I read poems on Friday the 13th. It was Mercury retrograde, a total lunar eclipse on the horizon. It felt like breaking. Like a spark of mother. Or acid. How many disasters will come to pass before something changes? How many times must I open myself before others? Each day, blue tarps from the last hurricane line the streets. There’s a flash flood or tornado watch, piles of warning wherever we look. The levees hold now, but the water continues to rise. And it’s everywhere. I saw a wildfire in Colorado at Christmas. I saw my wrist snap against the steering wheel while driving home from work. Thought I died more than once that night behind the airbag and shrapnel. In the video, you watch me pull the death card from my ergonomic chair. Then suddenly, I am in the ambulance, full of potholes and IVs. My father found my glasses in the SUV’s trunk. My father found me wandering CVS in a hospital gown and sling like a specter. There is nowhere left to run. No reason to check my horoscope or dusty air filter. No breath that isn’t held just a beat too long.
I got bored this weekend and attempted to give myself a shag haircut, and BOY, was that a mistake and a half. I mean just woooooooooow. Did I mention that I’m also in the middle of moving right now? In other words, I didn’t have access to the necessary tools I needed when I began this foolish endeavor, even running over to the other house mid cut only to discover my sheers were packed away in some unknown location. Luckily, 99% of shags look like they were done in the recesses of a garage by someone’s half-blind grandmother. I can also hide most of my mistake with a ponytail, but I already went ahead and booked an appointment to see a stylist in early December. Oh the irony. Had I waited in the first place, none of this would’ve happened. But alas, my overly impulsive ADHD butt lost any trace of patience that day.
All of my fellow ADHD peeps know the struggle of jumping straight into a project without the benefit or deterrent of executive function as well as I do. It’s great for creative pursuits like writing but little else. What’s sad is that this isn’t the first time I’ve done this or the second or the third or the forth, and I doubt it will be the last. Although in all honestly I cannot wait to see the stylists reaction to this mess. One thing I’m an expert at is laughing at my blunders. I mean, what else can you really do?
This also reminds me of how I became known in college for dropping my cell phones in public toilets and equally known for saving them from certain death every single time. Although I never wanted to touch them again let alone hold them up to my face. Poverty was obviously a huge incentive for sticking my hands in used toilet water (*gags*). I couldn’t afford to buy another phone so I did what I had to do. But what’s mind blowing is that I never seemed to learn to avoid keeping my phone in my back pocket whenever I went to the restroom. It seems that very little has changed. I’m just grateful that all of the new iPhones are water resistant now.
One of the last times I brought a water-damaged phone into the Apple store, I lied straight to the guy’s face about it only to have a single, traitorous grain of rice fall out onto the counter top when he took the case off in front of me. God, I wanted to die of embarrassment right then and there. In my panic, I somehow thought it better to tell him I blacked out during a night out on the town and threw the phone in rice just to cover my bases but didn’t remember dropping the phone in water (it was actually a solo cup full of champagne, lol). I could’ve saved the phone too had one of my best friends not asked to see it and turned it back on, immediately frying the damn thing. I wanted to ring his neck for that.
That was the only phone I was unable to save, well that and the first ever water-resistant iPhone I managed to kill during a foam party in Gulf Shores. Believing the foam would act as a cushion, I took an impulsive nosedive onto the ground, which hurt something awful, not realizing my phone had slipped out of my pocket at some point. I paid a group of small children to search through the piles of suds for it, but the screen had cracked and water had seeped in. By the time it made its way back to me back, it was already fried. I could probably write a manual on how not to treat an iPhone if I really wanted to.
When my husband returned Sunday night from the Renaissance Faire in Hammond, Louisiana, where he works on the weekends as a cast member, a Spanish count to be exact (he’s also featured in this costume popping out of a wormhole in Bill & Ted 3), he kissed the top of my head and told me he liked my hair, which was still mostly up in a ponytail. I warned him the day before via text that I’d accidentally given myself a mullet and wanted him to be prepared. Bless him for always supporting me no matter what wild shenanigans I get into, lol. Maybe he deserves that PS5 for X-mas after all.
I hate moving, but our new place is superior in every way. Same square footage, but the ceilings are so high that it makes the space feel infinite. Now he has his own gamer room, and I have my own reading/writing space. I’ve lived in New Orleans-style shotgun homes ever since I moved back here 4 or 5 years ago, and they’ve all come with their own list of individual issues (no central A/C, broken gas heaters, mold, weird smells, fighting neighbors, car break-ins). Issues that became harder and harder to ignore as the pandemic forced me indoors damn near constantly. I’ve actually been working from home since July, when I first tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. But I find myself having more success working from home and writing in my free time now that I don’t hate my surroundings with a fiery passion. Flooding was also a huge issue at our last place. I mean, people were kayaking in the streets every other weekend at one point when we lived there. I don’t know how many times I woke up in the middle of the night to move the cars to higher ground during random torrential downpours that would pop up without warning. It was also a terrifying place to ride out Hurricane Zeta. There’s something to be said for change though.
One of my friends and I have decided to start our writing workshop back up on the weekends, which I’m excited about. It’s so much easier to write when you have some level of accountability. Lately, I find myself feeling burnt out and stagnant on the page. I recently had a burst of writing where I wrote my novel non-stop outside of work. Now I hate all of it and can’t seem to get back into it. I think this workshop will help with that thought. This is definitely one area of my life I feel confident performing DIY in.
Today’s prompt is to write something using this photo as inspiration. I don’t know the original image source unfortunately, but I saw it on Facebook earlier today with the caption: “Farm workers in California continue working while the fires blaze.” It reminds me of one of the YA novels I started last year in which a human-caused ecodisaster blocks the sun, causing an unstoppable super winter set to wipe out all human life on earth.
There are a lot of things I see when I look at this photo beyond fantasy though. It’s pretty terrifying to witness something so post-apocalyptic happening right now. It also snowed in the northern part of my home state of Louisiana, today. Currently, I’m huddled next to a space heater in snow boots and a down parka typing with numb fingers somewhere in the middle of New Orleans. Yesterday, my phone wouldn’t quit buzzing at work from a tornado warning. And last week it flooded within a matter of minutes at the beginning of a thunderstorm. None of this is normal.
For these reasons, I feel torn between a political essay about migrant workers in CA and a short story in the same vein as the YA mentioned earlier.
Either way, this prompt doesn’t have many restrictions, aside from using the photo as inspiration for your opening scene. Any genre is fine. Try to write at least 500 words.Use at least one color. Mention the word “burning” somewhere, whether in or out of context of the CA wildfires.
Feel free to post what you come up with in the comments section. I’d love to read it!
Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.
Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.
But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.
The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.
1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?
I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.
2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?
It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.
This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.
A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.
The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.
My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.
Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.
Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.
This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.
Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.
Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.
Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?
2 poems from the workshop:
Winter is my favorite time of year. Partially because my birthday is in the new year, but mostly because the transition from December to January feels like a much-needed purge. This is when we let go of the old and believe transformation is possible.
At Christmas we dredge up old wounds with family. We think about the new year as a chance to be better. This is a period of resolution, renaissance and rebirth.
In the spirit of this, I want you to think of a person who has hurt you emotionally in the past. A person you have not been able to let go of for whatever reason.
Why do your memories of this still ache, and/or how were things left unresolved? Do you blame them or yourself? Or both?
I am asking you to go where you have refused to go before and to address this person/incident (and yourself) with the most honesty you can muster, even if it hurts.
- Don’t specify who this person is or a specific incident, rather describe how they make/made you feel.
- Use a minimum of 5 stanzas/paragraphs, OR, alternately, you can use 5 lines.
- Doesn’t matter if you use a traditional form, free verse or prose blocks.
- Address different questions/aspects in each paragraph/line.
- Paragraph 1: Whose fault was it?
- Paragraph 2: What were the results of the fallout?
- Paragraph 3: Do you still think about them? Be honest.
- Paragraph 4: How hard is/was it for you to love again?
- Paragraph 5: What would you say to them now?
- Does not have to be a romantic relationship. Supplement appropriate adjectives in the paragraph questions.
Here’s my attempt:
I could write about this all day, but here is a shortlist of female writers that have influenced me through their individual contemporary/hybrid styles:
1. Maggie Nelson
A mixture of poetry, essay, philosophy, and memoir, Bluets blows both form and genre out of the water.
2. Lidia Yuknavitck
The first book I ever read by Yuknacitch was her memoir, The Chronology of Water, which remains one of my favorite books to date. Her use of language is so precise, so powerful, so poetic, yet perfectly bare-boned and vulnerable. Her latest novel, The Book of Joan, is a modern reimagining of Joan of Arc that takes place on space station. Again, the language is incredible and completely unexpected for dystopian, sci-fi.
3. Roxane Gay
Gay blew up in 2014 with the release of Bad Feminist, a collection of essays that redefine what it means to be a modern feminist. But long before this, her debut came with a collection of 15 stories called Ayiti, “a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience.” Her novel An Untamed State, was released the same year as Bad Feminist. Gay also posts actively on tumblr with thoughts on life, recipes, and more.
4. Claudia Rankine
When Rankine’s lyrical memoir, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was released in 2004, she completely changed both poetry and CNF. Similarly, her book Citizen pushed this line of hybridity further when it was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry. Some argued that it was a collection of essays, while others saw it as poetic. Still others see it as both, and I am inclined to agree with them.
5. Anne Carson
If you haven’t read The Glass Essay, you need to get on that right now. Carson manages to meld poetry and the personal essay perfectly in this piece as well as The Autobiography of Red. Her poetry is typically prose heavy to begin with and extremely enjoyable to writers of different genres.
6. Carmen Giménez Smith
Crisp autobiographical poetry and a must-read.
7. Octavia Butler
Badass sci-fi daring to go where no one has gone before. “[Butler] defied formulaic sci-fi while exploiting the freedom of the genre to take her usually female and nonwhite characters to places where mainstream fiction would ten to deny them.”—Commonweal
8. Eula Biss
Please read The Pain Scale if you haven’t. She also has a myriad of essay collections that skillfully tackle hard-hitting topics.
9. Lorrie Moore
“Oh, the precarious position of fiction in our world: that over the last several decades the novel has continually been declared dead, and the short story is in constant resurrection, which means half-dead or post-dead or heaven-bound. But one continues writing anyway—as has been said by many—because one must.”—Lorrie Morre
10. Ruth Ellen Kocher
I had the pleasure of studying under this incredible poet whose hybrid work is constantly changing the game. domina Un/blued is a personal favorite.
11. Vanessa Angelica Villerreal
Beast Meridian is one of the most beautiful collections of poems I’ve read in a long time. It includes family photos, potent imagery, and wounding personal experiences to show the erasure and illegalization of Mexican-American bodies in today’s society.
12. Jennifer Tamayo
You Da One is highly experimental and uses pop culture references to explore the wound of American assimilation.
You may or may not be familiar with erasure poetry, but it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Taking pre-existing work, you mark out chunks of text to create a new poem. This process can be especially helpful if you’re experiencing writer’s block.
Mary Ruefle has a famous 42-page-erasure poem called A Little White Shadow that she created from Emily Malone Morgan’s Brown & Gross (1889). I believe I read an interview somewhere in which Ruefle claimed one of the main reasons she chose this text is because there are no copyright issues from a text this ancient. So bear that in mind before you spend too much time on this.
A former professor of mine, Ruth Ellen Kocher, took a different approach to erasure in her book domina Un/blued. While in Rome, she wrote tons of poems and later went back and erasured her own work. The results are absolutely breathtaking.
Many poets erasure their own work in the editing process without thinking of it as such. And many poets have difficulty letting words go. But this process is all about whittling down to the most precise language. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.
- take a text you’ve either written or a text that you love and mark out chunks to create your own poem
Here’s my attempt:
Taken By Frost
Laura Theobald is one of the many writers incorporating modern technology into their work. Using iOS predictive text, Theobald wrote an entire collection of poems titled THE BEST THING EVER. You too can create an interesting story or prose poem through predictive text. You’ll also get a glimpse into your psyche when you see which words you use most frequently.
- 20-25 words minimum
- start with “I died”
- if predictive text repeats the same word(s) too often, hit a random letter for more vocabulary options
Here’s my attempt (I can’t stop laughing):
I died in the past, and it is literally just one of my favorite places. Yeah, that’s what I’m going through. Right after lunch, I’ll be a feeling. Like this, but so far away. I’m going home now. I’ll let y’all be good. I’ll talk tomorrow night. And love with him has no chance. I died in a good mood I guess. I died in the way you told me. I died in the world. Just let me remember that.
In five lines (no more, no less) incorporate:
- the word “sliced”
- the color “chartreuse”
- something only you know about your mother
- your favorite author
Here’s my attempt:
A Chain of Fish Hooks
Chartreuse is just another way of saying yellow. Tawny and lime.
The way my mother likes to turn inside out quietly in the kitchen.
Neruda said, Eating alone is a disappointment. But not eating is
hollow and green. And that is how family feels. Like a verdant hole
or an animal’s sliced heart. Careless breaking of something wild.