Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Collect Words

winter garden

I'm not going to reveal that to you, she said.

My nine-year-old could just have easily replied, I'm not going to *tell* you. But somehow she's become a collector of words, and she isn't shy about using them.

In a marvelous little book called Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge encourages us to create 'wordpools', collections of words we find here and there, to help 'free us to follow the words and write poems.' This is apt advice not only for the would-be poet but for the writer in general.

Words, after all, are like faces... they look you in the eye or avoid your gaze, smile or frown, raise eyebrows in surprise or blink back tears. They are distinct, arresting, memorable, except when we use the same ones over and over. Not that we can't tell a good story using common words (and sometimes too many unique words are distracting). But consider the difference between...

sit, perch, settle, sprawl


see, observe, spy, peek, glimpse, view, squint


red, crimson, vermilion, scarlet, cranberry

This week I invite you to begin a word pool. On your fridge, in a box with note cards, in a journal or even on the sidebar of your blog. Collect words from conversations, the dictionary, street signs; collect words for their sounds, even if they are words you coin (swizzle, swazzle, swittle). If you're feeling adventurous, you might stir those words into a poem or vignette that begins, middles or ends with the phrase 'I am' (choose a sound, a song, an animal, a number, a food, a tree, a piece of furniture, whatever, says Wooldridge) and see what your words reveal.


I am fizzle
fazzle pizazz,
snap crackle...
slide your hand
past my red belt
take me by the
ribbed neck
set teeth on edge
flick fluted tin
and, pop!

Photo by Gail Nadeau. Used with permission.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

The Gift

Gift of Stones

Last week, Ann Voskamp graciously let me tell a story on her blog, about a wrinkled shirt and an unexpected gift... Gifts in Brokenness. I've always been sort of a 'gifts' person, whether you give me a little note of love, a wildflower to put on the counter, or a great book of poetry like Wendell Berry's Given: Poems. (Now there's something to consider... in what sense is a poem 'given'?)

Anyhow, this is partly why I'm excited that High Calling Blogs is doing a book club on The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage), by Lewis Hyde.

I've already read a few chapters and am fascinated by the nature of gifts in peacemaking, relationship building and community nurturing. For the High Calling's invitation to read, check out Sam's Let's Read: The Gift.

And even if you choose not to read, I hope you'll pop in to the discussion to listen or contribute from time to time. Let that be your little gift to me.

Jennifer's Please Include Me
Ann's Melinda? Expanding Grace

Stones from my Stepmother, photo by L.L. Barkat.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Losing Face on Facebook

Fire-Dance Mask

It began small. One comment on The Wall. Two teens, starting something, the way teens are apt to do. In 'real life', something like this stays relatively contained. Five kids find out, maybe ten. In a few days it blows over.

Not on Facebook. Within hours, the comments were flying. Not just between the two original combatants but, when a friend heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend... well, the whole school got involved and one teen who had been successful, popular, is now devastated. Hundreds, literally hundreds of kids know the story and it isn't blowing over. It's viral all right, in the worst sense of the word.

When I heard about this, from the child's distressed mother, I felt sad. Her child may just suffer for the remainder of a school career. Oddly, I also thought that this child's experience is a vital piece of the social media picture. Who knew it could happen until it did, and so we learn a little bit more about how (or how not) to navigate this cyberworld. Hopefully, a company like Facebook (who the mother contacted), will also learn a little bit more about what still needs to happen at the level of functionality to reduce the frequency of such incidents (I'm talking about giving users maximum control and flexibility in how 'friends' are sorted, categorized, etc., to mirror the way we create hierarchies of intimacy and boundary in 'real life'.)

Since it is poetry Thursday (Friday :), I thought to craft a Facebook poem. Because, for me, poetry sometimes speaks best in those ambiguous places the world is still struggling to understand...

"Morning After"

It started out innocent
enough. What did he know?
I felt so round and easy

in his palm, cool and brittle.
I must have seemed hard
boiled, ready to roll onto

The Wall. Anyway, he pulled
the corners of my mouth
into a smirk, then tossed

me up top to taunt the
tall guy who likes to joust
and flirt with ladies in

waiting. Everyone was there
when it happened, all the
kings horses (you know

how it goes) and all the
kings men, dashed me
to pieces again and again,

and I ask you, where does
it end? Even now some
dark-haired woman has

carted me to her blog
and is sorting, poking
through yolk and shell

to see what she might
leverage into a poem that
might be read in Guam.

Mask created by Sara and Sonia. Photo by L.L. Barkat.

High Calling Blogs Poetry as Spiritual Practice
nAncY’s mask poem
Marcus’s Bird Watching
Monica’s Paper
Laura’s Glass
Papa Poet's Progressive Lens
Brian’s Mask
Stacy’s The Cave
Blue’s Swan Song
Emily’s trying it out
Lynne’s Moon Speaks
Yvette’s Master’s Table
Claire's Reflections on Colour
Ted's Silence
Jennie's Standing
Sara's "Cello" and "Piano"
Emily's Scarlet Seeker
Jennifer's Ideal
Deb's Cuff of Thorns
Cheri's Captured
Milton's sping planting
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Some Writing is Like Weight-Lifting

Berry and DVDS


I love that word. And I love when it happens to me.

The other day I ordered a book from the library, but it turned out to be a 6-DVD series on writing that was the exact resource I would have ordered for my daughter, had I known. Lately, she's been filling notebook after notebook with stories and poems, and she has a lot of questions that one writer alone (me) can't really answer.

Enter the DVD series: published writers, fiction and non-fiction, talk about everything from how we word-people get inspired, to dealing with character development, writer's block and rejection. (Since these series are EXPENSIVE, you'd want to get it from the library; it's called Writer's Workshop: Fiction and Non-Fiction and is put out by Films for the Humanities & Sciences I didn't see it on-line, so maybe it's no longer available for sale, but perhaps in the stacks one could find it).

My daughter has begun watching the series and appreciates the various perspectives. Some writers don't believe writer's block is real, for instance (and it is better for her to hear that from someone else, since I already tried the delicate advice, JUST WRITE!). Some of the writers think ahead about the market and others say they just write for themselves. Almost all of them agree that the best way to be a good writer is to first be a good reader.

What struck me, in listening to these people talk about how to write and in hearing them read their own words, was how many good writing skills can be practiced by reading and writing poetry. No one was saying that outright, but they talked about the need to focus on details, encouraged us to learn language rhythms and slow ourselves down when experiencing texts in order to feel the impact of words, and discussed the need to play around with and free one's voice. Poetry is the ideal context in which to hone these skills. Think about it. Great writers like Wendell Berry and Mary Karr don't just write essays; they write poetry too.

The problem is that too many of us think poetry is for lovers, kids, English-class students, or high-minded people; we don't realize that reading and writing poetry is a form of writer's weight lifting. It challenges our word muscles, pokes at our weak spots and dares us to strengthen them in a way that meandering prose opportunities do not. Once, a friend of mine (who has written 36 books) said the best way to practice writing is to write 'short'. We could do that by writing ad blurbs (I served some time that way), or we could really flex our muscles and start lifting words into poems.

So why not take Laura's challenge, maybe win a free book while you're at it, and get those writer's abs in shape?

Berry Book and DVDS photo by L.L. Barkat.

Fun feature of the basic me at Andrea's place
Check out this great little new blog, Children of Eve.
Book Giveaway: Stone Crossings, at Holy Experience

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Speaking as a Teacup

Roses Teacup

Tomorrow I'll talk about 'voice' in poetry at High Calling Blogs and invite us to try out 'mask' for next week's poetry prompt; that just means taking on the voice of someone or something other than yourself. Think of it as a small exercise in fiction writing, taking on a character...


I remember traveling
in his suitcase, white athletic
socks stuffed in my belly to keep
me from breaking, rocking 'midst
clouds, and your hand's first
touch bringing me to birth
on that wooden table,
and your lips.

Teacup photo by L.L. Barkat.

Laura Boggess is giving away a brand new copy of the Norton Anthology's The Making of a Poem. Run on over.

High Calling Blogs RAP: Coming Home to Voice
Sarah's And I tiptoe...
Yvette’s Daughters
Marcus’s Mrs. Moss Dances
Monica’s Drumbeats Feel Like Home
Cindy’s Put Me in, Coach
Sonia’s Moon Talk
Jim’s Silent and Afraid
Laure's Loud with Silence
Claire's Mosaic
GoodWord's Form Follows Function
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Divorce and Kids: What's the Real Deal?

This weekend, I finally put Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce in the library returns bag that sits in my foyer. Because I've been using it as a resource for writing God in the Yard, I renewed it until I could renew it no more and now I owe a lot of fines on it. (I know, I could have bought the book and foregone the trouble, but this is my way of supporting my local library.)

What to do with a book like this? Well, I'm not sure. Even in my own handling of the material as background for the personal side of my book, I find myself in a quandary. I have no interest in criticizing anyone for divorce (least of all my own parents), yet it's an issue that has deep implications.

And maybe that's the answer for what to do with a book like this. We can use it to understand ourselves (if our parents divorced when we were young), our children (if we are already divorced or considering divorce), our friends (if they are contemplating or living through divorce). It's just good to know how things really are, even if it won't completely change our circumstances.

As the book title promises, we learn about the inner lives of children of divorce. This alone makes the book worth a read. But we also learn things like most marriages that end in divorce these days— two-thirds of them— are low-conflict, which means there is not prevailing violence but mostly prevailing bickering and general unhappiness. Interestingly, Marquardt notes...

For years the most-asked question about children of divorce was this: should unhappily married parents get divorced or stay put for the sake of the children? This is no longer the right question. For one thing, a marriage that is unhappy right now might not be unhappy a few years later. For another, divorce is not a sure remedy for unhappiness. (One study showed...that only a minority of people who are unhappy in their marriages today still feel that way even five years later.)

Also interesting, kids don't seem to care if their parents bicker and are unhappy. Well, they care at one level. But the security of seeing mom and dad together day after day still trumps their concerns and tensions. (I tell you, this made me feel better about those arguments we seem to get in every Sunday morning in an effort to get out the door on time!)

Anyway, a good read, if one could call such a book a good read. For me personally, it explained a lot of things.

Bend to Beginnings

Between Two Worlds photo by L.L. Barkat.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lilac Villanelle (Or I Killed Two Birds)


I caught sight of the lilacs outside my window, new-watered by the rain. And I thought to write the moment down. Fun, I thought, if I could capture both of the challenges of this week— a villanelle and I look at you, as if for the first time...

This is what drifted in on the breeze.

'At the Window'

I look at you, as if
for the first time, purpled
against the fading gift

of day. I gingerly lift
the glass, decades-rippled
and I look at you, as if

these years had not a rift
between you and me created
against the fading gift

of fragrance, lilac shrift
upon the wind unstated
and I look at you, as if

for the first time adrift
on the wind, unrelated,
and I look at you as if
against a fading gift.

(Somehow my wires got crossed and I had the words 'thrift' and 'shrift' mixed up. I sensed this and looked up the word 'shrift.' It wasn't a word I would have chosen, considering the initial direction I had for the poem. But I accepted it as a gift and used it. The word means 'confession to a priest.')

Lilacs Near the Window photo, by L.L. Barkat.

High Calling Blogs RAP: Bend to Beginnings. Includes a new poetry writing prompt.
Monica’s Her Hands
Yvette’s Through You
Jim's First Sight
Deb's Unearthly Humus
Jennifer's Words in the Wind
LL's A Song of Sudan
LL's daughter's The Garden Still
Laure's And We Can Remember
Erica's Link in the Golden Chain
nAncY's Daydream
Joelle's Begin Again
Brian's Titles into Poems
Laura's The Pen
Marcus's A Noiseless Patient Zombie
LL's Sides, at Catapult Magazine
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Monday, May 04, 2009

A Golden Chain: Writing in Form


Last week, over at High Calling Blogs, I went on about poetry and elitism— saying (are you surprised?) that we need more room in this world for word celebration. In response, Megan Willome dropped a marvelous poem in the comment box, about how teachers can kill our love of poetry with too much emphasis on form. This reminded me of a T.S. Eliot class I took at NYU; I thought I'd never recover from the relentless focus on every sound, symbol, line break and pattern.

But if you know anything about me, you understand that I love to quibble with myself. So even though I offered the prompt 'I look at you, as if for the first time...' (see the HCB post for more details), I didn't take myself up on it. Instead, I decided to confront my distaste for writing in form and prove that it doesn't have to derail beauty or mercilessly constrain a poet.

Using The Making of a Poem, I read about a form called the 'villanelle.' I thought it was interesting that the authors said this form prevents the telling of a story, because of the way it uses repetition (notice how line 1 is repeated at the end of every other stanza and line 3 is also repeated and then both are repeated as a pair at the end of the poem).

Also, there's a rhyming pattern that switches back and forth. Poets call that aba. Don't worry about it. Just be a detective and find the rhymes yourself; it's more fun that way. Notice that there are 5 stanzas of 3 lines and the 6th has 4 lines. Who comes up with this stuff? Well, apparently Italian farmers had a lot on their minds when they made up songs in the fields, because that is how the villanelle was born.

Here's my go at one, dedicated to a friend who is currently traveling in Sudan.

'A Song of Sudan'

You travel past equator 'til
the sand whips over day
and night descends quite still.

Cloth veils the face of women ill
and well (you cannot say);
you travel past equator 'til

the Nile snakes its shrill
regret of war, while battle is at bay
and night descends quite still.

By morning, sun begins to stalk and fill
the cracks of every hiding place
you travel past equator 'til

deep griefs unravel will
to rebuild shattered clay
and night descends quite still.

An ibis eyes you, dips her beak to kill
some silver flash like bullet play
you travel past equator 'til
the night descends quite still.

(This poem was later published in InsideOut: Poems, International Arts Movement, 2009.)

Gustav Klimt's Lady Poetry, photo by J Barkat. Used with permission.

LL's daughter's The Garden Still, two villanelles and a sestina
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