Briefs Blog

Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Posted by on Jun 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Writer Sheila Luna’s work “Unbalanced” graced issue 9 of our magazine. This piece pivots around a narrator attempting to navigate life with her aging parents. Here, Luna and issue 10 contributor, Grace Campbell, talk about how to approach broad themes inside the tiny space of flash.

Grace Campbell: This piece spans a great deal of time. How did you reconcile the necessary compressions to represent a breadth of time in such a small piece?

Sheila Luna: In writing my essay, Unbalanced, I decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain to the reader how much time had passed to tell my story. Instead, I used repetition to string the memories together to give an illusion of time passing. Repetition, in a way, imitates the memory process. I have always admired the writing style of Joan Didion–how she builds paragraphs with a wide array of shapes, various sentence lengths, and turns around and surprises the reader with an irony. She can portray a tone that takes you in one direction, and then hits you with a blow. The ebbs and flows of her prose and the repetitions – whether a paragraph or an essay, come together like music. My piece is basically about memory. It is also about loss and grief, much like Didion wrote about in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where her expert use of repetition gives rhythm to her prose and also illuminates objects and their meanings. Losing someone you love comes with so many emotions and pain. Not only the sick feeling in your heart of missing someone, but also nagging thoughts like I should have done more of this, I wish I could have told him that. After my dad died, childhood memories flooded into my head and I wanted to capture them. For me, writing is one way to do that. Writing keeps memories alive and makes sense of the chaos of grief. The trick in writing this short essay was to narrow in on a few details about my parents and my childhood – the shoes, the tree, the kitchen, and repeat them to give a sense of movement and at the same time evoke emotion.

You reference the mother’s memories being stolen like ‘a vacuum sucking cheerios from underneath a sofa’. It struck me as the kind of perspective usually common to parents of young children, yet this piece centers around adult relationships. What made you decide to use this reference?

Watching my mother’s memory slip away day by day, month by month, was agonizing.  I went through all the stages of grief when dealing with her dementia. First, I was in denial.  For a while I was mad at the cruelty of the disease. Angry that she had it and that it was taking her away from me.  While writing this essay, the first thing that came to mind was a loud vacuum cleaner – like the one my mom used in our house.  How she’d be insistent on cleaning every crumb off the carpet, especially when we were having company. It was very disruptive—that vacuum.   And who doesn’t have cheerios under their couch? With this image, I wanted to convey a dichotomy – a comforting piece of childhood and the harshness of a sucking vacuum and how life as we know it can be sucked up in two seconds.  Through several drafts–recrafting paragraphs and changing words– I never once touched the sentence about the vacuum sucking up the cheerios. It ended up being the sentence that I worked the rest of the essay around.

How did you negotiate the balance between the time spent discussing the relationship with the mother and the relationship with the father? Did the success of the piece depend on illustrating these dynamics equally or was that an organic byproduct?

My mom and dad were like one person to me. It was always the two of them.  Their names ran together. Their lives were entwined like two trees grown together to form one big trunk.   When writing about one, it is impossible not to include the other. When my dad passed away suddenly, it crushed our family. The pain of his absence almost became a presence.  But, I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for my mom—losing her husband of fifty years—how her heart must have split in two. In writing this piece, I never consciously negotiated how much to say about my dad versus my mom.  The balancing act in writing this piece was instinctual. This part of the writing process borders on the mystical. Unfortunately, that does not happen with everything I write.


This piece deals with both memory loss and the loss of the narrator’s parents. Is loss a theme you tend to come back to often in your work?

Loss is a theme that I return to in my work because it is part of the human condition. Everybody can relate.  One of my flash essays, The Lipstick Helps, was recently published in Longridge Review.  This piece is about losing my mom to dementia. It is also about how a simple object– in this case a tube of lipstick–can evoke memories, feelings, and connection.  While grief and loss are profound subjects to write about, I also try to convey a touch of the spiritual—how love and joy are what hold us together. Anger, shock, denial, guilt, fear are emotions of grief and loss that make us crazy.  Everyone has experienced loss in some form. And we want to know how others work through it. The writer’s challenge is to craft a story that is not mopey or isolating but one that that readers will want to stick with and ultimately learn from or be moved by.   A good essay that deals with loss is deeply personal but it should also resonate with humanity. Losing someone you love is emotional chaos. While everyone’s grief is different, there are many books from memoir to fiction and even children’s books that can offer some kind of solace.  Examples that come to mind are A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, Wild by Cheryl Strayed,  The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander to name a few.

As a writer of flash, do you find yourself focused on economy of language or succinctness of the story arc or both? How do these differing focal points work themselves out on the page?

A good flash essay drops the reader into a story that is underway already.  I’ve been told in writing workshops that the most important parts of flash are the first line, the last line, and the title and that those three lines knit the piece together. So, that is how I approach writing a flash essay.  Often, when sitting down to write, I come up with a title first, and that helps me to focus on the theme. My piece, Unbalanced, actually went through a few different titles, but then I realized that the essay was really about falling–being unbalanced due to grief.    A good last line should move the reader beyond the story. Maybe that goes for every piece of writing, but especially important for flash. The flash essay is short –even shorter than a short story–so I am conscious of my choice of language, imagery, and the element of surprise.  I studied art in college, so I also see the flash piece as a small painting, not a large canvas, with emphasize on negative spaces – the things left out. Every brushstroke counts.  While writers edit and rewrite and revise, the original strokes remain.  An original stroke of my essay Unbalanced was the vacuum sentence. A great flash piece should rip your heart out. One of my favorite flash pieces is  Sticks by George Saunders.  In this very short story, Saunders describes a man by actions and detail and imagery.  And we get to know him, even feel his joys and pains. The story begins with a happy tone and then builds to heart wrenching sadness.  Achieving a punch of emotion like this in just a few well-chosen words is what I try to achieve when writing flash. It is akin to poetry.  Sometimes it is like magic.


Grace Campbell is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts and a founding editor/head writer at Black River Press. She is a nonfiction reader at 5×5. Her chapbook, FWIW, was a finalist for the Turnbuckle Chapbook Competition at Split Lip Press. She was awarded third prize in the Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Flash Contest (2018). She is a 2018 June Dodge fellow at The Mineral School. Her work has appeared in Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish, Two Hawks Quarterly, Santa Ana River Review and many other places. She has a soft spot for corgis and tinted lip balm.

ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

Posted by on Jun 5, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

“Stop worrying about what the poem means and just listen to the damn poem.”

                                                                U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

One.

If you are looking for sound for your poems, you can do worse than the letter Z: Zephyrus, Zeppelins, zeppoles, zithers, hazmat, Zip Cars and zero. Or zilch. When adding zing with Z’s you have the opportunity for zeitgeist, zebras, ziplines, puzzles, seizures, caesuras, or you can write an homage to the day when Thoreau met Zorro and they discussed Zora Neale Hurston.

Z seems to be inexorably linked with onomatopoeia, so simply by using z words, you can get the joyous sounds of sizzle and razzle dazzle. So how do you avoid ridiculous alliteration when writing with z words? I myself start thinking of zillions of zinc zebras sashaying and soft-shooing to a lazy-paced waltz at the end of the alphabet. The letter Z is made for sound, and sound is the engine of poetry. If you permit a variation of synesthesia, think of sound as movement in poetry.

Two.

The zoetrope, is an optical wonder that started as a child’s toy and was the precursor for modern film. The zoetrope is a circular device with printed images inside that creates the illusion of movement when spun. A rudimentary but working version was created in China as early as 180 AD. You view the images through the slits in the side, and the images “move” inside. Zoetropes were sometimes described as “persistence of vision” toys. Your goal as a poet is to leave the reader with an image or sound or motion after the poem is done. Z words mixed with images and ideas are perfect for poetry.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.

Three.

Spoken word poetry can be a revelation. I use a lot of audio and video to explore poetry with first-year writing students who engage with the form because the emphasis, nuance, phrasing and emotion are provided for them. It’s as reliable as a Zippo lighter.

G. Yamazawa’s fabulous poem “Elementary” won the 2014 National Slam Finals. “Elementary” is about homophobia, and begins with the memorable line “I was so young, I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I called someone gay.” Yamazawa’s poem has motion. He mixes metaphor, image, confession, anger, and performance. The poem moves, even on the page: “I notice that words have gravity/I’ve seen them crush people.”

Take a look at Yamazawa’s work on YouTube, and while you’re there check out Jamila Lysicott’s “How to Speak English 3 Ways” or Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You.” O’Hara had fun with sound and words: “Having a coke with you is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona.”

Another Spezialität on the YouTube menu is Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” Smith manages to do a lot of heavy lifting with sound and repetition: “…& no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy.”

Four.

When you are creating a poem and get stuck, fall back on sound. You are working in words in an oral art form that was meant to be heard. Gertrude Stein had a talent for punishing prose and making it work hard, and had an odd ear for sound: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her famous quip about Oakland is similar: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” 

Vladimir Nabokov knew sound. Look at this excerpt from Lolita: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Sidebar: Z TV

“Zoinks” is a word that should be familiar to anyone that has ever seen the cartoon Scooby-Doo. It was a favorite oath of slacker Shaggy, and was declared loudly, usually with a bit of trepidation and surprise. (Sixties TV also gave us the Batman “Fight Words” appearing on the screen in jagged dayglo balloons like the word Zonk! which might appear Robin punched The Joker. The words were typically accompanied by shrill horn sounds.) The word zoinks is derived from a word common in Shakespearean Elizabethan English, zounds, which means “by Christ’s wounds,” referring to the stigmata, and was considered a swear. Gadzooks is also a watered-down cousin, a PG oath. Zoinks and zounds sound zany, and if you unpack them you find a key event in Christianity. You can probably use them as swears, too, and no one will notice.

Five:

I am working on drafts of a poem called “How the Mayans Invented Television” a title clipped from the 80’s punk film Repo Man. I liked the sound of the Mayan snake god Kulkulkan: it climbs, dips, and zips as if on a rollercoaster. I also use his Spanish name, Quetzalcoatl, pronounced Ketzal Koat.

I read drafts of my poems out loud. Many lines crash and burn like a Zeppelin, and some make progress. Hearing the work out loud unlocks the poem.

We may never agree on what makes a good poem. But image, sound, and ideas make a potent combination. Especially sound. To quote Count Basie, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

With your next poem, you could do worse than building a metaphoric Zoetrope.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.


Christopher Madden is an educator, writer, poet, and editor at Woodhall Press. He is the editor of The Astronaut’s Son, a finalist for the 2018 Foreward Indie Book Awards. He is the co-director of the Black Rock Art Guild Performing Artists.

ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

Posted by on Jun 4, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

The lyric poem, according to Edward Hirsch, has been in practice “for at least forty-five hundred years . . . and is as ancient as recorded literature” (356). In those forty-five hundred years, the lyric poem has expressed personal emotions, experiences, thoughts, and epiphanies through the speaker, who presents herself/himself through the lyric “I.” This makes perfect sense, since when you talk, write, or sing about yourself, you share the experience through “I.” For instance, “I taste a liquor never brewed” from Emily Dickinson’s poem 214; “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day” from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”; and “I took my lyre and said” from Sappho’s fragment 8. These are personal tellings, so the “I” is used, and if a “you” appears in a poem, the “you” is usually some other person the poet/speaker is speaking to (such as in an apostrophe) and a person who is not the reader. But today, the “you” has taken on a new function in lyric poetry.

Over the last few years, I have noticed an increased use of “you” to convey personal experience, as opposed to using the traditional “I” to convey personal experience. Further, this new lyric “you” now inhabits not only the space of the “you the reader” and the plural “you” of a general audience, but it also inhabits the first-person “I.” Often when a poet uses “I,” it is meant to be a universal “I,” where the “I” can anybody who reads the poem. The reader enters the speaker’s emotional being, and the speaker and reader unite. If the poet were to use “you” instead of “I,” it should feel presumptuous of the poet/speaker to tell the reader what the reader is doing, thinking, or feeling. For instance, if Dickinson wrote, “You taste a liquor never brewed,” the reader might step back and say, “No, I haven’t.” And then the reader is kicked out of the poem. The new lyric “you” avoids this aggressively presumptuous behavior and is as inviting as the traditional lyric “I.” For example, Kirby Knowlton’s “How We Live Now”:

They say you can tell if a dog is stupid or not
by if it recognizes itself in the mirror.
In the checkout line where I work, a man
reads the tabloids the week of Kim Kardashian’s
robbery and asks me, what did she think
would happen
. This is how we live now.
I tell my therapist how they bound her hands
with zip ties, the same things Zach E.
and Zack B. looped through a girl’s belt
loop to attach her to her desk in seventh grade,
how often, it’s only your attempt to leave
that informs you of your inability to.
Driving to work that week,
I marked time’s passing by the deer
rotting outside my neighborhood.
By Friday, its body soft and caved in
like a log seconds before it ashes.
Tell me you’ve never abandoned
something just because you could.

For this poem, I am concerned with the bolded “you” forms [that were bolded by me]. The second-person, epiphanic phrase “it’s only your attempt to leave / that informs you or your inability to” ends the sentence that begins in first person, “I tell my therapist.” It’s possible the poet wasn’t paying close enough attention to her pronoun use, but the title of the poem, “How We Live Now,” indicates otherwise. The poem right away establishes a relationship with the reader through “we.” Still the epiphanic pronoun shift is abrupt. However, the poem is attempting to bring the reader into the experience in a new way. The poem assumes the reader has had a similar experience and can easily relate to not being able to leave. The poem then ends in the imperative mood and assumes the reader of having done something, because the poem assumes everyone has abandoned something because they were able to do so. The empathetic tone of the poem, especially in the previous lines of the decaying deer, enables the poem to not be accusative, but embracing. The poet is projecting overwhelming emotions on to the reader, as they are too much for the poet to handle on her own, as evidenced by her visiting a therapist. Whereas in earlier lyric modes that used the lyric “I,” as noted by T. S. Eliot, the poet “is oppressed by a burden which he [or she] must bring to birth in order to obtain relief” (98). This is what the new lyric “you” does, except the poet is not alone in obtaining relief. The poet shares the overwhelming emotion, the burden, with the reader because the poet knows he or she is not alone in a certain type of experience. The lyric poet is no longer writing a poem that will be “overheard” by someone (if anyone), as many critics (as far back as John Stuart Mill’s “What Is Poetry” from 1833) have pointed out. The lyric poem using the lyric “you” directly addresses the reader. It creates a conversation with the reader, but not in a meta way, but in an emotional and therapeutic way. Additionally, the “you” becomes the subject (or shared subject) of the poem, and sometimes is also the object.

According to German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser one of the “three major lyric possibilities of lyric” is addressing (Culler 286), such as addressing a person, animal, god, or thing. The new lyric “you” continues that possibility but with a twist. Instead of addressing a person in a biographical or praiseworthy manner, the new lyric “you” directly addresses the reader with shared sympathy and understanding – it’s assumptive without a bold, assertive presumptuousness. In the end, it’s similar to TFW memes – “The Feeling When you,” and whatever follows the “you” is an action that most know well. The new lyric “you” resides in the second-person singular, second-person plural, and in the first-person. So, if you are writing a poem about a painful experience or an experience you think others can relate to, and/or if you want to speak in the mannerisms of the times (as poets often do), then you might want to consider using “you” as a new way to address your content and readers, as it is the new way for you to connect.


Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave (winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013), as well as four chapbooks. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: thelinebreak.wordpress.com/. Twitter: @TheLineBreak

ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

Posted by on Jun 3, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

A few years ago I became interested in the artist Man Ray’s camera-less photographs of the early 1920s. Like many of the budding Dadaists, he tried out several types of media – painting, sculpture, as well as photography. He also had to earn a living, which he did with his portraiture and fashion photography. One day, by accident, Mr. Ray placed a glass funnel and a thermometer on photographic paper. This was definitely an accident; his valuable supply of paper was dwindling and he did not need to waste it. But he switched on an electric light and exposed the paper. Images of the objects emerged. Light was refracted through the glass,  yet stopped by the solidity of the materials, so the shapes turned up white where they sheltered the paper against the black of total exposure.  He slipped the new creations into a packet of fashion shots and brought them to Paul Poirier, the great fashion designer, who somewhat reluctantly took them and passed them along the artistic pike. A genius of artistic self-promotion, Man Ray called these pieces “Rayographs.”

He went on to play with this new medium by taking objects and puting them together so they made their own connections with each other. We see the results. A wire fan makes concentric circles of white on black combined with metal springs and a flat ribbon of a yardstick. Human faces touch their lips together as models lay their cheeks on paper.  A wood and iron hand drill pierce a cloud of a circle, in white against black, the hard metal twist positioned to seem as though inserted into soft fruit.

These days, we are used to seeing X-rays of our own insides. Break a bone, and an X-ray will locate the fracture in a tibia. Even if only at a dentist’s office, we are allowed to see our interiors. Like an X-ray of a giant goat’s stomach after it has devoured an indigestible meal, a Rayograph displays its contents in reverse: white against black. Like bones in an X-ray, the hard parts stand out while the soft matter melts away. Flesh, which acts as padding, a bag full of the liquid of blood and plasma, becomes transparent. Skin, the only layer of a body which can normally be seen, reveals its true nature as a mere cover, a blanket for what lies beneath.  An X-ray can beam through all that, until it is stopped by bone. 

We do not really know what lies beneath this cover of skin.  Assume an ignorance of what lies beneath. Epidermis, callous and scar mask our muscles and sinews and the ultimate bones of our skeletons. All that is inside us is hidden. This is the point in the analogy where the X-ray and the Rayograph part ways.  An X-ray is a picture of inside us. We do not take pieces from outside, set them into our cavities, arrange them. Our inner workings stay put, inside us, without our conscious handling of them.

And I would go so far as to say that our insides are supposed to be hidden. We are told to not cut ourselves open. Don’t break the skin.  What is there, is there. It is what it is. And sometimes, what is inside us calls out. It calls out in the language of poetry.

One day, a person wants to write a poem.  She would like to find hummingbirds flittering among hollyhocks. But on this particular day, in order to write that poem, she would have to put flowers and pretty insects on a piece of photographic paper and expose them to light. That particular garden cannot be found, even if the weather seems perfect for it. Sunshine falls on a golden field. But a chill runs in her bones. At the edge of that field stands a house. On the roof of the house perch six large dark birds. All she can see are the dark birds on the Victorian roof. Closer inspection from a safe distance shows a hole in the roof where rotten beams have given way.

The person stands transfixed at the edge of the field, wondering if emergency medical personnel have been dispatched. The vultures have called out. Something not-beautiful inside requests a showing; wants to be revealed,  exposed,  as certainly as if the sun or a ceiling light shines on it.

But who knows that, if one cannot see inside? The vultures may simply station themselves on the highest perch around, so they can see over the fields in case some animal has already fallen. They aren’t birds of prey, and will hurt no one.  Perhaps there’s nothing in the house to be terrified of. I am telling a narrative, that’s all. The words float on the page.

Words in a poem float on skin. They refer to a point underneath. The skin need not, should not be broken.  Maybe a scratch or two might be okay.  But the flesh should not be hacked at, like some amateur surgeon. One should allow words to suspend and refer through the top layer. If one has a hand drill, don’t let it pierce. Lay it on a piece of paper and admire it for what it is.

It may just be an object, this drill, this vulture, this hollyhock. Or it may expose itself as something more personally compelling. No one knows until the words sit on top of the paper what they refer to inside. Here is why a poem is an X-ray, though sometimes it’s a Rayograph. Usually, it’s better for writer and reader alike if it’s an X-ray.


Jeanne DeLarm writes from a house built by a ship captain in 1853 in a Connecticut shore town.  She received an MFA from Fairfield University. Her poems have been published in various journals, one being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Currently she works on a novel.

ABCs of Poetry: W is for Weaving

Posted by on Jun 2, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: W is for Weaving

Some of the most common questions I receive when someone reads my work, whether the reader is my mother or a friend or a stranger, are these: Did this really happen? Did you really feel like this? How real are these feelings/situations/repercussions/_______?

Poetry exists in an uncertain space. Fiction can be realistic and still exist in an imagined space; non-fiction can be creative and still exist in the actual. But poetry—where does poetry find itself? A weaving of both, I think. Sometimes more actual, sometimes more imagined, generally concerned with language and sound and emotion in a kind of reaching beyond.

The very asking of the questions about real-ity generally shows me that I have successfully woven my poems in a way that causes readers to question their own reality. Writing poetry in 2018 means access to form and content and media like never before. So whether you are approaching lyric or conceptual or spoken word or formal or visual, no matter the genre, it is inevitable that weaving will occur.

When I apply the idea of weaving to my own work, I generally find that this is how the metaphor plays out:

  • Loom: Sometimes I’ll apply formal rules or patterns to my work, though in my own process, form, often appears after initial drafts, not before.
  • Warp (the longitudinal threads, static across the cloth): The world external to my own experience – what Richard Hugo would call “the triggering town.” Pieces of language I jot down, Wikipedia articles I read in the middle of the night, scientific discoveries, historical events, artwork, dreams.
  • Weft (the lateral threads, active and changing): Emotion or experience, sometimes personal, sometimes imagined. This is usually unplanned for me – when I start writing, beginning with the warp or external world, I’m never quite sure where the weft is going to go, but I can guess that figurative language and imagery is going to be pulled through.
  • Weave (the final product): In the end, after revision and critique and reworking, the poem becomes such a mingling of the warp and weft that it can be difficult for even me to tell which is which – where my own reality is different from the figurative language or external world or persona the poem has taken up on its own.

On a recent visit to the American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago, I read part of a letter that Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. While both daughter and mother are known for genres other than poetry, I think that the advice that Rose gives Laura, deep into edits of By the Shores of Silver Lake, is quite useful for us poets.

“You must take into account the actual distinction between truth and fact. It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts. Your whole lifetime spent at nothing else would not tell all the facts of one morning in your life, just any ordinary morning when you get up, dress, get breakfast and wash the dishes. Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it.”

(You can read the letter for yourself here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7722943.)

Rose is talking about weaving here, weaving towards truth, where the reader nods their head in agreement or empathy or acknowledgement or witness, when they wonder about the very reality of the poem itself.

My answer to the questions about the real-ity of my poems is this: More-or-less. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But I’m more concerned with the fact that the poem is real, and that there is a very real person reading it. I’ve woven something real, put warp and weft together and created something new. And if it’s difficult to tell the difference between the threads, then I think something has turned out well.

For poets interested in the writing metaphor of weaving, here are some questions and places to start:

1. Identify your own warp and weft, as well as any looms that you turn to frequently. What formal constraints are you most comfortable using? Where do you usually begin your poems? Are there any trends in how your poems are built? Habits in how they reach their end? It might be useful to mark up your own poems in terms of warp and weft – where do you write towards yourself, and where do you write away?

2. For those inclined to begin with the personal, try the opposite. Begin with a different kind of warp: a random Wikipedia article, a particular place, a first line borrowed from someone else, a piece of visual art. (Ekphrasis and found poetry lend themselves particularly well to weaving!)

3. For those inclined, like me, to begin with the external, try the opposite. Begin with an emotion, something internal to the self. Make that emotion as visceral as possible before moving outward towards your external weft.

4. Read some poets who are particularly attuned towards moving between the personal and the external, whether in form or content—I would recommend Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, Monica Youn’s Blackacre, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.


Hannah Kroonblawd is a PhD student at Illinois State University. When not teaching or student-ing, she can be found over-watering her peace lily and watching Chinese rom-coms. A graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State University, her recent work can be found in the Blue Earth Review, Radar Poetry, Ruminate, and the South Dakota Review, among others.

ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

The volta.

You might be thinking, oh you mean the turn? That spot in a Petrarchan/Italian sonnet between the octet and the sestet, or in a Shakespearean sonnet between the third quatrain and the final couplet, where things change? Things like rhyme scheme, stanzaic structure, and argumentative agenda? And in other poems, regardless of whether they’re rhymed and metrical or in another received form, or even free verse (which is still formally astute or at least ought to be), you mean that location where the cinematic, rhetorical, imagistic, and/or some other poetic pattern is suddenly and significantly disrupted?

And I’d say, yes, but. I’d say, sure, the turn, yes, but I’d rather say the volta, and not just because I like the woozy hit of pretention it gives me. Because yes the turn is great, something about the volta seems to crystalize more of the function and aims of poetry than the turn does.

Why? For one, whenever I say the word volta (which comes from the Italian and means, surprisingly, ‘to turn’) I also hear the ghosts of other words strafing and swirling around it.

One is the lavolta, a dance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, which involved quick steps and leaps, and very intimate (almost erotic) contact between dance partners in order to achieve these leaps. The dance was considered lewd, immoral, and even grounds for police intervention. Critics were scandalized and dancers shocked, in part because other dances of the day, like the pavane, were more like line dancing—less about propinquity than group rhythm, more about conformity than contact.

Another is vaulting (derived from the French voltige), a competition sport in which riders perform acrobatic tricks on a horse who is tethered to a central hub around which it trots or canters, depending on the rider’s level of skill or foolhardiness.

And another is vault, which in turn calls up its several different forms in the world of the actual: vault as in the type of ceiling characterized by high arches where air circulates and the eye is drawn upwards, and vault as in a room (like bank vault) in which goods are stored for later use, and, finally, vault as in the action of jumping, as in pole vault, as in to leap over.

But so what? This is all at best rather tangentially affiliated with the essential action the volta describes and performs, the yoking together of noticeably different expressions of a particular poetic pattern, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to talk about the way that the volta acts as a hinge between, say, a description of boiled prawns and the rosy flush of sunset? Between, say, a stately if mundane description of a bus ride and a passenger’s sudden hurling of a racial slur? Or how it bridges the disparity between maligning one’s lover before affirming one’s undying admiration for them?

Perhaps. But the volta, like poetry, is more than just its function. When we turn the lamp of our attention on the meanings which the volta draws to its periphery like people who thought they heard their name called, we can see in the half-light bizarre and exciting resemblances that explain some of the more understated features inside the volta, which its particular function has compacted and smoothed over time.

So, we might wonder how the volta is like an essential component of a dance the mainstream disapproves of for its action, intimacy, and iconoclasm. Or how it relates to the marriage of steady hoofbeat rhythms (akin to meter and breath, maybe) over which perilous and exciting contortions occur. Or how it is like one brick in an airy internal space masquerading as open. Or how in silhouette, it looks like a leap from one shore to another.

You might interpret the volta (and poetry, which it metonymizes) through the lens of these etymological resemblances differently. Maybe instead of a disapproved-of dance you’d say an erotic and motile commingling of oppositions. Maybe instead of someone doing flips on horseback you’d say poetry’s an ornate and circular performance that endangers its performer while frivolously titillating its audience.

Sure. That’s your interpretive prerogative. But when you do this, whatever your conclusion, you’re still performing one of the most critical actions of poetry: the leap, from one thing onto another. The connecting of unlike elements to show how they are, however tendentiously or absurdly, alike, so we can see the world is made with as many (if not more!) resemblances as it is with divisions (I’m thinking of John Donne and his famous flea in particular here, but great examples outnumber constellations).

The volta also calls to its side the volt, the unit of electromotive force it takes to move one ampere of current past one ohm of resistance. In other words, a unit of electricity. A unit which takes its name not from the same radix as volta as one might expect (the *wel- of Proto-Indo-European, which means ‘to turn or revolve’), but from Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who invented the battery, that ubiquitous, sold-separately, small cylindrical container which is full of dormant turns and jolts and shocks that are ready at a moment’s notice to be, by some outside apparatus, activated and transformed into motion. Say, a leaning in. Maybe a clapping. Some laughter. A jeer. Whatever hope as an action might look like.


Conor Bracken is a poet, translator, and teacher. His poems and translations appear or are forthcoming in places like the Colorado Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Waxwing. He is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), selected by Diane Seuss as the winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and translator of Mohammed Khair-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, September 2019). An assistant poetry editor at Four Way Review, he teaches English at the University of Findlay.

ABCs of Poetry: U is for “Un,” as in “Un” the Prefix

Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: U is for “Un,” as in “Un” the Prefix

I.

Choose the word you want, the part of speech, attach the prefix and there you go.

Writing poems is like that (for me, anyway)—Un-shoring, uncoupling, un-troubling, unburdening, unending, un-fucking…

That’s the one: Un-fucking.

Writing poems is like that, like un-fucking yourself.

And when I say write, I mean draft, again and again and again—so much that you’ve un-fucked the “a” from the “gain” so its “again” again.

II.

You want to write poems. You sit down to do so. Maybe, in whatever “writing space” that you write, you crack books, you find pages and place the books spine-up so the books look like distant birds in a landscape. You write some lines or stanzas—hell, you might even write a poem.

Nice work. Tomorrow, un-fuck it. The next day, un-fuck it again.

Choose your editorial method, the way you dice up what you’ve written, and there you go.

III.

If poetry is the art of anything, it’s the art of the “Un,” a prefix that breeds the anxiety and liberty of detachment, a prefix that helps us recognize what we have by knowing what we can lose—which means, to my mind, a rejection of ego…

An un-fucking.

Or, really, any other “un” word you can muster—it all fits. Poetry, writing poems, is the “un,” the voice of us yearning the way God must’ve yearned hovering over the formless deep: in un-ease, in unraveling, and then in understanding.

IV.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe writing poems is the opposite of the “un.” Maybe I chose “un” the prefix because I had to choose “U” as a letter for this series of craft essays. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe by not knowing I’ll find something cogent to say by the end of this. And then I’ll be undone, unfurled, un-fucked, understood.

V.

I sit down to write with an idea, almost always (I’m not one to free-write or write about not being able to write in the face of writing). I pull out books, scan some, don’t look at others, then place them text down (spine-up like distant birds in a landscape). I have an idea, and maybe the spine-up books have helped or hindered it, but it doesn’t matter. My idea is unformed.

Tomorrow I’ll understand the idea’s unimportance; tomorrow I’ll have un-fucked myself from the idea and un-fucked the idea from the poem.

The un-writing of however I start a poem is the core of the poem, the poem’s id, the un-caged animal lusty and unquenchable.

I have to feed it. But first I have to understand how to unshackle it, unlock it, un-cage it.

VI.

Am I unclear?

Whatever you write, un-do it. Your poem will crawl out un-shackled and un-caged.

And then you’ll be un-fucked, at least for a little while.


Matt LaFreniere is a husband, father, teacher, poet–not always in that order. His first poetry collection, Don’t Turn the Projector Off!, was recently published by Unsolicited Press. His poems have appeared in Dunes Review, Main Street Rag, Pilgrimage, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Spry, and others.

ABCs of Poetry: T is for Tone

Posted by on May 30, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: T is for Tone

Kristin Tenor

It’s often been said in order for a poem, or any piece of literature for that matter, to truly resonate, the writer must build a bridge between him/herself and the reader. One way to construct that bridge is through tone. Tone is defined as the attitude a poet exhibits toward the poem’s subject and/or audience. For those who like to keep it simple, think of it as the emotion propelling the words onto the page.

One doesn’t necessarily need to be a poet to understand the possibilities in tone are endless—from angry to melancholy, humorous to even whimsical—there’s an entire spectrum at the poet’s disposal. In fact, the folks over at Poetry In Voice compiled a list of approximately two hundred tones a poem might convey.

There are several devices one can use to help create tone in poetry. Some of the most common include:

  • Rhythm
  • Imagery
  • Word Choice

Let’s take a look at how each of these are handled by William Butler Yeats in his poem, “When You Are Old”:

When You Are Old

By William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moment of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

[Credit: This poem can be found in the public domain.]

Rhythm: You can see this poem of unrequited love is comprised of three stanzas, each including four lines written in iambic pentameter. Also, the last words in the first and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the last words in the second and third. Read the poem aloud. Do you hear the sing song tone the repetition creates as the speaker addresses his lover? How does it make you feel? Wistful, maybe full of longing? Think how different the tone would have been had Yeats used short, choppy lines. Perhaps, instead of regret one might have felt resentment or even anger.

Imagery: So many beautiful images and details are tucked inside this poem, especially within the first stanza—the young lover imagining herself as an old woman nodding by the fire, the book held in her hand as she slowly reads, and then, the dream of the soft look her eyes had once. Yeats creates this scene so we as readers experience the same bittersweet tenderness regret brings for this man as he addresses his former lover. Colors, objects, seasons, weather, light—all these bring with them the power to evoke emotion and set tone, especially when they are juxtaposed against one another.

Word Choice: Just about every word in the English language has more than one meaning or connotation associated with it. For instance, the third line in the second stanza of Yeats’ poem:

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.

The word pilgrim often refers to a person who journeys a long distance to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. On the other hand, it can also suggest a person who wanders. Each connotation gives the line, and potentially the entire poem, a different vibe all together. Is the speaker devoted to this woman or is he frustrated because he feels she has wandered away from him? Considering the context surrounding the line, one can surmise the speaker is telling his lover he loved her to the very depths of her soul, which as the reader leaves us breathless.

Finally, there are two other elements one may want to consider when it comes to identifying tone—mood and voice. Mood refers to the poem’s atmosphere, as well as the emotions and feelings evoked while reading it. You might say mood is tone’s translation. Similarly, the narrator’s voice and diction determine tone or attitude. Tone, mood, and voice—all these are important when it comes to building resonance between the writer and reader. One cannot exist without the other.


Kristin Tenor finds inspiration in the quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Midwest Review, Spry Literary Journal, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She resides in Wisconsin with her husband. Learn more @ www.kristintenor.com or find her on Twitter @KristinTenor.

ABCs of Poetry: S is for the Poet as a Sculptor

Posted by on May 29, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: S is for the Poet as a Sculptor

Some poets speak of the blank page as a tabula rasa, view the act of writing as one of pure creation. Something from nothing. But I don’t believe that any artist begins with nothing. Although a writer may start a poem with no preconceived idea of topic or form, her preferences in diction, gradations of experience, and frames of reference will color each draft, no matter how rough or free. I prefer to see the poet as a sculptor, someone who shapes raw material step by step into a unique and beautiful artifact.

When a poet is drafting, it is a corporeal, visceral act. Sculptor Anish Kapoor believed that “Sculpture occupies the same space as your body.” When writing, the hand actively dances, pausing, retracing, looping and whirling. The brain fires, neurons building bridges with each leap in image or syntax. The gut churns, reacts. The heart rends or mends or palpitates at each discovery. A poet gets her hands dirty, feels the tension in her neck and her back, gets an endorphin rush when the words come smoothly. The poem occupies the same space as the body as it comes through the body. In this way, the poet sculpts a reality that is grounded, weighty, one that has substance, birthed through blood and flesh as well as language.

So, a draft creates a physical object, but a first draft does not a poem make. Auguste Rodin is quoted as saying, “Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump.” Ah, the holes in those initial drafts! The places where connections are missed, where the music falters, where the story is too linear, the leaps too far. The places that are incomplete. These holes beg to be filled, whether in a single poem or in ordering a collection. We want to move toward a feeling of wholeness when writing a poem. But, of course, there are also the lumps. The clumsy places. The overwrought and overwritten, the clichéd, the too-familiar. These places must be smoothed out for the poem to succeed.

And this is where the intellect comes in. According to Picasso, “Sculpture is the art of the intelligence.” The poet brain now takes over, uses its ability to view the raw material with eyes that see the future, for this is what the art of revision is. To let go of the constructs of the original draft and see the poem for what it might be. This ability to envision a form in the amorphous shape and whittle away at the unnecessary pieces, to hone and carve the block of text into new life, makes the poet the finest of sculptors. Even poets who meticulously plan lines before committing them to paper are doing the work of the sculptor – waiting to understand what shape wants to emerge before putting chisel to stone.

Once a poem is shaped and polished, it needs a reader. So a poet seeks a pedestal on which to place the finished object, a public place where it can inspire reaction. This is the submission and publication aspect of writing, the part that seems the most dry and business-like, but one that is important, too. Sculptor Anthony Caro once said,  So, in other words, how you respond to a sculpture, how a viewer sees the sculpture, is vital.” The poem is similarly not complete without readers, readers who bring their own sensibilities about language and syntax, who bring their own experiences and references to the poem. The reader may see holes where the poet saw lumps or find faults where the poet imagined none. The reader’s body may react in different ways than the poet’s did as the words travel down the page. No matter. Without a reader, all of that sculpting may as well still be a square block of marble or a pile of unformed clay. One of my favorite sculptors, Alberto Giacometti, said, “I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality… to protect myself.” And isn’t this what a poet does–seek shelter in language, write to observe, to understand, to explicate her world?


Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018).

ABCs of Poetry: R is for Repetition

Posted by on May 28, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: R is for Repetition

I have heard Pete Townshend tell Karen he can see for miles—57 times per song, in fact. I can feel his eyes. I do not need to hear another descriptor of his jealousy.

My lungs have faltered beneath the heartbeat of Elisabeth Bishop’s Sestina. I am glued under the child’s inscrutable house.

I have cried still always cry every time Plath confesses, “I think I made you up inside my head.” I am sorry, miss. I think you might be right. I think I might have, too. Each time you say it, I am a little more certain of us both.

But why?

There’s a lot to be said about the power of repetition in language. It is used in speeches and songwriting to bring people together, to create memorable takeaways, to give people spoken souvenirs and a role to play in any given event. In certain instances, it creates predictability. 

In others, it allows you to take the predictability you have established and subvert it; creating something wholly new, unnerving, and meaningful.

When I think back on innovative uses of repetition in poetry, I often think of the poet Matthew Lafreniere, who we were fortunate to publish in the third issue of Spry. His poem, “Dream of the Jar,” is haunting, surreal, and at once blushes with humor.  It’s a good study in the ways in which repetition, not only of certain words, but of sounds and of concepts, each in their own way transformed throughout a piece, can create the slow, steady sensation of movement.


Linsey Jayne is a wave-headed poet with a penchant for jazz who received her MFA in creative writing at Fairfield University. Her writing has been published in such publications as The Standard-TimesThe Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle, and exactly.what.  She has served as the chief poetry editor for Mason’s Road, as well as the student editor for the Bryant Literary Review and the opinion section editor of The Archway. Linsey is currently at work on her first chapbook, entitled Idle Jive.