Friday Prompt: Illumination

Candles in Notre Dame de Paris
Candles in Notre Dame de Paris

I am a Christian, and for the past two weeks, my church has been celebrating what’s known as the season of Advent—a period of anticipation in which we light a new candle every week (symbolizing hope, peace, joy, and love, respectively) as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas.  I’ve always loved Advent and think of it as a particularly beautiful tradition—somewhat akin in execution, perhaps, to other festivals of light like Diwali—because of the way in which the spiritual significance of Christmas (for me) is rendered concrete through the act of illumination.  Within the Christian tradition, as in other cultures, light and illumination is a deeply important symbol: to light a candle is to enact, in a small, symbolic way, the illumination of the soul, and of the world—and to keep it burning is to remind oneself of the significance of that light; to say that such a light is worth preserving; to acknowledge that that light is a constant source of hope, peace, joy, love, and salvation, and that it is a beacon to which we can return again and again and again.  One of the most well-known biblical uses of light as a spiritual metaphor comes from the gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

I love the way in which the writer of this passage intertwines different metaphors of illumination with the idea of language, of prophecy, of the Word.  In the world of his metaphor, light is life, which illuminates in order to clarify and to sharpen the world so that we can see what is around is, and—most interestingly to me, light is with, and resides within, the Word. While the Word (with a capital “W”) is most directly being used here to refer God’s authority as manifested through scripture and in particular, through the fulfillment of certain Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (in the form of Jesus), it also intrigues me to note that the writer has conceptualized the ideas of text, life, light, and salvation as entities which are seamlessly linked, so that the Word can illuminate; light can be life; the light can be in the Word; the Word can have existed from the beginning, and the Word can both be with, and in fact, actually be a facet of the identity of God.  By no means would I ever claim that my imperfect human words (with a lowercase “w”) could ever match up to the (capitalized) Word in terms of spiritual authority or ability to illuminate; but it is intriguing to me as a writer to think that in some way, the metaphorical significance of text within Scripture is so seamlessly linked to the idea of bringing light, of illumination.  Because—to take an associative (highly un-theological) leap—isn’t this impulse similar to the way in which we often speak of our daily practice of craft?  While I don’t read this passage from John as an invitation to write (as given its context, that seems to be neither its immediate purpose nor its theological intent), I am reminded by it that words and text can indeed have a trenchant ability to illuminate and to clarify, to highlight important ideas for the reader, and to enhance and make those ideas seem more real, more accessible, more logically present, even more “true.”  Accordingly, it seems imperative to me that as writers, we should act upon our particular responsibilities to illuminate through language not only so that we  can render our own ideas and experiences more immediate, but also so that we can help to illuminate and “make real” the words of others.

This year at my church, I have had the opportunity to curate a series of “poems for illumination” for the season of Advent.  Each week, I choose a poem that in some way addresses the idea associated with the candle that will be lit (for “Hope,” I chose a poem of Hopkins; for “Peace,” I selected Milton; for “Joy,” I’m using a poem by Michael Chitwood, and for “Love,” I’ll be sharing a piece by Denise Levertov), and include it, along with a short close reading / reflection, on a slip of paper that gets tucked into each of the bulletins for people to encounter as they look through the announcements or follow the order of the service.  It has been a delight to have the opportunity to reflect simultaneously on poetry and scripture—the two kinds of text whose language have had the deepest influence on me, as a poet and as a human being—and a joy to be able to share, and to help “make real,” language from two genres that I often hear described as dense, inaccessible, or intimidating. In the Middle Ages, beautiful visual art and calligraphy was used to “illuminate” sacred texts; so why not poetry (especially since so much of scripture is poetry, in the first place)? I love the idea of light feeding light: of juxtaposing the imagery of one text with that of another in order to render both of their meanings richer and more resonant. To illuminate,  beautify, to clarify, to make real, and to render true: aren’t these objectives at the very heart of what we seek to do every day as poets, as writers and readers of language?

Prompt: Write a poem that uses illumination as its central metaphor, or which meditates upon, or takes inspiration from, another text in order to illuminate or wrestle with its craft, meaning, or implications.

Friday Prompt: “Field Notes”

Image courtesy of

It was about a year ago that I posted this prompt on Allen Ginsberg’s American Sentences, thanks to former classmate Jessica Tyson; this week’s Friday Prompt is courtesy of another recent UW MFA graduate, Talia Shalev.  She’s derived the exercise from a chapter in the anthology Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (Longman, 2002), edited by Ryan Van Cleave, and writes:

Spend an hour in an urban setting that’s somewhat foreign to you.  A Laundromat.  A bus terminal.  A French pastry shop.  Record your observations and thoughts.  Spend another hour in a more rural setting, such as a chicken farm, an apple orchard, or a fishing hole.  At the very least, find a garden or park!  Record your observations and thoughts.

Write a poem about the urban setting that uses words, ideas, and images exclusively from your rural setting, and then write a poem about the rural setting that uses words, ideas, and images exclusively from your urban setting.  Does forcing yourself into using unusual vocabulary choices allow you greater freedom?  Does it make intuitive leaps easier?  How might this translate into your other poems?

What I find compelling about this prompt is the way it forces the “translation” or “transmutation” of observational detail from one context to another—a gesture that can be taken in a number of directions.  The same process can be used to navigate not only the in-betweens of rural and urban settings, but also the private and the public, the mainstream and the “minority,” the high and the low.  While I think it’s important that the prompt remain grounded in specific locales (ie. places that can be physically inhabited by the poet), it seems totally possible that a person could make the same linguistic leap from, say, one part of town to another—and in the process, cast light upon new ways of constructing difference, culture and place.

Friday Prompt: Poetry & Action

Molly Gaudry at Page Turner
Molly Gaudry reads during the Poetry Showcase at the AAWW's 2011 Page Turner Festival

This week’s prompt is inspired by the Asian American Writers Workshop’s 2011 Page Turner Festival, which I attended two weekends ago in Brooklyn, NY.

An unexpected winter storm swept into town on the morning of the festival, pummeling Brooklyn with high winds and dumping snow and sleet all over the streets, but despite the merciless weather, a surprisingly large crowd of attendees bundled up and came out to watch panel after panel of writers light up the interiors of Powerhouse Arena and Melville House.  All through the morning and afternoon, each event was packed; by the time I arrived at Melville House to catch the Poetry Showcase (my favorite, and last event of the day before I had to rush home to snow-covered NJ), the colorful, cozy performance space was standing-room only.

I’ve been to plenty of readings and conferences before, but never to a literary festival that felt this driven by a searingly-clear, single vision.  Throughout the day, the one theme that continued to impress itself upon me again and again was the AAWW’s deep, active commitment to the political—from the reflections of the poets on the Occupy Wall Street panel about the critical and aesthetic possibilities of poetry shared by “human mic”  to the powerful photographs and testimonies shared by the CultureStrike participants who visited Arizona in the wake of  SB 1070—I was continually struck by AAWW’s unique vision for how the work of the artist can simultaneously inhabit the page and reach beyond it into world in a very physical, practical way.

Today’s prompt comes from that same sense of vision, and invites you to play with figurations of craft that “break” from the construct of the page-bound poem in order to tangibly evoke discussion and action within your immediate community.

Prompt: Construct, organize, present, and/or distribute a political “act of poetry” whose craft and form reaches beyond the written page to invite others to physically and verbally interact with, respond to, and share in its promulgation and completion.


Structure and Surprise, ed. Michael Theune (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2007)

This week’s prompt is less of a prompt and more of an invitation to check out this book on poetic structure published by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.  Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns is a collection of essays by noteworthy poets like D.A. Powell and Prageeta Sharma, which discusses the use of “the turn” in poetry writing; that is, the energetic leap or shift that occurs as the mind works through form to create dynamic patterns of thought.  In his introduction to the essays, Michael Theune says:

Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning.  As such, poetic structure identifies a vital feature of poems: the best poems very often include convincing, surprising turns… [I]n a lecture called “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” Randall Jarrell claims that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”

One of the structures discussed in Structure & Surprise is the retrospective-prospective structure, a two-part structure that begins with a retrospective discussion of the past and then moves toward a future orientation that shows, as the essay’s author, Mark Yakich, puts it, how “inconstant and dizzying” time really is.  While you’re welcome to browse the list of structures on the book’s extraordinarily helpful website to find one that might work better for whichever writing/revision process you’re currently in, I’d recommend trying this particular approach for starters.

Prompt: write a two-part poem that uses the retrospective-prospective structure to narrate a past event or memory.  Midway through the poem, shift to the present tense to “acknowledge some kind of change” (p. 72) that allows the speaker to either look prospectively into the future, or reconsider the past through a different lens.

*  *  *

For a list of additional structures and supplemental materials, check out the Structure & Surprise website .

For more writing prompts on structure, take a look at Iris’ Ordering, Reordering, Reversing or last October’s prompt, Complicating Narrative Structure.

Friday Prompt: Ars Poetica

Self-Portrait in Afternoon Shadow
Self-Portrait in Afternoon Shadow

Last week, while reconnecting over pizza with someone with whom I’d gone to high school, I found myself suddenly enmeshed in a debate about the utility of teaching poetry in the classroom.  We had been talking about what we hope to do with our careers in the future, and my friend, who was blissfully unaware of what he was getting himself into at the time—began to ask me about my writing.  Why had I decided that I like it so much?  What made me so sure that I want to center my life around it?  Why do I want to teach poetry someday?

I began to explain to him how much the idea of building opportunities for people to encounter poetry on an everyday basis—in the bus terminal, on the subway, in a store window, on the radio, in their Facebook newsfeed, tucked away between the salt and pepper shakers on a cafeteria table, or of course, in the classroom (whether Composition or Creative Writing)—excites me.  Ideas about ways to get people to “bump into” and experience more poetry literally keep me up at night.  They make me fidget in meetings and cause me to take too long in the shower.  They make me zone out during sermons in church and distract me while I’m grading.  I shake when I talk about them.

“It troubles me,” I explained, rattling the ice around in my glass, “that we don’t see more poetry in the real world, or even in the English classroom, where most people encounter literature for the first time.  Teachers are often a little afraid of it, and so students become very afraid of it.”

My lunch companion was nonplussed.  “But prose is a more practical model for student writing,” he objected, “so why should there be more poetry in the classroom?”

Well, in that case, why should we teach Mark Twain (parts of which are written in dialect)?  Or Shakespeare (with its slippery Elizabethan speech)?  Or even Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (both of whom wrote for the stage), for that matter?  If the place of the English classroom is only to provide “practical” models for student writing, then the idea of teaching literature at all becomes questionable.  And yet, most people would agree that including literature in the high school classroom is important.  Literature provides a compass for us, a “window” (as one of my own high school English teachers used to say) by which we can practice empathy and imagination. It is a beacon, a stepping stone, a map, a boat, an interview, a mask, a portrait, a question, a shovel, a vision, a road, a challenge to ourselves as human beings.  Young people need literature—because literature gives us words and paradigms by which to conceive of ourselves and of others; because literature helps us to grow.

So why teach poetry?  Because poetry is literature—and poetry is necessary.

Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Ars Poetica”

Friday Prompt: Writing Ritual


Rainbow trout from Silver Lake

Some families hike, some families play board games, some families get together to roll dumplings.  My family goes fishing.  And we always have.  My dad fishes with gear inherited from his dad, whose rod and net have been mended and re-mended so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if they were passed on from his dad’s dad.  Certainly, the rhythm of baiting the hook, casting the line and settling back to wait for a bite is something passed through generations.

My brother and I remarked on our last fishing trip that, when waiting behind a cast line on the side of a lake somewhere, it’s as if we sit waiting not only with each other and our dad, but with his dad as well—who passed on many years ago.  There’s a kind of comfort in this ritual, as if when gathering to bait and lure our lines, we gather to join the family members–both passed on and present—who have practiced these same steps through time.

And so our prompt for this week, taken from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (Norton, 1997), is:

Use a family anecdote, or a family ritual, as a leaping-off point for saying something about how your family or the world works.

If it helps, think first about the material reality of the ritual you intend to write about.  If it’s fishing you’re thinking of, research the anatomy of the fish.  Find out how its breathing apparatus works, what it is exactly that lines those “frightening gills.”  Learn the jargon of fisherfolk: the brand names of the bait, the particularities of lures and bobbers and lines.  Think of this as an opportunity not only to, as Laux and Addonizio put it, “sa[y] something about how your family or the world works,” but also to say something about how the ritual itself works.

Don’t enter the poem planning to say something earth-shattering (about your family, or anything).  Enter the poem with respect for the ritual in question, those who have conducted it in the past and the materiality of its “steps” as they unfold.  More often than not, it’s by examining the mechanisms of our lives that we reach fresh insight—but let this come to you through the writing.

*  *  *

Note: Also see Iris’ February prompt about the family rituals we engage in when “turning the year.”  Though we’re still a ways off from New Year’s, many of us still feel the seasonal “turn” of fall (especially with Daylight Savings approaching!), and have our own private rituals built around welcoming this time of year.

Friday Prompt: Answering Questions

Burning through the fog
"Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind." - Natalie Goldberg

In one chapter of her beloved book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg urges young writers to  “Make Statements and Answer Questions.”  I’ve taught her chapter on the importance of being specific before, but I decided to add this chapter to my syllabus for the first time this Fall, and as the semester has progressed, I’ve been finding myself returning to the raw courage of its advice again and again—both in my teaching, and in my own writing.  In “Make Statements and Answer Questions,” Goldberg observes that many young writers (and indeed, experienced writers, too) feel timid about putting their ideas out into the world, and so, in their hesitancy, they often fill their writing with questions and indefinite statements (“Isn’t that terrible?” “Maybe she’s right”).  There is indeed something quite vulnerable about the act of writing for an audience—of making a claim and expecting others to listen to it.  To do so requires boldness, a kind of brash willingness to allow one’s own ideas to stand alone, at the risk that one’s audience might not agree.  Goldberg encourages us to cut the apron strings, so to speak, by challenging ourselves to confidently answer each question we find ourselves asking: “Making statements,” she writes, “is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts” (93-4)  And later:

“Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself. Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind. Don’t carry the fog out on paper. Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice, you eventually will” (94).

Call it the partner to the questions prompt that Mia posted in 2009, if you will: today’s prompt was inspired by Goldberg’s call to write with confidence.

Prompt: Write a poem consisting entirely of answers to questions. Try to mix answers to small, concrete questions (such as “May I have a second slice of cake?”) with answers to bigger, nearly unanswerable questions (like “What do trees do when they feel cold in winter?”).

Weekly Prompt: Homophonic Translation


Charles Bernstein | Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

This week’s prompt is taken from leading Language poetry practitioner and theorist Charles Bernstein‘s “Experiments” (handily compiled by the University of Pennsylvania’s Electronic Poetry Center).  It asks you to venture into uncertain linguistic territory where meaning ceases to guide your composition (or in this case, translation) process and, instead, turns the reins over to sound.

We all know what homophones are, words that mean differently despite their (usually identical) sonic qualities (see/sea, their/there), and this exercise is one that relies almost exclusively on the odd transmutations of meaning that can happen when two words sound the same but signify different things… in different languages.

Though you will be working to translate a piece of poetry from another language into English, because the translation method is based on homophones and sound patterns rather than denotative/connotative meanings, your process will undoubtedly yield some wacky — but wonderful! — results.

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Homophonic Translation”

Weekly Prompt: Ordering, Reordering, Reversing.

Ordered Stones
Sea Stones: Ordered, Reordered, Reversed

As I’ve been working on coding, laying out, and putting together Issue 3 (which in many ways has proven to be a much more technically challenging endeavor than our previous two issues), the question of order/ordering has continually been at the forefront of my mind. How important decisions about order are when presenting a group of poems, or images! Juxtaposition means everything: placing even one small poem strategically can entirely change and elevate the overall energy of an issue, an anthology, a collection. And (to apply this thought to the level of craft) how much more so with regards to the arrangement of lines, images, stanzas, within each poem itself! At this year’s Kundiman retreat, Oliver de la Paz showed me how the placement of a single poem within a manuscript would affect the impact with which certain images in it would be perceived by a reader—and that revising with attention to order, both on a inter-poem and intra-poem level, was therefore very necessary. And during workshop, Kimiko Hahn suggested that one of the Fellows try reversing the order of the lines in her poem, a simple change that which—when applied, completely reshaped its arc, and brought the whole piece alive in a new and fascinating way.

Of course, reversing the order of a poem’s lines does not work the same magic in every case—it worked on the poem that we were discussing because it allowed the strange linguistic impulses of the final lines to speak better and thus made the arc of the new version much less tidy and more texturally interesting. But the results of this simple revision exercise got me thinking about how to apply it to my own writing. How many times have I shuffled and reordered stanzas in a poem that feels stuck, only to find that the arc of the poem was still either falling flat? Oftentimes, my last thoughts as I draft a poem may be some of the most complex, the most evocative, and so reversing a poem, image by image, or even line by line, could be a very useful way to at least read the images in the draft from a different angle, and thus to reenter the revision process on a fresh foot.

Today’s prompt is an example of more shameless, deliberate “stealing” from the advice of teachers whom I admire.

Prompt: Take a poem whose arc or movement feels “stuck” and reverse the order of the images or lines as way to re-envision the “map” of the poem.  Alternately, if you are working on a manuscript, try reversing or changing the order of poems, or experimenting with reversing lines within the opening and closing poems to see whether the impact of this reordering reveals anything new and luminous.

Weekly Prompt: Borrowed Signs

Drinking the Sky, Liquid Vision, and See - bits of signs from the Tech Museum
Bits of signs from the Tech Museum in San Jose

Here’s a found poem exercise that’s inspired by a trip that my boyfriend and I took to the Tech Museum in San Jose, CA while on vacation a couple of weeks ago.  As we made our way through the joyously kinetic (and occasionally frenetic) space of the museum’s galleries, I found myself intrigued by the surprisingly figurative language used on the signs in one of the exhibits: by the way in which it resisted the impulse to inform on a strictly literal level and instead chose to render the vision behind the very practical inventions that were being described in expansive and imagistically evocative ways.  “Drinking the Sky,” for example, was the title of a station about fog nets—fine mesh screens which trap moisture from morning fog to make clean drinking water.  What a lovely idea, I mused, thinking not just of the fog nets themselves (which are indeed a marvelously ingenious invention), but also of the image of harvesting the sky, of gathering its fabric to one’s mouth to drink.  Then there was “Liquid Vision,” which was the title of a display about soft, water-filled glasses lenses whose strength could be adjusted by reducing or increasing the amount of liquid inside.  I admired the invention itself, but enjoyed the synaesthetic nature of the title even more: I imagined vision that was truly liquid—as light so often seems to be—revealing the world to us fluidly, wetly, clearly, in currents and waves.  If such a thing were our everyday experience, we’d be literally washed in sight; one might come away to sleep dripping with colors and shadows and shapes.  Or indeed, perhaps that vision that could be liquidized or distilled–bottled, sold, distributed from place to place in a canister . . . like a film, but for oral consumption.  Potion-like.  Shimmery. Strange. At any rate, something that one could wrap a poem around.

Prompt: Write a poem whose central image is inspired by language “borrowed” from a sign, billboard, or poster.