Curated Prompt: Aimee Nezhukumatathil – “The World is Full of Paper: Writing Epistolary Poems (Epistles)”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

by Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

The Context

The hand-lettered envelope. The canceled stamp. The tooth of the paper that nibbles the ink. The epistle is a type of poem that underscores the best intimacies that can arise from a letter: the measured and focused address to a specific recipient. In a world that values the addictive glow of a screen, the speedy text message, the quick hello and check-in—much can be gained and admired in a poem that follows the ancient and simple form of a letter.

The word epistle comes from the Latin word (espistula) for letter. In the Middle Ages, the art of letter writing was often taught as a necessity for building community and encouraging discourse. In fact, the writing of epistles was actually amplified as old road structures began to decay and crumble. Travel became increasingly difficult—people soon relied on letter writing to conduct and negotiate business in place of making a claim in person. Another variation of the epistle is one that Ovid himself employed—epistles as a way to explore persona. In his Heroides, he imagines letters written by neglected or abandoned heroines of Greek mythology: writing as Penelope to Odysseus, writing as Helen to Paris, as Medea to Jason.

When is the last time you opened your mailbox and found a bona fide hand-written letter? So much of mail these days is ‘sad mail’—coupon flyers, missing children notices, bills, sweepstakes packets. But oh the joy and delight when you find your name written by a friend or loved one’s hand! Or the surprise and mysterious architecture of a handwriting you’ve never seen before! When was the last time you wrote a letter?

The Exercise

Feel free to mimic the relationship uncovered within most epistles—the letter poem is addressed to someone ‘you’ can’t talk to for whatever reason—the person is far away or deceased or famous, or even someone you know well, but you can’t say what needs to be said in real life. It should be clear to the reader who is being addressed within the title or the first few lines. There are no meter or rhyme rules for this form. This type of poem is more of a vehicle to explore persona and voice.

Still stuck? Write an epistle to any of the following: 1) an animal or plant, 2) yourself, ten years ago, 3) yourself, twenty years ago 4) your beloved, twenty years ago, 5) a future version of you, even if the future you imagine is simply ‘tomorrow’ 6) a company or corporation 7) one of the seven deadly sins or virtues (ie. Dear Lust,… or Dear Patience,…) 8) your zodiac or birthstone 9) your favorite “guilty pleasure” food or 10) the city you call ‘home’ in all its complicated and wondrous glory.

The Why

I’ve found that writing a poem TO someone (or some-thing!) makes the edges of imagery focus crisper into view. And in that focused state, the epistle begins to tighten up the rest of the poem’s language so that a distinct persona emerges and establishes a clear and immediate tone and mood in ways that other poems might not. And yet, writing a letter to a stranger takes the innate intimacy of an epistle a step further: it requires the invention of an imagined other (even if the person exists, he/she is still being imagined), and it fashions a sort of detailed handiwork about why we might find ourselves wishing to talk to them. And isn’t that such a good and necessary occupation, a welcome slowing down and stepping away from a handheld device or screen? I like to think of writing epistles as a writing towards—and attempting to love, or at least recognize—the strangers that live inside each of us.

For More Inspiration:

“Frame, an Epistle,” by Claudia Emerson

“note, passed to superman,” by Lucille Clifton

“Letter to Simic from Boulder,” by Richard Hugo

“As Children Together,” by Carolyn Forché

* * *

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English at State University of New York–Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature. She is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish (2011), winner of the gold medal in poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize for Independent Books; At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the Global Filipino Award. Poems and essays are widely published in venues such as Tin House, Ploughshares, Orion, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and noted in Best American Essays. Other honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Western New York in the middle of berry country with her husband and young sons.

Curated Prompt: Oliver de la Paz – “The Fourteen-Hour Sonnet”

Oliver de la Paz
Oliver de la Paz

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Oliver de la Paz.

When you’re a parent of three children under the age of 6, you have to be very deliberate in finding time for yourself to commit to the page. My family lives in the country, and it’s a 40-minute commute from my house to the doorstep of my workplace. In addition, all my children are in daycare. You’d think that having the kids in daycare would afford me some time, but it doesn’t. When they’re in daycare, I’m either teaching, thinking about teaching, preparing to teach, or administrating on some committee that has to do with teaching. Needless to say, my writing time comes in pockets. Slivers. Little flares. My relationship with the page is no longer routinized. I used to have ample time to dedicate to writing, but that was before children. Now my writing time is broken down into excursions. Mini-trips. Little rendezvous. I understand that this is my life and rather than succumb to long silences, I challenge myself everyday, to think about a poem. In order to cope with my hectic schedule, I developed a process that fosters obsession.

An obsession is not a terrible thing to have when you’re a writer. It can be a motivator—generative beacon. I try to dedicate increments of five to ten minutes throughout the day to the composition of a line. I also attempt to write a line every hour for fourteen hours, so by the end of the day I have a sonnet-length collection of lines. My poem “Requiem for the Orchard” was composed under these particular conditions. During the hectic weeks of Christmas vacation (who’d have thought Christmas vacation would be hectic?) I had a sense that I needed to craft a “spinal” poem for a collection of poems I had nearly completed.

During the Kundiman Retreat in 2007, I assigned the Kundiman Fellow cohort the following assignment. I give it to you now:

1) Write a single line every hour. Write no more than a line. Even if you feel you wish to write a second line, restrain yourself from doing so.

2) Set an alarm to go off every hour.

3) At the top of every hour, write a new line, adding to the collection of lines you have written throughout the day.

4) Do this for fourteen hours.

Here’s what happens, at least to me, when you set up these particular circumstances—you wind up thinking about the poem all day. Sure, you’ve spaced out the time you get to the page, but in the interstices of an hour, a poem begins to take shape from its first line to its next line to the line that follows. Of course, you’re going to want to be sure that you are in a safe locale for this. One Kundiman fellow was driving when the fellow’s writing alarm went off and she nearly sideswiped a car. Don’t do that.

* * *

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable, forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems and the co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

Friday Prompt: Plant Life

Tree buds in KY
Spring buds on a tree in Kentucky (though not the same tree that is outside my office window).

There’s a large tree right outside the window of the office where I now work.  For the past three months, I’ve been settling into a new job, in a new town, in a new part of the country, experiencing new patterns of weather and rhythms of life for the first time, and in a way, the tree’s seasonal development seems to have kept pace with my own process of putting down new roots. Since January, I’ve watched the tree outside my office window turn from bare and covered with snow, to studded with red-tipped buds, to dripping with cascades of papery, yellow-brown flowers (which are no doubt a contributor to my allergy suffering, but are pretty nonetheless).  Watching its seasonal transformations, the former would-be-biology-major in me can’t help but think of botany: the March rains that washed the inhibiting hormones from the tree’s growth tissues to signal that it was time for the eruption of flower buds, the pale, embryonic leaf shoots that now lie furled deep inside their own buds as they wait for their turn to emerge.

Spring, and thoughts like these, always remind me of one of my favorite poetry books of all time, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. The arc of The Wild Iris follows a garden and its grieving gardener through the cycle of the seasons, and I find its persona poems in the voices of various plants to be especially haunting.  Take, for example, this excerpt from the titular poem, which opens the book:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

Glück’s choices in crafting a voice for her iris seem to have been heavily informed by her knowledge of the plant’s seasonal life cycle: as perennials, irises die back at the end of each season and sprout again in the spring.  Death and resurrection, again and again. Like an aging Persephone, Glück’s iris speaks with the shadow of the underworld fixed upon its lips.  Its voice is dark and brittle, weary with the knowledge of its experience: for it, the earth is not a womb, but a grave; to break out is not a frantic exercise in escape, but rather, to pass temporarily from one world to the other, in the knowledge that at the end of its time of ecstatic flowering, it must return again to the darkness of the winter ground.

While today’s prompt doesn’t necessarily ask you to write in the voice of a plant as Glück does,  I hope it will challenge you to consider the ways in which the processes of growth we can observe in things around us (like plants) can serve as markers of seasonal rhythms in our own lives.

Prompt: Write a poem that documents the growth cycle of some form of vegetation (like a plant, a lichen, a mushroom) as a way to record, reflect upon, problematize, or otherwise engage with a seasonal change or development in the speaker’s life.

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: 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”

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.

Weekly Prompt: Directional Force

Crow in Flight (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about force lately (in the Newtonian sense) as I’ve been working on revising a poem that had become too static for its own good.  How, I’ve been asking myself, might one use a directional force (a push or a pull) as a central device by which to drive a poem’s internal motion (imagistically, rhythmically, and otherwise)?  It’s an interesting challenge, to allow the arc of one’s language (which is, ultimately, abstract) to be driven by the idea of a physical (concrete) force.  Cornelius Eady’s poem “Crows in a Strong Wind” provides some insight into how this may be done:

Off go the crows from the roof.
The crows can’t hold on.
They might as well
Be perched on an oil slick.

Such an awkward dance,
These gentlemen
In their spottled-black coats.
Such a tipsy dance,

The thrust of his lyric takes off (or is blown off) its perch as suddenly as the crows are blown from the roof, only to return again as both the speaker’s thoughts and the crows themselves attempt to recreate the scene that served as the poem’s genesis.  This pattern—of being blown off course, and then returning, only to be blown off, and to return again—creates a sense of disorientation that makes the poem feel dizzily, and wonderfully, surprising.  The force of the wind drives the poem forward and back, forward and back, just as it  disturbs the crows from their perch, resulting in a kind of sampling that causes the original image to be made new again and again.

Prompt: write a poem whose arc, and imagery, is driven by a single, physical motion (a push, a pull, a twist, a parabolic descent).

Weekly Prompt: Specificity

Four wild daisies. (Not just flowers).

This week in my intro comp class, my students read a chapter from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, in which she urges aspiring writers to use specific language in their descriptions, arguing that, just as a person deserves the dignity of being called by the name that is unique to them, an object, an idea, or whatever it is that becomes the subject of one’s writings, also deserves the dignity of specificity (77).

I like this idea—that to write specifically is not only to render a subject more vividly, but it is to render that subject with an ethical hand: truthfully, respectfully, with acknowledgment of its dignity.  There is much talk in the arts of how to create ethically, with genuine concern for the dignity and humanity of the subjects that we handle in our work.  I like the idea that to write ethically involves more than paying attention to the greater political implications of our words; that such concerns are extremely important, but that as writers, in order to render these themes well, we also have a responsibility to pay close scrutiny to the elements of craft—if we are not paying careful attention to the colors and tonalities of our words, to the very palette with which we wield our art, then we are not honoring the subjects of our writing, either.  How that attention to detail pans out, of course, will be very different in every case (there is, in my opinion, no monolithically “correct” definition of, or approach to, solid craft).  But the idea that the attention and respect which a writer pays to his or her subject will be conveyed in the detailed inflections of his or her work seems very wise to me, indeed.

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Specificity”

Weekly Prompt: Portrait of a Return

Fixings for hot pot: a family holiday tradition that characterized my last return to New Jersey.

The approach of the holiday season always makes my thoughts turn towards home—regardless of whether or not (and where) I’ll be traveling—and makes me revisit my relationship to the process of returning to its streets and idiosyncratic landmarks.  The buses and shuttles and planes and cars I’d take to get there.  The things I’d see and do when I did. Home is, to some degree, Philadelphia, where Mayor Nutter’s face greets me as I descend the airport escalator, and where I can lope off to Chinatown for the world’s best bao (K.C.’s) or a steaming bowl of broth swimming with fishballs and silky ho fun (Ting Wong).  But it is, more quintessentially, my parents’ quiet hometown in New Jersey, where suburbia swells out over the fences, becoming more pale and alien each time I blink, but where, in my family’s house, there’s always a kitchen light on and a steaming hot bowl of fresh chicken soup waiting for me whenever I return, suitcase in hand.

Today’s prompt is based on an exercise that Bruce Snider, one of my undergraduate mentors, used to use in his workshop classes.

Prompt: Think of a city, town, or other geographical location that you know intimately, and write its portrait, in the form of a poem that details a specific return to that place.

Weekly Prompt: Transportation

A bicyclist pauses at an intersection in New York City while a sea of yellow taxicabs moves around him.

I’ve always found that one of the occasions on which I am best able to write is when I’m traveling.  I don’t drive, and so whenever I need to go somewhere that is too far away to be reached by bike, I ride all sorts of buses, trains, planes, shuttles, trams, taxis, and other forms of mass transit in order to reach my destination.  There is something uniquely meditative about these trips: despite the fact that I am usually surrounded by—even crushed in against—other passengers, the motion and sound of the vehicle and the relative anonymity of being amidst a crowd of strangers provide me with excellent opportunities to listen, observe, and record.

In Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Aubade with a Thistle Bush Holding Six Songs,” the speaker engages with the sensory aspects of his experience on a train in order to contextualize a portrait of a fellow passenger:

A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.

As the poem progresses, we find that the train itself and the experience of traveling on it have become the primary device by which this portrait is rendered:

The rails below us were making comparisons
as if they were saying look at the thorn tree gone wild,
look at the gravel kicked on the ties.

I wondered about the hollow of the guitar and of the voice of the man.
It’s always like this on trains‹the burn of your ear
when a stranger speaks over the sun cutting through windows.

The speaker, who knows nothing about this man besides what he has heard and seen of him within the context of the train ride, finds that the sound of the train and the slant of the light through its windows merge into his vision of this stranger, until, by the end of the poem, the man is absorbed into the greater network of train trips and other journeys that form the speaker’s experience: he is, the speaker states, just one of many strangers “who’s asked me for an ear.”  Like so many piece of luggage, some of those people’s stories have been remembered by the speaker, while others’ have been “left at the station.”  Most, we imagine, have suffered the latter fate.  But the speaker remembers this particular man’s story because of the way that his memory of it is mediated by his own experience of the train ride.  What he recalls most vividly is not the content of the story itself, but the scene outside the window of the train as it was being told: the three birds that “blur by,” and the way that their flight fixed this particular stranger into the speaker’s memory, as if sticking his name “to a thistle.”

Prompt: Write a poem that uses the sensory experience of riding a particular form of transportation as a device by which to relate the story of a journey or trip that you’ve taken.