Year-End Reading List

In March I joined Zócalo Public Square as an editor-at-large, and it’s been my privilege to commission many talented writers to share their thoughts with us during these strange times.

If you’re looking for great reads as you hibernate in these long nights, here’s a selection of essays that I can personally guarantee are awesome:

As we in the U.S. grappled with a bizarre election season, Sandip Roy and Elaine Elinson offered international perspectives on the fight for a fair vote

Veterans Rashaad Thomas and Anuradha Bhagwati shared stories about how they’re coping in these times. 

Seth Fischer lost his father to COVID and just weeks later, wrote a poignant tribute about being raised by a scientist whose work on child development influenced a whole field of psychology.

Eileen Tabios wrote about fleeing her home and losing her literary archive in California’s Glass Fire; she filed her essay via iPhone while evacuated.

Larry Blumenfeld riffed on how the jazz community is mourning deep losses and trying to keep the music going. 

I love my scholar friends and am in awe of those who can translate their complex research into fascinating stories for the rest of us, like Thomas Conner on whether holograms can help us grieve and Koritha Mitchell on the Black ambition in Lorraine Hansberry’s most famous play.

I was deeply moved by personal essays by Kim Fellner on her family’s Holocaust history and M.L. Krishnan on her near-utopian adolescence in Chennai. 

Two old Stanford pals (both Colorado-ans!) wrote about their amazing work: Tom Shepard on the LGBTQ asylum seekers caught up in U.S. immigration red tape, the subject of his acclaimed documentary UNSETTLED; and Adrian Miller on how barbecue came to be the favored dish of July 4 (grilled opossum, anyone?). 

Way back at the onset of the pandemic, David Bowles invoked ancient Nahuatl rites for how rulers should respond to plagues (“don’t be a fool,” or the public has the right to behead you!), while Rinku Sen wrote about community activists embracing a broader vision of justice that includes food aid and direct services.

Writers around the world wrote for our “dispatches” series about the pandemic affecting them: editor and literary critic Otosirieze Obi-Young (Nigeria), my Clarion West classmate Eugenia Triantafyllou (Greece), and my Sundance Labs friend Sabina Anzuategui (Brazil) all contributed. 

And in a staff favorite, Himanee Gupta-Carlson wrote about being both a farmer and professor: goats!

Wanted: Skilled Unicorns! We’re Hiring.


I have immediate openings for two roles. Please spread the word if you know any wondrous folks to help Write Like a Unicorn grow.

You might be right for these roles if you:

  • are excited by our core mission of supporting BIPOC authors (and allies who really mean it!) to finish books and to deliver our urgently needed stories and wisdom to the world.
  • are deeply committed to anti-racism, freedom from state violence, LGBTQIAA rights, disability justice, confidentiality for our clients, and generally being a decent person in liberatory community with others.
  • know yourself, your work habits, your needs, and your own best ways of giving and receiving communication and staying on task.
  • want to be part of a small team where you, your ideas, and your skills are treated like the precious magic that they are.

Tech Operations Unicorn

Funnels. Automations. Launch sequences. CRMs. LMS. Landing pages. Auto-scheduler. Payment integration. Client portal.
If you know what these are, get excited at the idea of setting them up, and know the wizardry of how to make them work seamlessly for clients who aren’t technically inclined, please check out this job description.

Marketing Communications/
Social Media Unicorn

Do you know the magic of making the content of this page appear in WordPress, then re-constituting it to send it out via MailChimp, then sharing it across a whole bunch of social media platforms, WHILE making it look gorgeous, AND improving the writing, AND not introducing any typos, AND EVEN suggesting how else to share it for the best results?

If so, please check out this job description.

Thank you for sharing this post and helping us reach more unicorns!

It feels as though the times have never been more urgent for our work


I want to write with you because our stories are the most vital tool we have for change.

Last year, I and some folks started something: a day of mini writing workshops, free and open to everyone, led by writers of color.

This year, as I drafted the invitations just days after the election, I found myself writing, It feels as though the times have never been more urgent for our work.

My secret agenda is always, of course, to invite the writers and collaborators from whom I most want to learn. I still draw sustenance from the vibrancy of last year’s teachings. So as we put together this year’s lineup, I’m thinking about what kind of writing guidance I most need—what all of us may need—in this peculiar, poised moment.


Sen. Lamma Tammy Duckworth, a half-Asian-American woman, walks onto a stage waving with one hand, holding a cane in the other, in front of an American flag. She wears a black suit. She has two prosthetic legs, one with an American flag on it.

I stand on prosthetic legs to vote no! 

Just before 1:30 a.m. last Thursday on the floor of the Senate, as the roll call went down to rob tens of millions of humans of affordable health care, Sen. Ladda Tammy Duckworth dissented with those words.

Her ancestors on her white father’s side fought in the Revolutionary War. Her ancestors on her mother’s side migrated generations ago from China to Thailand. She campaigned in a wheelchair made of titanium, with stars and stripes painted on her carbon-fibre limbs. She has been on food stamps and in war zones, and she is fighting on the floor of the Senate because she knows her story.

Love, yes; money, surely; faith, perhaps; but more than anything I think it is our stories that carry us: Into the streets and through the long organizing meetings and through the grind of everyday survival. Out to our workplaces and schools and institutions. Up in all the places where we do our healing, our fighting, our incredible striving to make the world better.

Our stories are that vision of “better.” They are the foundation for all of our actions.

I want to write with you to imagine, to dream, to create joy, to play; to incline us toward the world we need and to beat back the one we don’t.

So we will hold our write-a-thon again on Feb. 8, this time in Washington DC. The need is more urgent than ever. Please come, and spread the word: It’s FREE. It’s OPEN to everyone.


I am here today on behalf of rape and sexual assault survivors to urge you not to confirm. 

I met Amita at her home recently, after a long interval of years, for (what else?) an activist organizing meeting. She was preparing for her testimony at the Senate hearings of an avowed bigot who is set to be installed to oversee justice for all. When she faced down the men running the hearing (the committee) (the country), she knew they had already shown, by their voting record, that they did not care about survivors. Our brave friend spoke out in order to bear witness: to stand on the right side of history, to resist. She connected the horror of her past with the horror of failed policy, and did it with elegant and authoritative ferocity because she has worked so very hard to know her story.

Our truths are engaged in mortal combat with other, more sinister stories. Our words are pathways to witnessing, to clarifying what is intolerable, what cannot be explained away or ignored or made better.

What do we see? What can we change and how? What cannot be reformed but must be rejected? Where must we refuse to cede ground? Who and what do we stand for?

I want to write with you because we are creatures of story, designed to explore these questions not only by sniff or instinct or silent contemplation, but also word by word. Voice by voice. One by one, but also together.


Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 8.09.44 PM

There are some who think we—mere poets, “creative” writers—must limit ourselves when we speak. That we ought to confine ourselves to certain perceived areas of expertise: syllables, perhaps, or the varieties of doves. That we should engage only in a certain tone, eschew too-direct words, write only that which will not offend the sensitivities of a certain audience. It is no accident that this is, usually, an audience of the ignorant or the dominant or both.

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison knows.

Every resister, every dreamer confronting every fascist moment knows.

Every writer confronting the blank page knows.

Let’s take on the despair, the enforced silences, together. Let’s imagine—and write—the words we we most need to inspire us now.

I want to write with you in Washington, DC. If you meet me there on Feb. 8, three weeks after the inaugurapocalypse, I’m sure we will have something to say.

Writing the Resistance
12pm-5pm Feb. 8, 2017
Washington, DC
For details:

My offer for your crowdfunder

By offering in-kind donations, I’m happy to help friends and good causes raise money for creative projects. (This assumes that I know you, or that there’s some natural relationship between your crowdfunder and my work, or I’ve pointed you toward this page.)

Here are some examples of successful perks I’ve donated.
The reward levels vary widely depending on each campaign’s strategy, and whether my perk is bundled with other items:


Suggested reward level: $10-$200
Value: $26
Signed copy of Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, winner of four literary awards.

write like a unicorn coaching session

Suggested reward level: $100-$500
Value: $160
Ready to take  your writing to the next level? Enjoy a one-hour private mentorship session with experienced author & coach Minal Hajratwala to work through your creative doubts and leap forward on your writing project. We can work on craft, process, book structure, storytelling, and more.

Mini Manuscript Massage

Suggested reward level: $150-$1000
Value: $300
Get one story or essay, or five poems or flash pieces (up to 20 total pages), critiqued by writer & coach Minal Hajratwala. Includes in-depth editorial letter/revision guide and a 30-minute follow-up coaching conversation.

write like a unicorn enrollment

Suggested reward level: $200-$1000
Value: varies
[I offer several types of courses throughout the year. If I have an active class about to start, I may be able to offer 1-2 slots in the class to your crowdfunder. Please see for upcoming options.]


Suggested reward level: $500-$3000
Author & coach Minal Hajratwala will craft an exciting, dynamic three-hour creative workshop or master class for your group, university, conference, corporate team-building event, or other community. Workshops can be customized for up to 25 participants and can be virtual (online), or live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, or elsewhere with the addition of travel costs.

Caveats: I have a limited capacity, and obviously I’m also judicious about where I want my stuff to appear, so this is all subject to availability and the right fit. I usually can offer no more than 2 perks per campaign, and they almost always sell out. If we’re working together, I always tweet about your campaign at least 3 times.

To inquire about having me provide a perk for your campaign, please email me with a link to your campaign and the date you propose for the perk to go up (at least 1 week ahead of time).

(If you decide you want to take me up on this, there are no restrictions on how you word the items or what reward level you decide to offer them at, and you don’t have to link back to me or anything like that. The focus is on YOUR crowdfunder, and this is my donation to support your awesome work.)

My tips

Folks have been asking me for advice because about a year ago, my colleagues in The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and I raised $12,000, thanks to the generosity of our communities—enough to build the infrastructure of our new press and publish three more books over the next year. Woohoo!  So here’s what I know:

• It’s not about easy money.

Crowdfunding is SO MUCH WORK. If you’re fantasizing about throwing up a link and watching the money roll in, um … no.

Clear the decks as much as you can. Get as many hands to help as possible. Don’t expect to juggle other big projects at the same time.

Get ready to work your a** off.

• It’s not about being shy or modest.

You absolutely must be willing to contact everyone you can think of and ask them to spare a minute to look, share, and donate.

You must do 1:1 personal outreach. This includes private FB messages and emails, long-shot tweets to celebrities, and personal phone calls or meetings with people who could become major donors.

Feel weird about asking for money? Yes. Money is weird, right?

Do what you must to work through the feelings. Use your crowdfunder as an opportunity to learn about asking and receiving gracefully.

• It’s not about love.  

Your BFF might not give. Some random friend of a high school classmate might become a major donor. A person whose politics are awesome might not put her money where her mouth is. A person you thought was a clueless jerk might surprise you with a chunk of change.

Don’t take it personally. Don’t read meaning into people’s actions. Ask everyone you can think of; try not to rule people out too soon; try not to hate on people who didn’t contribute.

Be grateful for what comes in, and let go of what doesn’t.

• It’s not about what you want.

It’s about your audience. How can you offer something they want? More diversity in publishing, a fantastic reward, a wonderful feeling, a better world?

We almost made this fatal mistake. We thought we’d written our appeal well; after all, we were three writers! But a few days after our crowdfunder went up, a good friend gave one of us excellent feedback.

She’d donated because she knew us, but she told us that, frankly, it sounded like a vanity project to publish our own books.

We were horrified. We had utterly failed to center our campaign around what we planned to do for the greater good.

Thanks to her honesty, we were able to rework our language to highlight our true goals: Publishing excellent unknown writers as an empowering poet-centered collective. Diversifying the range of literary voices published out of India. Creating access to mentorship and workshops for emerging poets from various backgrounds.

Donations picked up immediately. Our communities cared about these things, and responded.

• It’s not about doing it alone.

Collaborate: Donate to other people and share other campaigns generously. Share perks and incentives; our Facebook community loved the “book bundle” contest that we ran, with donations from many amazing poet friends. We had an amazing volunteer who met us once and decided to create social media memes/postcards for our campaign, and another amazing volunteer who shot our campaign video. Give what you can and accept what’s offered, and all the karma will someday bounce back to you.

• It’s not about location, location, location.

We had donors from South America and Europe, even though we founders are based in India and the U.S. The power of crowdfunding is that you can reach the whole world. Don’t be provincial. Make sure you have some perks at each level that people in distant places can also enjoy.

• It’s not about me!

Frankly, there are a LOT of better resources out there than my blog post. Google “crowdfunding tips.” Look within the guides of whichever platform you’re using. Browse some campaigns and analyze what makes you want to give. We learned so much from reading blogs in which other people generously analyzed their own crowdfunding strategies, successes, and failures.

Good luck to you!  And check out my listicle featuring shamelessly cute animals on the emotional roller coaster that is your crowdfunder:
So I made this for you:

Two cute piglets covered in paint with headline "How We Feel While Crowdfunding: the ten emotions of crowdfunding, as told by shamelessly cute animals"


Me, “Best Dressed”?

The author in a black and silver salwar kameez, smiling, seated, one leg outstretched, outdoors in Bangalore, India.

Photo by RKN Photography

A few notes on how my community helped create this book

So this is the closest I’m likely to get to a fashionista award. 🙂

“The Wardrobe,” a very fine literary journal, chose me as their featured poet last week — which they call the “best dressed.” Get it? Wardrobe? Best Dressed? OK!

Every day for a week, they chose a poem from my book Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment.

It was fun and surprising to see their choices, and made me reflect on how each poem developed. I realized how community has played a HUGE role in the development of my work. I’m an auto-didact as a poet — no M.F.A., no formal course of study.  I never even took a creative writing class in college.

So everything I’ve learned has been from knowing and reading other poets, and in short-term community workshops. I’m so grateful for those spaces.

Here are the behind-the-scenes stories of the five poems:

Her Discourse on the Leaf

Kate Braverman, in profile and front view, scowling into a microphoneBack in the 1990s I was a copy editor at a newspaper. One weekend I took a furlough to feed my creative side through a UC-Santa Cruz extension course with the still-underrated Kate Braverman. Kate was a brilliant and original fiction writer who never received the acclaim she deserved, and was endlessly bitter because she knew it. All Saturday she held forth on various techniques and strategies and passionately stated ideas about writing. During a break, she collected the giant maple leaves that had fallen all over campus and gave us each one leaf, with instructions to come back on Sunday with a piece.

In a cheap motel room I poured my fury, shame, and bucketloads of tears—for her? for myself? for our country at that moment?—into that leaf.

I also met Gerald Fleming in that workshop, and he published an early version of this piece in his literary journal Barnabe Mountain Review, helping me to edit and clarify the language.


various shades of green silk squares with writing stitched onto them in red threadThis poem is about how it sometimes feels to be an Asian American woman writer, expected to write to stereotypes.

I was lucky enough to be part of a queer Asian American women’s writing group in San Francisco, which lasted long enough for us to meet several times before the co-organizers broke up. I also remember being particularly moved by my friend Indigo Som’s art installation, in which she stitched words onto various lake-colored silk squares.

I can’t remember exactly, but I suspect this poem emerged from my time in that lovely little community.

The Goddess of Lemons

Sliced lemons and limes of many varietiesThis poem started out as a fake translation. I wrote it in a tiny four-person workshop a million years ago in New York City, taught by Jeet Thayil at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. We read the poem in Italian, then wrote our own “translation.”

I was in my 20s and learning like a sponge, and I distinctly remember Jeet’s kind words about it at the time; he told me it was not far from the spirit of the original. (Teachers: A little kindness can have such a big footprint!)

I kept working on the poem over the years, and when I was putting together Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, I found that it fit in perfectly with other the goddess and mythology poems in the book.

Archaeologies of the Present: The Professionals

I’m always totally surprised when people are interested in these poems, which are long and experimental and, to me, totally weird.  I wrote the “Archaeologies of the Present” sequence at the turn of the millennium, 1999-2000.

At the time, the writer Lisa Margonelli were in a fellowship program together at the Sundance Institute. It was Lisa who gave me the spark about the pastry chefs using blowtorches, which appears in this poem — a new development in the San Francisco gourmand scene in 1999.

Archaeologies of the Present: The Hungry

Animated chickens, runningAnd finally, another flashback to 2000. This piece refers most obviously to the weirdness that is/was the 4th of July, and also to a surreal cartoon movie “Chicken Run” (2000) which I for some reason saw, starring Mel Gibson’s voice.

What can I say, millennials? You really were born at a strange time in America.

Get the book now!

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment has been called “electric,” “stunning,” and “fresh” by much finer writers than I. Here’s how you can grab your copy:

In the US/worldwide:

Send $16.99 via to (includes shipping).

Or buy on Amazon:


In India:

Email for bank transfer details. The local price is only 350 rupees, and funds go to directly to The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective to publish new poetic voices from India.

What to Do When You Get a Nibble, Part 2


So you’ve got a “nibble” from a publisher! Hooray! You’ve done your happy dance and freaked out to your friends — now what?

Here are some questions you might ask the editor. This assumes she or he has seen your book or proposal and is seriously interested.

(Missed Part 1 of my What To Do When You Get a Nibble series? Check it out: 10 Questions To Ask a Literary Agent.)


6 Questions to Ask an Acquisitions Editor

About the editing process:

1. How much do you typically work with authors? What is your editing approach or style? Would you say that you’re more hands-on vs. laissez faire?

2. Would you be the actual editor, or do you typically pass projects on to a junior editor? If the latter, could I have a conversation with the person who would actually be editing my book?

3. (If you’ve submitted a partial manuscript, or if it’s a two-book contract:) What is the deadline and process for completing the book? Would you expect me to be in touch with drafts along the way, or would you prefer that I deliver a finished product?

About the business end:

4. What kind of print run would you foresee for this book? Are we talking about hardcover, paperback, e-books?

5. What kind of marketing do you typically do for a book like this? Do you envision a book tour? What media outreach would you handle? What part of the publicity and marketing would be my responsibility?

6. (If your book has international angles:) Are you interested in rights for this region only, or worldwide? If worldwide, what kind of marketing and distribution do you have in other countries? Where are your biggest foreign sales? What distribution plans would you envision for my book in key countries overseas? Would you consider translating the work to reach relevant audiences?

Questions about your contract?

The Authors Guild contract review service is the best impartial resource for U.S. working authors, and you are eligible to join if you have received a contract offer from a traditional U.S. publisher or an offer of representation from a U.S. literary agent, or if you have made at least $500 from your writing in the past 18 months.

No publisher yet?  There are many good resources out there on agents, publishing, and how to do your own market research. Poets & Writers magazine publishes a fantastic Guide to Literary Agents that tells you everything about the process of getting an agent who can submit your work to publishing houses.

Want help?  I love helping authors bring manuscripts and book proposals to completion. For more support, join me in the Unicorn Authors Club!


What the Stone Buddha Said

What the Stone Buddha Said

“Your rage is pomegranates spilling open on ice, is the flute’s thin silver seam, is a volcano spitting rivulets of fire to wash clean these corrupt lands, is women’s oars slicing the sea to steer your gorgeous fucking hot mess goddamn revolution.”




What To Do When You Get a Nibble, Part 1

fishing-rod-and-fishI’ve been getting some requests from clients who are getting “nibbles” (YAY!) and wondering what to talk about in the first conversation with an agent. Here are some of my thoughts.

This assumes that the agent has seen a proposal or writing sample from you, the author, and has expressed interest.


10 questions to ask a literary agent

1. What is the range of monetary advance that you would hope or expect us to get for this book?

This is a business relationship, so don’t be afraid to talk money. Agents will only take on your project if they see it as financially viable enough to be worth the time they’ll put into selling it, which means that they will have at least a minimum dollar figure in mind.

2. How much do you work with authors before taking the book to publishers? How engaged do you like to be in the revision process? How many drafts do you typically read?

3. How many clients do you have right now? How often do you typically speak with your authors?

Everyone’s different; you may want more or less agent involvement. These kinds of questions help you to find out if you’re on the same page and set mutual expectations early.

4. What changes do you envision in my proposal and/or manuscript before you’d take it out for sale?

When I was shopping the proposal for the book that eventually became Leaving India, I had an agent tell me that although he loved the idea, it had “too many characters with really long names” in it. He suggested simplifying. Glad I asked! You should, too.

5. What types of editors/publishers would you approach?

Agents may not want to share the names and contacts before you sign, but they should be able to give you a general sense. The more specific, the better, of course. If you feel hesitant about asking this, please keep in mind that you’re not asking them to do extra work here. If they’re ready to take on your project, they probably have at least a couple of ideas for where to pitch it.

6. After you get a publishing contract for a writer, how engaged do you remain in the process? How do you see your role in this phase?

7. We all hope it doesn’t happen, but I’ve heard of situations where a writer gets into a difficult situation with a publisher over content or something else. Can you describe a time that you went to bat for an author?

Your relationship with your agent carries through the entire life of your book. Know what to expect in the post-contract period.

8. Would you be able to put me in touch with one of your other clients, so I can speak with them about the working relationship?

(Note: This is also something you can do on your own.) Please don’t ask the agent who her or his clients are; you should already know that from your research. Most agencies these days list their deals and clients on their websites.

9. If we move forward, would you like me to sign a contract with your agency, or do you prefer to shop it around first without an exclusive contract?

My agent asked me to sign a contract before doing any work on my behalf, which makes sense to me. However, I’ve been hearing lately of writers whose agents want to see if they get any “nibbles” from publishers before going through the whole contract-signing process. To me, this feels like a lower level of commitment on both sides, which can be beneficial to you as well; if you’re not happy with the attention your agent is giving you, you can part ways amicably. Either way, it’s good to clarify what the terms are before proceeding further.

10. What makes you want to represent my project?

If you ask nothing else, please don’t skip this one! First of all, your hard-working writer self deserves to hear the praise. Write it down and soak it up. Second, you need to hear how passionate this person is about your project, and why, because that’s what prospective publishers are going to hear. Listen closely and let this answer inform your all-important “gut check.”

I was lucky enough to have four agents to interview, and the one I went with ultimately was the one whose understanding of the book was closest to my own.

No agent yet?  There are many good resources on agents, publishing, and how to do your own market research out there. Poets & Writers magazine publishes a fantastic Guide to Literary Agents that tells you everything about the process.

Want help? In the Unicorn Authors Club, we write and finish books! I’d love to help you prep a fantastic book proposal and query letter, and navigate the process of writing a book from beginning to end. Join us!

Next: Questions to ask an interested editor/publisher.

Constraint Based Poetry: Notes on craft talks by Shane McCrae & Teemu Manninen

[This post is part of a series of my notes on a video lectures from the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.]

Generative Distraction

Shane McCrae = 3 books of poems + 2013 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship + teaches at Oberlin

“Generative distraction”: a fancy way to say that sometimes it helps when writing to have something to distract your mind.

TS Eliot put for the theory of “disassociation of sensibility”: that with the rise of Milton and Dryden and Pope, “there came a divorce between head and heart.” Anxiety about expressing feeling; poems became more intellectual, idea-based.

To reunite idea and feeling, you need spontaneity, so that “even if your poem is labored, even if it takes you years to do it, it has to feel as if, in some way, the poem is discovering itself as it goes along.”  That’s what poetry tries to do now and what readers expect.

Often the problem for young poets is that they write poems based on ideas about feelings. This doesn’t really work because it takes the spontaneity out of the poem – there is no surprise, just the idea that the poet wanted to express.

You can still achieve this if you have an idea you want to express, by adding a constraint. For example, an elaborate rhyme scheme:

Ode To a Nightingale by John Keats

Another example of a rule – French novelist who wrote a whole book without the letter e.
[There are actually a few novels that do this, like this and this.]

This forces you to find a way to say things that are fresh; to discover.

Constraint as Inventive Balance

Teemu Manninen = Finnish poet + critic + part of a poetry publishing cooperative + co-editor of encyclopedia of contemporary Finnish poets

Two models of the artist:
• Penelope (from the Odyssey), who worked at the loom all day and unraveled her work every night. Toiling as the route to skill.
• Athena (Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration), who emerged fully formed. Instinct & intuition as the route.

Often writers use both. One way to the find the balance is constraint.

The Oulipo (“workshop of potential literature”) group of writers, philosophers, mathematicians used this technique a lot. One of the founders, Raymond Queneau, is credited with saying that one should be like a mouse that builds itself a labyrinth in order to escape it. Neither total freedom nor total constraint, but a self-chosen constraint. Writing is always under some kind of constraint: grammar, metaphor, line. We can fall under the thrall of unconscious constraints.

In choosing a constraint for yourself, be very conscious of everything you do, be very careful and faithful to the standards you set out for yourself.


Write a poem with a constraint.

Christopher Merrill gave a “diabolical” example that Richard Kenney assigns: write a 10 word poem in which each word has one letter more than the previous word. Engage your mind with obstacles.

Other examples: A poem that has to have 6 book titles; or 4 windows.

Note from Minal

I love writing constraint-based poetry, but I found these talks overly general (like many in the series). They were more “why” than “how,” which I don’t find very useful. I would have preferred more current and diverse examples, since this is how most contemporary poets write now, and specific prompts from the speakers.

I’m also surprised to see this topic discussed without reference to the American artists who started working with this concept consciously in the 60s/70s (John Cage, Meredith Monk, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman), let alone the experimental poets (Lyn Hejinian, Sesshu Foster) or anyone more recent. This has been a weakness throughout the course; it’s had minimal ethnic or global diversity even though it’s produced by the “international” side of the Iowa program. The Iowa teachers seem to rely very heavily on Yeats, Keats, Shakespeare, Roethke, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Frost, and a handful of other (yes, mostly dead white male) poets as their canonical examples. A few writers of color have given brief talks in which they do refer to more diverse and more contemporary poets. But it’s amazing to me that so far, no one has cited major figures such as June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich, either for their intellectual contributions to the craft nor for their technique. I can only guess that this lack of diversity is an accurate reflection of the “gold standard” in academic poetry education, even in the year 2014. I do wonder where young poets in these institutions go to find what their contemporaries are writing; after spending so much time and money for an MFA education, are they required to supplement the official curricula with their own investigations? I’m curious!

Anyway, after hearing these two lectures, I wasn’t satisfied and went looking for examples of constraint-based exercises.

Here are some from avant garde poet Bernadette Mayer:

  • Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece of writing: eliminate all adjectives from a poem of your own, or take out all words beginning with ‘s.’
  • Systematically derange the language: write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work.
  • Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks, drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block to create a sonnet.
  • Write five short expressions of the most adamant anger; make a work out of them.
  • Write a work gazing into a mirror without using the pronoun I.

Now those are some ideas I can work with!

I also have some in my 10-minute Writing Exercises for Muscles of Steel:

  • Write a 10-minute sentence about one person, no periods.
  • With your non-writing hand, touch or hold an object out of your sight. With your writing hand, write the colors, etc. that it feels like, even though you can’t see it.
  • Practice randomness: Make each sentence (line) completely unrelated to the previous.

(Get more muscles here.)


Containing Multitudes: Notes on lectures by Dora Malech & Tarfia Faizullah

I really enjoyed these two linked lectures, in which two poets put forth theories that you can see them engaging directly in their own poetic craft. Dora Malech focuses on “inconstancy” and the excitement that happens when the speaker of a poem changes her mind. Tarfia Faizullah talks about vulnerability as a key tool, an issue that I’ve also discussed in relation to writing personal nonfiction (link to downloadable essay, here). They use these concepts as ways to think about bringing multiple selves into our poems.

The assignments at the end relate mostly to Dora’s lecture. Tarfia’s portion starts at 12:11.

[This post is part of a series of my notes on a video lectures from the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.]

Part 1:
On Syntactic Turns and Multiple Selves

Dora Malech = two collections of poetry + Ruth Lily Fellowship

“The word” is a promise, a contract, faith and constancy. This urge can carry over into our writing, but is not always helpful. It can stand in the way of discovery.

“No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” 
—Robert Frost 

In “the poems that excite us and that become touchstones for us in our own lives, we find that there’s an element of inconstancy, of change, of going back on one’s words. And that is, in a way, the kind of hallmark of a writer like Shakespeare.” His sonnets are full of coordinating conjunctions, “that I like to call hinge words, words where you watch a mind change.”

So we watch a mind not giving us a clear stance, but “wrestling with an issue, a question, an emotion, a state of mind.”

Example: Woman’s Constancy by John Donne

“In our myths, that idea of inconstancy is so often negative. Orpheus turns around and he’s punished. Lot’s wife looks back and she’s punished. And so poetry becomes this place where we can go to dignify and find beauty in the ways in which we can’t keep our word, the ways in which we are unfaithful and that’s part of the human condition on some level.”

Ways to create change of mind in a poem:

  • hinge words: or, but, though, if, unless. 
  • break the metrical contract — change the expectation
  • the nature of the metaphor

Example: Sailing to Byzantium by W. B. Yeats.  Uses both: the meter changes after the word unless.

Example: Free Union (L’Union Libre) by Andre Breton uses multiple images/metaphors for the wife, to demonstrate the shifting nature of the bond.

Example: Facing It by Yosef Komunyakaa. Notice the turn after the word No. It’s beautiful to inhabit multiple truths at once; you don’t have to choose one or the other.

“In a world in which fact and reason are valued, in which politicians are called flip-floppers if they change their mind, in which our word is our bond, we’re supposed to be men and women of our words, poetry is a place where we can go to find the thrilling plurality of our words, in which we can be men and women of all of our words. … So I would encourage you to give me, your reader, not only your word, singular, but the thrilling plurality of your words. … You can show the reader that they’re not alone in their stumbling, in their stuttering, in their confusion, in their uncertainty.”

Part 2:
On Syntax and Vulnerability

Tarfia Faizullah = editor of the Asian Literary Review + winner of awards + Fulbrighter + lives in Detroit + author of Seam on Bangladeshi war rape survivors

[I’ve written about Tarfia’s beautiful work in my blog series about reading as a writer, right here.]

“Syntax is identity.” – Li-Young Lee

Poetry allows the self to be multiple. “As an individual, for example, I am a Bangladeshi- American, Brooklyn-born, raised in West Texas, currently living in Detroit woman. And as a self, I am somebody who is very concerned with how to both, how to live outside of those prescribed categories while also allowing those categories to remain as fully intact as possible.”

That’s why we say “the speaker” not “the poet” when talking about the voice of a poem; it allows for the fact that it could be a multiple aspect of the poet.

Distinction between confessionalism (subjective) and autobiography (objective). Vulnerability = owning the various phases and multiple histories we’ve been through, and how this can allow us to write in many different modes. Break through categories and ideologies.

Globalization is happening but we are not all learning/globalizing at the same rate. Delving into our own inner lives enables us to be more empathetic to each other and also ourselves.

Key questions: “How do we write a truly vulnerable poem that is informed by our experiences and our perspectives, but not necessarily beholden to them? … How do we marry content and form in order to create a truly human poem?”

Vulnerability is what’s really happening in American poetics right now. It enables poets to use a lot of different techniques and tools, not fidelity to one aesthetic or movement.

Example: In Black and White by Erica Dawson. She is a neo-formalist and fearless in what she brings into a rigidly formal structure. Pop culture, vernacular language, gestures come into the poem.

You don’t need to just rely on description. Syntax can create atmosphere, orient the reader — not just in time and place but also in a set of concerns, emotional or intellectual.

Example: There Are Birds Here by Jamaal May. Uses a single word to describe the phenomenon of looking: “no.” Talks back at the reader to transcend the stereotypical idea of what Detroit is. There is an “I” but it describes the full self that is paying attention, not a personal/individual history. It asks us to consider a landscape in a very expansive yet precise way.

“All earthly experience is partial.”
—Louise Glück

“I can only define it as kind of gradual accumulation of information and as a specialization. You can know more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing. It’s hopeless – so that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects.”

Vulnerability allows us to accept this uncertainty and that we’ll never fully know everything, and still talk about multiple possibilities of the “ghostly objects.”

Two assignments:

• A sonnet which has a major change/turn – voice, style, sonic possibility, attention, argument.
• Write a poem with six hinge words — such as and, but, or, nor, yet, so, until, except, unless, no, not, or any other word or phrase that turns the logic of your sentence.