Tales from the Writing Life: The Poetry Cleanse

Hey there, Fickle Readers! I just spent a week writing a poem a night in an exercise called the Poetry Cleanse, and boy do I feel energized! That’s saying something big for me, seeing as how I’m usually lying around exhausted from everyday activities like taking showers, driving cars, picking up stuff from the drug store, etc. Now I know that–hey!–giving yourself the opportunity to write among friends, even if what you’re writing is pretty much crap, actually makes you feel better! Who’d a thunk it?

Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a bunch of poet friends together and exchange email addresses.
  2. Compile said addresses into a giant list, then
  3. Write a poem a day to be sent to the group by a certain time each day. (In our case, midnight.)
  4. The poets in your group read but are under no obligation to respond. This is an exercise that calls for absorption, not workshopping or feedback. You can choose to respond if you like, but you also don’t want to get into a cycle of implying that one piece is better or worse than another. These drafts are all part of one writer’s larger vision. You’re simply called upon to be a reader.
  5. Write and read and give encouragement and support to fellow poets for a week.

And that’s the whole activity. I should say that this was not my idea but instead was suggested by someone else who put the group together. I just wanted to pass this along to all you Fickle Readers Who Are Also Poets out there, because I think it’s a brilliant concept. I, personally, have been experiencing workshop burnout in recent years. I took my first workshop class when I was a senior in high school, and I’ve been grinding away in the workshop setting off and on for about 25 years. Workshops are wonderful places to hone your craft, but I’ve also discovered that at a certain point you have to cut the umbilical cord and strike out on your own. And yet striking out on your own can be isolating, so the Poetry Cleanse concept is a nice best-of-both-worlds scenario. All you have to focus on is getting your work done and looking at what other people are doing.

The sitting your butt down and writing aspect can be hard, but being a silent audience to someone else’s creative process is wonderful.

Writing-wise, what was most helpful for me was catching ideas as they came and putting them into poems as soon as they appeared. So much of poetry is about small moments, small observations, small things, and yet the small is what’s most fleeting in our daily grind. I was especially grateful to be able to snag images that I never in a million years thought I’d be writing about, because in a normal day I never would have stopped to write anything down.

Thanks to my fellow poets in the Cleanse. Looking forward to digging more poetry out of my brain soon!

Favorite Poems for a Crappy Day: “The World Is Too Much With Us” (William Wordsworth, 1806)

All through my sophomore year in college, I had a typed version of this poem taped to my dorm room wall, along with a passage from Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. Not sure why I stopped taping poems to walls. Maybe it’s because I don’t own a working typewriter anymore.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Good Writing Break: Poems That Are Better than “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” [UPDATED]

Hey, Fickle Readers! I hope everyone had a peaceful holiday. (I myself got to visit my young cousins that I haven’t seen in two years. Then I slept for about 24 hours. But that’s another story.) I also hope that no one out there shopped at Wal-Mart, or at the very least only bought $1.25 worth of stuff and was sure to use up a lot of their store toilet paper and napkins, because I’m annoyed that Wal-Mart has screwed up yet another of my holiday experiences by forcing my older cousin (whom I also don’t see very often) to work on what ought to be a sacred, patriotic day of rest for everyone and not an orgy of buying and stampeding and consuming. (But, of course, we know what’s sacred to the CEOs and shareholders of this great country, now don’t we? Yet I digress…)

Since Thanksgiving and the Capitalist Orgy that Follows is now over, I thought I’d check in and see what’s happening in the poetry world these days. And what did I find but a sad, sad attempt by The Paris Review to plug into the spirit of protest over the events happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and that officer’s inevitable escape from justice, even in the form of a trial, because I know that if I start talking about the whole thing I’ll get so enraged I won’t be able to stop. (For instance, I’m sure I could write for an eternity on how what happened in Ferguson is EXACTLY the sort of government-sponsored violence that Tea Partiers have been warning the American public about for years, and yet they’re HAPPY about officer Darren Wilson’s exoneration because those same Tea Partiers also HATE AND FEAR BLACK PEOPLE. And how the supposedly inconsistent results from Michael Brown’s autopsy and/or the eyewitness testimony given at the scene of Brown’s death are all completely irrelevant in their inconsistencies, because, you know, grand juries are only supposed to send cases to TRIAL, and the place to hammer out any problems with results and testimony is in a TRIAL, which the “prosecutors” involved in evaluating Darren Wilson’s potentially criminal actions clearly wanted to avoid at all costs, so much so that they put NINE white jurors on the grand jury…AAAAND you can see how my post gets away from me at light speed.) But since poetry is kind of my thing, and since the politics of poetry along with writing in general is always of great interest to me, I thought I should really comment on, or provide an antidote for, The Paris Review‘s latest foray into the political arena. Mostly because–all snark and/or ranting aside–the poem chosen by the editors of said elite journal to represent Ferguson is really, really not very good.

Frederick Seidel’s “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (which you can read here via a link that won’t add to the website’s incoming traffic) is quite a mishmash of surreal imagery, shoutouts to baby boomers and white liberals about the civil rights movement, and the occasional weak platitude about racism (“Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.”). While I’m usually not averse to including Mars or other strange allusions in poetry, it seems somewhat unfathomably insensitive to take an event in which an 18-year-old African American took six bullet wounds to his body (that’s two fewer wounds that John Lennon died from–yeah, I can do baby boomer references, too) and transform that event into a detached, quasi-satirical, acid-trippy riff in which the message seems to be both “racism is bad” and “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote from the poem. Seidel also observes, “Some victims change from a corpse to a cause,” a sentiment I’m sure Brown’s parents would have found thoroughly comforting as their son’s body underwent three different autopsies.)

I want to be clear when I say that I don’t think only certain poets can write about certain kinds of events, or that famous old white-guy poets can’t ever tap into the experience of the poor, brown, broken, or oppressed. I will say, though, that if you’re a famous old white-guy poet, especially one who’s just picked up his 2014 Hadada Prize (whatever that is), and if you try to capture the voice of a town you don’t live in which also is suffering from ugly, violent racial tensions, you might want to do more than phone in some self-absorbed historico-political diatribe–especially when there are many, many other poets out there who could represent the voices of the poor, brown, broken, and oppressed, and most likely all of them could do that better than you.

So what can you, as a reader, do if you want to read poetry about the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson? I’ve already highlighted Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown” in an earlier post. Danez Smith recently re-published two poems, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” and “alternate names for black boys,” in buzzfeed.com; both pieces are powerful and thought-provoking and show no interest in sentiments we’ve all heard before. Or, if you’re determined to look at Ferguson from an old-school perspective, take the advice of amazing poet and novelist Sofia Samatar, skip over Seidel and go back to Langston Hughes, whose “Let America Be America Again” manages to make about twelve times as many original insights into the problems of race as Seidel, even though Hughes’s piece comes to us from eighty years in the past.

UPDATE: Apparently, great minds think alike. And certain great minds kick the asses of other great minds in terms of thoroughness. (No, don’t try to imagine that mixed metaphor. It’ll only hurt your brain. Trust me.) Check out this far more extensive list of poems that are better than Seidel’s on poet Jeanne Obbard’s lovely web site, The Poetic License. Thanks for the shoutout, Jeanne! I only wish our virtual meeting were under better circumstances…

A Prize for New Poets (Really!): The Russell Prize at Two Sylvias Press

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m breaking my incommunicado streak (first I was working on my very first book review, then I was sick; more exciting details to come!) to tell you all about a neat prize for poets who haven’t yet published their first book OR chapbook of poems. It’s called the Russell Prize, and it’s named after the parents of Kelli Russell Agodon, who’s an extraordinary poet herself and co-founder of the prize-awarding organization, Two Sylvias Press.

What’s cool about this award? Well, first of all, there’s no entry fee. As long as you haven’t yet published a chapbook or full-length book of poetry, you can submit your work and be considered for the award. Submission materials include three poems, a short bio, and a few paragraphs explaining how the award would help your career. (There is a more careful guideline breakdown on the web site, so please be sure to check here for complete instructions on applying.)

Second cool thing about this prize is the award itself: $500 and a small medallion. I would totally love to have won a medallion at some point early in my career, but tragically I’m ineligible for the Russell Prize. So enter this contest and let me live through you! Seriously! If you win, I’ll totally post a picture of you with your medal on my blog! Booyah!

Submissions for the Russell Prize open tomorrow, October 20th, and must be received by midnight PST on November 2nd, 2014. So get your best stuff together, Fickle Readers who are also up-and-coming poets! And good luck!!

Things I’m Going to Hell For: Writing This Poem About Adam Mansbach

Wow, look at that! My 1ooth post, and it’s devoted to the output of my hardened, bitter soul. What a stunner!

But I digress: you may not know the name Adam Mansbach, but you surely will recall the sensation he created with his “kids” book, Go the Fuck to Sleep (listed here on Amazon, where you can see the cover design’s clever concealment of a naughty, naughty word in the title).

Now, you may think that I might object to this book because of the fact that a) I didn’t write it, and b) it went on to sell a gajillion copies and has probably now been translated into 117 different languages, including Danish, Tamil, and ancient Etruscan. Of course, you’d be right on both counts. You may also guess that I’m especially put out by the fact that this book was written in verse (in other words, poetry) by a well-known, hip-as-can-be fiction writer, who has earned more money and publicity from this single poem than most of the world’s poets will see in several millennia. Right again, Fickle Readers! I’m sour-grapesing this puppy all the way to the bank (or Tin Pan Alley, as it were).


these are not my primary concerns about Mansbach’s book.

No, the thing that really, really, REALLY cheeses me off about this quaint little frustration ballad is that Mansbach DOESN’T WRITE THE FRIGGIN’ THING IN METER.


It’s like he sat at his kitchen table one night, bleary-eyed after getting a mere three hours’ sleep in the last week, and vented his frustration on a scrap of a playfully shredded Trader Joe’s bag. Then, in the morning, he realized he had this Monumental Piece of Literature on his hands, called up his publisher, and shot what he’d written directly into the printer somehow (don’t ask me how; Famous Fiction Writers clearly have some sort of magic publishing mojo going for them) without so much a second glance at the crumpled brown kraft paper he’d scrawled it on.

Here’s one of the more egregious examples of Mansbach’s unmetered meter:

All the nursery kids are in dreamland.
The froggie has made his last leap.
Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom.
You know where you can go? The fuck to sleep.

But wait (you might say): isn’t that the whole point of the book? That the dad is getting so frustrated he can’t hold it together anymore? Isn’t the breakdown of the meter in the book (that is, the fact that the number of syllables and the pattern of stresses don’t match from line to line) evocative of his mental disintegration at the hands of his innocent-yet-unknowingly-sadistic toddler?

To that I would respond: nope. Sorry. Novelists don’t get to write sloppy poetry and call it an aesthetic choice. Not when impoverished poets spend years and years slaving away in their squalid hovels so that they can lay down a sweet villanelle while they’re slurping up their beef jerky ramen.

As an Unknown Writer who’s devoted large chunks of her life to writing non-bestselling poetry, I still managed to write the poem below in about half an hour. It is an example of a little something called Regular Meter. Does it scan? You bet your ass it does. That’s because I didn’t devote my youth writing award-winning prose. I lived my iambic pentameter, goddammit.

For the record, my evil-hearted poem was written when Mansbach’s (how do I abbreviate the title? Fuck?) when Mansbach’s Fuck was published in 2011. Tonight, I just learned that the author has a new book forthcoming, a sequel called You Have to Fucking Eat. So we’ll see what Mansbach has learned about formal versifying in the past three years. My guess: not much.

You know how to write in meter, Mr. Mansbach? Prove it.

(Also, my kid is six and voluntarily eats broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and three different colors of bell pepper. In your face, Famous Rock-Star Writer!)


To Adam Mansbach


So, your new book is pretty neat.

You know what would be neater?

If well-established novelists

Would learn to write in meter.


We poets are a surly bunch

And nothing makes us teeter

Upon the brink of madness more

Than lines of hacked-up meter.


Exhaustion likely made you want

To find a muse and greet her

With words that shriek your pain.  Too bad

She can’t hear crappy meter.


Of course, there are rules you can break—

God knows we’ve all been cheaters.

But first, you really ought to learn

The rules of rhyme and meter.


So please, for all us underpaid

Poetic scribes and readers,

Next time you write a cute kids’ book,

DO write the fuck in meter.



Aw, Shucks! My Old College Friend Made Me a Meme!

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m tooting my own horn a bit today: I got not one, but TWO poems accepted to the inaugural issue of Helen: A Literary Magazine. Helen is a theme-based journal, with changing themes for each issue, but it’s also based in Las Vegas and seeks to showcase work “capturing the spirit of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.” Anyone who knows my unabashed, undying love of Sin City will appreciate how much this fact is a bonus for me. (I’ve been to Vegas five times and counting. Would I rather be in Vegas right now, sipping a cheap margarita and losing myself in crowds of drunken conventioneers around the dancing fountains? Yes. Shut up.)

But all of this patting myself on the back isn’t really what I wanted to blog about today. Surprise! Even I’m not so attention-seeking as all that. Instead, I’d like to give a shout-out to my good friend from college–let’s call him Gryffin–who created this nifty picture-meme-thing and posted it to my Facebook feed:

Turns out, this is a reference to the Kids in the Hall that I’d never heard of before. But still, Helen!

(Also, my grandmother was a Helen, and she used to write poetry, which apparently my dad and uncle mocked her for when they were kids. Ah, the bullshit we put up with from our children!)

Anyway, thanks Gryffin for gifting me an Internet meme. I’m humbled.

And I hope it goes VIRAL, baby!!!!

(Yeah, I know. So much for easing up on my desperate attention-seeking behavior…)