I began writing poetry -- again -- when I started planning a garden for our new home.
The house is small, the yard is small, though it came with a neighboring 'unbuildable' lot. So we would have more yard space than typical for our neighborhood in the satellite city of Quincy, Mass., a mile or so from the Boston line.
The physical activity involved in gardening, as I found (or remembered), is great for thinking. Not the hard work of digging beds and laying borders of stone or brick, but the slow work of planting, weeding, trimming, watering, dead-heading, and mulling things over. Walking around staring at plants and perspectives. Sitting in the dirt to feel the breeze, or take in the light. Loosening the earth, and grooming the plants. Or listening to the birds, and the wind.
Plant time is meditative. If you keep your hands reasonably busy, or your senses engaged, your thoughts can go where they will. The birds sing their poem all day. They may have only one, but they're not reluctant to broadcast it over and over again. They seem to expect an answer; you think, "the world is the answer." The bees keep busy. They may be dawdling around inside the same blossoms their mates examined just a few minutes before, but that doesn't kept them from doing their due diligence. Butterflies cannot stay still for a second. When, on occasion, you do find one seemingly glued to a specific flower (often, appropriately, on a 'butterfly bush') for hours on end, you have to keep a protective eye out for them. Especially, if you have a godzilla-sized praying mantis about the property.
In these less goal-directed moments, words come. You hear yourself say thesm, and try to remember to write something down. Generally you can't remember quite what it was.
I had noticed, before this time, that in the years when I was writing prose fiction or creative nonfiction, that some of the pieces being published -- the short ones -- were descriptions of mood, or weather, or brief encounters with people or animals. I was writing prose, but some of it was lyrical. Not a great different in tone or style from the poetry I 'used to' write when I was young. So maybe I had never stopped writing poetry, although I had clearly stopped seeking publication.
During the years when I was teaching college composition courses, and then working for newspapers, I told myself I did not have enough time (or not the time I wanted) to do all the creative writing I wished to. I had to choose, to focus on what I most desired to do. I chose to write literary novels; then discovered, not entirely to my surprise, that no one in the world of "traditional publishing" wished to publish them.
When the financial decline of the newspaper industry cut back my work, I found myself in the fortunate position of having the time to do what I wanted. Planting a garden became possible; writing poems again. The two seemed to come together.
The poems in "Cocktails in the Wild" are not 'garden poems,' though "Voluptuous," the poem the editors chose for the book's back cover comes from those hours outdoors. The poems in "Cocktails" are a mixture: political pieces satirizing or bewailing our contemporary political traumas; travel poems; poems about the people in my life. Poems responding to local conditions, such as the frozen weather after the death of a friend, and to universal conditions -- Keats's nightingale, the latest mysteries of subatomic physics, the international dimensions of discussing a computer problem with a technician in India.
Poetry is the tool-kit of the imagination. Everything is a subject.
Most of the poems in "Cocktails" have been published in journals, many of them in the online journal Verse-Virtual.com, for which I've had the happy fortune to serve as contributing editor.
But the garden helped to open the gate for me, and I walk through it gratefully all the seasons of the year.
Robert Knox is the author of Cocktails in the Wild.
How does one explain how to teach the writing of poetry? For all that poems are made of words, words can fail to catch the essence, not only of a particular poem, but of how the poem “appeared” in the poet’s mind. Is it even certain that a poem is a product of the mind? Most poems seem to contain so much emotion, or music or play (a hopscotch game? chess board? “Let’s pretend…”?).
Writing about how to teach poetry is challenging for me because my teaching method is rooted in intuition, hard to pin down, of the moment, always becoming. Writing my own poetry is an intuitive process. I don’t say it’s the only way in to creativity, but it has always been my way.
Writing poetry is like being in the ferment of wine-making. It’s the buzz of transformation and the headiness of “spirits.” The wine that’s produced can be bad or fail to mature correctly, but the fermentation process itself partakes, undeniably, of transformation. It is the creation of something new. So, in poetry, the end-result poem may be banal or unsatisfying, but it’s the creative process that a writer or teacher wants to facilitate.
For this reason, I realized that while, in school settings, I must have a time-structure to my lessons (I only have an hour and want to get everyone to write, and hopefully, to share), I need to promote, in the students, a sense of timelessness, of being in a moment of ferment, of total possibility. Within their imaginations, anything could happen. I have to create a mood, of expectation, curiosity, discovery.
“A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs….
A poem should not mean
I want to turn the table on their expectations, open up what they’ve become accustomed to happening in a classroom. I clearly recall a lesson from my first year of teaching poetry. I walked into a third grade class for the first session and went to the board without saying anything. I picked up a piece of chalk, placed my left hand on the chalkboard and began outlining my hand. When I finished, I said, “Raise your hand if you want to tell me a word that goes with the word ‘hand.’” As they told me the words, I wrote them inside the fingers and palm of the hand. Lesson: a poem is not a story. It wants to do it in a new way. The assignment was to draw the outline of anything on their papers and write, inside the outline, all the words they could think of that went with what they’d drawn.
I had that class “in the palm of my hand.” To a child, they wanted to write that day.
For many years, before schools pretty much did away with easily-accessible chalkboards, I used the ploy (again speechlessly) of beginning the session by walking to the board and starting to write the model poem on the board. As I wrote, kids turned their attention to the words that were revealing to them something, they soon learned, worth reading.
In a sense, this is performance. As is the reading of the poem. I give a dramatic reading of the poems I bring in, and then the kids read them, again, with me. Poetry, when presented evocatively, mesmerizes. It’s the heart of language. It’s supposed to transport its listeners into timelessness. A well-chosen poem will entrance, it will emanate the creative spirit.
“I am the magical mouse.
I don’t fear cats
I do as I please…”
“Look how my song
bends down over the earth
In the house of butterflies
my song is born”
2 Rabbit 7 Wind, Aztec
When I first began guiding kids to write poetry, I instinctively knew that I couldn’t get them to write “real” poems by using methods I’d used as a high school English teacher, teaching from lesson plans that were calculated to fasten certain “facts” about language and literature in young people’s minds. In my English classes, though I wanted to teach my students how to think, as well as to remember the “lessons” and “plot” of The Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn, the thinking skills were the same reasoned, logical, step-wise skills I’d been conditioned to use by my university education.
Generally speaking most people think of mental activity as “figuring things out,” a rational, step by step process. That’s the way it’s taught in school. Beginning, middle, end.
There are poems that express that structure; think of Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnets, which set up a dilemma to “begin” the poem, and in the final two or six lines, either resolve/answer the problem, or introduce a different way to view the situation. There are poems that tell a story, sometimes a very long one: John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
But most modern poems seek to express a present moment or experience, an inner state of being. Two of our great American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, are solid examples of this practice.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man…
The imagists in Europe, H D or Ezra Pound, concentrated on a single image, believing that to concentrate fully on one thing would evoke everything necessary to engender full appreciation of the world. Similarly, poetic traditions such as Haiku are solely fixed on the moment, with “Ah-ha!” thrown in.
Beside the road
Mallow flowers bloom –
Now eaten by my horse!
Much African and Native American poetry is principally rhythmical, from the oral tradition, and might easily be performed with drums.
You say there were no people.
Smoke was spreading over the earth.
You say there were no people.
Smoke was spreading.
For young readers and writers, I have observed that these more immediate-experience practices are their gateway into poetry. Following such a practice, their poems can happen “right now.” Few accoutrement, no “research,” not even much education is necessary for a child to make up an “immediate” poem. However, the poem doesn’t usually arise out of a vacuum. For the “immediate” poem to occur, a particular experience or stimulus serves to inspire. That’s where the teacher enters. I like to think of teaching as presenting a stimulus or opportunity to have an experience, to form a question, access a memory, discover an idea, a feeling, or describe the way a spider spins its web.
Poetry, along with other arts, feeds on the tension between restriction (form) and the heady sense of discovery and potential that engenders inspiration. Inspiration is a flood of emotion-charged insight. A sense of giddy excitement impels/compels the poet to grasp for words that not only express his or her “heady” realization but, as well, create a reciprocal realization in the reader or listener.
That’s where form comes in. It’s fine to jump up and down shouting “Hurray! I’ve got it! Love can make me forgive my enemy.” Repeating it over and over might be infectious but also might only leave a listener mildly sympathetic, “Well, that’s a nice thought. I hope it works out for you in the clinch.” Or even arouse energetic disagreement, “Sometimes love can create enemies. Maybe you better calm down and think about it some more.”
But when we read,
Naett, her name has the sweetness of cinnamon…
the sugared whiteness of coffee trees in bloom…
Naett coin of gold coal of light my night and my sun
Leopold Sedar Senghor
Come live with me and be my love…
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies
it’s likely we are moved by the beauty of the words and our feelings open to the sentiment. We may even be ready to write about love ourselves.
When our passion or inspiration finds the heightened form that will express the intensity we feel, or the comprehension we’ve just reached, or the crazy impossible idea we’ve just had, it enhances the possibility that our poem will be able to enter another’s heart and mind. This is the simple, best reason to “teach” poetic form, along with setting up opportunities for such exciting insights and feelings to occur.
Most children respond to form, and to the creation of a poem, as a game. This is very useful in teaching poetry because the sense of play is basic to creativity. Making a poem can be very like the games children make up; there are rules (“You be the horse and I’ll be the horse rider”) but they are very fluid, and really good game players are highly adaptable (“Now we’ll both be horses and those trees are the tigers we have to get past”).
Another advantage to teaching poetry to children (my specialty has been ages 6-11) is found in children’s vital hunger to learn. They are awhirl in the constant process of mastering skills and knowledge that will, literally, “save their lives” as they mature and take responsibility for themselves. Language, and problem solving, are uppermost in their pursuit of mastery.
Emotional development is essential to effective communication and adaptability. A human being must be able to appreciate and empathize with others (not only human being but animal and most other things in nature) in order to resolve differences and come out with everyone doing okay.
When a poetry teacher brings in model poems that present, in touching and dramatic language, issues such as child-parent conflict, feelings of loneliness, puzzlement, great joy, belonging/not belonging, or tough questions such as what happens after we die, why do we have to die, why do people want to kill each other, why are some peoples treated as inferior, etc., kids have the opportunity (1) to feel the effect of one of these issues on a real person (author of the poem); (2) vicariously experience it for themselves; (3) ask questions and discuss it; (4) express what it brings up for them, and (5) have others listen to what they feel about it. Just having the time to have feelings about whatever is being presented, then to write them down and be listened to – such activities feed and fertilize the growth of self-understanding, self-esteem and appreciation of others.
Vital to the success of the learning process described above is an atmosphere of openness, acceptance, flexibility and mutual respect. Choosing model poems that are exemplars of honesty, deep feeling, and craft is the first step. It’s okay to show kids poems where they might not understand everything the poet says. As long as there are parts of the poem they can “get,” even if it’s just how great the words sound when recited aloud, or that it ends with a question they’ll want to think about, it’ll work. Requisite to making it work is establishing the pattern of questioning and discussing the poem and poet’s choices. Teaching kids that communication and understanding involve investigation, is integral to education. If we want them to understand poetry (or anything else), it’s a process. And if we want them to learn to trust their own mental abilities to “figure something out,” we need to accept their floundering about. Poetry is excellent in illustrating that there are many “right” answers, and many avenues of exploration, to arrive at a way of understanding that is satisfactory to you.
Looking back over my thirty years of teaching poetry-writing, I understand more clearly now what my methods are for encouraging creative ferment.
I choose carefully which poems and other stimuli (such as music, art, a beloved object, a photo, nature walk, food) that I show them. Tuning in to the tastes and curiosity-triggers of different age groups is helpful to engendering a positive response. First graders are at a different developmental stage than fourth graders. It has also been important to me to select material, and give instructions, that allow a wide range of response. However, good poems don’t “talk down” or cutesify their subject matter. A fourth or fifth grader, or an adult, can love a simply-put or funny poem just as enthusiastically as can a first grader. And a fifth grader will still love to go outside to write a garden poem as much as will a second grader.
The most common method I employ to engage students’ interest, is questions. This encourages the opening-out atmosphere I mentioned earlier. I tell them to ask questions, and I ask them to tell me what they think, or can guess, about the model poem or whatever else we’re focusing on (a piece of art, for instance). In poetry (the writing of it, or the discussing of it), there are no Right Answers. We’re just exploring. “Why do you think the poet said the horse is blue?” “What is a ‘black water car’?” “How do the palm leaf roofs ‘sing’?” “What do you think the poet was feeling when he said, ’My father was with me on his head’?”
I even ask them to guess what I meant by certain phrases in my own poems. “Why do you think I wrote it this way_____________ instead of saying __________?” And, unless they specifically ask me to tell them why I chose what I chose, I let their guesses stand. It could have been any of them.
With very young children, after we share a poem, I often ask, “Is this true? Is this the way things really are?”
It’s useful to keep in mind, when teaching, or when writing for oneself, two important motivations for expressing oneself. A child (person) wants to be paid attention to, to have their true self recognized. Also, a child (person) wants to discover, and participate in, the life of The Other. This is the vital exchange, the source of understanding. So we give and take.
Via a poem, one can enter into being an eagle, a worm, a ripe pear, a rain cloud, one’s little brother. The poem becomes the expression of participation for a moment in another’s existence. A way of understanding while simultaneously maintaining one’s self.
I try to choose poems that appeal to both needs: to recognize one’s true self and to understand, listen to, an Other.
A wonderful example of such a model poem is N. Scott Momaday’s “Delight Song of Tsoai Talee.” I'll end with a couple of his lines.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plains…
I am an eagle, playing with the wind…
I am the evening light, the luster of meadows…
I am the whole dream of these things…
I felt so many emotions when I pressed send–my edits were off to my editor at Unsolicited Press. The last round of revisions of my first book of poetry will be heading to the publishers. It has been a long strange trip for me, literally. Ten years ago, I was nowhere near getting any poem and not even the thought of having a poetry book published.
How did I get here? It goes back to that Paul Westerberg song, “Runaway Wind” when the former lead singer of The Replacements sang: “I see what you`ve become and try to hide it/You need someone who sees/What you were born to be.” For years, it has been a coterie of women who have nurtured, inspired and helped me become the poet I was always destined and dreamed of becoming.
Right now, it feels bittersweet. I have made it this far, about to step into the world of having a poetry collection published because of so many. These include my Mother, mentors, teachers and inspirational writers that have led me to this place of publication success. The first being the most important, my Mami. She is the one who gave me the gift of la poesía. She has always been my number one champion. When I was working as a retail servant, at every bookstore and record shop, you could imagine, she believed in something in me. I would send her poemas for her cumpleaños and navidad. She called them gifts from my Corazon. Some of her favorite poems that I wrote her were memories of her cooking en la cocina. Because of those amazing recetas, I cook Colombian inspired comedias, in honor of my Mami. She passed away this past November. It still hurts. I want to call her and tell her about my book. I remember flying back, being there for the last moments of her life. Poems were written in that hospital room when I felt the light of her vida blink away. Soon after, my Papi handed me this large manila envelope. He didn’t have to say anything, I knew what was in there. All the poems I ever wrote for my Mami. It took me months to open it up and look inside. It was too hard. When I finally did, it felt like I was sharing a moment, reading those poemas with her spirit. I miss her and her inspiration the most. After I read the poems in the envelope, I got the word that my first book was being published. Although I should’ve been on cloud nine, something was missing. I wanted to call my Mami and celebrate with her. She was gone. Soon after, I chatted with one of my writer friends Amy Lewanksi and I told her about wanting to speak with my Mami about my book, Amy said it best: She knows.
She wasn’t the only one. I met my wife at a bookstore in Pasadena, that was the one event that changed the course of my existence and directly led me to the path that I am on now. Michelle is the smartest woman I’ve ever dated. When we met, she was a graduate from UCLA and was acquiring a Master’s Degree from Cal State Fullerton. Michelle also saw potential in me. I wrote her poems. Writing my poetry is how I reveal myself to the woman who mean the most to me in my life. For years, writing poetry became my way of not speaking, professing love, without opening my mouth and stutter. My safe space was in the stanza of these poems. Although I was vulnerable, I am the most naked when I write, it was through my own poetry that I found my true voice. My wife was the only one who embraced my poems, encouraging me with all the love poems I wrote her. To this day, she hangs every poem I wrote her for birthday and anniversary on the walls over our bed. Instead of just hiding away my words as a secret keepsake, my wife proudly displayed my words as a work of art.
The next step on my evolution of becoming a poet, started when I took a poetry class at Pasadena City College, Michelle told me that she was invited to a Creative Writing Conference at Cal State Fullerton and that I should go and read some of my poems too. I am so glad that she encouraged me because when I was there I met a poet that would change my life.
Silke Feltz became my poetry mentor. She took me under her wing and gave me feedback on my poems. We exchanged poems by email. I still remember the one poem, my favorite of hers that she read about being alone in her boyfriend’s apartment and going through all his stuff. For five years, from 2010 to 2015, I could send her anything, poems about former flames, verses on my familia, any and all poems, she never judged. She embraced all my rhymes and ramblings from a far. Silke always there for me and my latest draft, even during holidays, odes I wrote for Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. Most importantly, she encouraged my writing voice.
Dr. Kristen Odgen, poetry professor, was another mentor. Her poetry workshop at Pasadena City College was the most intensive poetry class I had ever taken in my life. I enrolled in Dr. Ogden’s class because of the promise that two mentors saw in my writing during my years as an undergrad creative writing student. Dr. Heather Sellers was the first to witness the potential in my poems, like the verses inspired by Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, as a twenty-something poet her belief meant so much to me. Dr. Wendy Barker who, based upon a poem I wrote paralleling my little hermanos struggle with hearing impairment with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s, invited me to join her exclusive poetry workshop. Because of Sellers and Barker, I had earned a BA in English from the University of Texas in San Antonio. My days at UTSA had prepared me for Ogden’s intensive workshop. One thing that Dr. Ogden taught me, that no other professor did before her, was to poetry to paper. Before taking her workshop, I would only write on my computer. Because of Ogden’s class I began to write on writing pads that I left around our apartment and in my car. Putting poems to paper, felt like I was creating art. This changed everything for me. I started calling myself a writer. This was changed everything. I started having letters and packages arrive at our house to Adrian Ernesto Cepeda: The Poet. It was more than just writing, but acknowledging that I am writing was life-changing. It became more than a hobby, I had found my calling and was ready for my next step on my journey as a poet.
Soon after Odgen’s workshop, I was waitlisted for the MFA graduate school program at Cal State Long Beach. Although I never made it to Long Beach, fate would lead me to the Westside of Los Angeles.
A year later I attended an information session at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Their campus located in Culver City was one that instantly spoke to me. Everything changed after the moment I was accepted to Antioch University Los Angeles. My life as a poet would never be the same. My experience at Antioch Los Angeles prepared me for my career as a poet. Some of the most influential writers that guided me during my greatest MFA grad school adventure were my most influential mentors, Carol Potter who taught me to expand my horizons, use only concrete images and helped me with my final poetry manuscript. I wrote my piece de resistance, my critical paper on the evolution of the erotic love poem. She not only helped, Carol encouraged me to embrace my themes and find poets like Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Forugh Farrokhzad who sparked my love of erotic poetry.
Although she wasn’t my mentor, Gayle Brandeis, and her advice changed my life. During my first MFA residency here at Antioch LA, Gayle made a difference and changed my life. The amazing thing is that Gayle Brandeis was not my mentor. In fact, one of the best things about my time at the MFA program at AULA was that the faculty encouraged students to go out of their literary genres and attend seminars in other fields. Gayle taught a seminar called True Inspiration: Breath & Writing. After her seminar, as a new shy MFA student, I went up to ask Gayle for advice. You see I was a poet and have spent years struggling with a speech impediment, my stutter, that came up whenever I spoke in public or would worsen when I would recite my poems at poetry readings. So, I went up to Gayle and said; “Gayle, I’m a poet and have to read some poems at a brown bag reading. I get nervous and stutter. Do you have some advice for me?” Gayle shared the six words that made a difference and immediately changed my life, “Adrian, it’s okay if you stutter.” Being a stutterer, this is something that I never really thought of and was advice that I was waiting my whole life to hear. Even since then, I have embraced my stuttering and I can stand up on any stage and read my poetry. Her words of wisdom helped me embrace my stutter.
And then there’s Alma Luz Villanueva. Her seminars always inspired the best poems. Speaking of my speech impediment, I wrote one of my best poems from a writing exercise in one of my seminars. She gave us the prompt, I Give Myself Permission and I wrote about living with my stutter. Because Alma was such an inspiration, I was lucky to have her mentorship as she helped me prepare my poetry manuscript for publication. The best thing about Alma, she always listens to my words and believes in my gift of the eros, Gracias, Alma.
Looking back, I realize now because of these remarkable women, I’ve been reborn as a poet. These women nurtured me, and because of my Mami, my wife Michelle, Feltz, Sellers, Barker, Ogden, Potter, Brandeis, Luz Villanueva and I am ready for the next step evolution of a poet. I am coming out of the womb, this cocoon and my wings of a poet who’s publishing their first full-length poetry collection, Flashes & Verses Becoming Attractions is finally coming to life. This is my baby and it wouldn’t have happened with these awe-inspiring women.
I have been writing poems since 1968, but in 2001 I left poetry. Or should I say she had left me. I had been struggling with writing a collection of poems based on Beatles’ songs. Being the biggest fan the world has ever seen, I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t.
And then I watched TV one morning before going to the office. People were jumping from the Twin Towers. I watched them falling. That was it. I couldn’t write a thing after that. The muse had quit whispering in my ear.
I bought a jembe—an African drum—and went to drum circles. I went to Reiki circles, wore lavender and patchouli essential oil, hung out with people who practiced angel therapy and bellydancing, who twirled fire sticks, rain sticks, played zils and didgeridoos, and chanted while swirling a finger around a singing bowl.
A lady who called herself Wisteria—I had lots of friends who changed their names— Amber, Ram, Lavender, Energy, Spiral—made annual trips to Brazil where she attended the rituals of “indigenous tribes”, learned what the dances, chants and drumming were about, and brought them back to teach Americans these expressions of worship. We gathered in a large circle in the sand at the beach. Pretty interesting. And fun. Cost only 10 bucks.
But after 10 years of chakra alignments and spending far too much money on crystals, stones, smudge pots, costumes for Renaissance festivals, incense, soul journeys, pot luck dinners for pagan ceremonies, Peruvian fire circles, Enlightenment conferences and tai chi lessons, I quit. It was my version of John Lennon’s experience with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Only without Mia Farrow.
After lunch with an old friend who’d caught me up on the latest poetry gossip in South Florida (who published a book, won an award, a grant, got divorced, died) the muse started to whisper in my ear again. I wrote the first poem I had written in 10 years when I got home. It was the leak in the dam. It started to flow, and then the levy broke.
What began as a collection of poetry fables morphed into my new collection, Festival of Dangerous Ideas forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2019. Some of the imagery and fantastical settings of the New Age years I had spent with all sorts of characters ended up in the book.
While not about drum circles and Reiki sessions I attended along with all the other colorful events (I never did make it to the all-nude drum circle at a nudist colony) the residual side effects of the time I lived in a fabulist landscape certainly lent its chi to my muse. The lost decade was seemingly the equal to spending a few days in a sweat lodge.
Ten years in Oz did me good.
My mother was so excited when I told her Unsolicited Press was publishing my book of poetry - excited and proud and just over the moon in that special motherly way. She immediately started listing everyone we needed to tell.
“Your father! Mama and Papa! Cousin Laura down in Tennessee!”
“And hey, Mom, you could even read it with your book club!” I chimed in.
Awkward silence. “Mmm, maybe . . . hey, let’s FaceTime your brother!”
Even with the most exuberant and joyful of parents behind it poetry couldn’t quite sneak into The Book Club. Perhaps it’s due to post-traumatic stress from high school english class, a fear of not understanding the work or just an unease about change. Whatever the case, poetry is not a staple of most book clubs.
To be fair, there are some dedicated poetry book clubs (including some online - do a quick search and you’ll find some fantastic choices!) but they are the exception, not the rule. So then, why and how should you add poetry into your book club?
The why is easy. It will break up the routine of novels, allowing your members to experience something different and unique. Poetry is usually a shorter read (time for reflection notwithstanding) and, in this fast-paced world where everyone has a million things to do, your members might just feel relieved to ditch those 400 pages of prose. Remember those “choose your own adventure” books? Each book club member can bring a different book of poems or single poem to the meeting, either their choice or guided around a certain theme. Putting poetry on the plate makes for a more complete dish.
How is a little trickier. The discussions you have (sprinkled in around the gossip and wine, I know) can be guided or more organic. I will use my upcoming book, Tiny Footcrunch, as a template for some possible exchanges:
You get the idea. The questions range from the standard tell your favorite poem and why to something more fun like what television show a certain poem might enjoy. All of these aim to break up the mundane and everyday - the monotony - a book club might develop.
So the next time it’s your turn to pick a book for book club, remember that a collection of poetry is out there waiting for you.
Oh, and please recommend it to my mother’s book club.
In Howl, Allen Ginsberg asked, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
Many people say humans are different from other animals because we have speech. Some say we have “civilization” or “culture,” whatever that is. Some say we have exceptional intelligence. Hmm. Some say we shape the planet, and that makes us special. Well, we did invent and name after ourselves the Anthropocene Epoch. Some say our use of tools distinguishes us from all the other animals. Not true.
Humans differ from other animals only in degree, but our primary difference and greatest ability is imagination. Imagination is visualizing what never was but might well be, and the ability requires practice, training, and constant use.
Anyone who says “I can’t imagine that” is crippled in a serious way. Anyone who says, “You can’t know how I feel” is equally handicapped. Anyone who says, “You don’t know me” is just silly. “Knowing you” is one of imagination’s primary functions.
Albert Einstein may have had one of the finest imaginations to ever grace humanity, and when he died, cold and curious doctors sliced up his brain for study. They discovered that Einstein’s brain was no different than anyone else’s.
You and I could have told those doctors before they bashed open his skull and sliced up his brain that what was different about Einstein’s brain wasn’t the composition, size, or number of folds. What was different about Einstein’s brain was how he used his gray matter: Einstein fully used the imagination.
Imagination enriches our lives, and poetry develops, exercises, expands, and strengthens the imagination. We all need to use the imagination, but too often, we don’t, and that is dangerous. Without imagination, we are prey to those who want to sell us the answers to life’s questions. These vendors believe in, bank on, and exploit the failure of imagination, yours, mine, and everyone else’s.
My plan is to read and write good poetry; love a lot; save something (as the bumper sticker advises); and cultivate imagination. We need more imagination on this planet, and we need more now. I know one thing for sure: if we can’t imagine a better world, we will never live in one.
Eric Shaffer is the author of EVEN FURTHER WEST.
“Go ahead, girl, you deserve it!” is a common nudge when you debate aloud (so you can get that nudge) whether you “should” order dessert or not. “You deserve someone worthy of you,” is oft repeated when a friend goes through a messy break up. When did we become a culture and a people of thinking we deserve so much? It’s become a confused word in our language, and a lot of us no longer remember what it means. There are big differences between deserving, wanting, and needing something.
You have to do something to deserve a reward or punishment. Usually, that something is very difficult and challenging. We don’t “deserve” something simply because we’re a so-called good person (what is a good person anyway?). Being a good person should be expected of ourselves, it should be a lifelong goal, with absolutely no thought to deserving a reward for it. We don’t deserve something because we happen to be born with the kind of genes that make a lot of people around us say we’re hot, nor do we deserve something when we play up that lottery win. Of course, sometimes people do get something for that, but that doesn’t make it deserved.
And food? Whether it’s ice cream or a tofu scramble, food is too often treated as a reward—which can lead to some terrible food-related issues including eating disorders. Yet here we are. Cake for birthdays, pies at Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, a piece of chocolate because we deserve it after that hellish workout, and food, food, food as the highlight of every social gathering and special event in our life. Why not? We’re celebrating, and we deserve it.
What We Do Deserve
I’m not saying there aren’t some achievements, rewards and punishments in life that aren’t deserved. For the positives, let’s consider competitions. If you trained much harder than everyone else for a race, prioritized your nutrition, skipped out on parties to get enough rest, cross-trained like mad and maybe spent hundreds of dollars on a specialized training plan? Hell, yes, you deserve to win. If you spent the entirety of your youth studying more than your peers, taking AP classes, nearly killing yourself with extracurricular activities so you’d be “well-rounded,” and made huge social sacrifices to keep your grades up? Of course you deserve to get into a better college or get that full-ride scholarship.
And if you committed a crime? Well, yeah—you deserve punishment for that, too. However, just because you do deserve something, good or bad, that’s no guarantee that you’ll get it. There are people who trained twice as hard as everyone else for a competition and still don’t win or even place. There are people who commit atrocious crimes and are never caught, feel guilt, or get punished. Deserves simply aren’t guarantees.
But, no. You don’t deserve that tiramisu or some fantasy-driven idea of the perfect partner. If you want the dessert, get it. If you want a great relationship, look at what you have to offer first and then work for it. Keep working for it when and if you do meet that person.
Wants and Needs and In Betweens
During one of my first sessions with an eating disorder psychiatrist, we got onto the subject of “deserving things.” It was likely something along the lines of her asking, “Do you think you don’t deserve food/love/to live/fill in the blank?” I told her it had nothing to do with deserving anything—and of course I didn’t think I “deserved” food or most other things in life.
She seemed a bit taken aback, but kept on. “What about a newborn baby?” she asked. “Do you think that baby deserves milk?”
I told her no. She looked truly shocked, which I’m imagining is rare for one of the leading eating disorder specialists in the Northwest with over 20 years of experience! But I stick to that answer. Do I think a baby needs and wants nutrition, love, air and warmth? Of course!
Still, “I don’t think a person deserves anything simply by virtue of being born,” I told her. She quickly moved on. My opinion is an unpopular one, and I know that.
To Serve Well and Zealously
So, what do we deserve? It falls somewhere between need and want. We need a lot of things to live and to thrive. Those are the basics like shelter and food. Usually, when we need, we do whatever it takes to get it. Needs have driven us to push ourselves beyond what we think we’re capable of, to commit crimes, to risk our lives. It’s human nature to survive, and our needs are the basis for survival.
We want a lot more, from a car to a better wardrobe or the ability to have what we perceive as a perfect body—however, we can want, want, want without ever taking any steps to make it happen. Wants can be dreams, or they can be a driving force to get your butt in gear and work so that your wants become a reward you deserve.
And what do we deserve? Well, that depends. What have you been working doggedly at to get? It’s interesting, the root meaning of “deserve” is “to serve well and zealously.” Service and zeal are at the heart of deserving, yet those two characteristics are rarely both evident when we tell each other and ourselves, “You deserve it!” Maybe if they were, that want would blossom into the “deserve” it can be.
As poets we are really anachronisms walking around on two legs. You struggle to get the perfect image committed to paper, suffer through the rejections in a publishing world where the acceptance rate for most publications and “esites” is less than two percent. Then you discover that the lit mag that discovered your masterpiece has a circulation of less than 1,000.
I read somewhere that someone said, “The fastest way to obscurity is to become a poet.” So what is a poet to do in a hustle bustle age where people are so addicted to their digital gadgets they suffer from short attention span disorder?
Well you could take advantage of the new media and explore a visual medium for your work. Throw yourself into the e-verse. If a piece works on the web it can even help sell your books or lead people to your published poem. Then you can bask in your Andy Warholian fifteen minutes of fame.
So how do you bring your words alive? Here are a few tips.
Do a decent recording of your work. I can’t tell you how many shaky marginal audio clips I see on Facebook. Frankly they are painful to watch. So what can you do to improve the recording? First get a tripod that can hold the IPhone steady. Just check IPhone adapter on the web to find one. Second get close to the speaker so the little mike on the headset can pick out the audio from the background. If the venue uses a sound system it may mean you should position yourself close to the speakers where the sound is actually coming from.
If you are a fan of radio you could create a channel on Sound Cloud and upload an audio file of your recording there. It is easy to share it to Facebook or one of the others.
Here are some other tips:
Lets face it most poetry is not going to compete with the Kardashian culture, but if you want to see an example of one of my poetic videos (which was also a sneaky plug for my book Cogitation) check out “Jacuzzi Guilt” that had hundreds of views on Facebook views. It is on the buzz site of the Unsolicited Press web page.
Sam Love is the author if COGITATION, a poetry collection. You can buy it on our website and from major retailers.
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