January 28, 2013

Blind Pig: Distilling the Language

Lorine Niedecker called making poems "condensery."  It's true; poems must be distilled.  The language is compressed, and poets use line breaks and enjambment in order to create ambiguity and add meaning.  My mother was born right before Prohibition.  Many people built their own stills, called Blind Pigs, and distilled their own liquor. It was illegal, and the results uneven, but it happened.  The image of a still comes to mind when I think about the process of turning language into poems. One must take lessons in compression.

January 23, 2013

Dancing with the Past

Wonderful poets draw from their own personal history as well as their community or nation's history: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Wislawa Szymborska, Yannis Ritsos, Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo. 

All writers have these wells of experience.  For many writers who attend writing workshops, the question emerges about how to develop raw material -- a writing exercise, journal entry, or a memory -- into an art.  How do you take a memory and turn it into a poem or a story?

Things, people, places are the basic building blocks of all writing. These quickly focus the writer; a story emerges; the subject arrives. As a teacher, I ask students who are starting a new piece of writing to start from a person, place or thing.

January 9, 2013

Develop Your Sources

Where do you get material?  Each person, no matter what, has rich sources in the surroundings: the places, people and things. I encourage poets to spend time developing their sources by researching personal history, the history of the place you grew up and live, and the connected events and people. The web offers some useful (and free) tools like Scoop It or Storify. These allow you to collect your links, youtube videos, images, and articles in one place. Here is the collection of materials I've found for my new manuscript. Some of the material directly inspires creative work. I have written poems based on photographs or letters. I've used techniques like persona poems, lists, prayers, songs, stories with this material. It provides me with background and understanding for the work.


This serves as a map to places and people. I also use other more personal sources, letters and photographs in the family archive, but this widens my material and enriches the personal stories.

Make your own map and develop your own historical archive. It will reward you with images.

January 8, 2013

Learn to Use Figurative Language

Work with Images

The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes can be a valuable text for poets.  I’ve gathered some insights from this excellent resource and present them here:

The painter Degas said he had many ideas for poems but couldn’t manage to say what he wanted. His friend, Mallarme, replied, “My dear Degas, one does not make poetry with ideas but with words.”  

There are two kinds of writing: literal and figurative. A literal image remakes something in words; it works as a photograph. A figurative image (also called a trope) will:

  • expand the sensory perception beyond the literal meaning
  • give pleasure or surprise to the imagination
  • impart vigor by the inclusion of another active sensory detail
  • intensify the deeper intention in the poem by adding the new dimension of the figurative image

Simile - a comparison that uses the word as or like

Silken Tent
by Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Metaphor -  “this is that” -- it transfers the meaning of one thing to another thing

754/   My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun --
Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun --
In Corners -- till a Day
The Owner passed -- identified --
And carried Me away --

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods --
And now We hunt the Doe --
And every time I speak for Him --
The Mountains straight reply --

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow --
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through --

And when at Night -- Our good Day done --
I guard My Master's Head --
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow -- to have shared --

To foe of His -- I'm deadly foe --
None stir the second time --
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye --
Or an emphatic Thumb --

Though I than He -- may longer live
He longer must -- than I --
For I have but the power to kill,
Without -- the power to die --

Besides simile and metaphor, a poet can employ other tropes or techniques:  

Synesthesia : one sense expressed in the terms of another

A crinkled paper makes a brilliant sound (Wallace Stevens)
And the Sabbath rang slowly/ In the pebbles of the holy streams (Dylan Thomas)

I stayed overnight at a motel by the E3./In my room a smell I'd felt before (Tomas Tranströmer)
Use of associations

  • Metonymy: an identifying emblem is substituted for the whole name, ex: a red, for communist; old salt, for sailor;
           Her voice is full of money.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • Synecdoche:  a piece of part of the whole represents the whole (keeps to itself for the representing image) ex: redneck

Personification- gives human qualities to a thing or to something not human

Figurative language greatly enhances the power of a poem.  

Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poetry. c2001. Harcourt Books. Florida.

Buy this book at your local bookstore or from Amazon.com -- http://amzn.to/UGYkZ5

January 2, 2013

In Poetry: Migrations Reading at the MAC Gallery in Grand Rapids

In Poetry
Sheila Packa

to write is an act of courage
to overcome
doubt, teasing, distraction
to claim solitude
to be awake
and give your body to
both the past and the present
to see, to hear, to touch
to taste, to smell
to write is to become empty
cross the threshold
of the simultaneous
giving birth and dying
to write is to know the imperfect
as beautiful
to find yourself
when all else is lost
to trust
amid a sea of noise
your own voice
unlike any other
and know that is a gift

copyright 2012