Tag Archives: poetry

Why Workshops are Valuable

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.

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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.

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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:

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Prompt of the Day: Poetry

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.

Rules:

  • 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:

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Prompt of the Day: Poetry

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.

Ruefle-Mary-page1Mary 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.

Rules:

  • 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:

Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So:

Taken By Frost

a yellow traveller
bent in the undergrowth
and wanted
that morning
I kept knowing
I should never come back

 

Prompt of the Day: Poetry

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.

Watching Hurricane Harvey from New Orleans

For the first time in twelve years, I didn’t wake up thinking about Hurricane Katrina on the anniversary.  Not the day of, not the week before, and not for the entire month of August.

Instead, I woke up thinking about my stranded parents in Houston. This is where they settled twelve years ago after we lost everything. Surely this can’t happen here, too? Surely they are more equipped to deal with this level of devastation than New Orleans was in 2005?

The truth is that we cannot outrun disaster. I know this first hand. In my first 3 months of grad school a hundred year flood hit the area, and it was impossible to escape the memories of Hurricane Katrina. If there’s a natural disaster, you can bet that I will be there for some inexplicable reason. I guess it was lucky that I’d planned on driving to Houston the weekend after the storm to watch the LSU game with my dad. My weather misfortune is a long running joke among friends and family.

Still, it’s hard to look at the photos of Houston without remembering the hell of Katrina. And the irony of Hurricane Harvey falling on the anniversary of Katrina isn’t lost on me. Houston took us in, all of us. Plenty of people saw it as a sanctuary and settled there permanently. And as it sits engulfed in water, I can only think about the fact that there is nowhere left to run.

I have lived all over this country only to experience this kind of devastation over and over again. Wherever you are, we are all in this together. However, I do not wish to spin the resilience myth that comes with surviving a hurricane (or flood, tornado, tsunami, earthquake, landslide, or wildfire). That is an individual experience.

As I’ve gotten older and survived more and more once-in-a-lifetime weather events, they’ve become easier to deal with. A few weeks ago, I was stranded in my car during a flash flood with a flat tire when the water suddenly rose without warning.

It is so easy to relapse into trauma or to let my PTSD resurface in these moments. Or that used to be the case anyway. But for the first time, I found myself laughing in the face of danger. Making humorous videos to share with friends and family as the world around me spun out of control like it had so many times before.

I have found a certain kind of peace in accepting what I cannot control.

Earlier today I called my mother to see if she could get out of her neighborhood, which she now can. “I feel bad for cooking and drinking like nothing’s wrong,” she said. My mother, who has worked at Home Depot for 30 years, is weatherproof. She is ready to step up and sheetrock people’s homes, and I love her for that.  If anyone understands what Harvey flood victims are going through right now, it is my selfless, half-Cajun mother.

My father was evacuated from his home today and took the only road out of the city all the way to Austin. On the way out, he shared a photo of the Brazos River, which looks muddy and pregnant, ready to burst at any moment.

The battle is not over. The river will crest, and when it does, more devastation will arrive. Even though I should be nestled in a cocoon fashioned from my own anxiety right now, my heart is full witnessing the Cajun navy (rescue volunteers from Louisiana) arrive in Houston with boats – lots of boats – to brave the elements and lend a helping hand.

It is strange to see Houston in a vulnerable position when they’ve always been our refuge. But I guess this is how relationships work. We New Orleanians see ourselves in Houston. We know what lies ahead for them. While we won’t forget Katrina, Harvey’s widespread destruction has it’s own place in history now. And we are ready to help.

10 Stunning Books of Poetry Set in Louisiana

As fun as Mardi Gras is, Louisiana has much more to offer in terms of entertainment.  

Louisiana has been home to many celebrated authors, such as Anne Rice, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, John Kennedy Toole, and Truman Capote. But there are some lesser-known authors and works that capture unique facets of this mystical state, which is marked by an incredible resilience, breathtaking swampscapes, and a long list of past traumas from the slave trade to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Here are 10 stunning books of poetry set in Louisiana(ish):

1. Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press, 2008)

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While Smith isn’t a Nola native, Blood Dazzler remains one of the best poetry collections on Hurricane Katrina to date. With quiet fury and expertly crafted tension, Blood Dazzler takes the reader through the utter terror of wading and waiting through the storm. The cadence of the language and stunning imagery will blow you away too.

“Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls, unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.”

 

2. Missing the Moon by Bin Ramke (Omnidawn, 2014)

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A few years ago, I reviewed Missing the Moon for The Volta blog. There was a point in time where both Ramke and I lived in Denver. I approached him after a reading one night when his poetry struck me as familiar. “Are you Cajun, too?” I asked. “Yes, how did you know?” he said, and we proceeded to chat for the next few hours about our shared history.

Missing the Moon perfectly captures the insidious encroachment of Americanization that nearly destroyed Cajun culture after the Red Scare.  Forced into the swamps, Ramke shows us how Cajuns belong on neither land nor water, speak neither French nor English, instead, remain displaced between worlds.

“I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…”

 

3. Book of Southern and Water by Emmalea Russo (Poor Claudia, 2013)

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I stumbled upon this treasure when I was really homesick. In the midst of a 3-year masters program in Boulder, CO, over 1,300 miles away from LA, everything around me made me feel dislocated. The climate and culture could not be more different.

Reading this felt like coming home. Like being wrapped in humidity and warm rivers. Russo captures the Louisiana landscape the way one photographs someone they love.

“this is the bottom                                  this is the bottom

the bottom of the country                   moist crowded

something like safe inside

the time it takes for skin to dry…”

 

4. Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory by Rain C. Goméz (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

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When I first saw the name of this book, I thought: A) Could you repeat that? And B) A redneck definitely wrote this. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Goméz, a Ph.D. working within TransIndigeniety and Diaspora in Literary and Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Creative Writing, is a self-identified, Louisiana Creole mestiza with a stunning perspective. These prose poems illustrate a unique and underrepresented intersection of  Louisiana. Plus, the book took home the Native Writers Circle of the Americas’ 2009 First Book Award in Poetry.

“The layers of my skin are made
From story and memory.
I am fashioned from the experience
Of mothers,
Of fathers.
I move in constant awareness that
This act of being was not easily won. “

 

5. Slab by Selah Saterstrom (Coffee House Press, 2015)

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Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and the MS/LA border), Saterstrom was deeply affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While post-Katrina Louisiana is often used as a backdrop for dystopian works, this collection of experimental, political, playlike, prose poems is undeniably one of a kind. Slab is a meditation on disaster. In it, we follow Tiger, a southern woman turned stripper. The decay left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina she must overcome represents the lingering post-Civil War deterioration of these Gulf states and serves as a call to action. Bottom in education, healthcare, infrastructure, crime, and overall quality-of-life, Slab refuses to romanticize or hide our wreckage.

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6. Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (Pitt Poetry Series, 2015)

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“It’s the experience of being from a place and then, suddenly, that place being caused to changed—radically, quickly—such that in some ways it’ll never be what you remember it as again. So I want to say, like the military child, I’m at work to get back to this remembered home that, in some way, doesn’t anymore exist.”—Rickey Laurentiis

“Rickey Laurentiis’ debut poetry collection, Boy with Thorn, arrives at a crucial time in American literary discourse, engaging the oppressive and harmful legacies of our nation with clarity and intelligent critique. Laurentiis’ collection as a whole is honest in recognition of a life lived through violence. The reader must praise the landscapes in this collection, in the midst of its terror and destruction, for also producing Laurentiis’ lyric beauty and wisdom. His relentless recognition of personal truths and reclamation of narratives formerly silenced is an example of poetry at its highest form.” Yael Massen, MICROREVIEW: RICKEY LAURENTIIS’S BOY WITH THORN, Indiana Review.

 

7. One Big Self by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

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Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. “Compare Louisiana’s rate of 816 people per 100,000 with Russia’s 492, China with 119, France with 100, and Germany with 78…Louisiana has long been much more severe in sending black people to prison than whites, at least after black people were no longer slaves…Angola Penitentiary remains the largest maximum security prison in the United States. There are over 5000 prisoners at Angola alone. The average sentence for prisoners there is 93 years. About 95 percent of people serving time at Angola will die there under current laws.”—Bill Quigley, Louisiana Number 1 in Incarceration, Huffington Post.

After C.D. Wright, a renowned poet from Arkansas’ Ozarks, was invited by photographer, Deborah Luster, to Angola Prison, she felt moved to write One Big Self. Part prison portraits, part poetry, “the discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer, and inmate are multiple, blaring” (Wright).  Many of these haunting images resemble Civil War-era, tintype, portraits of slaves. The message is clear, and the evidence—hard to deny.

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8. The New Testament by Jerricho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)

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Dripping with biblical nomenclature and gospel-like lyricism, The New Testament is an incredible, original collection of poetry. It is almost impossible to separate Brown, a self-identified gay man of color and Shreveport native, from the book’s narrator, which perhaps is the point. The text is imbued with intimacy, exile, ambivalence, struggle, and passion. Like Lucifer, the narrator is cast out of heaven, yet he finds small ways of coping, replacing the omnipotent “He” with a lover. “In the best moments, Brown weaves together strains of religious invocation with his uneasy identity as a southern, gay, black man into a beguiling self-myth.”—Craig Morgan Teicher, A Collection Of Poems That Offers An Unlikely Kind Of Hope, NPR

Psalm 150
Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time or maybe
Eliminate it from our lives, which are shorter
Since we learned to make love for each other
Rather than doing it to each other. As for praise
And worship, I prefer the latter. Only memory
Makes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me?
Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,
Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,
Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head
And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.
Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.

 

9. You Good Thing by Dara Wier (Wave Books, 2013)

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This collection doesn’t explicitly mention Louisiana or Katrina, but it is implied by the abundance water imagery and wild chaos of the text. Wier is originally from New Orleans. “Many of Weir’s stanzas draw a reader away from a recognizable world into one in which women waltz with bears, houseflies chat with colonels, and the absence of sound makes a material presence.”—Harvard Review

“You took the boat onto flattened waters./ White wall of blue morning fog to slip into./ You withstood what is was that was wailing you through./ There you were standing on nothing, looking down at two/ Blackfeathered slashes your two hands held on to.”

 

10. Flood by J. Bruce Fuller (Swan Scythe Press, 2013)

Flood“Written by current Stegner Fellow J. Bruce Fuller, Flood is the kind of read that sticks with you, like the lingering floodwaters of a rain storm, like the water lines you can see when they recede. The book is split into two parts “1927” and “2005,” each indicating a different year when water altered the landscape and lives of the people of Louisiana. Fuller reaches into his family and personal history to tell stories of what is lost when waters rise, but also what one learns from experiences like this, such as in “The River Is In Us”: “Each of us is planted / in the earth for a time / when the river inside us / mouths open to the sea.”—Kimberly Ann Southwick, 3 Chapbook Reviews: Loving and Living in Louisiana, Ploughshares

And if she is angry
her belly constricted
by our levees
she will erupt
silt like ash