Category Archives: Poetry

#Amtrak Residency – Notes from the California Zephyr

In honor of Amtrak’s recent plans to create a writing residency in the context of inter-America train travel,

(thanks to writers Zach Seward and Jessica Gross, in cahoots with Amtrak’s social media reps. Check out thefull article here: http://www.thewire.com/culture/2014/02/inside-amtraks-absolutely-awesome-plan-give-free-rides-writers/358332/)

I am posting my own treasured testament to the pleasure and “conductivity” of writing on the rails. The 3 haibun below (haibun come to us from Japan and are a real traveler’s form – just think of Basho) come from the slew of notes I took during a 3-day Amtrak trip from New York to California. For myself and for many writers, the train is a prized limbic space, a vessel for the imagination. These poems display the American countryside as viewed through that lens. 

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Notes From the California Zephyr

1. Iowa

The oceanic expanse of land outside my window is horizontal vertigo, threatening to swallow the islands of suburbia that pass by in a blink. Surely, for the people who live here, for those who tend the fields and travel the thin dirt roads, this land is familiar. But from my passing dreamer’s view, the wideness of it is primitive, a sense of existence before the confining geometry of cities, when we were at home amid the sweeping fields and forests.

how did it feel?

a simple hut

amid such exposure

2. Colorado

Near Granby we hook up with the river and follow it down into the canyons. There are no roads here and the only other humans around are the river rafters with their “dubious behavior,” as the conductor warns, otherwise known as the “Colorado salute.” The train rides intimately up against the inner walls of the lower canyon so that the view is one from deep within a pocket of the earth–rugged burnt red against bright cornflower, with cumulus white moving in and out the corridor of sky. On some frequency beyond sound I hear the voice of slow, violent rock formations carving the earth as they frame the sky. I relax.

but oh the workers

who risked their lives

hammering down the rails

3. Utah

I would have let this place go by as a smudge of light brown were it not for the burnt red hues of rock now glowing like mahogany beneath a pink and purple sky, removing me from all notions of being in “my country.” Another planet, this land does not seem as though it could “belong” to anyone—it is even more wide open than the plains. The lowering sun blazes orange streaks and black shadows down across gray sandstone mesas, accentuating each crevice and fold of their bulbous, melted forms. Sage brush sags in the fading light. Distant buttes meet the sky. Utah—the painting goes by like the surface of Mars, or like that of the pure West—desolate, beautiful, and alive.

then suddenly,

a stop sign

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Notes from Jane Hirshfield’s Lecture at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference!

On Telling the Truth but Telling it Slant

  1. Write a poem to trick yourself into an exposé you wouldn’t usually make.
  2. Write a poem to make a spell that breaks a spell that already fixes us.
  3. Write a poem that breaks through the limiting, barricaded frontiers of our ordinary self-knowledge.
  4. Write in a way that is roundabout, meandering.
  5. Alter the landscape of the given. Skew ordinary perceptions of truth.
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The Poem Is A Score

Hooray for audio poems! My audio poem “Free” has just been published in the current issue of In Stereo Press. You can find it here: http://www.instereopress.com/?p=3807

Before landing in its final digs as an audio file, this poem went through several iterations, including a performance in which I choreographed movement to go along with the words. Something about this poem was always shouting to be wrung through the mechanisms of a different form. Sometimes, you’ve got to pass the potato from one medium to the next. Getting on Garage Band and turning the poem into an audio piece was FUN. I realized how the words on the page can serve as a scaffolding for a performance that brings them to more life. In Stereo has published the written piece along with the audio, so you can see just what happened to the poem when I put the voice and some digital editing to the task. As I see it now, the written poem was just the score, while the audio is the thing itself.

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On Poetry and Comedy, Part 1

It is a thin line that distinguishes a poem from a stand-up comedy bit. It turns out the two art forms have quite a lot in common and each could benefit by borrowing from the tricks and trades of the other. Let’s take a look at a few main properties that the two share.

First off, in all comedic writing and not just stand-up, there is the basic structure of a joke–the setup, the build, and finally, the delivery of the punchline. Everything that comes before the punchline is drawing the audience in and preparing them for the epiphany, in the form of a good laugh, that comes with the punchline. We often see this very same structure in poems. An entire poem may work to get the reader under a spell only to break the spell in the very end, at just the right moment. The result is not necessarily a laugh, but is equal to a laugh in its satisfaction. What is the difference between a laugh and the aftertaste of a poem?

A second property that poetry and stand-up share is the element of performance. Whether or not the joke is good, the quality of the performance is often what makes or breaks the routine. The performer must have a certain swagger–a tone of voice, body language and gestures, facial expressions, dramatic pauses, breathing, and even clothing–that is necessary to let the audience know they should be laughing. Poetry is no different. Poetry takes swagger.

But even if poetry were written “comedically,” that does not necessarily mean it would get a laugh. What does it mean for something to be “comedic?” There is a deeper resonance to the concept of comedy than merely something that generates a laugh. A laugh is but one example of the range of results that fall under the category of release.

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