Monday, December 30, 2013

Two Extra Things That Really Really Don't Suck (The Crafty Poet and The Daily Poet)

If I were forced to use five words to sum up Diane Lockward's new craft book The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop or The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, I would do so like this: five poems in three days. Lucky for me, I'm not required to use just five words to talk about these two books. Lucky for you, too.

I don't know about you, but I tend to write in spurts. Sometimes, the bursts have artificial boundaries, like committing to writing a poem a day for the month of April, or doing deliberate work in preparation for giving a workshop or attending a retreat. Other times, the bursts are obsessive, subject-driven weeks or months where I wrestle a topic on the page until one or both of us are exhausted. In general, I'm either reading a lot or writing a lot, but seldom both. When I'm being generous with myself, I think of my reading periods as "lying fallow," allowing myself to soak up some nutrients before I produce more crops. (When I'm not being generous with myself, I think of these periods as "being lazy," or "fooling myself," but that's another post for another day.)

I set out to deliberately change the pace in autumn, deciding to devote those three months to pretty much reading nothing but poetry and seeing what happened. I was fairly well spent by the end of the summer: after over two years of mourning, during which I wrote some of my most difficult (and strongest) poems, I had suddenly come back into myself in terms of poetry. I could think on a large scale again, had used that newly rediscovered space in my head to reconnect with some poets I love, had found my way into using those new, difficult poems to anchor a full-length manuscript. The book felt—and continues to feel—right to me, like I've found the proper way to present this work, but at the same time, I came out the other side with what might be the least-favorite question of any artist anywhere: Now what? This was quickly followed by my second-least-favorite question: What if I don't have anything else to say?

And thus All-Poetry Autumn was born. Toward the end of the summer, I picked up The Crafty Poet. Born from Diane Lockward's almost ridiculously successful and useful monthly poetry newsletter and her blog, The Crafty Poet is a collection of craft tips, prompts, discussion, and sample poems from 100 poets of all stripes. A couple of sample poems follow each prompt, and each of the ten themed sections ends with a bonus prompt. The prompts are re-useable, open-ended, and largely craft-focused, so that instead of being encouraged to write about a favorite childhood pet or a lemon, readers are, for example, instructed to find two closely related words (like palace and castle) and see where they lead. "Get an object in there," we're told, and "This might be hard. All the better and the deeper the reward." Indeed.

I'm just as likely to begin drafting a poem just from the sheer experience of reading about them, or reading poems themselves—as response or argument, or because a phrase stokes something in me that I need to feed or quench—and The Crafty Poet is full of opportunities for that, too. Written with a knowledgeable audience in mind, it's the kind of book that can both help a poet grow and grow with her, a valuable addition to any poet's shelves.

My other favorite new poetry book is The Daily Poet, which came about through the prompts Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano developed as part of their writing practice. The book contains 366 prompts—a prompt for every day, including during leap years—and is organized so that each prompt stands alone on its page. Take it or leave it, there is your prompt for the day, although of course it's possible to leaf through the pages, looking for a prompt that feels right. I'm resisting the temptation to do that at the moment, because prompts can go stale on me if I read them too frequently, while pretending I'm bound to some sort of requirement can help me force myself out of my own ruts. After two years of writing poems of grief and poems that I thought at the time were about something innocuous like an insect or a crab and are actually all about grief, it's natural that I began to wonder if I knew how to write anything else anymore. So it was lovely to come across the prompt for December 27 (imagine you're an alien and describe what you see here) or December 28 (write about a favorite childhood food) and stretch my legs a bit. Did the poem about being an alien end up being instead a poem about forgetting? Why yes. Yes, it did. Did the poem about a favorite childhood food get all mixed up with two prompts from Lockward's book, one which asked me to write in the negative ("I am not…") and one which asked me to write an extravagant love poem? Yes again.

The joy of a really good prompt (or 366 of them) is that it leaves the writer free to tinker and invent, or to rebel and invert it and kick it out on its ass. Agodon and Silano are clear about their intent: read the prompt, then let the poem do what it wants. Not every prompt is going to lead to a draft, and not every draft is going to lead to a worthwhile poem, but every exercise is worth doing. In order to write well, we need to be willing to write new, and sometimes that means writing badly—we learn, after all, from our mistakes, not from what we do right. With The Crafty Poet and The Daily Poet at hand, I still have excuses—I'm too tired, I don't have room in my head, I'd rather have a beer—but I don't think I can ever again say I don't have anything to write about. In the past three days, I've found five things to write poems about. If you haven't picked up a copy yet—of one or both—you should. You won't regret it.

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