Tag Archives: poem

Story Shots: Fall

The fall is a time of leaves changing colors, weather cooling down, harvest, pumpkin festivals, people going back to school, and so much more. Story Shots, our creative nonfiction series, has taken on this theme in our latest installment. Below we have four fall-themed pieces from different writers for your pleasure.


A List: We fall…

into bed.
and asleep.

in and out
of love.
into another’s arms.
in and out
of bad habits.
apart, and
together.

into debt.
onto hard times.
into a deep depression,
and on our knees.

down the rabbit hole,
like fall leaves;
ashes, ashes,
we all fall down.

– Nicole Embrey


As a child, I mainly remember triangle sandwiches at bible camp, but I also remember believing in the God of Israel as much as I believed the sun would come up each day. I was raised by a Christian, single mother and attended those camps at my grandma’s church every summer in an old logging town pared into mountains as green and buckled as elephant apples. The fundamentalist church preached a tough no-sin doctrine, and I pled for salvation at camp the summer before I turned fourteen, old enough to engage with an ancient text about God’s chosen people and a certain Israeli.

I entered the Bush administration wild with purpose. My love affair with Israel had begun.

Politics and Poetry: The Harlem Renaissance

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and other blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today. Today we’re going to focus on Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Countee Cullen.

Image of Langston Hughes
Image from The Huffington Post

Langston Hughes is hands down one of the best known American poets, not just one of the best known Harlem Renaissance poets. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and invited a new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes, born in 1902, lived through both the depression and became part of the peace movement in the 1940s to keep Americans at home and out of WWII. He was outspoken in his concept that as long as the U.S. had Jim Crow Laws and racial segregation, black Americans should not serve in the military and defend a country that did not offer them equal rights. As part of the left, during the time of McCarthyism, Hughes was accused of being a communist. He wasn’t tried or anything, but when asked why he never did join the American communist party, he stated “I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, so my interest in whatever may be considered political has always been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.” Hughes work was highly influential during the civil rights movement and has remained influential to this day. Here are two of his poems I wish to share today, the first being “You and Your Whole Race” written in 1930:

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!

This next poem of his is titled “Harlem” and is from 1951:

The Ways I Use Poetry

When I was in grade school, I used poetry for entertainment. My grade school had regular book fairs, and one of the first books I bought on my own was The Random House Book of Poetry for Children because, in the first few pages, it had a funny poem about a boy that would take off all his clothing and could never figure out how to put it back on. The book was large and full of various poems. When there wasn’t anything to watch on television, or when I finished some of my homework, I’d sit in my room and read through my book of poetry and try to memorize the poems that were on the pages. As I aged, the appeal of the book of children’s poetry faded, and it was placed into a box and given to Goodwill.

It wasn’t until high school that I started to use poetry again. This time, I used poetry as a form of self-expression, as many teens end up doing. Sometimes I wrote poems and sometimes I wrote song lyrics, but they were always dark and angry and honestly, not very good. I used poetry to help form my self-identity and to work through an extreme level of teenage angst. These works often found themselves on napkins, or on ripped up pieces of paper, or inside of one of my textbooks. The poetry I wrote back then is long gone, which is probably a good thing. If I had to classify the type of use this poetry was, it would fall under the category of misuse.

Ode to the Haiku

The haiku is one of my favorite poetic forms. I will often jot one down in class when not paying attention to a teacher, or when riding as a passenger in a car, or on my friend’s facebook pages when I am awake late at night and procrastinating on something important to do.

Haikus are short and to the point, much like I am. It was as if the form was made for me, but really, it wasn’t. Haikus were made for all to enjoy, not just me. A traditional haiku has 17 syllables, broken up into lines that are 5/7/5 syllables each. In sticking with tradition, most haikus usually include references to nature or the seasons and contain a contrasting image within it. It is common for haikus to have spliced words, elongated vowel sounds or double syllabic sounds to fulfill the syllable count requirements. Haikus can also be joined together to make a larger poem, but each haiku must stand on its own and be able to be read as an independent piece for the poem to truly be considered a haiku.

Below is my interpretation of a traditional haiku. This is a series of haikus, but each also stand independently, or, I at least hope they do.

So You Want to Write A Villanelle

Okay so maybe you don’t want to write a villanelle, but that’s only because you don’t know what a villanelle is yet. But once you do know what a villanelle is, you’ll totally want to write one because it is a fun form to write.

In 16th century Italy and Spain, dance songs known as villanella or villancico were peasant tunes without any fixed form. French poets started to write poems called villancelle that again did not follow any fixed rhymes or schemes shortly thereafter.

The first villanelle with a fixed structural form, Jean Passerat’s Villanelle also known as J’ay perdu ma tourterelle, came about in the late 19th century. While the villanelle started in France, it never really caught on there but American poets claimed the poem form and are most known for executing its rigid structural form.

One of the most famous practitioners of the villanelle is Dylan Thomas, with his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now that you’re familiar with the form, let’s talk about the specific features that make the villanelle a villanelle.

“What is Poetry?”

In the wake of slam poetry and “spoken word,” confused audiences have asked themselves what poetry actually is. I think people tend to imagine that it looks and sounds like an English sonnet, with rhyming couplets and metered form (we all did once, right?). It might even have some kind of resolution: a neat bow of a message tying the whole poem together at the end. A poem might look this way, obviously, but I think we’ve moved on since Wordsworth. Poets like Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”) pioneered free verse, or unrhymed, unmetered poetry, free of form or convention.

Poetry was able to say what it wanted, how it wanted. Postmodern writers came back to form from time to time, but usually to satirize their predecessors (think Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress”, a response to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, or Billy Collins “Litany”).

Dear Mark Grist, I’m (Still) Totally In Love with You

This morning I found this amazing video by Mark Grist and his preference on girls:

 

After seeing (and swooning at) this video, I started doing some research about the poet and, holy heck, I love this guy.

Mark Grist is a former English teacher who quit to become a performance poet, but his passion still lies within the classroom. Since leaving his teaching position, he has started to do workshops at schools to get kids interested in poetry again through the use of rap.

 

And that’s not all.

Shaped Poetry

I wouldn’t call myself a poet, but I do write poetry and do pursue publication of my poems. One weakness I have for poetry is shaped poetry. I’ve tried my hand at it many times, but outside of one shaped poem I’ve completed, I haven’t really fell in love with any of my shaped poems.

John Hollander, a well known American poet, makes some fascinating shaped poetry. For example, his cat poetry:

I want to pet his words.

Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poetry is a unique literary form. Unlike novels and short stories, poetry is meant to be read out loud. And, unlike a play or a script, poetry is not supposed to be performed. Poetry lies between silent reading and the stage. Earlier in the blog, I talked about the difference between a poem on the page and a poem out loud, and I stand by the assessment that poetry needs to be read out loud, but furthermore, for poetry to be understood it must also be read out loud and played with.

While the words of a poem on a page don’t change, the intonation, inflection, pauses, breaths, pace, and reader can have a vast effect on the received meaning of a poem. Often enough, what people remember when it comes to a poem is the inflection of the speaker rather than the words and phrases of a poem. When a poem is read in a romantic way, it is received as a romantic poem and, likewise, when a poem is read in a sorrowful way it is received as a sorrowful poem. Take, for example, this poem by W.B. Yeats titled When You Are Old:

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 moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man 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.

Poetry In The Age of Instagram

I follow a lot of writers—whether that be on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr (John Green, anyone?), or Instagram. But Cheryl Strayed doesn’t post sneak peeks of her manuscripts. No, she posts photos of her with Reece Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who apparently are now her best friends after starring in the film adaptation of her memoir, Wild:

We wear our sunglasses at night. #wildmovie #tff41

A post shared by Cheryl Strayed (@cherylstrayed) on

 

I mean, come on. They’re even rocking sunglasses. I think it’s safe to say Cheryl’s living the dream.

It’s harder to share passages of prose on a platform like Instagram. And when authors do release excerpts, it’s generally in a magazine—online or in print. Poets have an advantage on Instagram. For published writers to those less established, Instagram—and features of the digital age, like hashtags for one—gives savvy poets the ability to reach a huge pool of readers from all over the world.

The significance of this is that writers who plan on continuing the craft for years—those who know that they may one day seek to publish a collection of poems or even a novel—can begin developing a following early on in their careers before they ever have a single piece in print. This completely upturns the typical way that the industry works, where publishers act as “gatekeepers.”

There are plenty of ways to approach creating an Instagram for your poetry. As you’ll see from some of the poets whose accounts I’ve included below, some writers choose to separate their personal and professional accounts. This makes sense if you’re a private person or if you simply don’t want to bog down your current followers’ feeds with your poetry (Hey, not everyone’s a word nerd. We get it?). Other writers combine a little bit of it all, the personal, the professional, other hobbies and careers (like photography). And still, other writers choose to remain anonymous, preferring the use of a pen name.

As with all of writing and publishing, there is no one approach, but I think the poets of Instagram prove just how valuable social media can be for writers today. Here are just a few Instagram pages you should stop by:

Alexa Bolton and I went to college together as undergraduates, where we took a creative writing class in poetry. I remember back then, as she so often does now on her Instagram page, hearing her read poems she had written about love. And she does it beautifully. So much so that in the short time since she created her Instagram account (specifically for her poetry) back in January, she has gained nearly four thousand followers. Most of the pieces she posts are unedited. Alexa now teaches at Loyola Marymount University, where she earned herself a fellowship as she works towards her master’s degree.

I was told to pray & He would soon answer. But often, the silence between us feels empty.

A post shared by Alexa Johansen (@alexajohansen) on