The Cabbage of Illumination


Chicken tetherball (GIF)

Chickens peck at the cool, fresh globe
stabbed by an eyescrew, hung by a chain,

heads bobbing with each playful bite
as they bat the food-toy one to the next,

back and forth, back and forth, and
I stand, a child in the museum foyer,

hypnotized watching a hundred-pound ball
knock down pegs as it swings in easy

rotation—or rather, as its path stays fixed
and the earth spins beneath—

back and forth, back and forth, and
every few minutes, the sound—click—

of Foucault’s proof. Today I muse
Did the French devise tetherball too?

I recently took a (free) poetry on Coursera, Sharpened Visions, taught by Douglas Kearney from the MFA program at the California Institute of Arts. It was a 6-week class that covered the basics of writing poetry and offered several assignments for practice. (If you’re interested, the next round starts September 12, 2016.)

As a fairly experienced poet, I found the course a good refresher, and I even took away a few new terms (synecdoche, metonymy). The sample poems studied were fresher than one often finds in an introductory level poetry class, which offered a chance to meet some new voices. I’d also note the instructor has an amusing (to me) sense of humor and the production quality of the videos is high relative to other online courses I’ve taken.

Week 2 of the class focused on image (things you can literally touch/taste/see/hear/smell) and abstraction (things for which we have symbols, e.g., a heart for love). One of the fun assignments was to make up a title in the format “The [Concrete noun] of [Abstract noun],” then write that poem.

Thus, I present “The Cabbage of Illumination.”

Day 17 #NPM15 – Wonderful treats for little wonders everywhere

Want to make someone giggle on command?
I had a huge crush on gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

Vinyl records are definitely worth celebrating.
Their field of vision wraps nearly all the way around their head!

The train was still going full speed when their conversation became louder.
If this pic doesn’t scream, we don’t know what does.

When even Daleks think you’re a monster, you might have a problem.
When did we become a therapy society?

Why did the chicken cross the road?
#dragonslovetacos (at least 48 grams recommended daily).

Yes, there is an American bias in the Hugo awards.
Technique tip: Use kitchen scissors to easily cut.

I never thought I’d write a science poem.
Fantastic! Thank you so much for your hard work today!

I’m doing things and stuff in the real world over the weekend.
Supervillains have no respect for anyone’s schedule.

I warned you this prompt was a little strange.


Today’s prompt came from Write a “social media”-style poem. Namecheck all of your friends. Quote from their texts, tweets, FB status updates, twitter accounts, and blogposts, and the back of the cereal box on your breakfast table.

Well, I quoted from Twitter and blog posts and the back of the cereal box on my breakfast table. Skipped the namechecking though. (Let me know if you really WANT to be namechecked.)

Bonus points if you can name the cereal…

Day 5 #NPM15 – I heard a fly buzz

Today I decided to follow a prompt from In short, take an Emily Dickinson poem, remove all her linebreaks and punctuation (especially those fun dashes) so you just have a paragraph of prose. Then reline it, feeling free to add, modify, or delete words.

Here’s my version of her “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.”

I heard a fly buzz when I died.
The stillness in the room was like the still-
ness in the air between the heaves of storm.
The eyes around had wrung themselves dry,
and breaths were gathering firm for that last
onset when the King be witnessed in the room.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
what portion of me be assignable,
and then it was there, interposed—a fly
with blue uncertain stumbling buzz
between the light and me—
and then the windows failed—

and then I could not see to see.


And the original

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –


I’m not any sort of Dickinson expert and wasn’t particularly familiar with this poem, so for me it was quite easy to reline it into something that felt more modern (i.e., I wasn’t “stuck” in any familiarity with the original). It was interesting to see where I used a couple of dashes in the same place Dickinson had. Some people get distracted by her dashes; I get distracted by so much capitalization as well, so I had to get rid of that.

All in all, the relining of the poem allowed me to stop reading it in such a sing-songy way. As a result, Dickinson’s original words (with one minor adjustment) struck me as remarkably contemporary.

Song (after Christina Rossetti)

Well, two songs actually. The result of a poetry exercise from In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit (see my Goodreads list at left for details). Write a response to Christina Rossetti‘s “Song,” giving different instructions to your beloved.

Here’s the original:


When I am dead, my dearest,

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.


I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget.


Here’s my take in a traditional rhyme-y form:


When I am dead, my dearest,

Sleep on my side of the bed.

Hang on to my clothes and scribbles,

But do not be misled.


I won’t be coming back to you;

As much as it might seem

Like breath again is possible,

The past is now a dream.


Move forward, dearest, please, I say,

Accept that I am gone;

While you still stand in sunlight,

My curtains have been drawn.



And my more contemporary version:


When I am dead, my dearest,

sleep on my side of the bed.

Throw away my toothbrush and underwear and

stacks of spiral notebooks full of my daily scribbling—

you won’t be able to read them away.

But keep my special ballpoint pen;

it still writes good.


Oh, I’m not sure how successful I was with this exercise, but I haven’t written a poem for a while, so it felt good. And the contemporary one made me smile. 🙂


Red robin, green zebra, and summertime gold

rain from the garden.  The counter

is drenched. They keep

pouring in to join,

down in the freezer,

all manner of sauces and soups put up

over summer to winter us through,

me and my ‘mater man.


For Margo Roby’s Tuesday Tryouts, I tried a sentence acrostic.  With apologies to Peter Gabriel. 🙂

7 Books to Inspire the Writing of Poetry

After discussing writing prompts and exercises with a friend the other day, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the books I’ve used over the years. With any of these, you have to jump in and try the exercises, even if they don’t necessarily appeal to you. Not everything will work out, but you might find some surprises. And if nothing else, you continue to prime your creativity for “the real thing.”


The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron – A 12-week course to get you more in touch with your own creativity, whether it’s writing poetry, painting, or something else. You can sometimes find facilitated classes based on this book; I’ve not taken one, but from people who have, I understand it is quite a meaningful and enlightening group experience. I found the book itself to be revelatory for me.

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron – Short chapters with exercises that are not necessarily designed to give you a prompt, but to help you tap into ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that may lead to something. Great book if you want to write but need some encouragement.

The Practice of Poetry: Writing exercises from poets who teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell – Exercises from well-known writers such as Rita Dove and Stephen Dunn (as well as poets I’ve never heard of) with some insight about why they use these exercises in their teaching. This is one of my favorites.

Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge – Reflections on poetry along with suggestions for practice.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse by Mary Oliver – An excellent guide to understanding the formality of poetry: feet, scansion, iambs—it’s all there for the learning.

Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within by Kim Addonizio – Examples of poetry, what makes it work, ways to think about it, and suggestions for practice.

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit – I’m in the middle of this book right now. The author provides detailed analysis of sample poems and why they work or don’t, in some cases going through iterations to show how a poem can be improved. Quite a lot of ideas to generate your own poems.


What other books do you suggest to inspire the writing of poetry?

Curious Pain

Hazelnut shriveled

Rattling faintly in the shell

Hull with little meat


Writing exercise (from Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius, p. 148-155):  What is your “pain-body”—that negative field that feeds on and tries to increase your pain? Meditate for a few minutes to give that pain-body a physical form. Draw the image. Then write a poem. If you’re up for it, try a pantoum. (I was only up for a haiku this evening.)

That’s it in a nutshell. (Har-har.)

American Sentences

A writing exercise (from Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius): Instead of writing a haiku (5-7-5 syllables), write a 17-syllable “American sentence” à la Allen Ginsberg. One of his (you can Google more):

Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.

This is a great warm-up exercise and worth the attempt. It can be quite challenging to come up with 17 syllables that say something pithy, meaningful, melodic, compelling, vivid.

My three best attempts (of many) this evening…

We worry so much what others think, we forget others worry, too.

Two octogenarians squabble over chicken and apple pie.

The orchid spray frames my penholder, a delicate shield from ink thieves.

Even if your American Sentence isn’t of Ginsbergian genius (as mine clearly are not), it may springboard you to something else. An American Sentence I wrote a couple weeks ago turned into what I consider a quite nice poem a few days later. I might need to write these more often…


When I don’t know what to write I turn to poetry exercises. A defined poetic form such as ­a ghazal or pantoum or sonnet, a set of random words required to be used, or a series of instructions about simile, meter, number of words, etc. I tend to use writing books to find exercises, but if you don’t have one to hand, you can simply make up your own constraints.

I think I am drawn to writing exercises for the same reason I am drawn to ballet. The rules exist to give shape and form, and they are not to be ignored or avoided; but they are meant to be transcended. Follow the rules, but go beyond the rules. Make the rules invisible.

Most audience members don’t know all the rules of ballet—they just know when it looks good, great or amazing. Only the most sophisticated realize that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are not just positions for practice at the barre—they are required positions for the ballerina’s feet to pass through between each particular step. They are some of the constraints within which the dancers must work. When they transcend those constraints, they soar.

One risk of doing a writing exercise is that you may not get anything “good.” But even when that occurs, a “good” idea frequently manifests later as a result of the exercise.

And occasionally you find an exercise leads you to something amazing and unexpected. Occasionally you achieve transcendence and you, too, soar.