Thursday, September 26, 2019

Breaking the Rules

My favorite thing about poetry is that it's always there when you need it. In times of trouble, when your emotions need relief or outlet or empowerment, poetry is there. You can always go back to your favorite Mary Oliver poem; you can always go back to read Maggie Smith's "Good Bones" when you're worried about our country or Idra Novey's "Still Life with Invisible Canoe" when you miss your childhood or your children. You can always depend on poetry. 

My second favorite thing about poetry is that it encourages us to break rules. We don't have to write in sentences or in order. Grammar is more flexible. Metaphors can run wild. 

When I teach poetry, this is something my students struggle with. Much as we think of teenagers as rebellious, they are actually pretty settled into the limitations that have been drawn for them. Think about yourself. Isn't it comforting to know what the rules and procedures are? Even as you scoff at English teachers and "grammar Nazis" (that loathsome term), don't you find yourself with those voices in the back of your head? 

But I can't start a sentence with a conjunction! 

One should never use first person in one's writing; it makes one sound silly. 

Or maybe the idea of writing as a collection of rules is so embedded in your consciousness that it paralyzes you, keeps you from writing at all? 

In that case, my friend, poetry can help you practice being unafraid to break rules. 

Not that there are no rules at all in poetry, but they're looser. You can bend what you know about writing into the shape of what you actually want to write.  Interesting things often happen not way across the line but right at the edges, at the corners. You're likely to enjoy playing in the street more than the sidewalk, even if you never go too far from home. 

This also means that I need to practice breaking my own rules: the patterns I tend to fall into when writing poetry. I experience the most excitement about my poetry when I push myself to try new things or switch up my usual forms. Of course, this means that I have to look critically at my own poetry to identify my usual ways of doing things, and then experiment.

My Rule: Always write a poem that fits within the confines of a notebook page.  

How I broke it: Try writing poetic forms that dictate length in different ways. Haiku and tanka are great motivators for brevity. Another fun one is the 59-word poem, inspired by Jeffrey McDaniel's poem "The Quiet World." It's also important to try different line lengths. Write sideways on the page. Decide to take up two pages. Let lines flow together and break up lines later. Remember that humans don't speak or think in the shape of a page. 

My Rule: Don't be repetitive. 

How I broke it: Repetition is an essential tool for poetry. Using repetition in interesting ways can add emphasis, show a shift in meaning, or demonstrate a speaker's thought process. 

Here's part of a recent poem draft of mine: 

       You invite me to your nephew's birthday party
       even though I am not a balloon.
       your mother says I am prettier than I am
       in my pictures; in the pictures you
       take of me to show her.

That's a doubly repetitive passage ("I am" and "in pictures") and I find it interesting because I think maybe it sounds like someone actually talking. When we talk to our friends and lovers, don't we often stop ourselves to clarify? We repeat ourselves when we're thinking through something or making a decision. I'm leaving in this repetition for now, even if I end up changing it up in the final draft. 

My Rule: Use punctuation to make it clear how the reader should be reading. 

How I broke it: This one's easy. Write poems with no punctuation. I practice making my meaning known with just my words, phrasing, and line breaks. Then I also have to be brave enough to notice where this fails, where there is ambiguity in the poem. Maybe that uncertainty is good and I should keep bouncing the beach ball in the air. Or maybe that's the one place where my poem really does need punctuation. Some of my favorite recent poems have been completely punctuation-free. 

Do any of these "rules" ring a bell for your own poetry? If not, identify your own boring patterns and find a way to break them up. For extra credit, tweet your rule-breaking at me! @MsPaceWrites

Good luck writing, see you next month! 

Monday, September 16, 2019

Book Review of Blaize and the Maven by Ellen Bard

Blaize is a powerful but inexperienced energetic. Having only just passed her first Chakra Trial, Manipura, fire, she is sent to Canada to an expert Maven to be trained in her second energy: Ajna, or the mind.

Her Maven is the mysterious and reluctant Cuinn, who has problems of his own - disturbing dreams that appear to show him standing against the destruction of the energetics race. When he discovers that Blaize is part of the prophecy, he knows her training needs accelerating - but he’s not prepared for the heat she brings to his normally calm and ordered world.

But both Cuinn and Blaize have secrets of their own, secrets that could destroy their partnership before it’s begun - a partnership that has a far greater importance than they realize.

Will they trust each other before it's too late?

The first in a captivating new series of romance and magic, family and loyalty, love and power.

Goodreads   Amazon

*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for our honest review.*

I freaking loved this story! I was pleasantly surprised with just how much I enjoyed this story and the creativity of the world Ellen Bard has created. As someone who is into energy and chakras and the like this was like a novel written just for me. 

I enjoyed the fact the story was told from both Blaize and Cuinn's perspectives. This helped me become attached to them both and made me invested in the story right away.  We also see bits and pieces of the antagonist point of view and this as well added to the drama and conflict. 

Anyone who is a fan of modern fantasy, steamy romance, or just a plain good read will thoroughly enjoy this book. 

British born psychologist, management consultant and nomad Ellen Bard loves travel, coffee, productivity, personal growth and romance novels - not necessarily in that order. She currently lives in an apartment nest with her Fox in Thailand where she (almost!) never has to feel the cold. 

Website   Twitter 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Associative Thinking in Poetry

I start writing this as I am about to make dinner for the first time for my new boyfriend. Baked salmon, mushroom fettucine, asparagus with lemon pepper and dill, fresh Italian bread. I suppose I wouldn't be a woman of my generation if this evening's act didn't make me think about being a woman, about whether I am too eager to fill this role, about whether being in a position of service changes something about our relationship in a way I don't want. Am I happy and excited because I am the girl cooking for her boyfriend, or because I am a person who loves doing nice things for others? Is domesticity a fair extension of my femininity, or is it an expression of something different and more sinister? 

So I set myself to think about femininity and how I express it when I go to get a massage today. The room smells like eucalyptus and lavender, and it is warm with neutral, earthy colors. This is a gentle place and I feel relaxed. I muse on last night's dinner, which was wonderful, and how my boyfriend thanked me, careful to show me that he didn't expect me to do this domestic work for him, but that he appreciated it. I think he was careful because he understands the history of women cooking for men, and I wonder if he thanks his mom when she makes dinner. 

My massage begins. I ask myself if femininity is what allows me to take care of my body, as so many other things I do-- brushing my hair, shaving my legs, moisturizing my skin -- seem gendered and connected both to beauty and to feeling confident. But men take care of their bodies, too, or should, in this Queer Eye era, and I wonder if masculinity is what allows men to take care of their bodies, not toxic masculinity but the good and true kind-- the pride and striving that makes men feel they are achieving their purpose. 

I start to muse on touch - if receiving touch is part of this file folder of feminist traits I am amassing, is giving touch then masculine? (I think callously while my female masseuse works on my back.) Is femininity receptive? Are men grasping? Is there strength in resisting its grasp? 

Look, I'm not sure that I have any of the answers to gender and what it means to me, but this episode of looking into my head is to show you how associative thinking works for poets. Does your mind more closely resemble an ice cube tray or a spiderweb covered in dew? As far as I know, most poets' brains are the latter. Thoughts like droplets are all connected by threads, and what a poem does is tap the web gently so all the droplets slide toward the middle or the bottom. You've got to make them intersect. 

When I'm writing poetry, I'm fascinated by the ways images surface by surprise. Sometimes I can articulate the exact train of thought that brought me from the beginning of the poem to the end,  and sometimes I'm not sure how stuff got there, but I'm sure it fits. I start with asteroids and end with snowdrops. In a poem I just wrote the other day, my first line sets up a comparison between scars and live animals, then between myself and the trash cans through which the animals are rummaging. I think this means that my scars are causing some unrest; they're not really in the past. But if I am like a trash can, then I must be full of both trash and treasure. I'm not really sure I'm comfortable calling my actual self a trash can, but I'm intrigued by a character looking at her scars to attempt to decipher how good or bad she is. So I allow the speaker of the poem to diverge more from myself, and then thinking about scars leads me to tattoos and what marks us. I think it's a really interesting poem, and it just took curiosity. 

This is to say: I don't think that associative thinking is a blessing from on high; I think it's something that can be practiced. 

One practice that helped me a lot with this type of generative, idea-rich thinking is yoga. Meditation and yoga practices encourage a non-judgemental way of looking at the self and its experiences. Gradually, I've been learning to welcome whatever thoughts come to me, and if they're negative or doubtful or sad about my body hurting, I can see them and send them on their way. But if they're intriguing, I just stick them up on the rocks on the riverbank and let things swirl around them to see where they connect. 

I wonder if you've done this kind of thing when you're in the shower, maybe washing the dishes, waiting in line, even driving? I think these daily, low-risk, semi-automatic activities allow for free associative thought, like walking does. Once you get in the habit, a blank page in a notebook sets that same motion going,  

It takes some practice to turn these wanderings into interesting, poignant, or powerful poems. Sometimes I wander through a poem only to look back and think the connections are too obvious, or the images too random, not aesthetically harmonic. But if you're wondering why your poetry seems basic, or stays at the same emotional pitch throughout, or lacks surprise, you might want to try letting your mind wander a little farther than you think it's supposed to. 

Here are some tricks I use to practice associative thinking: 

1. Write a list of 10 objects, images, and actions that you associate with a certain age. Cross of the 2 or 3 most obvious ones. Now, use the remaining images to write a poem about someone that age without saying directly what age it is. For an added challenge, write about the person doing something that people of that age don't normally do. 

2. Look around you and choose a color you can see (it helps to visualize if you can currently see the color). Then make lists of things that relate to that color. There are a lot of types of connection you can find other than objects that are literally that color. What kind of feelings come up as you make this list? Go explore those. 

3. Try association through opposites. Begin a poem with this line: "Because I can't _____, I ______." Fill in the blanks with verbs. For the next line, keep the phrase in front of the comma the same, but change the ending. You might keep it this way for a few lines, then try a different word in the first blank and see how that changes your options for the second. This is best done fast so you can see what conclusions your mind jumps to. 

Thanks for reading! You can read more of my writing at my blog,
Exercises 2 and 3 are adapted from prompts I received from my teacher Christopher Citro at the Kettle Pond Writers' Workshop. You should check out his work and his teaching: