A Snap-Shot a Day

My friend Aja takes a snapshot a day. For one month, I decided to join her and create a snapshot-in-words every day. My only rule was that my snap-shot-poem had to fit onto a 4×6 card and it had to evoke an image. We didn’t share our pictures and poems until the end of the month, so of course her pictures and my poems didn’t necessarily match up. What I loved about this exercise was that Aja’s photos were so poetic: They were about form, pattern, image and emotion. (All of the photos on my blog are by Aja, by the way.) And I had fun writing poems that would fit between the borders of a typical snapshot.

Here’s one of my snap-shot poems:

Rail-Trail, Easthampton

A family of swans floats by on the lake.
If you want a better description
Ask the man leaning on the fence, watching.
He stands still,
looking
and looking,
as the leaves blow and swirl past in a hurry,
and so do I.

 

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While They Were Writing

I start each poetry class by reading a poem to my students. Then I give them a prompt and about 20 minutes to write. I sit at a desk with a pencil and loose-leaf paper, too. I’d like to write while they do, but I don’t get a chance to much. Despite the fact that I repeat again and again, “don’t worry about spelling,” they do. They are teenage girls — and mothers. They don’t have time for imperfection – or so they think. They can’t risk humiliation. So, as I try to compose a line I am interrupted by: “Miss, how do you spell _____?” It could be a word as common as could, or choose, or pregnant. Or even there or clear or dew. Or, I see a student who has written her name and date at the top of the page and nothing else, and I hustle over to help her get started. But sometimes the planets are aligned just so, and for at least five or ten minutes of our writing time everyone is hunched over her paper, studiously working away. Then I can write for a few minutes, too. I keep my students’ papers in folders, and I have one for myself, too.

 

Here’s one I wrote this spring. I think the prompt was to write a poem giving advice. We probably read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and/or “Advice” by Ruth Stone. I wrote:

Teacher to Students 

When you write a poem

don’t forget to breathe.

Don’t think — instead,

give your pencil a shake

and let it say what’s inside it.

Turn your cell phones off! Those ring tones

drown out your own music.

And did I say – breathe!

When you’re not writing, be a poet anyway:
Listen, look, taste, smell – remember.

Don’t fear silence.

Love uncertainty.

Write every day.

Read more than you write.

There are no wrong answers here.

Don’t judge your poems:

you can’t always see them clearly right away.

Know the sound of your own voice.

Normal is overrated. Don’t bother.

And don’t try to be a good mother – it’s impossible — just be a good person.

To be a good writer, live a good life.

If you find yourself using a swear word in your poem,

dig deeper in that same spot. You’ll probably find a strong feeling buried there.

Poems don’t need to be beautiful. Only true.

And, in case I forgot to mention … breathe.

Where the poems are

This summer I am not teaching poetry. I miss it. Teaching poetry means reading poetry every day. It means I get to talk about poetry every day. It means I get the opportunity to tell other people what I love about poetry and see one of them from time to time learn to love it, too. In April, I was fortunate enough to hear Naomi Shihab Nye speak. (One of her poems is posted on today’s Writer’s Almanac, check it out). She visited with my students and said something like, “I’ve never been in a room where poetry was not.” So when I’m not teaching poetry I look at a day and I ask myself, “Where is the poetry today?” It is always somewhere. Saturday night it was in the amazing gauze of clouds mixing with the orange pink of sunset while I sat at an outdoor concert, my ears filling with music and surrounded by people who were just plain happy to be there under the sky, toes in the grass, breathing in the same sounds together. Today was more prosaic. But I know the poetry was there, someplace. Certainly it was in the rows and rows of flowers growing on a local farm where once a week I pick up bags of fresh produce. Standing in the fields of blossoming color, was like standing in the middle of a poem – right between the lines. Earlier today I learned about the Hindu concept of time – that not only do people move in and out of form (reincarnation and all of that) but so does the entire planet, the universe, everything. Just breathing in the tiniest morsel of that thought felt like the kind of secret that is curled up in the heart of a poem, a little gem of eternity nestled beneath so many words.

In the Garden

This summer my goal is to focus my energy on writing and gardening. That’s an idyllic combination for me, even though gardening is not my forte. Still, I enjoy the idea of it — no matter that despite my annual attempts, I have not managed to create the symphony of color and bloom that I imagine. (Okay the truth: Weeds feel quite welcome in my backyard garden. They are seldom disturbed and grow happily).

 

But gardening is one of those things a poet is supposed to be good at. I’m not sure where I got that idea. Maybe because of Stanley Kunitz, whose garden enters his poems and whose seemingly intuitive sense of structure and rhythm defined his famous Provincetown garden. Poets always seem to be gardening. May Sarton had a garden. I’ve been reading Journal of a Solitude in which she writes extensively of her efforts at coaxing plants to grow at her rural New England retreat. Frost farmed. Whitman? I can’t quite picture him actually toiling in a garden. Most of the poets I know as friends have gardens. There are the obvious connections. Writing poems requires weeding of a sort. Taking out what is extraneous, what is not serving the overall plan. Like a garden, a poem benefits from cutting back, pruning. I love Kunitz’s line in The Round about the ‘steamy old stinkpile’ outside his window. What a wonderful metaphor for the composting process necessary to writing: The images, memories, dreams, snippets of conversation, etc. that lodge somewhere in our unconscious, and like the composted banana peels, egg shells and coffee grounds that we leave to decompose in some corner of the garden … somehow magically turn into rich, fertile ground. The stuff from which poems blossom.

 

This afternoon I drove to a lovely perrenial farm (Baystate Perennials in Whately, Mass) and bought some ornamental grass, bee balm, black-eyed Susans and delphinium. Tomorrow morning I will plant them. Then hopefully I’ll sit at my desk and write.

Sunflower

The blank page

I always tell my students that the hardest part about writing is not writing. And the scariest thing in the world to a writer is a blank page. So, here I am, hesitating about what to write … and staring at a blank screen.

 

I am starting this blog as a way to record my experiences as a teacher and a writer — just one one problem: It’s July; it’s summertime, which means I’m not teaching. So, I’ll use this month and a half before my classes resume to get to know the blog-o-sphere, to think and plan for the upcoming school year, and to reflect on poetry in general.

 

So, if you are out there and you have a favorite poetry blog, teaching blog or writing prompt, let me know. And … keep writing 🙂