Briefs Blog

ABCs of Poetry: Q is for Quatrain

Posted by on May 27, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Q is for Quatrain

When you’re a poet and are given the option to write something using the letter “Q,” the first thing that springs to mind is QUATRAIN. Well, it did for me, anyway. So what IS it, you ask? The shortest answer is that a quatrain (from the French word for four: “quatre”) is a four-line stanza of poetry. It can be a stand-alone poem of only four lines, or can be a four-line stanza within a longer poem.

As a dramatic device, a quatrain not only aids in the memorization of a poem, it also helps give structure, form and rhythm to it. The quatrain organizes the poem, much like paragraphs in an essay help organize a page. By creating some white space, the words become less overwhelming and more accessible to the reader.  Additionally, the stanzas as well as the rhyme scheme and meter help propel the reader audibly forward through the poem, navigating to its conclusion. 

In formal poetry, the rhyme scheme and meter help define the specific type of quatrain. Historically different types of quatrains have been used for specific purposes and are found in literary traditions from cultures around the world. There are many different variations, but according to Literary Devices some include:

  • Ballad Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABAB with iambic tetrameter

  • Envelope Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic tetrameter

  • Goethe Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABAB but no meter

  • Italian Quatrain – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic pentameter  

  • Hymnal Quatrain – rhyme scheme is A4 B3 C4 B3; multi-stanza contains three alternating rhymes with iambic trimester and iambic tetrameter

  • Decasyllabic Quatrain – rhyme scheme is AABB or ABAB; if written in iambic pentameter, qualifies as Heroic or Elegiac Stanza  

  • Memoriam Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic tetrameter

Let’s take a brief but close look at the Heroic Stanza or Elegiac Stanza. An elegiac poem is one that is sad, somber and generally about death, and traditionally follows this format through the stages of loss: lamentation, praise/admiration, consolation.  A famous example is “Elegy Written in Country Courtyard” by Thomas Gray:

“The tolls curfew the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Another example is William Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont.” Not only is this an elegy, it is also an ekphrastic poem as well. Written in iambic pentameter, each individual stanza has an “ABAB” rhyme scheme, and proceeds through the stages of loss, seeking solace and consolation.

“Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”

As a literary device, quatrains have a long history; the cultural variations are worth exploring further.  For a deeper dive into quatrains, especially those from world literature, check out these more extensive descriptions and type examples.

Heidi St. Jean received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Fairfield University, where she was selected as the recipient of its 2013 Academic Achievement Award for the M.F.A. program. She was poetry editor of Theodate, an online ekphrastic poetry journal. She also previously worked as managing editor for the literary journal Drunken Boat, and was one of two poetry editors for Mason’s Road. Her poetry and essays have published in Spry; Rock & Sling; Afterimage: Inklight; The Lyon Review; The Barefoot Review; Long River Run; Mason’s Road and Theodate, among others. Her ekphrastic poem, “The Lawrence Tree,” was selected as Third Prize winner in the 2013 Al Savard Memorial Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Connecticut Poetry Society. (The judge was Russell Strauss, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.) Her poem, “Surrealistic Dream of the Synesthete,” won Honorable Mention in the Maine Media Workshop and College contest, displaying in Maine Media Gallery’s “Dreams” exhibit during Spring 2014. Her media criticism/op-ed piece, “Dickinson Film More Fiction Than Fact” was written after a private screening of “A Quiet Passion,” the Terence Davies’ film, and was published in June 2016 in the Hampshire Gazette. In 2017, thirty of her poems appeared in the June issue of Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, and her ekphrastic poem “Bobolink Song, En Plein Air” displayed as part of “ekphrasis v” with the exhibition “Michael Gallagher — Sketching the Landscape: A Plein Air Journal” in the Bellarmine Hall Galleries/Fairfield Museum of Art. In 2019, her poem “Igneous Dreams” appeared in the “Ekphrasis III” exhibit in Fairfield, CT. She is currently seeking publication for her latest manuscript. She works professionally as a creative strategist, writer and editor.

ABCs of Poetry: P is for Puzzle

Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: P is for Puzzle

Reading poetry sometimes involves a degree of puzzlement. How are we to make sense of the abstractions and ambiguities of figurative language? How are we to comprehend the ways in which the sounds and rhythms of a poem create emotion beyond the words themselves? When one image is placed next to another in a surprising way, how are we to move past that delightful shock into understanding and even revelation?

Writing poetry, however, does not always involve the same kind of puzzlement that reading does. As we write, we usually come to a clearer and clearer understanding about what and how we hope to communicate. Instead of being puzzling, writing a poem, becomes a puzzle: the challenging, sometimes frustrating, often highly pleasurable process of fitting the parts of the poem together so that all of the poet’s tools (language, sound, rhythm, trope, form) work together to create a meaningful, though perhaps at times puzzling, experience for the reader.

Puzzles and the Pleasure of Revision

Helen Vendler once famously said of the Roman poet Horace that he “made every word count.” In fact, the best poems make everything count. Ideally a finished poem, like a finished puzzle, is unified and elegant: each word is in place; every line contributes to the poem’s total meaning; and every image, trope, and sound device works in the service of the whole.

Nevertheless, the process of revising a poem and the trial and error that leads to the finished piece is rarely straightforward, elegant or easy. Since each part of a poem interlocks with and affects every other, if a poet adds, drops or shifts something during the writing process, the entire poem will need to be re-examined in light of what we have just revised. Imagine a fantastic puzzle in which the pieces themselves seem to change shape, grow legs, hair, and begin to stoop just when you thought they might be captured and defined!

Puzzling Yourself: Writing with Constraints

Sometimes, even if we begin a poem with a good idea about what we want to say, it’s hard to know exactly how to go about saying it. To give our writing form and to make writing more fun and/or challenging, it can be useful to set the terms of a poetic puzzle by defining in advance the rules for how the poem should look, sound, and/or be presented on the page. These constraints could include the challenges of writing in a fixed rhyme and meter or in the form of a sonnet, ballad, or villanelle, but a poet can also devise constraints, or puzzles, for writing that offer a wide variety of options for poetic playfulness.

The French Oulipo group (a name that stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or “workshop of potential literature”) worked within a variety of whimsical constraints including writing entire novels without the use of the letter “e” and writing in palindrome. However, less radical constraints might take the form of limiting the number of syllables in a line or requiring the poem to use a certain trope, image pattern, or type of language. Other self-imposed constraints could include deciding in advance to include, say, an insect, a hairnet and a reference to a television program, to make use of dialogue, a pattern of internal rhyme, or to repeat the same word once, or ten times, in every stanza.

The result of puzzling a poem within the confines of constraints is often surprising since the restrictions work against our instincts, forcing us, in an effort to complete the puzzle we have set for ourselves, to reach beyond the easy word or well-trodden image. In this way constraints can inspire a poet to incorporate new ideas and innovative forms of expression. Like the tension between nature and nurture, a constrained poem is shaped not just by the poet, but by the structural “DNA” of the poem itself, so that the very puzzle of the poem becomes a poet when the poet becomes a puzzler.

Abra Bertman lives in Amsterdam where she teaches English literature at the International School of Amsterdam. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Citron Review, Rust + Moth, and Slipstream Poetry Magazine, among others. Abra was nominated for the Best of the Net in 2016. Her poem “When the World Comes Home,” a collaboration with jazz pianist Franz Von Chossy, appears in the liner notes of the CD of the same name.

ABCs of Poetry: O is for Ode

Posted by on May 25, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: O is for Ode

Poems can accomplish many things: self-reflection, repentance, emotional evocation, observation, lamentation, and beyond. One of the most common things people think of when they think of poetry is love—and what a true, opportune correlation that is. Poetry is a perfect vessel to express love, adoration, and appreciation. While love can be conveyed with nearly any poetic form, odes are traditionally used as a means to celebrate the subject of the poem.

Think of an ode as a chant or a song (as derived from the Greek word aeideina). Odes are lyrical in style and can rhyme or not. There are three types of odes: Pindar Ode, Horatian Ode, and Irregular Ode. While understanding these three types can help appreciate odes, it isn’t necessary in order to start writing one. Odes can be written systematically with formal patterns, or they can be more relaxed and intimate. In odes today, what takes precedence is the thematic content rather than the structure.

Odes do not have to written about love of people (while they certainly can be)—in fact, odes  most often express love for ideas and inanimate objects. For example, in the famous poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, William Wordsworth writes primarily about youth (the contents of odes tend to reveal themselves within their title). Within its eleven stanzas, this ode dotes on the sensations of experience and life through a child’s eyes, such as meadows, groves, and streams.

Odes can also embrace common, everyday things. In his poem “Ode to Kool-Aid”, Marcus Jackson reminisces on the simple pleasures of a delicious beverage while also invoking memories of people: “In ninth grade, Sandra / employed a jug of Black Cherry / to dye her straightened / bangs burgundy.” In this way Jackson finds something that most people can relate to and transcends to personal and cultural levels.

The poem “Short Ode to Screwball Women” by Rachel Wetzsteon highlights womanhood during times of stress. Wetzsteon writes about times “when your wayward husband /

courted the heiress, you stormed her gates / disguised as a floozy” but redeems such struggles in the last stanza with “But a girl can dream, can realize, high / on heroines, that she is mortal / and therefore fearless”.

Odes can also be self-reflexive. Sharon Olds, who wrote many odes, countered Elvie Shockley’s “Ode to My Blackness” with her own “Ode to My Whiteness”. Shockley writes of her blackness: “you are my shelter from the storm / and the storm / my anchor / and the troubled sea” to which Olds responds of her whiteness, “You were invisible to me, / you went without saying. / You were my weapon, secret from myself.”

When writing an ode, consider keeping the subject as specific as possible. The more idiosyncratic or concrete the subject, the more detail the poet will be able convey. An easy way to begin an ode (once the subject is selected) is to write directly to the subject; if it sounds like the speaker of the poem is communicating to the subject, praise will be evoked efficiently.

Odes are perfect for celebrating beloved things, whether it is a favorite drink, matters of the self, or idealistic concepts. Think about something you can’t live without, something you adore, something you’re thankful for. Write an ode to this thing and you will be surprised about how much you have to say. This exercise may also lead to other themes you want to pursue in your writing, and will also make you feel good inside for cherishing the this beloved thing with words.

Nathan Elias is the author of the chapbooks A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here: A Novelette and Glass City Blues: Poems. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Antioch University Los Angeles, and he has served as editor on the literary journal Lunch Ticket. His work has appeared in Entropy, PANK, Hobart, Barnstorm, and elsewhere. His films and screenplays have been official selections or finalists in festivals such as Cannes Court Métrage, Glass City Film Festival, Canadian Film Centre, Texas Independent Film Festival, and both Hollywood and New York Screenplay Contests. He has taught a variety of creative writing classes, including fiction, poetry, and screenwriting. Find him on his website or @_NathanElias

ABCs of Poetry: N is for the Necessity of N+7

Posted by on May 24, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: N is for the Necessity of N+7

“Agreed. Let’s start at ridiculous and move backwards.”

– Professor Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction

My most recent motto as writer-poet-artist has been to not take myself too seriously, which has continued my exploration in alternative ways to play with words. I have found, more often than not, that playful creativity comes not from an open expanse of possibilities, but out of the potentiality that comes from constraint.

Poets have many tools in their toolbox, not the least of which are techniques spawned from the OuLiPo (ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature). The OuLiPo movement has given us many techniques and playful forms, including novels that omit a type of word or letter entirely, as a means for expanse. Often, constrained writing is a recommended antidote for writing/artistic blocks because it forces a writer-poet-artist out of their comfort zone. N+7 is likely the most well-known OuLiPo technique and one that I hold near and dear to my heart.

As the OuLiPo movement’s name suggests, when it comes to using N+7 in my poetry, I consider the outcome of the exercise to be a potential, instead of final, version of an idea, meaning, or thought. N+7 requests of its writer-poet-artist to take a literary (or not) text and replace each noun with the subsequent seventh noun in a dictionary or lexicon of the writer-poet-artist’s choosing. The charm of this technique is when the outcome is nonsense. It gives a fresh perspective on an established, concrete thought, which then allows the writer-poet-artist to rethink what they know.

For instance, take the title of this piece, “N is for the Necessity of N+7”, and run it through an auto-generator. When selecting the small dictionary option, the N+7 version of the title would be, “N is for the Nerve of N+7”. I think that’s quite fun, and a bit cheeky, when comparing the technique to the more traditional poetic forms. If I were to use the N+7 version of the title instead, how would that change the underlying theme of this piece? Hint: it’d probably end in a rant against conventional forms which I’ll spare you from, dear reader.

And, just as N+7 begs for fluidity in verse and prose, so does the general technique question its own form. Instead of every subsequent seventh noun, why not every fifth or eleventh or twenty-sixth? Why not, instead of nouns, verbs or adjectives? What’s different about the experience of using an auto-generator, an online dictionary, or a physical one?

In my graduate thesis, I employed the poetics of nonsense, no sense, and nuance, all of which are encapsulated in the the necessity of N+7. A fresh perspective on a meaning can open up a world of new thoughts, energy, and intrigue for a writer-poet-artist. So, I encourage you: go forth, and play! Or, said another way: go forth, and nag those napping narratives.

P.S. – For some giggles, check out these N+7s of popular texts:

The Book of Genesis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence


Roast chicken and sage and onion stuffing and gooseberry sauce

Jenn Storey is a confessional poet working on a fantasy novel while being generally, and genuinely, out of touch in the American Midwest. She holds a BA in Computing and Information Technology and an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Peach Fuzz Magazine, Poydras Review, Five:2:One Magazine, and elsewhere. She sometimes posts on Instagram @jenn_storey, is the co-founder of Recken Press, and believes in magic in the practical sense.

ABCs of Poetry: M is for Marginalized

Posted by on May 23, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: M is for Marginalized

The marginalized moments and objects surrounding the space one occupies are a poet’s most useful tool for crafting art out of the written word. While more grandiose moments can occupy a work to great effect—space battles and wizards are fine, I guess—writing poetry about peripheral happenings and innocuous moments can create a greater sense of empathy, belonging, understanding, and osmosis than deliberate explanation of meaning, or an over-reliance on transparent context. Some modern or more mainstream writers would rebuke the idea of writing about the sunlight hitting a wooden desk at just the right angle because it has “been done” and “no one needs to write about images anymore,” but any admirer of art can contest that an image speaks to someone differently from various viewpoints. That light could mean hope for one person of a certain generation, darkness for another of a different generation, and the desk could mean nostalgia the same way it could mean a nightmare. Nonetheless, the idea that such small objects, such seemingly insignificant moments, could move someone emotionally one way or another based on what angle or mindset they are in is what truly dictates the power that poetry has on a reader.

In terms of creating the best words through marginalized moments, and making them universal in emotion and feeling, one could look at (a personal favorite of mine) Yusuf Komunyakaa’s “Facing It.” The poem is a masterstroke in creating the feeling of unease and tension through experiencing a bout of PTSD without the images within the piece taking any real action beyond that of “brushing a boy’s hair.” Certain trigger words are utilized throughout the piece that do signify war to the general public: namely, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. While the granite acts as a grandiose display of honor and gratitude, the real message within the poem lies in the speaker’s subtle movements (I turn this way [away from the memorial, away from the expired army brethren]—the stone lets me go), his exact count of  the deceased and how that triggers survivor’s guilt (I go down the 58,022 names,/half-expecting to find/my own in letters like smoke.) and a haunting that he experiences that is not fully detailed in the least bit, but is drawn out for the reader to understand that these types of visitations are not natural, and have a profound effect on his interactions—not only with the wall of names he used to know—but with the functioning world around him (A white vet’s image floats/closer to me, then his pale eyes/look through mine. I’m a window.). The entire poem, if it were interpreted in real time, would take no longer than a few seconds to experience. However, poetry manages to take these moments and elongate them to a degree that allows for the senses to leisurely acclimate to the speaker’s imagination. We feel what the writer feels because, while many may not know the atrocities of war first hand, things like counting, movement, and memory are all feelings that are universal and can be manipulated for an empathetic effect. The little details within the every day human experience speak volumes more than the overt and plainly stated actions. Whether or not one has experienced war, the feeling of survivor’s guilt after reading that one person passed away in an event that could have easily taken your own life is tremendously heavy on anyone to comprehend—let alone nearly 60,000 people passing.

But if we can take a bit more of a lighter approach, consider William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem that illustrates usage of marginalized imagery to convey a sprawling array of possible meanings and emotion. The title itself is indicative of the what matters to the speaker of this work. With an opening of “So much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow” (which, in itself, is already half of the poem), the writer looks at an object with the same level of reverence as a loved one or a family heirloom. In a few words, the writer has already illuminated the every day object—an object overlooked and taken for granted even by farmers—and hinted toward the reader that the importance of this object is vital to the poem, and that the existence of the poem would be null if not for this object’s presence. The wheelbarrow is no longer a wheelbarrow, but a vital artery that drives the meaning of the poem and demands that the reader necessitate attention toward the wheelbarrow. The sparse usage of words draws even more scrutiny to the objects in question, with lines like, “glazed with rain/ water,” showing a distinction between the idea of water and rain: being transformed from a mobil resource for organic life and plantation in “rain” to that of stagnation and stillness of “water” in the very next line. Having “water” be its own line also lends to the idea that the still object—the water, the wheelbarrow, the whiteness on the chickens—deserves its own recognition. These objects, these moments, sometimes these people, any marginalized being that does not get proper recognition outside of the written word, will get immortalized by simply being written into existence, and in this case given a spotlight for simply being in a line with a paltry amount of words and images. It goes from an auxiliary item or moment and becomes the bearer of an immense weight and significance within the poem. All eyes are on the wheelbarrow and the even more minute items surrounding or engrossing the wheelbarrow. Nowhere but in poetry can such subsistence, such reverence, be dedicated to things, objects, people, moments thought to be fleeting and transform it all into something universally human.

Nothing more clearly states that something matters than addressing it in the surrounding space that everyone and anyone can fill. Not everyone knows the experiences of someone with different life experiences, skin color, mental issues, or the pleasures of meditation. Not everyone can look at the innocuous happenstances of rain dripping off of an inanimate object with a sense of wonder or foreboding. This is what makes the poet’s attention to detail, attention to the marginalized, so important: poets can bring life to the inanimate with their words alone, can create a feeling of majestic wonder out of the mundane, can transform a feeling from innocuous insignificance to that of transformative revelation from simply penning the image of a ray of sunlight hitting a wooden desk just right.                    

Marcus Clayton is an Afro-Latino writer who grew up in South Gate, CA, and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from CSU Long Beach. He is an executive editor for Indicia Literary Journal, currently teaches English Composition at various colleges in Los Angeles, and will be starting a PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California in the fall. Some of his published work can be seen in Tahoma Literary Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Glass: A Journal of Poetry , and DUM DUM Zine among many others.

ABCs of Poetry: L is for Line & Line Break

Posted by on May 22, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: L is for Line & Line Break

I grew up and live in the Midwest. I know—boring. Flat fields, farmland. Nothing around for miles. Dull. Landlocked. But none of those things. Certainly not landlocked—we have five great lakes. I grew up right on the shore of one: Lake Michigan. You can’t see across it to the other side, just another state, though it might as well be France for trying to see it. An expanse. And boring? Dull? Everyone says this about the Midwest but I’ve been here long enough to know what flat lands mean: huge sky. Land—like water—you can’t see the other end of. In college, I knew a “coastie,” as we say here, who said, “I hate the Midwest. There’s nowhere to hide,” and my Kansas-born friend said, “What is there to hide from?” I love driving across the middle of this country for its long, long line. Like my lake, I can never find the end of it—just flatness stretching out. Sometimes I don’t want the end. Against vast sky and land, looking up, looking out, I feel insignificant—and love it.

But if you’ve been in this middle place long enough, you start to look for the breaks as well as the lines, those moments of breath where the landscape curves just slightly or the middle of the field is briefly stopped by some farmhouse—often broken, dilapidated, abandoned—this small moment of a breath, to look intently at what’s there: old planks, a shattered window, a silo no longer used. Then move on as your car passes. So the moments of clarity I have here aren’t white space, but the lack of it. The break becomes the thing itself. So line breaks make us look. They change a landscape. One of my undergraduate poetry professors told me, “I can tell you’re from the Midwest by the way you break your lines.” I’m still not exactly sure what she was pointing to then, but I know that if a poem is a landscape, I’m looking for the places I can breathe, whatever splits that flat line up.

Here are two of the best exercises I’ve gotten considering line: take a prose piece—any prose piece, really—and break it into lines. On a computer or right there on the pages, making slash marks for the points where you think the line should end. If you can find the rhythm of the line in prose, you’ll find it anywhere. And this, from one of my graduate school professors, poet Mary Leader: break one of your own poems three different times into different line lengths: the first version, medium lines, about ten syllabus. Another version gets all short lines, fewer than ten syllables and, finally, break a version of your poem into long lines, more than ten syllables.

Ultimately, what these exercises have to teach about the poetic line is that it’s about play. Like a puzzle, moving the words around, seeing what works. I do this with each of my poems, mixing up line breaks. I ask my students to do it, too. But the thing is, we think so much about line break. It’s what poets talk about, what makes us different than prose writers. We’re all into white space, focusing on the words at the end of each line and what we’re emphasizing. But what does a line break create? A line. A single unit, like a musical measure. I always forget that when I break a line to emphasize the end of it, I’m also emphasizing the beginning of the next, considering how these units bleed into each other. Here is what I tell my students: prose writers can divide their language up into sections, paragraphs, but that sentence—or arguably the phrase—remains the smallest unit. Remains a unit. What we poets do is break that unit smaller, fracture it. We upend the phrase itself. And that new unit we create: that single line is every time a new, small poem.

Bess Cooley won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Columbia Poetry Review, PRISM, Verse Daily, Ruminate, and other journalsHer book reviews can be found online at Sycamore Review, Electric Literature, and Kenyon Review. A graduate of Knox College and the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee, where she is also managing editor of online content for Grist, an editorial reader at Spry, and co-founding editor of Peatsmoke.

ABCs of Poetry: K is for Kite

Posted by on May 21, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: K is for Kite

I grew up at the base of the Wasatch mountain range in Layton, Utah. On windy days, anything that wasn’t tacked down would take flight: Empty five-gallon buckets, drying laundry, trampolines–if wind could get under it, the thing would go. On less violent days, we would fly kites in the backyard or out in the cul-de-sac. These kites were usually cheap, bought from the Dollar Store or the Summer section at Walmart. After a few flights, they were broken. Eventually, my brothers, sister, and I started making our own kites, which were sometimes better, though the quality was inconsistent.

Here’s what we found through several tests: A good kite requires a light frame that forms the basic shape for the kite that the rest of the parts can connect to. This structure can be hard plastic rods, kebab skewers, spare chopsticks, really anything light and rigid. It also requires material that can be lifted by the breeze, typically a plastic or paper “wing” that connects to the structure and can bend upward to create a pocket for the air to stay in. This pocket allows the kite some balance as it rises. A tail, while not necessary, makes for a fun accessory, contrasting the kite which hangs in the air and stays relatively flat with the wild whipping motions of this dangling piece. Finally, there is the string and handle. The kite flyer holds the handle and slowly lets out the string, giving him or her some sense that they are in control; that they are, in fact, masters of the wind. There are more complicated kites in the world, ones shaped like boats or dragons, ones with propellers, ones that mice use for air travel (I don’t have proof of that last one, but it’s plausible). However, I find that a simple kite can do everything I need it to, which is to fly in the air while I lord over the wind on the ground with my string and captain’s hat.

But what does this have to do with poetry? Check this out:

Drivers leant over the rail. One seized my luggage
off the porter’s cart. The rest burst into patois,
with gestures of despair at the lost privilege

of driving me, then turned to other customers.
In the evening pastures horses grazed, their hides wet
with light that shot its lances over the combers.

That’s Walcott, from Omeros. This one is from Rossetti’s “Remember”:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land,
When you can no more hold me by the hand,Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Finally, something a little more modern. This is from James O’Bannon’s poem “Watching fireworks at Kings Island Amusement Park, I cover my ears

in issue 10 of Spry:

I am just a black boy on the back
of a burgundy QX4 watching
lights burn holes into the sky
their booms eating deep
into my chest and my hands
are over my ears as if to say
I can’t stand this noise anymore.

The forms for all three are different. Walcott uses a variation of the terza rima made popular with Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Rossetti writes a fairly straightforward Petrarchan sonnet. Since I lack the deep knowledge of forms necessary to nail down O’Bannon’s structure, let’s call it free verse prose poem, with some interesting line shaping and rhyme scheme (QX4/anymore, et cetera). We can consider each of these structures as analogues to the kite’s rods, the bones of the piece. The structure is rigid, giving the poem some cohesiveness. Without the terza rima, Omeros is just a novel with poetic ambition. Without the sonnet form, we miss that image of the permanence of death juxtaposed against the fleeting nature of life. If O’Bannon had not given himself the freedom to start new thoughts in the middle of old ones we would miss the dual usage of “my hands,” serving both as the end of, “their booms eating deep into my chest and my hands,” and the beginning of “my hands are over my ears as if to say I can’t stand this noise anymore.” In all these examples, the frame keeps the poem in place, allowing the poet to build off of something.

In each too is the wing, that fabric that takes the air and rises up, those powerful passages that stick in our minds, that final striking word that ties every previous thought together. Because these wings are connected to the frame, they can look however the poet wants. I have seen homemade kites, however, with papier mache additions that unbalance them, making them either unable to fly or unable to stay straight. The same is true for the poet who wants to show off their fancy words or make too complicated a point or, as is in fashion, write some inspirational poem that, when read backward, has a completely different message than when read forward. This may get you a viral post, but it is hardly a poem. Remember that the wind does not serve the kite; the kite is subject to the wind. If not for the person on the ground holding the string, the wind would take the kite wherever it blew.

If we want to show off in our poetry, consider investing in a tail. This is a small doodad that differentiates one poem of a given form from others: Walcott’s not-quite ABA rhyme scheme, Rossetti’s deviation from Long-Short-Short-Long lines, O’Bannon’s abandonment of punctuation in his final stanza. Each is a great poem because the poet built onto the frame then added a tail that would not unbalance the kite, but enhance it.

Finally, there is the poet on the ground, flying her kite. Watch as she expertly dips and darts her kite across the sky. See her tilt the handle and the kite whips around in great loops overhead. Or, more likely, watch as the poet struggles at first to get the thing up to where the wind will even take it, and then, when the kite is up, she stands very still, grateful and terrified.

When we try to force a poem, like a kite, it nosedives. When we do the important work of building a frame, covering it with a windcatching wing, tying on an unimposing tail, and connecting some string to hold onto, with some effort, we can get the thing to do the work for us. A poet is nothing more than someone who has prepared by thinking about words, considering their sound, investigating their meaning, who then waits for the wind to pick up. We’ve built our kite and now we throw it in the air and run until it catches wind, then we stand back and watch what the wind can do. We have only enough control over the kite not to lose it. Everything else is up to the wind. And even then, the string may snap and the kite may be lost; we might lose the poem in the wind of creative thought. If that happens, we build another kite and try again.

Kendall Pack is an adjunct professor in Mesa, Arizona, who prays daily for a full-time gig. He graduated from Utah State University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s and in 2015 with a Master’s in literature and writing before realizing that there were other universities in the world. He has been published in The Disconnect and Superstition Review and is a former contributor to Utah Stories. He lives with his wife, Emily, a musician with far too much talent.

ABCs of Poetry: J is for Joypopping

Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: J is for Joypopping

When it comes to poetry, this slang word for recreational drug use that does not become addictive means to stand at the threshold of chaos. To keep a healthy distance from all our own darkness and depression, but to evoke it authentically and compassionately on the page. To describe the flames while not being consumed. It’s a difficult place to find, but absolutely essential to the work of poetry.

My most valuable lessons in poetry have come from R—an initial for a name she doesn’t use any more. I don’t have her permission to tell this story but I want to credit her all the same.

R and I were marooned in central New Jersey, a place where poetry does not thrive, for a few overlapping years. We’d grown up one town apart but hadn’t met until we’d faced some serious setbacks. I was back living with my parents because student debt and an abusive relationship had made financial independence impossible at 26 years old. She was living with her parents while working her way out of credit card debt and finding better strategies to manage mental health and medication. We’d both lived independently and in more exciting places than highway-choked suburbia, and yet, here we were.

No one was hungrier for words and harder working than R. She couch-surfed so she could attend writers’ conferences. She taught yoga sessions as her registration payment at writers’ retreats. She was the first person I’d met who’d ever been to The Strand bookstore in real life, and brought me to free poetry readings at Columbia University. (We were only 35 miles away from Manhattan but it took me weeks to save up for the bus fare. It was worth every penny.)

On the Summer Solstice that year, I picked R up for a long walk at a county park. We talked, among other things, about her policy of not dating other poets. I told her I extended this policy to all artists, really. I had been thinking about Sylvia Plath and Frida Kahlo, women married to other artists. I said I didn’t think their lives were happy on the day-to-day, but my God, did they make good art.

It was a choice artists must make: be happy with a small life, or suer like no other and create something terrifyingly good.

I was looking to be martyred for my art. I begged the muses and the universe to be torment me for the greater good. R saw this, recognized its futility, but was gentle with me.

She said we agreed that many straight masc artists are vampires, or have been historically. I had read biographies of Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda, who were rather unabashedly looking for mommy figures to support them. At the expense of their own ambitions, naturally.

I screamed to no one in particular along that wooded trail: I WON’T BE THAT. I WILL NEVER BE THAT TO ANYONE.

But she also told me about The Chaos. She had a poetry teacher who had written biographies of John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and others. So many poets self-destruct; there’s a lot of suicide, a lot of caving in to demons. And many of them believed that the only way to write well was to get lost in the chaos–alcoholism, drugs, orgies, homelessness, whatever, pick your void.

But the truth is, no one is producing any work when they are lost to the Chaos. When we come back (if we do) and find peace—only then can we write.

It’s a myth that chaos is where the great work comes from, R told me. In fact, there may have been more great work from these artists if they hadn’t wasted so much time in the abyss.

I so desperately wanted it to be true. For her. Me, I would suffer. I deserved it. There could be no peaceful, productive future for me. R was wise and clear-eyed and talented beyond measure. I was broken and hopeless and needed to be refined by agony.

R said there was a way forward: We must stand at the Threshold of Chaos. We do not jump in. But we do not keep too much of a distance. We do not simply write about it while broadcasting our own insularity.

From there, R said we had one goal: Do not let any lover steal our light. Find partners who do not diminish us, but enhance us.

To me this was an impossible task. I was dating someone who showed at my workplace unannounced with gifts and wanted to meet my parents but also said he couldn’t be in a relationship. If I took too long to text him back he’d invite an ex over to his apartment to hang out, then text me all the details of their conversations. The Chaos was romancing me, and I was surrendering to the drama and distraction. R knew it, but never chastised me.

I was journaling at least, stalled out while working on a novel, and drowning in chaos. Smoking so much I developed sleep apnea, waking up gasping in the middle of the night. Working 16-hour days but feeling unable to wind down unless I met up with a friend to make out with at the bar, sometimes drinking so much I had to sleep in my car instead of risking a drive home.

It was a Tale of Two Equinoxes: She was basking in the light, the fruits of her labor, and I was staying awake too long, never resting, to avoid the darkness.

R had inhabited the chaos and worked her way out. She assembled a portfolio and applied only to fully-funded MFA programs. So nervous about rejection, she deactivated Facebook so she wouldn’t see her friends accepted and come to resent them. But I knew she would get in. Of course she got in. It brought her six-hundred miles away from our gas-guzzling commuter enclave, so she could again escape the post-industrial wasteland we knew as home.

It was getting to be old news: a luminary left the pizzeria-and-nail-salon landscape we’d grown up in to work alongside likeminded individuals in a walkable-bikeable-farmers market-and-café-city. I was happy for R but still sad to see her go.

It wasn’t her responsibility to keep me out of The Chaos. It was mine. Still, I shirked this responsibility and dove in.

A year later we caught up over the phone for two hours and I told her of the ugly ways I’d been wasting away: a partner who controlled how I ate and dressed, who gave me no privacy nor room to write. I didn’t have great works as consolation—I barely had my sanity. Misery did not refine me.

That conversation was a bright moment in a late spring full of weekly therapy sessions, nights at the gym, reconnecting with friends I’d neglected, and otherwise returning to myself after that break-up with The Chaos.

It was time to leave the abyss. R taught me my place was at the threshold instead.

Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal. Visit her here.

ABCs of Poetry: I is for Imagery

Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: I is for Imagery

Because human beings understand the sense behind actions so well, we tend to project feelings where there are none. We see a flower drooping its head, and it looks sad or ashamed. We feel the anger behind an old truck growling down the street.

Poets know how to utilize this connection between imagery and emotion. The best can do so with a delicate balance. A poem loaded with images that scrimps on emotion is so solid the reader can’t nudge it, can’t carry it with them. On the other hand, a poem swarming with abstraction floats away from the reader’s grasp, a ghost of what a poem could be. But even one strong image has the potential to keep a poem on the ground while pointing “toward heaven.”

Take Ellen Bass’ poem “The Thing Is,” a poem comprised of a series of abstractions:

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

What I like about this poem is the way it attempts to grasp for the perfect image, running through a list, mirroring the searching the speaker describes. It shows how action is one of the stronger forms of imagery when it comes to emotion. It’s hard to make clear the feeling of despair, but it’s easy to picture someone in that state, how they might act, which is where the last image of the hands grasping a face comes in. This is the fundamental moment that holds the poem together in the end, as if Bass surrenders to that final image, the way, according to the poem, one has to surrender to life.

Bass also makes use of an important device, that of the repeating dynamic image. In the fourth line, she brings the hands in as they try to grasp life in the form of burnt paper. By the final image, the hands return but in a more localized way that borders on synecdoche when she mentions “palms” instead. Even the action alters slightly from the figurative past tense “held” in line three, to the literal present tense “hold” in line twelve. These shifts help to emphasize the journey the speaker describes from despair to acceptance. Thanks to this dynamic, we have a living, breathing image that not only holds together a poem’s striving to make clear an elusive emotion, it does so while serving the poem thematically.

It’s interesting what happens when this dynamic isn’t fully realized. Raymond Carver, some forget, was a decent poet. I admire many of his poems for their simplicity, their terseness,  but where he struggles to develop a connective dynamic within his images. He’s often compared to Williams in the sense that the images and the emotions tend to float away from each other. The difference is Williams used sound, line, and syntax, to build the connections in more subtle ways. Carver, on the other hand, a master prose writer, flirted with the undercurrents of line and sound but never perfected his practice. So the images strung along the lines tend to serve practical purposes and can become stale. If we look at one of his more well-known poems “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year” we witness that struggle:

October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.

In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?

I don’t mean to suggest Carver’s poem is without its strength in imagery. The use of the perch is specific, and Carver ties back to it with the final line, so it can symbolize the lack of connection the speaker feels with his father, and its subtle New Testament ties develop the image outward. But when I read this poem, I find myself wondering why it seems to fall short. The disconnect begins with the don’t establish emotional ties well enough to avoid explanation. Specifically lines six and seven. The denim, the year and make of the vehicle, what do these images serve to do aside from giving us a clear visual of the photograph? Because the reader can’t make the connection, Carver spends the next three lines explaining.

The biggest moment of explanation occurs in the final stanza. As I said, some images exude a certain strength, but as a whole, they don’t move toward a clear common emotion, so Carver has the speaker tell us what he’s feeling, “Father, I love you,/ yet how can I say thank you…” This moment carries a lot of heft, which is part of the reason Carver rests it justifiably on the sharpest caesura in the poem. But when the images work together well in a vignette like this, the emotion occurs with little to no need of explanation.

Robert Hayden’s impeccable poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” like Carver’s poem, is a vignette, and also like Carver’s it describes the speaker’s father and expresses feelings of love, gratefulness, and regret:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Nearly every image in the poem expands outward into layers of association. Even the sound of “splintering, breaking” can refer to both physical and emotional associations, literal and figurative.

The poem expresses emotions directly only twice, but not as a way of explaining the emotion behind an image the way Carver’s poem does. With reference to “the chronic angers of that house,” for example, the image of the “house” operates dynamically and effectively by casting the anger away from the father, using metonymy to represent the family, and evoking the common moniker of a church, an image constantly hovering below the surface.

The second comments, like Carver, on love. But unlike Carver, love in this case is given a direct image, that of the “austere and lonely offices” which strongly juxtaposes itself from the warm rooms the father cultivates. But the offices also create a lonely image that reflect the father’s love for his family that goes unappreciated. Hayden pays attention also to line placement, taking the image one step higher, so ultimately love isn’t an action performed by the speaker (as in Carver’s case), it’s an empty spare object a whole line away from the speaker, beyond his reach. This is the difference between making the image work and working the image.

The word emotion implies movement. If the reader is to be moved, the poet needs consider the dynamics of an image’s associations, its emotional subtleties. All three of these poems offer a glimpse into the emotive undercurrents imagery is capable of carrying. The real question is whether or not the poet can pay enough attention to what needs to be done in order to draw that emotion out.

Marcus Whalbring’s first book of poems appeared in 2013. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Spry, High Shelf, the
Cortland Review, Now Culture, Blood Lotus, and others. He earned his MFA from Miami University. He lives with this wife and children in Indiana where he’s a teacher.

ABCs of Poetry: H is for Hyperbole

Posted by on May 18, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: H is for Hyperbole

katie EberFor some reason, when I think about hyperbole, my mind immediately cuts to Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Nick Bottom, as Pyramus, kills himself.

“Thus die I, thus, thus, thus.
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon take thy flight:
[Exit Moonshine]
Now die, die, die, die, die.”

It’s ridiculous. Dude, just die already. The best actors playing Bottom will over-act the scene, like a pratfall in an infomercial or William Shatner.

But in poetry, hyperbole gives a poet license to create images that stay and stick to your memory like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. While exaggeration can happen in lyric poetry, there it simply functions as an additional metaphor, adding to the flow of the work. But when used in a different setting, it’s a way for the poet to force the reader to escape the obvious interpretations that often accompany poems of the self, or poems that confess.

The best poetic hyperbole happens in “truth-telling” poems – works where the writer wants to reveal something about the self (or the speaker, if they’re writing in persona).

Take, for example, the poem that comes up most when you google “Hyperbole in Poetry” – Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.”

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

There’s a reason the algorithms bring this one to the forefront – those last three lines are a hyperbolic gut-punch. Taken literally, it means that his mother hit him so hard in the past that he can still feel it burn in the present. But anyone who has been slapped knows that the physical feeling does go away eventually. His statement that a wound in his youth still gives him pain isn’t there to be read literally – it’s there to let you, the reader, deeper into the poet’s experience.

Read as: “My father’s suicide hurt my family so much that deep down, I still feel that pain.”

Yeah, it ruins the poem a bit to be so blunt. But would we have gotten there if the poem ended without the poet getting hurt? Or if the poet just said “my mom used to hit me because my dad killed himself?” Probably not. Hyperbole softens that blow and allows the reader to sneak into the poet’s world with ease.

But on the other side, hyperbole can exacerbate the things that exist in real life – the experiences we need to call attention to through verse in order to make people feel them and not allow them to turn away.

We can see this famously in poems born from wartime, where the reality of battle and horrors of war can create images that would otherwise seem hyperbolic, but in this context show exactly what they need to. Examples of this are Soul Vang’s “Song of the Cluster Bomblet,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, and  Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, or when war doesn’t look like war, like in Wislawa Szymborska’s “The Terrorist, He Watches” or Nomi Jones’ “War Catalogues”, or in the aftermath of war, like in “Facing It” by Yousef Komunyakaa.

For these poets, the reality they bring forward isn’t hyperbole, but rather uses the power of their experience, like Kunitz does, to help others know their world. It’s a way that poetry can use the things that are usually “not meant to be taken literally” as an act of truth-telling.

In a way, hyperbole in poetry is the exact opposite of its textbook definition.

In poetry, hyperbole helps us understand…literally.

Katie Eber holds a B.A. in English Literature from Roanoke College (Class of ‘11) and is a 2014 graduate from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Fairfield University. Her work has been published in Sum Journal, Hobo Pancakes, Spry Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, MadHat Lit, White Stag Journal, DASH, and Garbanzo Literary journal.

Katie enjoys good beer, good sandwiches, and advocating for the widespread use of business hammocks (you can find them in the hammock district, on third).

She resides in the shadow of the Metacomet Ridge in Wallingford, Connecticut, where she is the current town Poet Laureate.