The audience at the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading were the real winners. They were treated to Gillian Clarke’s quiet tenderness, like a swan navigating a near-frozen lake. They relished the sweet sibilance of beekeeper Sean Borodale. Julia Copus gave visions of ova during IVF as ghost-like “luminous pearls.” Michael Schmidt wove Jorie Graham’s linguistic basketwork into their ears. Simon Armitage read out passages of “the British Illiad”. Kathleen Jamie let us witness how she, like her “Roses”, “haggle for my little portion of happiness.” They gasped overhearing Jacob Polley’s conversation between a mum and her stoic stabbed son. They were dogged by Deryn Rees-Jones into regarding “man’s best friend” a little differently. And wisecracking Paul Farley made them all laugh out loud.
Then a girlish woman with long grey hair, pinned back by three small sparkling barrettes, took to the stage. She seemed to read for the shortest span of time–just two poems. Yet what was remarkable is that just as these poems, in their simple, plain-spoken way, were getting good enough for most poets to consider them complete, hers go further. An impressive meditation on breasts transcends the obvious observations, as the poet tells us that, just as this one part of them was once adored by boys when they were teenagers, what all women really want is to be as adored in their entirety this much.
This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home this prize.
Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Continue reading →
The Internet gives us the illusion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. But when it comes to art, I find that so much still comes down to local knowledge. Americans and Brits alike have long maintained a fascination with the literary work of their overseas cousins, but usually only the biggest names make the trip across the pond.
How closely you watch is, of course, up to you. My hope is that you will seek out the work of these ten fine poets out for your own sake, to bring a little transcontinental mischief and mirth to your poetry reading in the year ahead.
I believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.
I currently live in England–a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution”–allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.
After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.
However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” Continue reading →
I was born and raised in a town that recently ranked as the worst place in the nation to live, due to unemployment. My father relocated to the Imperial Valley of California before I was born. He went there to run experimental community-oriented education programs in a school for troubled teens located three blocks north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the second week of his tenure, students burned the school to the ground.
He went on to receive one of California’s highest awards for education, as well as to testify at trials for drive-by shootings. In the end, his approach to education succeeded in changing the lives of many troubled and disadvantaged students. Conventional schools had given up on them. His new approach succeeded with two key elements: a community of support, and an emphasis on practical skills. He is still remembered fondly as an agent of positive change.
Coming from this background, I adopted the idea that all education is ultimately self-education; that it is my responsibility to seek out books, people, institutions, and other resources to learn what I need, when I need it, on a practical basis. This is part of why, despite a lifelong love of computer programming, I left the computer engineering department at a top school after the first year. Continue reading →
In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.
What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?
One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form. Continue reading →
I had a great time facilitating the “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop at Theater 150 this morning. The workshop is a flurry of creative exercises designed to demonstrate various “tactics” that poets can use to be “sneaky” with themselves in the creative process–to outwit the negative critic and analytical mind, and keep on keeping on in a free, creative space. While none of these ideas are are “new” in any universal sense, they are all tried-and-true techniques that have helped me along in my own creative process.
I have also been remiss in my role as a “sideshow barker” for the excellent Big Tent Poetry project. So here is a contribution to that ongoing poetic circus–a list of sneaky ways to keep the plates of poetry spinning.
Get inspired. Prime the pump before writing by reading poems you love by poets you love. Transcribe them. Memorize them. Carry them inside you.
Trigger yourself. Smells, sights, sounds, textures. Let your eyes and your mind wander. Memories, fantasies, reflections. Start anywhere. Just go.
Keep going. Try pushing past where you think the ending occurs. Write a “Part II.”
Use constraints. Use word groups, poetic forms, made-up assignments from friends. Constraints spark creative freedom.
Read and listen. Read your own work aloud, get others to read it back to you. Listen to the music. Tune it up.
Focus on language and lines. Read the poem bottom-up, focus on each line. Does it stand alone on its merits? Continue reading →
I will be conducting a new series of poetry workshops this winter at Theater 150. Whether you are just getting started with poetry, or trying to find space on the shelf for yet another poetry prize, you are warmly invited to come cozy up to the art of well-chosen words. Theater 150 is also offering a substantial discount if you sign up for all three classes in the series before January 8th. Class size is extremely limited, and expected to fill up fast. All proceeds once again go to benefit our beloved local theater.
Here are the dates and descriptions for each workshop:
Tactics for Sneaky Poets Saturday, January 8th, 10am-1pm
Learn new ways to spice up your relationship to poem writing in this fun, interactive course. This class will get you writing and revising in unconventional ways, to spark new creative ideas and energize your poems. Class size is limited to a maximum of five participants to give us an opportunity to shake things up. See poetry from a new angle and take away practical tips to overcome writers’ block and invigorate your revisions. Continue reading →
-Attributed to Winston Churchill, in response to a suggestion that arts education be cut to fund the war effort.
There has been a furor over recent cuts in humanities education at the university level in America. Most of the counter-arguments for keeping the humanities alive play out the “transferable skills” angle. My wife, a piano teacher, knows these arguments all too well–that learning to play an instrument accelerates childhood brain development, and that music actually teaches certain kinds of mathematical reasoning (such as fractions). Likewise, with literature, English departments often underscore the importance of “soft skills” like communication.
But in the end, this line of thinking only lends strength to the argument to, for example, replace courses in Shakespeare with more practical courses in business and technical writing. It is also not difficult to imagine games designed by psychologists to more effectively deliver specific, developmental results than learning to playing Bach partitas ever will. Clearly, the argument that the humanities can deliver practical, bottom-line results is problematic. Why, then, are they so critical in difficult times? Continue reading →
I am looking forward to conducting a poetry workshop on Saturday, October 9th from 10am-12:30pm at Theater 150 in Ojai.
Bring a poem of your own to discover The Joy of Revision. Learn how to give and receive feedback in an interactive and supportive environment. Discover how to “calibrate” your perceptions and intentions as a writer through input from intelligent, engaged peers. Explore matters of form and narrative, meaning and mood in your own work along with a select group of fellow writers.
Class size is limited to a maximum of five or six participants to give us an opportunity to dig deep, not only into the poems of the day, but the writing process in general. Come away with insights into your own work, as well as into the greater conversation of poetry.
“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
Poets use words to make art. Each poem is a combination, not only of words, but of decisions made consciously and unconsciously by the poet. Revision is the process of returning to a draft to make different decisions. This process is fundamental to a poet’s development, since it not only affects the poet’s decisions in relation to the poem she is immediately revisiting, but affects her future decisions in composing and revising new poems.
The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste. Therefore the idea that poetry consists of the “best words in the best order” can not be considered in the context of some universal, objective “best.” Rather, it is a personal best one is always striving toward as a poet, to bring forward what is uniquely one’s own, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem.
And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive other. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive other for herself in composing and writing her own poems. This is why workshop groups can provide a powerful boost to the development of any writer, and especially poets. Continue reading →
I have been asked to give the student speech in the upcoming MFA commencement ceremony. Needless to say, I am honored. I have been meditating on the experience of having completed this remarkable experience, now from a distance of about five months, and looking back over material from my time in the program. One piece that helps summarize some of what I learned from the MFA is the critical introduction to my graduate reading. And so, I am reprinting it here, on my site, for those who might be interested. I have enhanced the text with some hyperlinks. I gave this introduction, and then read poems from my thesis, on January 12th, 2009 at the Best Western Seaside Resort in Seaside, Oregon.
I came to my first residency, here in Seaside, Oregon, one year after the death of our infant son. That event brought me back to poetry by momentarily stripping away all other ambitions. Poetry alone got me out of bed some mornings, and helped me chart the difficult inner landscape of grief, often in the bleary pre-dawn hours before work. I sought out mentors to assist me in improving my poems, and, on the sage advice of my friend and mentor Joseph Millar, I enrolled in the low-residencyMaster of Fine Arts in Writing program at Pacific University.
Getting to that first residency was hard: it was the first time my wife and I had been apart since the birth and death of our son, my first time in the Northwest, and my first real writing conference. I knew no one other than Joe. But from my arrival by bus in the freezing dark, throughout the past two years, at every turn and in even the most minute details of my experience–I received confirmation, time and again, that I was in the right place. Continue reading →
Today I had the pleasure of judging finalists in the poetry category of The Phoenix Art and Literature Contest. Sponsored by the Journalism Club at Foothill Technology High School, the contest received 564 entries in five categories–157 entries in poetry alone–from teenagers across Ventura County. I was truly impressed with the quality of the poems, and encouraged to see an upcoming generation of local poets exhibiting such promise and skill.
Having entered numerous contests myself, with varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, I was keenly aware of the implications of my task. There is certainly a degree of subjectivity when it comes to “ranking” art. Each poem had merit, and were I able to convey a single message to the ten finalist poets, I would want, most of all, to encourage them heartily to keep writing.
In the end, however, my job was to pare down, then rank, the poems. The task was difficult because the poems were good, because I am aware how much young people need encouragement, above all, in artistic pursuits, and because I think this contest supports such a wonderful cause. After arguing with myself, reading and re-reading the poems, and cycling through three different varieties of caffeinated drink (brewed coffee, green tea, and espresso), I made my picks. In the end, I have both a greater appreciation for the care that goes in to the judging process, and great hope for the future of poetry.
Kudos to all who entered. Winners will be announced in May.