide
Into a heap on the floor, leaving an od silence
In the house. They all stood still

Staring at the thing, until one child,
The middle boy, walked slowly out of the room
And down the hall without looking

At his mother or what she'd done. The others followed
And by morning everything was back to normal
Except for the mother standing there scrubbing.

Corrine Hales

This poem we grow uncomfortable reading; like the boy who leaves the room, we don't want to look. This poem addresses our urge to be a good person while we write; this woman addresses the emotions an over-stressed house wife feels with all her responsibilities.

December 10th, 2005, 08:39 PM
1.) As a warmup, write something that you would never show to anyone, that you are afraid even to put down on the apge. Get it out, as much of it as possible, in as much shameful or horrifying detail as you can manage. Afterwards, feel free to tear it up or burn it; the excersize is successful if it has enabled you to get in touch with that place in yourself.

2.) What repels you- the smell of garbage? Sloppiness? People who never shut up? Make a list of things you dislike intensely. Choose one or more and try to transform them into something appealing or beautiful.

3.)What positive qualities do you consider are part of your personality? Are you a good listener? Generous to your friends? Concerned about the suffering in the world? Take a trait that you are proud of and find the opposite of that trait within yourself. Write a poem describing and exploring all the ways you are not a good listener, are selfish, and so on.

4.) Imagine that your shadow has a name, a face, certain habits, likes and dislikes. Describe your shadow. Then describe your shaodw's reactions are to a particular action you perform- such as tucking in a child, making love, going for a walk, writing a poem.

5.) What would you consider a taboo subject for a poem? (You may think of several things.) Now break your own taboo- transgress. If you feel very uncomfortable doing this, you're on the right track.

6.) Write a "confession" poem detailing an emotional crime and how you committed it.

8.) Write a poem about an incident which caused you to feel a sense of shame.

9.) Take a negative aspect of yourself- fear or depression or paralysis or cruelty- and find a concrete image for what it feels like. Maybe it feels like a weight pressing down; or walking into an abandoned house; or sinking into a deep chair; or slogging through the mud. Once you settle on your topic and the image for it, develop that image in a poem titled "Fear," or "Depression," etc. (<--This will be good practice for forming images, which we'll cover later.)

10.) The traditional imagery for good and evil is light and dark, white and black. Brainstorm a list of images called up by the two opposites, light/white and black/dark. Then write a poem that inverts and reverses those traditional associations. That is, what is beautiful, fertile, inspiring in the dark, in night, in deep caves? What's aweful or terrifying in daylight?