Tag Archives: poems

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.

Poems for National Poetry Month

April is my favorite time of year. Not for the showers (although, rain’s nice), nor for the beginning of spring; rather, April is my favorite time of the year because it’s officially National Poetry Month and that means I get to spam everyone I know on Facebook with poems everyday, and sometimes twice a day, for a whole month. It’s also the month of William Shakespeare’s birth and death, so I like to pay special attention to his sonnets and poems, as well as poetry that celebrates his work, during my favorite time of the year.

It’s really an English degree holder’s dream.

I want to share poetry with everyone this time of the year, and you are not immune. Here’s a poetry month starter kit of poetry for you to share with your friends, or to just read an enjoy, during my favorite month of the year.

My Brain got Stuck in a Rhyming Loop

When it comes to creative projects at school, my go-to is poetry. I had a big creative project due in one of my classes this past week, and I decided, since it was for Arthurian Romance, to imitate the Medieval French style of poetry. For a week solid, I was spending my nights creating plot and writing in rhyming couplets.

Let me tell you about rhyming couplets.

Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.
Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.

At first, it really isn’t that easy to do. I tend to use a rhyming dictionary when I start out, because my brain isn’t in rhyming mode yet. For the first few days working on an epic, 15 page poem written in eight syllable rhyming couplets, the rhyming dictionary is a godsend. I also use an on-line thesaurus to find words of varying syllables so I can force my thoughts into the eight syllable mold. A thesaurus is also useful in finding words that have the right concept behind them and easy rhymes – for example, the word orange is a jerk when it comes to rhyming, but using a thesaurus gives me all kinds of other options to that dreaded word – warm, flame, gold, etc., which are all much easier to rhyme with.

As time passes, however, these tools fade as the brain starts thinking in rhyme. I’m not kidding – on the third day of working with my project until the day it was due, my brain was rhyming. And so the downside of rhyming started to kick in.

Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.

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.

How to Read Poetry with a Little Help from Billy Collins

Ah poetry, that thing we all universally love, appreciate, and understand.

Well, some of us, anyway. For others, poetry is a torture device full of alliterations, assonance, allusions, and apostrophe that cause anger. This is because some of us read poetry to appreciate it, think about it, and to find pleasure in it, and others, well, as Billy Collins’ poem Introduction to Poetry shows, try to find meaning.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

But a poem isn’t about meaning. A poem’s answer is never going to be five. A poem isn’t something that can be solved – a poem is something to bring about contemplation and pleasure.

“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”).