Sketching for poets: Notes on a how-to talk by Robert Hass

So, I’m taking this amazing free online course, How Writers Write Poetry from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.  We get twice-weekly video lectures that are all available on YouTube, and we write new poems twice a week to workshop.

I’m finding that I want to channel my inner undergrad and take real lecture notes!  So, I thought I’d share — I also had fun looking up the links to the poems that were quoted in the talk.

My aim is to take notes on at least 30-50% of the lectures this way; I’m assuming some will be more compelling or info-heavy than others.  This first lecture was a real treasure trove; thus, a loooong post!

I’m already finding these exercises incredibly helpful as I put the final touches on my poetry manuscript which is coming out very soon. :)


These notes refer to a video lecture by Robert Hass that is part of the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Please note that the poet quoted many poems from memory, and some quotations might be paraphrases. Where I have looked up a quotation, I’ve included the link/citation.

Please let me know of any corrections at minal [at] minalhajratwala [dot] com . You can also read the closed-caption transcript on YouTube.

Lecture: Sketching Techniques

Robert Hass = Former US Poet Laureate + 7 books of poetry + founder of the Northern California eco-poetry festival Watershed + winner of MacArthur/Pulitzer/etc. Married to the poet Brenda Hillman.

*

Hass says “sketching” is a technique for sitting down to the blank page — “which I’m not very good at.”

The painter, Degas, ran into his neighbor, Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas said he was having trouble writing poems; he had ideas but couldn’t turn them into anything. Mallarmé said, “Ah, the problem is that poetry is not made out of ideas, it’s made out of words.”

Sketch 1 line, 2 lines, 3 lines, 4 lines, then a paragraph.

1 line

The basic unit of poetry is a single line.

Some forms are single-line poems. In Japanese, haiku are often written in one long line.

In this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers
—Issa, 19th c.

That’s the English version. In original, literally, a series of possessives: This world’s hell’s roof’s flower gazing.

Looking for a parking place I can’t find to meditate
— rough paraphrase of a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

The line can be identical to the sentence, or the line can spill over into the next sentence. You get a pause, or you get energy.

The boy walked out into the field to see the white horse.
— paraphrase of a line by DH Lawrence. 

In a single line, it creates a sense of peace. If you broke it other ways, you could create anxiety, or suspense.  [Here is the actual poem, which is a bit different: poets.org/poetsorg/poem/white-horse ]

Examples of wonderful single lines:

All things that love the sun are out of doors.
— William Wordsworth poetryfoundation.org/poem/174814

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?
—Gerard Manley Hopkins. bartleby.com/122/29.html

Half my hundred year life is gone.
—a Chinese poet <?>

O Rose thou art sick.
— William Blake poetryfoundation.org/poem/172938

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
—Theodore Roethke  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172106

Exercise/sketch: 

  • Write down 20 sentences that might be lines from poems / first lines. Look around the room  you’re in now, and write sentences that are descriptions of things. Look around, check out your feelings, and try writing sentences that are a single thought or phrase. Begin with an image, some record of a feeling, something that takes you inward, a strange metaphor, an image of the adequacy or the inadequacy of the world.

2 lines

One is about identity, two is about relation.

The most famous 2-line poem in Latin:

I hate and love, you may ask me why,
I don’t know but I feel it and suffer.
— Catullus  [several translations of Odi Et Amo here: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/latin-poetry-podcast/2013/01/16/i-hate-and-i-love-catullus-85/

It’s two lines but each line has 2 parts.

Look to the blues, spirituals, call & response.

Examples:

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified Desire.
—Blake poetryfoundation.org/poem/246230

Who is it knows the trouble I’ve seen?
Nobody knows but Jesus.
—spiritual

Emptiness! my bride!
Who whistles? who listens?
— Tomaž Šalamun  http://creative.sulekha.com/their-guru-an-emptiness_54677_blog

The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
— Thoreau

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
Why should you not speak to me?
—Walt Whitman

Last winter I observed the snow on a spree with the northwest wind
And it put me out of conceit of all fences and other imaginary lines.
—Whitman

Soft as the massacre of Suns
By Evening’s Sabres slain
— Emily Dickinson http://emilyeveryday.com/2009/07/22/soft-massacre/

What’ll I do if you are far away
and I am blue. What’ll I do?
—Irving Berlin

Study of the work songs of the Bantu [in Technicians of the Sacred, ed. Jerome Rothenberg, ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520049123]: Someone says a line and someone responds. The 2nd line must not be obviously related to the 1st.  For example:

1st person: The elephant was killed by a small arrow.
2nd person: A lake dries up at the edges.

Skillful relationship between the lines: A large thing defeated by something minor. And, the dried lakebed resembles elephant skin.

Exercise/Sketch: 

  • Write a question and then write an answer. Answer in a surprising way.  Or make a statement and then ask a question.
  • Look at your one-liners and see if you want to add a second line. Let the second one surprise you in relation to the first.
  • Consider 2 lines as a game you can play with yourself — quick flash free association to get to the second line.  Try it with the same first line a few times. See what happens. Go Salt: Pepper. Then, Salt: Wound.

3 lines

Here you have the whole world of haiku.

Suma village / A urine-stained quilt / drying on the line

—Busan

Also think about the rhythm of the body and the rhythm of the mind.

3 is about weaving together different things or parts.

Exercise/Sketch:

  • Write something out that’s fairly long: description of your day, a vivid dream you’ve had lately. Then try setting the phrases dancing in a  three-line stanza.

4 lines

Humans organize the world into fours. North/South/West/East.  The world of knowledge — like a strong table on all fours.

Models: Chinese quatrain / English ballad.

Yesterday we climbed stony mountain.
The rocks on the trail were the color of trout.
We talked about our lives, about loneliness.
On top, in the fog, we couldn’t see a thing.
—Tu Fu

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
—Robert Frost  poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
—Theodore Roethke  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172103

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,  …
—Elizabeth Bishop  poets.org/poetsorg/poem/armadillo

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;
— W.B. Yeats  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172055

Make a proposition/ask a question.

Often three lines set up the situation and then the fourth line/leg sets the thing down.

Four brushstrokes of what’s in your consciousness.

Can play with rhyme.

Listen to the singing inside four. We are form-seeking, meaning-seeking, symbol-making creatures to the core of our being. This desire fuses with the sets of four, the order and play of numbers – so this is often where poetry really comes alive.

Exercise/Sketch:

  • Make a four-line gesture that comes to some kind of peace, or question, or disturbance at the end.
  • Write a line. Then write a pair of lines—see how many odd ways you can make relation of twoness: grammatical parallel, rhyme, same idea, contrasting idea. Then try the dance of three’s: take perceptions you have and see what they look line in a three-line stanza, set your imagination skipping. And then maybe for the task of definition, the four line stanza would be appropriate.
  • Hass shares an exercise that his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, assigns: Write a four-line poem that completely sums up your view of the world.

Whew! That’s plenty to do!

Classmates, I look forward to seeing you in our class forums :) and please also feel free to poke around this site or connect with me elsewhere:

#ReadWomen2014: Her Name Is Kaur

Her Name is Kaur

I was honored to be asked to blurb this first-of-its kind anthology, and here’s what I said:

Her Name is Kaur pushes past the boundaries of romance to illuminate the love at the very heart of the faith. In this groundbreaking book, Meeta Kaur has gathered a diverse and fresh group of stories of growing up Sikh and redneck, Sikh and queer, Sikh and daydreaming, Sikh and heartbroken, Sikh and deeply beloved.

Whether discussing the everyday (mother-in-law conflicts) or the taboo (mental illness), these women writers share colorful, intense, and engaging adventures that range from Los Altos to Toronto to Chandigarh.

Title: Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith, edited by Meeta Kaur

Recommended for: Everyone interested in South Asian cultures, women of America, and stories/perspectives you’ve never heard before.

Hey, what’s #ReadWomen2014?

In response to lots of disheartening statistics about the gender gap in literary publishing, zillions of people are posting their favorite women writers on Twitter.  I love getting so many great recommendations of what to read, so I’m joining the fun! You don’t have to have a Twitter account to browse what people are posting at the “year-long celebration of women’s writing.” 

Logo of #ReadWomen2014 with five women authors

Desire + Need + Unpacking Power = #MyWritingProcess

This Monday’s post is part of a blog tour called My Writing Process. Please feel free to copy the questions and join the fun!

My Writing Process – Blog Tour: INSTRUCTIONS

Step 1: Acknowledge the person (& site) who involved you in the blog tour.

I met Joshunda Victoria Sanders when she was in my memoir class at VONA, writing this incredible, brave, powerful prose. I love getting her emails (you can, too, right here) because they’re always wise and generous. Her answers to the #MyWritingProcess questions are right here.

Step 2: Answer 4 questions about your writing process…

1) What are you working on?

• Finishing up a poetry collection that will come out this year from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. The title will be … (uh oh! coming soon … titles are hard!).

• Working on a top-secret novel. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you. No, seriously. All I can say is that the novel is gory and politically scathing, and the plot offers me plenty of opportunities to kill off people who irritate me, which is super satisfying.

• Occasional freelance articles like this and this, including several pieces on craft for The Writer magazine.  I keep wondering if I should go back to a more regular journalism gig. Not like a j-o-b, but maybe a column? Should I? And if so, on what?

• My Ask the Unicorns advice column on living the creative life.

• Writing curricula and prompts and critiques and love notes for the writers in my courses. I love teaching and coaching because it keeps me in this ongoing, amazing conversation about process, which only other writers can truly understand.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I work in a lot of genres, and all of my writing is deeply informed by a social justice ethic plus a quest to understand the power dynamics of societies as well as individuals. I’m always trying to understand and un-cohere the power structures that create suffering.

When I write a lesson for my students about overcoming writing blocks, for example, I’m really talking about how to undo internalized oppression.

In my poetry I’m deeply interested in the power of language. I don’t think it’s so important to self-consciously be different from others’ work; I’m happy to have influences and be part of the long stream of literary conversation, while also exploring whatever lights a spark in me.

Also I write about unicorns.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I’m driven by both desire and need.

Desire: Writing can be a deep pleasure. Poems are so fun, so satisfying. Fiction: You can make anything happen! How wild is that? Nonfiction: Nothing is more mysterious than reality.

Need: Writing is how I figure things out. Honestly, if I didn’t write, I wouldn’t understand people at all, not even myself.

4) How does your writing process work?

Layers. I start with research. All those links below to other people’s answers to these questions? Research. I don’t know why I thought their answers would help me, but I needed to read them before I started writing this.

When I’m ready to write, I draft almost everything longhand (except blog posts). Then I go back through my notebooks and type in the things worth typing.

Then I “edit” forever.

By “edit,” I mean that this is actually the real writing, but I fool myself that it’s going to be easier than writing because it’s “just editing.” In this phase I re-write, merge fragments from various notebooks, separate sections, mix in new bits of research, cut out old bits, and freewrite entire new sections that I then integrate into the whole.

By “forever,” I mean until everything finally gels. Usually I don’t know this until the second it happens. Until then, I oscillate between hope that it’s almost done, and despair that it will never be done.

That’s the “first draft,” although in reality, almost everything in it has been drafted and re-drafted at least 20-30 times. At this point, I turn it over to my editor and/or beta readers for feedback, have a mimosa, go to a movie like a normal person, and wait to begin the next round.

The “second draft” goes fairly quickly, but often involves some large structural or organizational shift, resulting in the “final draft,” when I feel a final “a-ha.”

Another week of small tweaks, fact-checking, parting twangs, and waves of fear about finally letting go of the work, and then it’s off to the editor on the way to publication.

So basically, sometimes I’m all glamorous like this:

Joan Crawford, with glam typewriter.

Joan Crawford + fountain pen + typewriter

But mostly I’m like these guys:

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I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I have more to say about my writing process and writing-as-activism over on the Hedgebrook website, right here.

Step 3: Say who is on the week after you are (your chosen two writers). Give a one-sentence bio of each and link to their websites. There’s a #mywritingprocess Twitter tag you can use, as well as linking to your blog post from your Facebook page.

#1) Kristy Lin Billuni, the Sexy Grammarian, is going to have something hot to say about this next week! www.sexygrammar.com/ #2) Oops! I failed to recruit a second blogger. So if you’re a writer and have a blog, please consider yourself tagged!  Post your answers on your own blog next Monday and spread the fun.


L-bracket-greenR-bracket-greenNeed a fairy godmother for your own writing process? Check out what I can do for you, and then schedule a free 30-minute consultation. Email me with a bit about your needs, and some good times/dates to talk.

 


A sampling of other posts in the #MyWritingProcess tour:

Tayari Jones. “I like to whip out my typewriter and bang away for a couple of hours. I have written each book differently, but here are some things that are consistent: I don’t outline and I write the first chapter last.”

Tananarive Due. “Sometimes it’s less horrifying to imagine a supernatural entity at work than it is to reflect on our casual human monstrosity.  Demons make more sense of the nightly news.”

Serena Lin: Drunken Whispers. “I’d like to gather up my courage to submit to literary journals. I tried to post WANTED: COURAGE TO SUBMIT posters in Prospect Park. The drum circle distracted me…”

Safia Jama: A Poet’s Notebook in Progress. “Clearly, the ladybug and I were both working within the same genre—that of sitting on a bench near the Hudson River—yet our work differed vastly.”

Lindsey Mead: A Design So Vast. “The reason I write: so I don’t miss my life…”

Stacie Evans: Process of Elimination. “I like writing challenges. Each year, starting in 2009, I’ve chosen one form and written that each day for the whole [National Poetry] month: tanka, rhyme royal, nove otto, zeno, arun…”

Alejna: Collecting Tokens. “I will assemble previously constructed chunks of my research and stitch them together … then infuse this mass with my sweat, tears and lifeblood. Finally, I will run large currents of electricity through the resulting body of work in hopes that it will take on life…”

Sarah Piazza: Splitting Infinitives. “It is an itch I have to scratch; it is a young child tugging ever more frantically on my sleeve…”

Pamela Hunt Cloyd: Walking on My Hands. “I write about military life from a slightly different vantage point, as I am much older than the typical military wife and I married my husband despite the fact that I used to believe that most people in the military were violent, right-wing, rednecks.”

Dana Talusani: The Kitchen Witch. “Freelancing requires a bravery that I’m not sure I have…”

Shannon Duffy: Deepest Worth. “My best writing comes quickly and leaves me drained and a little high…”

Elizabeth Marro. “I have found that the finish line is where I must be my most patient, my most humble. I’m never done when I think I am.”

Lisa Hsia: Satsuma Bug. “I create to capture a particular something that will no longer be available later in time: a flower, a human (or feline, or canine) individual at a given moment, an emotion, a frustration, a conversation…”

Celestine Nudana: Reading Pleasure/My Journey with Words. “In my country incest is a taboo subject … I’ve always stood up for the downtrodden and marginalized.”

Tish Farrell: Taking the Slow Road/Tarrying Not Typing. “As you talk, the remedies to stuckness will likely pop out of your mouth. Listen out for them. A passive listening post is thus an essential aid. Your dog, cat or canary would be a good choice.”

Vashti Quiroz-Vega. “I’m a pantster when it comes to short stories. I get an idea in my head, and I run with it until it arrives at whatever end.”

Cynthia Manick: Poetry Is What Makes the Invisible Appear. “I write like a convict. I’m scurrying with torn pieces of paper, words are scribbled in horrible handwriting, and I’m trying to capture something?”

Daniel José Older. “Urban Fantasy has, in its mass-market published form anyway, been a very white genre, and I write work that actively degentrifies it. Of course, people of color have always told amazing, fantastical stories about The City…”

Rebekkah Ford: The Musing Writer. “Vampires and werewolves are cool but what about a new mythology?”

Bianca Sloane. “I needed her to tell me how off base it was before I put on my surgical scrubs and took a scalpel to it. I’m finally falling in love with it, which is a wonderful feeling.”

M.L. LeGette: By Candlelight. “My eight year old heart would sing when it saw a bookmark or poster with a dragon or unicorn on it.”

Kuukua Yomekpe: Being a Writer with a Bipolar Brain. “There’s nothing like the feel of paper gently rubbing the first third of my pinkie as it does a waltz across the page…”

Loads more links via Twitter: #MyWritingProcess.

Subject: From your biggest fan

0198737e939bf15b9a06192c3729d2c6

I just finished a beautiful session with a client who has been totally blocked, on and off, for several years. Today, she managed to write deeply despite numerous barriers, critical voices, and traumatic history. I felt moved afterward to write her this note. It applies to so many writers, since it often feels as though no one knows the hard work we go through. Please feel free to take it personally if it applies to you, too. :)

Dearest ______,

I just want to send you a love note seeing the brave and beautiful work that you’re doing. Your voice is unique and urgently needed in the world. Whenever I hear and read your words, I see persistence, beauty, and a depth of untold stories that are relevant not only to you, but to all of our community which suffers under the heavy myth of the model minority. Your work is to break the silence and push up against the oppressive strictures and limitations of that dominant story, to resist it with the full might of your precious desire to write & speak. When you sit and try to write over these next couple of weeks, please know that whatever the outcome, I am here and cheering you on. I look forward to every word that comes from you.

Warmly,
Minal

Writing isn’t therapy, but…

First of all, I have to brag. Two of my workshop students are coming out with really important new books that expand the conversation around trauma. Knowing a bit of what went into these projects, I could not be more proud of them. Congratulations, Lisa and Jennifer!  I hope folks will support their brave work by going to their pages and clicking “buy,” “like,” “share,” etc..

dearsister_newcover_1

Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence, ed. Lisa Factora-Borchers. Available now!

Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Sexual Violence Movement, ed. Jennifer Patterson. Coming out this fall from Magnus Books.

#ReadWomen2014: Poetry witnessing historical trauma

Tarfia Faizullah

Interview with a Birangona
2. Where did the Pakistani military take you, and were there others there?

Past the apothecary shop, shut
down, burned flat. My heart

seized, I told it to hush. They saw
its shape and weight and wanted

it too. Past the red mosque
where I first learned to touch

my forehead low, to utter
the wet words blown from

my mouth again and again. Past
the school draped with banners

imploring Free Our Language,
a rope steady around my throat

as they pushed me toward the dark
room, the silence clotted thick

with a rotten smell, dense like pear
blossoms, long strands of jute

braided fast around our wrists.
Yes, there were others there.

I met this poet, Tarfia Faizullah, when she was a Fulbrighter embarking on her research among the Birongana — women who suffered from the mass rapes during the brutal 1971 war which split Bangladesh from Pakistan. The poems informed by that research form the body of this book, interspersed with poems from the point of view of the interviewer—a necessary and insightful intervention. The result is a stunning collection that won a first book award and honors the survivors’ stories with beauty Book cover of Seam: Poems by Tarfia Faizullahand restraint, never melodrama. Tarfia exercises skillful restraint, allowing the images to do most of the work, so that — as in the poem above — when the women’s actual words do come in, they land with tragic power.


Title
Seam by Tarfia Faizullah.

Recommended for: Poetry lovers and other humans interested in stories of resilience. Writers whose material includes deep trauma, whether historical or personal or both. Nonfiction writers interested in structures that open up the narrative, creating a structure with emotional logic rather than a strictly linear or chronological telling.

Hey, what’s #ReadWomen2014?

In response to lots of disheartening statistics about the gender gap in literary publishing, zillions of people are posting their favorite women writers on Twitter.  I love getting so many great recommendations of what to read, so I’m joining the fun! You don’t have to have a Twitter account to browse what people are posting at the “year-long celebration of women’s writing.” 

Logo of #ReadWomen2014 with five women authors

Want a writing breakthrough—fast? The amazing Writing from the Chakras workshop starts May 31! Click here to find out more and reserve your spot.

Writing from the Chakras logo

 

#ReadWomen2014: From milkmaid to rebel poet

Ann Yearsley

“Ann Yearsley (1756–1806) wrote as ‘Lactilla’ because she was a milkmaid. … Taken up as a working-class prodigy by Hannah More (whose table provided scraps for her pigs), she went from poverty to overnight literary stardom, her first book attracting over a thousand subscribers including seven duchesses, sixteen countesses, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, and most of the bluestockings. Her poems challenge military aggression, identify with the oppressed, and advocate rebellion.”

I love it—a milkmaid writing poetry that outsells all the elite writers of her time, knocks the socks off countesses (do countesses wear socks?), AND speaks truth to power!  She looks pretty sly too, right?

One of Yearsley’s long poems tells the agonizing story of a slave burned by his master, in which she calls “shame, shame/Upon the followers of Jesus!” who perpetrate or stand by and watch the horrific act. She lived in the slave port of Bristol, which made it even more risky to be so outspoken. She fought with her patron over the money coming in from her book sales, and after the first book, she kept full control of her literary career, publishing two more books of poems, a play, and a novel, and eventually opening a library.

It’s just one of the many gems in this hefty, impressive book:

Poetry_of_Witness_jacket_30057_0TitlePoetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001 (ed. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu).

Recommended for: Aspiring rebel writers in need of inspiring role models. Poets who want to examine how formal poetry can hold anti-establishment ideas. Anyone who wants to see the past five centuries through the eyes of English-language poets. Teachers of American and British history and literature; you could get a whole year’s worth of lessons from this anthology, I think, since it covers all of the major wars and civil unrests, and includes the classics (Milton, Whitman, Dickinson) alongside lesser known treasures.

Why: Gorgeous poems that provide insight and passion at key historical moments. Great context that makes the poems easy to approach. Well-curated selections from poets whose work I never would have known otherwise.

Hey, what’s #ReadWomen2014?

In response to lots of disheartening statistics about the gender gap in literary publishing, zillions of people are posting their favorite women writers on Twitter.  I love getting so many great recommendations of what to read, so I’m joining the fun! You don’t have to have a Twitter account to browse what people are posting at the “year-long celebration of women’s writing.” 

Logo of #ReadWomen2014 with five women authors

Want a writing breakthrough—fast? The amazing Writing from the Chakras workshop starts May 31! Click here to find out more and reserve your spot.

Writing from the Chakras logo

 

AWP for Introverts

‘Twas the night before AWP, when all through the land,
The writers were fretting, “This is so out of hand!
The schedule is packed, but my suitcase is not;
My elevator pitch is postmodern and fraught;
My couchsurf is booked, but I’m ready to balk—
For what will I wear, and to whom will I talk?”

If you’re an introvert attending the massive writers’ convention in Seattle this week, check out my survival tips over at The Writer magazine’s website.  The Introvert’s Toolkit has tips on easing off the pressure, being a weirdo, and knowing when to stay away.

Doing a panel or a reading at AWP? You’re welcome to post your own panels and readings in the comments below.

(Where’ll I be? I’m skipping the convention this year, but following it on Twitter. Every alternate year of AWP is about enough for me!)

What’s in your toolkit as an introvert, especially if you’re going it alone this year?

My tiara does the talking.

 

Book Structure: Conquering the Beast

So happy to have my first piece in The Writer, the oldest U.S. magazine about the craft of writing.  It’s on a topic close to my heart, something that most of my coaching clients struggle with mightily — structure!

How do you choose or develop the right structure for a book? It’s very tricky,  and pre-existing formulas only take you so far.

Here’s the piece: the five great structures for books.