National Poetry Month: Thirty Poems in Thirty Days

In honor of National Poetry Month in April, the Poetry Society of Virginia held a poem-a-day writing challenge on social media. Each day, a word was designated as the inspiration for the day’s poem. Some of the words included “apple,” “news,” “mask,” and “underwear,” for example.

Sometimes, a word proved easy inspiration, and I would write a satisfactory poem before 9:00 AM. Other times, I would roll a word around in my mind until just before bed before any ideas emerged. Some days, I just gave in and wrote a poem for the sake of writing a poem, even though the result was, frankly, pretty crappy. It was still a poem, and I wouldn’t have written it otherwise, so that was a win of sorts.

The experience definitely got me thinking about a variety of topics I would not otherwise have given any thought to–and got me thinking about them in new, creative, deeper ways. Whether the writing was good or not, satisfying or not, I wrote something every single day, and that felt good.

Throughout the month, churning out even one piece of poetry every day became as routine, necessary, and satisfying as, well, using the bathroom! Just letting the poem out was a relief–and I hadn’t even known it was in there!

I’ve written thirty poems in thirty days. Here, in chronological order aside from the first and second poems (I think you’ll understand why) are some of my favorites. (If you’d like to read the 16 poems not included in this post, you can find them on my Instagram account.)

Day 8: Blue

“Sadie’s Song”

I don’t have music
to put the words to—
the sonorous howl
of my sweet Sadie Blue,
but this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
where have you gone?
You know I can’t stay here
without you for long.

“We’ve walked our last walk,
chewed our last bone—
do you think Mom and Dad
can bear this alone?”

I like to think,
and it seems like I know,
that Sadie saw Jack
just across the rainbow,
and this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
I see you again!
You can’t imagine how much
I missed you, best friend!

“Let’s hike every trail here
and squeak every toy—
make sure Mom and Dad know
all we feel now is joy.”

So I must return
to a life that is changed,
a whole universe
that’s all rearranged—
but I still sing Sadie’s song.

*After I wrote the poem above, I asked my uncle, a talented musician, to set it to original music. He did, and the poem transformed into a beautiful song, which I then used to make a little music video tribute to Jack and Sadie. Now, if only I could figure out how to share it…

 

Day 23: Dream

I’m always happy
when I wake
from a dream
about you.

But I’d be happier still
if you were still
here
beside me.

Best Nap

 

Day 2: Neighbor

Julie & Ed’s dogwood tree blooms both pink &
white
and Larry, our Vietnam War vet, runs each
morning with a stick in his hand.
Lee walks the streets in the quiet predawn,
and Mr. Yates sits on his Jazzy chair, shirtless
in his overalls, beside his voluptuous
Camilla bush, petals in the grass.
And me? Melody and I are the ones who walk
our dogs.
Fourteen years of shared time, shared space,
have made each new For Sale sign a
betrayal—
these stretches of street the only ribbon tying
us all together, unraveling, until one day
Nobody knows my dogs
or Melody
or Larry with his stick
and Julie & Ed’s dogwood blooms for
somebody new.

Day 3: Air

“Airborne”

An osprey catches
an updraft,
hovers above the highway bridge—
balanced between blue river, blue sky.

When I arrive
on my parents’ porch,
they do not come out.
I do not go in.
We do not hug.

We talk through the screen door, their faces
dim. I fight
the urge to lean in closer.

When I leave, some of their
terror follows me, heavy, weighted. And I think
of the osprey—
high above it all, unaware, unaffected, free.

Day 4: Playground

“Playground: Slide of Time”

There is one rule
on the playground. Everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb up the slide.

And all the best playgrounds are
in Michigan. My grandparents knew where—

The Rocket Playground
(I once got stuck at the top—that’s how I
learned I was afraid
of heights like my dad, who had to climb up
to carry me down).

The Castle Playground,
made all of wood with bridges and turrets
and secret, shady hiding places.

The Tire Playground,
where we played
Roll-the-Ball-to-the-Bat and 500
every summer.

Until one summer was the last summer
and we didn’t come back anymore, because
there is one rule everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb
up
the
slide.

Day 9: River

“James River Days”

(An Acrostic Poem)

Just yesterday it was winter,
And I ran along your banks,
My breath a thin cloud trailing behind me.
End of winter brought purple blooms,
Springing up along the trails,

Reaching above the green grasses for the
sun.
I stood on the bank, watched your swirling
waters beat between rocks like blood
through
Veins.
End of spring I will stretch across a sun-
warmed
Rock,

Drench myself in your watery womb
And emerge glowing, reborn—
Yes. Now, it is
Summer.

Day 12: Else

“Easter Morning: Turn to Something Else”

I was supposed
to do something

else today.

Be somewhere
else.

Eat something
else.

I had my own plans—
and a sense of entitlement to their
fruition.

But I recall the man
who turned

from the pool
to see Jesus—

and walked.

And I think of Mary,
turning

herself
to see Jesus—

and recognizing
her Master.

And I remember the time
I sat at Logan’s Steakhouse
watching half a dozen
flat screen TVs and two truckers
at the bar,
and then I turned

around—
and saw the sunset out the window behind
me,
the sky resplendent with red, violet, gold,
and I thought,
“How long has it been like this?”
And I heard,
“Forever, my child—
you just had to turn

and see something
Else.”

Day 13: Pretty

“Pretty on Paper”

I am pretty—
on paper:
tall, thin, blond.
To the untrained eye,
I belong on a runway,
in a magazine—
but professional perception knows better:
My eyes are brown, not blue;
there’s a strange asymmetry to my features;
I’m just a tad too tall to walk
a runway
(Can’t have you taller than the boy, you see).

When I was in my twenties, my sister (prettier
than I)
told me I just kept getting
prettier.

The trend has begun
to reverse,
but I have learned pretty
does not mean
perfect.

Day 15: Taxi

“Confessional on Wheels”

One Florida morning when I am 23
I find myself
confessing my fears from
the backseat of a Tallahassee taxi
to a driver who tells me
he’s also a preacher,
which is not why I’m confessing.
It’s just that at 23, I already know

strangers are the safest place for secrets.

He dispenses free advice
while the taximeter counts the number of
Hail Marys I will need to say
to atone or do penance
or whatever it’s called—
I am not Catholic
and neither is he
and back at my hotel
I tip for the company,
not the ride,
and watch as the yellow
confessional drives away with my secrets
inside,
moves on to
its preacher’s next parishioner.

Day 17: Language

“The Language of the Land”

This is the language of the land.

“Be still, breathe deep,”
whisper lilacs at the back porch.

This is the language of the land.

“Stop here, drink up,”
babbles the brook in the woods.

This is the language of the land.

“Stand firm, take root,”
sing the trees.

“Work hard, with purpose,”
buzz the bees.

“Rest up, feel me,”
begs the breeze.

This is the language of the land.

“Look up, reach out,”
beckons blue sky, white clouds, warm sun.

“Be calm, sleep well,”
soothe stars and moon when day is done.

This is the language of the land.

 

Day 18: Red

“Freddy Red”

When I met Freddy Red one June night,
I learned it was real—love at first sight.
Because with just one glance I knew:
We belonged together, we two.

Shiny red with six-speed turbo,
my little car could really go.
Key West, Detroit, Philadelphia, DC—
all places Freddy Red took me.

I paid Red off one day in May,
just ahead of our five-year anniversary.
I promised to drive her right into the
ground,
but my little car was accident-bound.

I sat on the median, head in my hands,
looking at all the deployed air bags.
I cried to a witness, “I love Freddy Red!”
He said, “That car is why you’re not
dead.”

 

Day 21: Over

This word actually resulted in two poems, both of which are below.

“When this is over”

When this is over
I will miss
sleeping until 7:30.
I will miss working from
my couch,
my back deck,
my fire pit.
I will miss
sweatpants and hoodies and Crocs
all day.
I will miss takeout
“because it’s just easier.”

When this is over
I will
wear a little makeup again.
(Maybe.)
I will go to a restaurant—
and sit down inside,
or maybe on the patio.
I will go shopping,
get a haircut,
get a tattoo
(a heron),
take a road trip,
resume my monthly massages.

But right now
I wonder—
what will we remember,
when this is over?
What will life be like,
when this is over?
What will we have learned,
when this is over?

“It’s not over, not really”

I always knew
the two of you
were my line
between then and now.

Then we walked together.
Now there is only
the joy of
having existed
together
for a while,
having shared some
of the same space,
at some
of the same time.

But it’s not over,
not really.
Only the nature
of our relationship
has changed.

I know you are here,
your presence felt

like a shadow that
sweeps across the ceiling,
its source unknown.

But I know.

Each prism-cast rainbow
Each sign
Each impulse to be kind

It’s you.

 

Day 29: April

“April”

April spirited Jack away on birdsong and lilac breath
Sent my grandmother to sleep one night and
didn’t wake her in the morning
Threw hail stones that
beheaded the fragrant lilacs and amputated
the branches of the struggling magnolia
out front—

and followed it all with a rainbow.

Gifted me with a robin’s nest
and a pair of besotted cardinals
and little bunnies in the backyard—

As if to say
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
The whole universe loves you—

In its season.

Day 30: May

“May I?”

We have one foot in April now,
the other foot in May,
toes stretching out
to test the waters of an unfamiliar bay.

May I get a haircut?
May I get tattooed?
Tell me, are these things
yet safe enough to do?

May I hug my mother?
May I hug my dad?
Can I go out for ice cream
without feeling really bad?

Yes, wade in the water;
it’s safe enough to test.
Go on and dip a toe in—
just don’t get soaking wet.

 

In closing, I would like to provide an addendum to one of my favorite lines written during this writing challenge: “Strangers are the safest place for secrets.” Addendum: Unless you have dogs.

Poetry Littles
Nacho and Soda snuggle on the couch, seemingly sharing a secret.

Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Writing Contests: Part 2, Best Practices

IMG-2774
This spring, I was privileged to attend a workshop led by Dana Isokawa of Poets & Writers Magazine in Richmond, Virginia, at St. John’s Church (pictured above). Edgar Allan Poe’s mother is buried in the churchyard.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece about what to consider when you prepare to submit your writing to literary magazines and/or writing contests. Now, let’s focus on considerations you should make depending on the type of writing you do.

Rules of Thumb

Before we break down what to do when submitting poetry versus prose, there are some general rules of thumb to follow for any genre. The following tips come to you from Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop she led in Richmond. She provided some really helpful advice.

  • Research your opportunities. Figure out what publications or contests are out there, and which might be the best fit for your work. After you’ve done that, tier your top choices and start high! When you applied to college, you likely applied to a dream school or a reach school, as well as several backup schools. When you submit your writing, you can use the same principle. First, submit to your absolute top choice contest or publication, but have some second and third choices in your back pocket.
  • Keep track of your submissions. Some publications allow simultaneous submissions. Some don’t. Even those who do will likely request that you let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. For these reasons, and others, it’s important to keep records of where you’ve sent your work, and whether or not it was accepted.
  • Decide on a budget for each piece. What are you willing to spend on submissions in total, and on each individual piece?
  • Compose a cover letter. Keep it short, and be specific to each publication or contest. If you’re submitting to a journal or magazine, you will also want to devote one or two sentences to explaining why your work is a good fit for the magazine.

Submitting Poetry

For most journals or contests, select three to five poems of various tones, lengths, and topics. Some journals and contests require a specific number of submissions, or cap the number of submission you may send, so be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully.

IMG-2770
My workspace as we workshopped a poem for submission to a contest or publication

When you submit a batch of poetry, think of it as a whole, and organize your submission wisely, with your best work at the beginning. Think of your first poem as the hook that will get the reader’s attention, and entice her to read more.

Submitting Prose

Short Stories

Before submitting a short story to a contest or publication, make sure it features a strong beginning, or hook. A strong start is absolutely critical, as you’ll need to get and keep your reader’s attention. After all, she likely has a stack of other stories waiting for her time and focus.  Ms. Isokawa suggests two effective ways to craft a strong start: Begin with action, or write with really strong voice.

Novel Excerpts

When you submit a novel excerpt, your chosen piece should be able to stand alone. A flashback or decision scene might work well. You can also consider adapting an excerpt of your larger work by taking out references to parts the reader won’t get to read.

Upon Acceptance

Should you be fortunate enough to find a publication home for your work or for your work to be honored with an award, be sure to thank the editors, and share the journal, publication, or contest on social media. They’re helping promote you; help promote them.

Upon Rejection

If your work is not accepted, you might still be lucky enough to get a rejection with feedback. If an editor is kind enough to provide any feedback at all, say thank you–don’t ask for more feedback.

If you ever resubmit to a publication that has previously rejected but offered feedback on your work, be sure to mention their note with your new or revised submission.

Don’t allow rejection to discourage you. Try again. Even the most celebrated writers have dealt with rejection, and many still do. To help combat the temptation to give up, always have a piece of writing “in waiting” or “on deck,” one you can send out to contests and publications as soon as its predecessor gets rejected.

 

 

 

Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

Poe’s “The Raven” and the Importance of Poetic Devices

raven-2
While I don’t  have a “pallid bust of Pallas” just above my classroom door on which a raven could perch, I do have a ceiling-mounted projector, and my own raven quite effectively presides over the classroom from there. Side note: my students are always delighted to learn the Baltimore Ravens are named after Poe’s poem.

With Halloween less than a week away, my students and I are delving into Gothic literature with the likes of Poe, Faulkner, and Gilman. One of the Gothic pieces we read is Poe’s familiar poem, “The Raven.” Typically, my students are enthusiastic about the Gothic unit in general, and, as poetry goes, they like “The Raven.” Because they are already predisposed to enjoy this poem, I use it to illustrate the importance and purpose of poetic devices–especially since one question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course, I could answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but they don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it” by teaching what many of the various poetic devices are, and then stripping the poem bare of them.

One question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course I can answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but teenaged students don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it,” by stripping the poem bare of all its poetry.

The literary devices we cover include alliteration, allusion, assonance, consonance,

raven-poe-bust
In the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond, Virginia, one can see this bust of dark romantic, Edgar Allan Poe.

metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, imagery, and personification, just to name a few. After I provide definitions and examples of each of these, we listen to a reading of “The Raven” by Christopher Walken, and I instruct students to follow along on their own copy, in the margin labeling any poetic devices they notice.

 

Once Mr. Walken has finished his  reading of the poem, the students and I go through each stanza, labeling the rhyme scheme, drawing boxes around all internal rhymes, and pointing out all the poetic devices we labeled as we listened.

Paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away. A paraphrase does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but the language is stilted and artless without the poetic devices.

The next step in this lesson is to assign students to small groups, and assign each group three to five stanzas of the poem to paraphrase. This paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away.

raven-courtyard
Some couples exchange their vows in the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond. Here, it is set up for an April wedding.

Take the stanza below, for example. It includes internal rhyme (denser and censer; lent thee, sent thee, and nepenthe), alliteration (Swung and Seraphim; foot-falls and floor; tufted and tinkled), consonance (foot-fall, tinkled, tufted, and floor), and imagery (we can imagine the scent of perfumed air and the jingling sound of little angel feet scampering across the floor).

 

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

`Wretch,’ I cried, `thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he has sent thee

Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

A paraphrase of this stanza does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but observe how much more stilted and artless the stanza becomes:

Then I felt like the atmosphere changed; it was scented

as if angels walked across the room with perfume or incense.

‘Wretch,’ I yelled, ‘some master or demon sent you

Rest – rest and relief from my memories of Lenore!

Drink this merciful relief, and forget dead Lenore!’

The raven said, ‘Nevermore.’

After all groups have finished paraphrasing their assigned stanzas, we read the paraphrased versions aloud, in the order in which they appear in the poem, to get a complete sense of just exactly what poetic devices do for a poem.

From there, we go on to discuss the symbolism of the raven, as well as to examine the Gothic elements used in the poem, such as suspense, the dark side of humanity, etc.

In addition, I always offer extra credit in conjunction with this unit. The assignment requires students who opt to participate to visit the Poe Museum in Richmond and write a one-page, double-spaced paper about the experience.