Tag: poetry

Writing in Retrograde

Kendyl Harmeling, Writing Consultant

I remember sitting outside my old apartment with my best friend, smoking in the heat wave that broke Connecticut at the end of this past July, and talking about how the world felt like it was topsy-turvy.  We laughed about how Mercury was in retrograde, and how every little detail of being alive felt only slightly off-kilter, how our lives were noticeably ever just different.

Like we were still us, but not the us we had once so recently been. In the week leading up to my move, we sat outside our old apartment-home every night like that. Hazy and confused. We cried. Mostly, we laughed. Sometimes, we yelled at our neighbor for never having baked us the broccoli quiche he promised to. The night before I left, my friends and I went to the dive bar I had worked at that entire year, and sang, badly, our favorite classic rock karaoke songs.

But, “you-know-what-they-say about the young…” I woke up the next afternoon and was alone. My room full of everything I ever owned, packed, and pristinely kept. My dad had already left for work. I left a note on the counter that I was moving 816 miles in a few minutes, and I loved him so much. I drove first to New Haven to pick up my mom for our drive west, and then I left Connecticut. I would like to reach out my hand… I may see-you…and tellllll you to run!

I’ve lived here in Louisville for a month now. Over a month. Spent nights at friends’ houses, found the bars I like, coffee shops, bookstores. I’ve found all the things here that I thought made my life back home a home. A life. I thought it was in the minute, the things I did during the day, that comfort came, but I just feel vacationed.

It’s made me wonder about the qualities of home which transcend distance, the parts of who I am that were just parts of my old environment, and most of all, how uprooting myself from the only place I’ve ever called home has felt like more to me than just a “moving forward” but also feels very really like a “leaving behind.” No one told me that the bore weight of leaving someplace doesn’t lighten, quickly at least.
I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet this summer, in that other life I lead. His writing inspired and terrified. In it, Rilke writes about the importance of observational poetry, how being tragically human and trying to understand the profound are incongruent pursuits. How humans really can’t understand the profound, how we’re sentenced to living only in the momentary, the lovely, and the ugly. It’s in the making poetic these things that poetry can attempt to transform meaning from nothing into profundity.

Since moving here and trying to find that settlement of home in a thin crusted, forced routine, I write a poem every day. I started this practice the third night after my mom left and I was suddenly aware that I was alone, 816 miles from everything I love. The poems aren’t all good. Most of them, actually, are real bad. But they’re little homes, each one. The beginning observation of this new place, where I live and am, in fact, not vacationing. Rilke was right whenever he wrote that, that we can learn how to live just from looking around. Here are some observations that have helped me ground myself in this, a new home:

I sleep next to a street lamp, near the corner of Saint Catherine and Preston where that woman sits on a bench with her cat. It’s a yellow light.
I’m waiting for a crack of thunder again.
I’m waiting for tiredness to set in and put me to sleep.
I’m waiting for my body to stop moving and for that great unknowable to quiet.
It feels like the air here is static with wait, a pause, a moment before exhale.
Out my window is unrushed, cattle traffic and the eager unrest for the arrival of that great big thing…
I had a dream last night that the world would end in one searing-hot, pink instant.
Immediate and satisfying.
Unlike the visible end of the crumbled rock wall across from my apartment.
The one keeping the giant oak tree from cracking through the sidewalk we seldom use.
That end took time.
It’s the sort of decay which weathers into material.
The patient kind.
My someday bright-stop is restless.
Waiting for the oak fall, the sidewalk end, and my momentary to begin.

In my 18th century poetry class, my professor said, “Well… I suppose it never really feels like anything comes to a conclusion.” I know she was talking about Defoe’s lack of chapter division in Moll Flanders, but the fluidity of story reaches me, here, in Louisville, Kentucky. I am the same person, only further from home. But, maybe closer than I think.

Poetry with Rules: Finding Creativity in Restraints

Ashley Bittner, Writing Consultant

Hello! Welcome to the writing center blog. I’m Ash, and today, I’m going to talk about writing poetry.

I am something of a formalist as a poet. I dislike writing free verse, and all of my poems are meticulously constructed. This is not, however, a commentary on the quality of free verse poetry. I am no Robert Frost to scorn free verse as playing tennis with the net down. No, I dislike writing free verse not because it is bad, but because I am bad at it.

The blank page, to me, is a yawning void that I have no words to fill. There is no muse inspiring me with images to paint with letters, there is no quiet artistic voice in me whispering the secrets of beauty. My poetic inspiration, inexorably, comes from having rules. If I am given none to work within, I will give them to myself, either by requiring rhymes, meters, or syllabic restraints. When I know the rules within which I must work, it engages me to find creative ways to fill those restraints and stretch them out. Working within them, I have been forced to learn subtleties of poetry.

Let us take enjambment. Academically, I knew that enjambment meant ‘the continuation of a sentence beyond the line.’ Perhaps a professor could have explained that it also serves to place special emphasis on the last word in one line or the first word in the next, or to create a doubled meaning. Knowing these things intellectually, however, was nothing to feeling the practice of them in my first sestina.

The sestina form forgoes rhyme or meter. Instead, it is a six (plus one!) stanza poem of six lines each (except that plus one), where the same six words are repeated in each stanza. They always sit at the end of the line, and they change which line they sit at the end of over the course of the poem. It creates a unique and cyclical rhythm to a poem, with words sometimes repeated quickly and other times languidly distant, and a spoken sestina often carries a dreamy way about it from that curious pattern.

To try and write each line as self-contained would require making a poem functionally formed of 36 short sentences, which is at best awkward and at worst comic. Instead, a sestina demands considerable enjambment, and the repetition makes words want for re-interpretation. Words with more than one definition, or that can serve as noun or verb both, make for powerful additions, and weave the lines together.

I’ll admit freely, my first sestina was terrible. It was about a firing squad, and I exploited the six stanza structure to talk about the five men firing and the one being fired at. It was not terribly elegant and it was certainly not beautiful, but by the time I had finished it, I understood the meaning of enjambment. If we end a line on a weak or meaningless word (a ‘the’ or an ‘an’ or a ‘such’) the reader can flow through and only take one reading from it. If we end a line on a word that carries implications (‘blossomed’ or ‘flew’ or ‘saw’), that word is briefly embedded in the reader, and then we can either build-upon or subvert that embedded word with the subsequent line.

Of course, explaining this is an irony. I have already expressed that I learned by doing, and so explaining is not helpful. Instead, I encourage everyone who writes poetry to grind through at least one sestina or two as a challenge to the self. It will be frustrating, but it will also be rewarding. If you’re quite irate at me for making you write one after finishing, you can bring it by the writing center and make me read it as a punishment. If that’s the price I have to pay for spreading a bit more poetry into the world, I pay it gladly.

I don’t write sestinas anymore. Lesson learned and all that. While I have a sprawling list of these strict forms of classic poetry, in truth I rarely use them as they stand. I borrow pieces of their rules and bend them together when I’m facing the blank page, I give myself restraints to make my game exciting. I have the net down, as Frost might say, but on my court I have added an extra ball, a playful dog, and a large rotating fan.

Serve!

How I Write: Ron Whitehead

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

“I have long admired Ron Whitehead. He is crazy as nine loons, and his poetry is a dazzling mix of folk wisdom and pure mathematics.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Ron and Rainbow copy.jpg

Ron Whitehead is a poet, writer, editor, publisher, scholar, professor, and activist. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky and later attended The University of Louisville and the University of Oxford.

First recipient ever of The English Speaking Union’s Joshua B. Everett Scholar Award to study at the University of Oxford’s International Graduate School. As poet and writer he is the recipient of numerous state, national, and international awards and prizes including The All Kentucky Poetry Prize, Ariel/Triton College Poetry Prize (Judge, Lisel Mueller), The Yeats Club of Oxford’s Prize for Poetry, and many others. In 2006 Dr. John Rocco (NYC) nominated Ron for The Nobel Prize in Literature. He was inducted into his high school’s (Ohio County High) Hall of Fame, representing his 1968 graduating class. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer recently presented Ron witha City of Louisville Proclamation thanking for him for his lifetime of work in and support of the arts.

Ron has edited and published the works of such luminaries as His Holiness The Dalai Lama, President Jimmy Carter, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Merton, Jack Kerouac, Seamus Heaney, John Updike, Wendell Berry, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, BONO, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Rita Dove, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Hunter,
Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and hundreds more.

Location: Louisville, KY & Clarksville, IN.

Current projects: March 1st: THE DANCE by Ron Whitehead & The Glass Eye Ensemble featuring Sheri Streeter (sonaBLAST! Records & Howard & Nancy Wilson release), 10 tracks, online & CD, full art, music, film, photography, live performance Installation at The Tim Faulkner Gallery.

July 16th & 20th: WHIRLPOOL by Ron Whitehead & The Storm Generation Band and Shakespeare’s Monkey featuring Dean McClain (possible sonaBLAST! Records), online & CD, release concerts on 7/16 at The Bokeh Lounge/Evansville and 7/20 at Gonzofest/Louisville Free Public Library.

July 20th: RIDING WITH REBEL JESUS by Ron Whitehead & The Storm Generation Band featuring Sheri Streeter (possible sonaBLAST! Records), 7-track EP, online & CD, live performance at Gonzofest/Louisville Free Public Library. Album cover art by Somerset folk artist Jeremy Das Scrimager.

Last weekend of July: THE VIEW FROM LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI’S BATHROOM WINDOW: Beat Poems & Stories by Ron Whitehead (Underground Books/NYC), Ron will be UB’s featured poet at annual New York City Poetry Festival, Governor’s Island/NYC.

September/October: David Amram & Ron Whitehead, KENTUCKY BOUND: The Cabin Sessions, produced by Vince Emmett and Stephen W. Brown, online & CD, more info to come.

Currently reading: Volume 2 of Winston Graham’s Poldark Series plus several other titles.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

Poetry and prose.

2. When/where/how do you write?

Two writing studios: one my wife created for me at our home in historic Clarksville, the other at my writing hermitage, 919 Cherokee Road, which was built for me by Howard and Nancy Bruner Wilson eight years ago. I write an equal amount at both
locations plus I write wherever I am. I travel often, near and far.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Pen, paper, tablet.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision, (5). and what
 is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Young folks (of all ages) often ask what they should do to become better poets and writers:

14 Suggestions for Aspiring Poets and Writers

1) Join a writing group. Outgrow it as soon as possible.

2) Dig deep into your childhood. Write the best and the worst memories. Embrace your past. You’ll find your voice by fully embracing your past. Be an autodidact. Teach yourself. The School of Hard Knocks is The Best School of All! Learn everything you can about everything you’re interested in. Learn things you don’t even want to learn things that are uninteresting but are related to your poem your story. Read everything you can get your hands on.

3) Take classes classes classes on literature, poetry, prose, and on writing.

4) Master grammar and scansion, the terrible mechanics of prose and poetry.

5) Be a master skeptic. Doubt and question yourself and everyone else.

6) Be a master believer. Believe in yourself and nearly everyone else.

7) Submit submit submit your work to every publication under the sun and moon.

8) You’re gonna get rejected. A million times. Get used to it. Suck it up. Develop your will power. Quit whining. Be strong!

9) Gather your poems and stories into book manuscripts and send them to publishers and when you’re rejected publish your own work.

10) Read read read your work out loud in private in public at open mics read read read your work out loud to dogs cats birds people to anyone and everyone.

11) Entertainment is central! Captivate your audience! Do you want to be bored by someone reading their poem their story?! Put all the energy you have into your reading. Sing your work. Even if you can’t carry a tune sing your work out loud. Listen for the rhythm. Get rhythm. Build music into your poem your story. Poems and stories are dancing songs.

12) Listen. Listening is the greatest art of all. We’re all dirty potatoes floating in the same tub of polluted water. The more we bang into each other by openly honestly sharing the stories of our lives the more we come clean. By listening to others and to yourself as you read your work out loud you will become a better writer a better editor.

13) On the darkest stormiest night of the year take everything you’ve learned and get in a car and drive as fast as you can along the coastline with a deep cliff falling down to the pounding ocean and throw everything you’ve learned out the window while screaming as loud as you can “Farewell!” “Goodbye!” then go your own way and start anew. Be your own original voice.

14) Language is an experiment. Always has been. Always will be. Have fun. Never give up!

Ron Whitehead’s official website is http://www.tappingmyownphone.com

Flying Out Loud

Ashleigh Scarpinato, Consultantashleigh-s

As a Writing Center tutor, I am always encouraging the writers I meet with to read their work aloud because there are so many benefits: it helps find typos, places with awkward syntax, etc. Sometimes, I have noticed that hearing someone else read your work aloud is also very beneficial. So, I have also suggested to the writers I tutor to download reading software that will read their work back to them. Given that I offer this advice fairly regularly, you would think I would have taken that advice for myself.

I had the honor of reading some of my poetry for the reading series Flying Out Loud on Monday, February 13th. First there would be an open mic for any local poets, then the featured writers would each have ten minutes to read their work. I had never read in a coffee shop or for a reading series. I knew I needed to prepare accordingly, so I organized my poems and began reading them aloud, in a soft, mumbled whisper to ensure that I was within my time limit. With my printed poems in one hand and a copy of The Woman in White in the other, I walked into Sunergos Coffee Shop—the smell of freshly brewed coffee whisking through the air. Arriving early, I ordered a decaf Frappuccino, and when I picked up my order, I noticed that the baristas had pulled designs through the froth. I collapsed on the couch and attempted to get some reading done.

The open mic started just after 6 o’clock, and it was so enjoyable hearing poets read their work—with varying rhetorical choices. As one of my poetry professors once said, poetry is meant to be read aloud, so no amount of internal reading can quite do a poem poetic justice. And with each poet, the clock crept closer and closer to my time slot, and those familiar butterflies began creeping their way back into my stomach. Finally, it was my turn to read my work—to say aloud the words I had crammed in the margins of notebook paper and reworked into stanzas on my laptop. I was going to read some poems that I had never read for anyone other than myself; I never feel quite as honest as when I read someone one of my poems. I fumbled my way through the chairs in front of me and up to the microphone, centered in a dim spotlight. I began reading my poems to the audience, attempting to regulate my breathing and pounding heart. While reading, I noticed a typo on the page, but luckily my brain registered the error before my mouth could formulate the mistake. I knew what I wanted it to say, what it was meant to have said. And when I finished reading, just under my ten-minute limit, I looked up for an applause of reassurance. I kept thinking about that single error no one else was even cognizant of. After resuming my seat on the couch, I reflected on my decision to whisper my poems while practicing. I thought about the fact that if I had just read them aloud with a full, clear voice, I would have caught the typo before printing the copy.

Will I read again at another reading series? Yes, and I would encourage all poets to do the same. I truly believe that there is nothing else in this world quite like reading your work aloud. So, even if you do not have the connections to be one of the featured readers in a local reading series, try to do the open mic. You can hear yourself read in an authentic setting and provide yourself with an opportunity to see and hear the way an audience responds to your writing. After all, reading and writing go hand and hand, and along with that comes the benefit of reading what you have written aloud.