Sunday, May 3, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Titles & Epigraphs

Day 7: Titles & Epigraphs


Today is the final day of our time together, examining some of the major anatomical features of the lyrical-narrative free verse poem. I've saved the title and possible epigraph(s) for last because my experience is that the better ones emerge from the poem, rather than from dictating to the poem what it's about.


Ice, Ice

When I woke up this morning I knew there was horror, I
remembered the rain last night and I knew the ice had
come. I knew the doves would be dragging their stiff tails and
I knew the years would be filled with broken branches. I sing
this for Hubert Humphrey, dead last night, and I sing it
for the frozen trees and the bouquet of frozen buds,
and the tiny puffs of smoke now rising from our chimneys
like the smoke of cave men rising from their fissures,
their faces red with wisdom, their dirty hands scraping
grease from the stones and shaking ashes from their beds,
their black eyes weeping over the chunks of fire,
their tears turning to ice as they leave the circle.

By Gerald Stern. From The Red Coal (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)



If you have been with me from the beginning of this online retreat, you will likely remember the hypothetical young poet from Richard Wilbur's essay, "Writing Off the Subject" who wrote down the title "Autumn Rain" and then attempted to write a poem about autumn rain, running out of what to say about the subject in 2 or 3 lines (Day 2, HERE). Part of the problem is the poet began with the title before he knew what the poem was going to be about. I turn again to Verlyn Klinkenborg to elaborate:

Imagine this:
The piece you're writing is about what you find in the piece you're writing. [Re-read that sentence!]
Nothing else. 
No matter how factual, how nonfictional, how purposeful a piece it is.
Sooner or later, you'll become more interested in what you're able to say on the page and less interested in your intentions. [!]

You'll rely less on the priority of your intentions and more on the immediacy of writing.
It may sound as if I'm describing a formless sort of writing.
Not at all.
Form is discovery too.
It's perfectly possible to write this way even when constricted by
A narrow subject, a small space, and a tight deadline. [Line breaks and capitalization the author's.]

If you accept Hugo's and Klinkenborg's assertion that you don't know what you're writing about UNTIL you discover it IN what you're writing, then waiting to title your poem (or to select an epigraph--if it even needs one--see Heather Bowlan's essay below), until after the poem is written makes a lot of sense.

It may be possible that Stern wrote down the title "Ice, Ice" before he wrote any lines in the above poem, but I doubt it. I doubt that he knew prior to writing the poem that he would include ice twice, and its first use (line 2) would be in the present and its second use (last line) would be in prehistory. That correspondence is what makes the title so perfect. And I believe more perfect titles can be discovered after writing the poem.


"Almost every poem could have an epigraph if inspiration and interest were the criteria," begins Heather Bowlan in her essay "Against Epigraphs" published online HERE. "But I'd like to propose the opposite," she continues. "Let's put a moratorium on epigraphs until we know why we have them in the first place." Bowlan's main criticism is one many of us have experienced firsthand: epigraphs often contain stronger language than the poem that follows it. "[The epigraph] raises the stakes before the poem even begins," says Bowlan. Yet, she later asserts that there are ways an epigraph can work.

"Epigraphs can act as a lens for our poems, focusing our thoughts and language in response to an idea, helping us find our way into a subject." But this is not easy, Bowlan acknowledges: "This is difficult, patient work; to find an epigraph that can have a subtle or quiet power, and to write and wait to find out if the epigraph and poem resonate."

This last statement seems to assume that the epigraph is selected prior to writing the poem. I would assert that a better way is to write the poem first and then discover whether an epigraph is needed and, if so, what it should be. In other words, the default setting most poems should have in regard to both titles and epigraphs is "wait and see." Wait and see what turns up in the poem.

A personal pet peeve is taking the first line of the poem as the title. How many poetry readings have I attended where a reader says: "The title of my next poem is "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then they read the title: "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then the first line of the poem: "The Sun..."--well you get it. I do like titles that appear in the poem, but later, and not always exactly the way they appear. Like "Ice, Ice." Nice.


For a poem you have yet to write:

1. Write down the following as a provisional title to a poem: "Poem About What I'm Going to Find in the Poem As I Write it."

2. Write the poem.

3. Find what it is you wrote about that sounds like a good title.

4. Repeat #3 three more times.

5. Provisionally substitute each of the four title candidates for the original title.

6. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the title.

For a poem you've already written this week:

1. If the poem has a title, cross it out or delete it.

2. Look more carefully to see what the poem might really be about.

3. Select 3-4 possible candidates that might be more what the poem is really about.

4. Provisionally substitute each of these title candidates for the original title.

5. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the new title.

Final closing thoughts from Verlyn Klinkenborg (that can be applied to titles or any other lines of poetry):

You're holding an audition.
Many sentences [words, lines, titles] will try out.
One gets the part.

This will get easier with practice.
Don't be alarmed if it takes a day or two of trying out [lines]
Before you find the promising one.
It may only be promising enough to lead you to the
real [words, lines, title].


How do you decide what works?
Your emerging skill as a reader will help.
You'll read your lines against the backdrop of all the rest of your reading.
You'll get better at examine your own choices--the ones you've already made
And the ones you see waiting to be made as you reread
what you've written. 


In closing, I'd like to thank Marin Poetry Center for sponsoring this online writing retreat, and Rebecca Foust for inviting me to host it this week. As I'm sure many of you have experienced, I have learned a lot preparing for these posts. I took to heart the advice that I didn't really know what I was writing about until I set out writing. I did have a few ideas, but I allowed the poems I selected to dictate much of what I said. Thank you to all of these wonderful poets whose work I've shared. And thank you to you wonderful poets who have dropped by and tried some of the prompts. I've received multiple emails with copies of poems written this week from those prompts, and been encouraged by some of you telling me these posts have broken you out of a writing slump. I would love to have you post poems written from these posts or any comments you may have in the comments section.


Naugatuck River Review (website here) is a journal of "Narrative poetry that sings." They are not open for submission at this time, but they publish two journals a year and one of them is comprised of finalists and semifinalists to their annual poetry contest.


Nine After Dinner Drinks to Make Your Stomach Feel Good: HERE.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Last Lines

Day 6: Last Lines


Today we will explore last lines in a lyrical-narrative poem.


What My Father Told Me

Always I have done what was asked.
Melmac dishes stacked on rag towels.
The slack of a vacuum cleaner cord
wound around my hand. Laundry
hung on a line.
There is always much to do and I do it.
The iron resting in its frame, hot
in the shallow pan of summer
as the basins of his hands push
aside the book I am reading.
I do as I am told, hold his penis
like the garden hose, in the bedroom,
in that bathroom, over the toilet
or my bare stomach.
I do the chores, pull weeds out back,
finger stinkbug husks, snail carcasses,
pile dead grass in black bags. At night
his feet are safe on their pads, light
on the wall-to-wall as he takes
the hallway to my room.
His voice, the hiss of lawn sprinklers,
the wet hush of sweat in his hollows,
the mucus still damp
in the corners of my eyes as I wake.

Summer ends. Schoolwork doesn't suit me.
My fingers unaccustomed to the slimness
of a pen, the delicate touch it takes
to uncoil the mind.
History. A dateline pinned to the wall.
Beneath each president's face, a quotation.
Pictures of buffalo and wheat fields,
a wagon train circled for the night,
my hand raised to ask a question,
Where did the children sleep?

By Dorianne Laux. From Awake (Carnegie Mellon, 1990)


I could have easily used this poem yesterday when we were discussing emotional connection. I saved it for today because, although she is a master at writing poems that connect with her readers emotionally, Laux is so intentional about building the intensity right up to her ultimate line that is often the strongest line in the poem. In her words, "In poetry there is no such thing as denoue-effing-ment. In other words, the final line(s) should be the knock-out punch--every time. This, according to Laux, is one of the features that distinguishes poetry from other literary genres.

On day 1 of this series, we looked at what Suzanne Buffam had to say about opening lines in her short poem that not only told us, but also enacted what opening lines should do: engage the reader's senses and make an emotional connection. Her poem about closing lines is also spot-on and echoes Laux's belief.

On Last Lines

The last line should strike like a lover's complaint.
You should never see it coming.
And you should never hear the end of it.

From The Irrationalist (Canarium Books, 2010)

Buffam's three-lined poem is a good description of Laux's final line "Where did the children sleep?" Notice how it would not be as strong if we could see it coming, if somehow the poet gave it away with a title "Where the Children Slept," or earlier in the poem, without the distance from the father that the back-to-school narrative provides. Buffam refers to this kind of surprise as "subverting the reader's expectations," which is precisely what Laux's last line does. And that subversion is married to the strong emotions we feel for a child asking an innocent-sounding question that is, in reality, a question informed by horrific experience.

Buffam's description also applies to Michael Ryan's final line in "Not The End Of The World" from Day 5. (If you're dropping in without having read yesterday's post, click back to it and read the poem.) The power of the line, of course, lies in the fact that the lines right before the final lines appear to be winding down to a "happy ending" with the wounded "bird gone. All the birds were gone." And we think yay! our little guy survived. But then the poet shows us a desolate space in the circle where they were--"a space so desolate / that for one moment I saw / the dead planet." Boom! We never saw it coming. And we will continue to hear the line ringing for a long time.

Li-Young Lee's poem, "Persimmon" (see Day 3 in this series), builds more and more lyricism between and among his narrative-driven stanzas, until in the final stanza his diction sings in a register higher than any other time in the poem.

The only time Waters (see Day 4 in this series) lets go of his tight reign on concrete imagery is in his final line that relaxes its hold and allows abstraction to help convey a universal truth: "while the power gathered in his thigh / surged like language into my thumb."

Saving the best line(s) for last is an effective way to end a poem. But that doesn't mean that the final lines tie everything up in a bow. Leaving some mystery is usually far stronger than resolving every conflict and solving every problem in a neat, tidy manner. That is why Dorianne Laux repeats several times during her workshops: "In poetry, there is no deneou-effing-ment."

Sometimes that means that in revising a poem the poet must cut their way back to the strongest line because the poet kept writing after the poem was finished. When workshopping a poem, some poets will resist changing a poem in this manner. "But that's not the way it happened," they may say. I love Dorianne Laux's response to those poets: "We love you, but we really don't care. This is not about what did or did not happen, it's about making a better poem."


New Work Prompt:

Write a narrative-lyrical poem about a difficult experience (can be 100% from your imagination or part experience / part imagination). When you feel the poem has come to an end, look to see whether the final line(s) are the strongest in the poem. If they are not, cut your way back to what feels like the strongest lines and see what you have. If you cut so far that you don't have much of a poem left, then think about how you can strengthen the final lines with stronger imagery, metaphor, or some other poetic device.

Revision Prompt:

Look at one of your poems whose ending doesn't seem to be working. Put a + beside the strongest lines in the poem; an = beside the acceptable lines in the poem, and a - beside the weak lines in the poem. 1) Cut all of the weak lines; 2) distribute your strong lines so that the first 3 lines are all strong lines and the final 3 lines are the strongest lines. If the strong lines don't work in that role, rework them until they do.


Star 82 Review:

Always open for submissions HERE.


Easy-to-Make, Healthy Pecan Pie

Prep Time:     10 min
Cook Time:    35 min
Total Time:    45 min

Servings:        8 slices
Calories:        410 / slice
Author:          Lacey Baier


1/2 cup raw honey
2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
3 eggs
1/2 tsp fresh orange zest
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp ground ground cinnamon
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
2 cups raw pecans
1 bottom pie crust


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, combine raw honey, coconut oil, eggs, fresh orange zest, sea salt, unsweetened almond milk, ground cinnamon, pure vanilla extract, and whole wheat pastry flour. Stir to combine.

3. Arrange the raw pecans into the prepared 9-inch pie crust.

4. Pour the liquid filling mixture over the pecans, spreading some with a spoon if necessary.

5. Place into the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 20-25 minutes.

6. The pie will rise in the oven. You'll know it's done then it has small cracks in the top and is no longer giggly.

7. Remove from oven and allow to cool, preferably overnight.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Emotional Connection

Day 5: Emotional Connection


Today we examine ways of building an emotional connection with the reader in a lyrical-narrative poem.


Not The End Of The World

What flew down the chimney
into the cold wood stove
in my study? Wings
alive inside cast iron
gave the cold stove a soul
wilder than fire, in trouble.
I knocked the window-screen out
with a hand-heel's thunk,
and dropped the shade over
the top half of the window,
and shut the study door,
and wadded the keyhole,
hoping whatever it was
would fly for the light,
the full, clean stream of light
like the sliding board from heaven
our guardian angels slid to earth on
in The Little Catholic Messenger
weekly magazine. I genuflected once,
but only to flick the stove-latch
and spring behind a bookcase
through a memory-flash
of church-darkness, incense-smoke
mushrooming as the censer
clanks and swings back
toward the Living Host
in His golden cabinet.
A dull brown bird no bigger
than my fist hopped modestly
out, twisting its neck like a boxer
trying to shake off a flush punch.
And there on my rug, dazed,
heedless of the spotlight, it stayed,
and stayed, then settled down
as if to hatch an egg it was hallucinating.
So I scooped it into my two hands,
crazed heart in a feathered ounce,
and sat it outside on the dirt.

And there I left it.
It didn't even try its wings,
not one perfunctory flap,
but staggered a few rickety steps
before collapsing, puffing its tiny bulk.
I watched behind a window
other identical little dull birds
land within inches and chart
circles around it. Five of them,
cheeping, chased an inquiring cat.
Then all of them one by one--
by this time a dozen--mounted its back
and fluttered jerkily like helicopters
trying to unbog a truck,
and, when that didn't work,
pecked it and pecked it,
a gust of flicks, to kill it
or rouse it I couldn't tell
until they all stepped back to wait.
It flapped once and fell forward
and rested its forehead on the ground.

I've never seen such weakness.
I thought to bring it back in
or call someone, but heard my voice
saying, "Birds die, we all die,"
the shock of being picked up again
would probably finish it,
so with this pronouncement
I tried to clear it from my mind
and return to the work I had waiting
that is most of what I can do
even if it changes nothing.

Do I need to say I was away
for all of a minute
before I went back to it?
But the bird was gone.
All the birds were gone,
and the circle they had made
now made a space so desolate
that for one moment I saw
the dead planet.

By Michael Ryan. From God Hunger (Viking, 1989).


Ellen Brock posts YouTube Videos covering several aspects of writing. She is a novelist, so not all of what she says applies to writing poems. But a lot applies to lyrical-narrative poems, particularly what she says about how to establish an emotional connection with readers. Below, I've listed her "Seven Reasons Readers Don't Care About Your Characters" and applied them to Ryan's poem to suggest how he did (or didn't) make an emotional connection with his readers. I encourage you to re-read the poem and come to your own conclusions, as well. The video can be accessed here in case you'd like to listen to it.

1. "The personality of the character is in your head, not on the page."

There are three main characters in the poem: the narrator, the injured bird, and the flock. I immediately have a liking for the narrator because his actions indicate he has an empathetic personality that values the life of whatever flew down his chimney more than personal property: "I knocked the window-screen out / with a hand-heel's thunk / ... / hoping whatever it was / would fly for the light," (lines 7-14).

2. "Telling about the character's personality traits instead of showing."

Instead of telling about his connection with the bird or going off on an abstract rant about we are all connected to nature, he shows readers he is connected to this bird (and implies we all are) with simple actions such as: "Do I need to say I was away / for all of a minute / before I went back to it?"

3. "Sharing mostly negative traits but not showing why. It doesn't have to be a lot. Sometimes just give the reader even a little hint about why the negative trait exists in the character."

The narrator indicates that the little flock of birds could be trying to save the bird or kill it:

Then all of them one by one--
by this time a dozen--mounted its back
and fluttered jerkily like helicopters
trying to unbar a truck,
and, when that didn't work,
pecked it and paced it,
a gust of flicks, to kill it
or rouse it I couldn't tell... [my bold]

4. "You're not indicating what the character wants."

The narrator definitely indicated by directly saying and by showing with actions that he wanted the bird to be set free and to live.

5. "You're not introducing a problem--what's in the way of what the character wants?"

Again, the problem was introduced in the first lines: "What flew down the chimney / into the cold wood stove / in my study?"

6. "Your character is a stereotype or trope."

The narrator does not sound to me to be stereotypical, but is quite relatable, and yet shows uniqueness of perception, particularly in the final line.

7. "You're not putting the reader in the character's shoes--sensory information please!"

The poet places the reader in his shoes all throughout the poem. Examples: "I watched behind a window [and we watched with him] / other identical little dull birds / land within inches and chart / circles around it." "I thought to bring it back in / or call someone, but heard my voice / saying, 'Birds die, we all die,' / the shock of being picked up again / would probably finish it...."


Write a narrative-lyrical poem using the above seven guidelines in order to build connection with your readers.


Free State Review
(Submissions HERE) is always open for submissions. Barrett Warner is a quirky guy (I know him personally, and he would say that), but also a genius of a writer and editor (he would say that as well). If you read his "Hot Tips" for submissions you'll see that he's a wild and crazy guy. But his points are well taken about what constitutes strong poetry.


Trio House Press has extended its deadline for its full-length poetry manuscript contest until May 15th. Submit HERE.


Comforting Beef Stew

Prep time:
20 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours 50 minutes


2 lbs beef stew meat (preferably chuck), cut into 1" cubes

3 large carrots, peeled and diced

4 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/3 cup flour

1 tsp paprika (optional)

1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1/2 cup red wine

1 1/2 cup beef broth

1 sprig of fresh thyme

1 sprig of fresh rosemary

2 bay leave (dry or fresh)

3 Tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste


1. In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt and mix well.

2. Add the beef cubes and mix until all the pieces are coated in flour. Reserve.

3. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil until almost smoking. Add the beef and cook until browned. That should take about 5 minutes. Reserve.

4. In the same pot, add the veggies and cook for 5 more minutes or until they develop some color.

5. Add the paprika and season with salt and pepper.

6. Add the wine and scrape the bottom to release all the delicious, browned bits.

7. Add the Worcestershire sauce and the beef broth and give it a good stir.

8. Add the beef cubes back to the pot.

9. Make a bouquet garni with your herbs by tying them all together with twine. Add the bouquet garni to the stew.

10. Once the broth is boiling, lower the heat to its lowest setting, cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours, checking now and then, or until the sauce has thickened and the meat is fork tender / falling apart.

11. Remove the bouquet garni and serve!