Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Help, I'm stuck: And what's a list poem?


That's the question I asked my poetry partner, Chris Valentine, when she suggested that we each write one and share them. I'd never heard of a list poem. Perhaps you haven't either. It seems simple enough. Stop, look, and listen to something and make a list of what you see or hear. Of course it could be smell, feel, or taste also. Just make a list of things that are in the same place, are opposites, are associated with each other. Could even be names on signs, items in the paper, headlines, whatever. Just gather a list.

The Teacher's & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, which Chris sent to help cure my  ignorance, has this to say about the List Poem.

The list poem (also called the "catalog poem") is a very old form of poetry. It consists of an itemization of things or events. List poems can be of any length, rhymed or unrhymed. The original purpose of this descriptive, repetitive verse was often functional.

In my case its function was to get me unstuck. I seemed to have run through all the ideas I had for poems and figured I was finished as a poet. A one shot wonder whose one shot left some wondering. So I took Chris's challenge—there's a reason I call her "the wise one."

I volunteer at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora and we have about a thousand acres of prairie with all the usual grasses, wildflowers, prickly pair cactus, cottonwoods, willows in the creek, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, desert cottontails, 13-lined ground squirrels, pronghorn (antelope if you'd like), red-tailed hawks, Swainson's hawks, ferruginous hawks, kestrels, bald eagles, golden eagles, mourning doves, horned larks, great-horned owls, and coyotes. Hey, there's a list I could use. I wrote it down first, so dibs on the list.

I went out to the Center and hiked on one of the main trails, Soddie Road. It heads north past a cattle guard through the short-grass prairie, comes within 15 yards of East Tollgate Creek about a half mile in, then continues north up along a ridge away from the creek to a spot where the sounds of civilization fade away. First, I stopped by the creek, took out my notebook, and recorded the sounds there. Then I moved on and sat in the grass as I got halfway up the ridge and recorded the sounds there. That was my list, sounds, not sights.

When I got home, I went through my notes and started a poem. It went through several, I should say lots, of revisions. As a matter of fact I thought I was finished with it and discovered it might be better if I removed myself from the poem and just wrote about the sounds. I saved a copy of the original poem and then renamed the file and the poem and revised it to remove myself from it. Well, I am in the poem toward the end, but only sort of tangentially, I think, commenting on what I've heard and its effect on me.

Here it is:

Sounds Of A Prairie Morning

Near the edge of the trail crickets sing for mates.
A meadowlark trills from a mullein stalk.
A grasshopper cruises past, clacking
its way above the grass. A painted lady
flutters by, but her song and wings
are too quiet for human ears.
The low drone of traffic on the highway
a mile away, the sound of human frenzy,
bleeds into the quiet of the prairie.

A pair of Canada geese fly over,
wind whispering in their wings. They call
to make sure the other is still there.
Mourning doves fly up out of the grass,
their wings squeaking softly as they lift.
A goldfinch flies past chirping cheerily.

In a field of thistles by the creek, crickets
are so loud they drowned the crunch of boots,
the gliding whistle of airliners sliding
into the Denver airport, and the growl
of feeder planes climbing to Pueblo,
Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.

What a cacophony of song. I prefer
the voices of the two or three crickets
who sing softly here where I sit, and
other prairie sounds that calm me,
the breeze in my ear,
its whisper in the grass,
the melody of a vesper sparrow,
the whiney call of a red-tailed hawk
high in the blue morning.

These sounds of nature quiet my soul,
remind me of my need for solitude,
remind me of my need to listen 
for my peace and spiritual renewal.


"Sounds of a Prairie Morning" was published in The Weekly Avocet.


I think next issue, I'll talk about some other things that show up in our lives we can use as prompts to help get unstuck.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Books I've found useful for learning the craft of writing


Books on basic good writing

As a writer, I have lots of books on how to write. As a college English teacher 40 years ago, I was often forced into using text books I found less than useful for helping others learn to write. One of the things I discovered in my long-ago careers as student and English teacher is that many English teachers don't know beans about writing. And most of the professors in grad schools know even less.

So, after moving from the teaching of writing into a career as a technical writer, writing about computer systems and software packages, online user guides, and such, I discovered, shock of shocks, I didn't know beans about writing either. I'd been left as road kill by the English teachers I'd been duped by. So I went back to the basics and got out my old, dog-eared, The Elements of Style  by Strunk and White. I recommend this "little book" for people who want to learn to write well. William Strunk wrote it in 1918 for his students at Cornell because he couldn't find any good books on writing. E. B. White, of Charlotte's Web fame and one of Strunk's students, updated it in 1959. I've often said that if I had only one book to use as a reference on writing The Elements of Style would be it.

But, not being limited to just one book, I soon discovered a book that would be my other book, if only allowed two, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. As a pair of reference books on how to write, Elements and On Writing Well can't be beat. During the 30 years I worked as a tech writer I read and reread those two books every year cover to cover. I also dipped into them during the year to refresh my memory or to put a finer point on something I had learned. My biggest problem with On Writing Well was that I kept giving my copies away to people who really needed help. So I was always buying new ones. I must have bought a dozen of those books. Zinsser revised it six times, the seventh edition also being the 25th anniversary edition.

Books on creative writing

When I retired and decided I no longer had an excuse not to write poetry, I discovered that what I had learned from The Elements of Style and On Writing Well were just as valid, if not more so in writing poetry. They both emphasize choosing the correct word, eliminating clutter, and revising for clarity.

As I became more interested in creative writing, I discovered several books that helped me learn about the business and craft of writing. Here's a list of them in alphabetical order. They are all excellent.

     Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
     Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
     If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
     Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

These books give the novice writer some perspectives from which to approach the profession and craft of the creative writer. If I had to pare this list down to two books, I'd say Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. There are other good books, but these are my favorites. I invite anyone reading this blog to add their favorites to the list.

Books on writing poetry

As a poet, I focused on books written by poets whose work I admired and wanted to emulate. Early on, I fell in love with Mary Oliver's poetry. I think I have most of the books she's published. Also got to hear her read at the Tattered Cover here in Denver. What a joy.

Then I discovered Ted Kooser, and met him at the Wyoming Writer's conference in Casper in 2009 where he was the keynote speaker and poetry workshop presenter. Kooser was US Poet Laureate from 2004 – 2006. I have most of his books too.

Oliver and Kooser have both written books on the craft of poetry and are my go-to books. I read and reread them and dip into them now and again for encouragement when things aren't going well.

     A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
     The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser 

Of course there's no better learning experience than to read the works of the good authors in the your field of creative writing. Kooser said in one of his workshops that he tells his poetry students they should read 100 poems for each one they write. Writers are readers and we learn most by reading, but usually after reading some of the essential craft books written by good writers.

One book on the day-to-day business of writing

One last book I'd recommend. It focuses on the day-to-day business of writing. The title tells it all, Around the Writer's Block by Rosanne Bane. The book presents a lot of research to justify her recommendations for becoming less resistant to sitting down and writing and developing more discipline. But, as interesting as that is, I found that the nuts and bolts of her recommendations to be exactly what I need to keep my writing process going. Basically, she has suggestions for breaking bad habits by substituting good ones that keep our butts in the writing chair for more time each day.

Bane recommends making small commitments to your craft that you can easily keep, like writing 15 minutes a day for three to five days a week rather than saying you'll write for two hours, six days a week. She calls these product commitments because the final goal is to get some writing project completed.

She has two other categories of activities one should commit to for keeping the writing going. One she calls process time, and it involves activities that help get the imagination fired up, like quietly listening to music while doing nothing else. Or reading good literature, meditating, ambling along in nature.

The other category is self-care time, walking, yoga, bicycling, swimming, activities that help keep the body tuned as well as the brain and imagination. These three categories often overlap and the writer is doing two or three at once. She offers several kinds of tools and example records to help one stay committed to her processes.

I like her idea of making commitments small to start with and then working up, if you chose, to longer ones. Or of staying with the shorter ones, but finding the time each day to extend them.  She also has a website with examples of charts and tools to download to help the writer stay the course. (http:// BaneOfYourResistance.com/ around-the-writers-block-forms/)

So, now you have your book list for summer reading. Of course read some fun things too while you're on vacation or just trying to find a really good excuse not to write.