Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

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Bringing Keats to the Big Screen

posted: 11.8.09 by archived

It can be a treat when talented directors decide to bring poets and their poetry to the big screen. In the recent past, the focus has been on 20th century poets—think of Sylvia (2003) on Sylvia Plath, Il Postino (1994) on Pablo Neruda, and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) on Dorothy Parker.  The imaginative 1998 Shakespeare in Love, which drew on real characters and plays, was entertaining but largely fictional.

This September, New Zealand director Jane Campion (The Piano, An Angel at My Table) brought us a biopic about  John Keats (1795 – 1821), one of the most romantic of the later Romantic poets.  Bright Star dramatizes the love affair between Keats and his Hampstead neighbor Fanny Brawne.  Campion decided to make the movie lush in image and sound, heavy with emotion, and short on Keat’s social life. (No Charles Lamb. No Percy Bysshe Shelley. None of that set.)

This, as some reviews have said, was a smart movie. Since Keats was such a rich character, his life offers too many channels to explore in one feature-length movie. And it was clever of Campion to deliver Keats’s exquisite poems on the stream of an intoxicating love affair. General movie goers may not have known of Keats, and general students of poetry may not have known of the affair. The result: more poetry for all.

Fanny, played by the milk-skinned Abby Cornish, begins as a spirited seamstress and designer stitching fantastic stand-up collars and intricate pleated skirts. Keats, played by Ben Whishaw, is whimsical, serious, and thin, nursing his ailing brother Tom.  Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’s rascally friend and quasi-benefactor, triangulates the love affair,  his jealousy growing in pace with the couple’s affections.

While the movie’s  lupin- and daffodil-filled fields and the blossoms of English spring are dazzling, even better is Whishaw’s reading of Keats. At the screening I attended, everyone stayed for the final credits in order to listen to the entirety of Whishaw reading “Ode to a Nightengale.”  (You can hear a brief excerpt here [click “download”].)

(Caleb Crain, writing in the On Language column in the New York Times last Sunday, muses on Keats’s language and some of Campion’s language choices for Bright Star.)

The film wasn’t a total success for me since the lovesick pining followed by howling grief became hard to sit through. I also would have liked to have seen more of Keats’s life in poetry and I was dismayed that Fanny’s proud sewing was reduced to mere stitching as she became more besotten—but perhaps that’s just the reality of  first love. (I’m comforted by the fact that she did not end her days traipsing the heaths of Hampstead reciting poetry, as the film says, but rather went on to marry and have a family.)

It was a pretty picture that leaned more in the direction of a love story than a cinematic-literary masterpiece.

An informal poll around the office finds opinions on poet biopics are pretty low. They suffer from “heavy-handed miserablism”  or are “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as courageous” delivered by “bloviating and gesticulating” characters. (Watch for future posts here by these two passionate writers.)

Question:

1. Do biopics help make poets and their poetry more approachable for students? Or do their efforts to appeal to the mainstream turn students off? How do you manage student responses?

2. Which biopics work best in your classroom? How do you assign them?


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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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Send Us Your Turkey-Day Assignments!

posted: 10.31.09 by archived

Holidays can be hard to write about. The “what you did on your summer vacation” prompt probably tops the pile, but tired sentiments about gratitude and world peace might not be far behind.

With Thanksgiving coming up, the Teaching Poetry blog wants to know how you approach this holiday with your students. Do you assign elegant odes or SPAMku? Do you avoid the topic altogether?

  • How do you get around clichés and get your students thinking for themselves?
  • What models do you use?
  • If you teach creative writing, what assignments work best for generating original turkey-day themed verse?

Send in your thoughts, your favorite assignments–or stories of classroom disasters. We’ll be collecting your insights over the next couple of weeks and posting your responses on November 16th, just in time for the holiday. Then, we’ll ask you to vote for the coolest activity!

E-mail assignments to: aflynn (at) bedfordstmartins (dot) com

Deadline: anytime before Friday, November 13
Vote on all submissions: November 16
Favorites go live: November 17

Stay tuned!

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Categories: Creative Writing, Critical Thinking, Discussion, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Teaching Advice, Uncategorized, Writing Process
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SPAMku!

posted: 10.26.09 by archived

by Carolyn Lengel

Poems can be fun, and sometimes they can even be funny. For proof, look no further than the haiku collected in the SPAMku archive.

Most of the poems on the site are really senryu, which is parodic, rather than haiku, which includes a seasonal reference—both types, however, require the same five-syllable/seven-syllable/five-syllable form.

Curated by John Nagamichi Cho of MIT, the SPAMku archive grew from a collection that filled a small paperback (SPAMku: Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf, Harper Perennial, 1998) into a gelatinous, porky giant with more than twenty thousand contributions.

Although the SPAMku archive no longer accepts new verses, the poems contributed by volunteers and enthusiasts are a revelation. Everyone, it seems, loves a poetry challenge—and what could be more challenging than crafting a poetic ode to a prosaic canned meat?

spam1

Here are some favorites among the archive’s many, many delights:

Roseate pork slab,
How you quiver on my spork!
Radiant light, gelled.

—L. Sheahen

Zen Buddhist SPAM quest:
“What are the ingredients?”
What do you desire?

—Alex Dunne

Activity:

Give your students the poetry challenge they crave. After a class discussion of the appeal of combining formal Japanese poetry with a not-very-dignified pork product, ask every student to write a SPAMku. (Vegetarian/vegan students can write Tofuku if they prefer.) Who knows—perhaps you’ll end up with a SPAMku archive of your own.

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Carolyn Lengel is a senior editor for English at Bedford/St. Martin’s, where she works mainly  on handbooks. She is not a poet (although she did write a YouTube sonnet about Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan for the National Day on Writing), and she generally does not eat Spam, though she admires Spam both as a word and as an aesthetic object.


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The Art of Revision

posted: 10.19.09 by archived

By Sage Cohen

One of the trickiest—and most liberating—aspects of poetry is that there is no Gold Standard against which we measure its worth. Without this standard, it can also be difficult to evaluate when a poem is finished. Because each poem is trying to accomplish something different, it is up to us to decide when the poem has arrived. This is not easy to do, even when one has been writing for decades, but it sure is satisfying to practice!

The important thing to remember about revision is that it is a process by which we become better acquainted with the poem and push it farther toward its own potential. In the revision stage, we revisit and may reinvent the choices we’ve already made with language, image, voice, music, line, rhythm, and rhyme.

The tricky balance involves wildly experimenting with what might be possible in a poem—beyond what we first laid down on the page—without losing the integrity of idea or emotion that brought us to the poem in the first place. This is a skill that develops over time, through experience and largely by feel. If it seems like you’re groping around in the dark when revising, welcome to the club!

The process of revising poems is unique for each poet; often, each poem has its own, unprecedented trajectory. I’ve had a few “whole cloth” poems arrive nearly perfectly complete in one contiguous swoosh of pen to paper. And I have other poems that have taken me more than fifteen years to finish. More typically, I work on a poem for a few weeks or months. Sometimes, I think a poem is finished, but years later, it proves me wrong, demanding a new final verse or line structure or title.

For the purposes of establishing a revising practice, I recommend that you divide writing and editing into two completely separate acts that happen at two different sittings, preferably on different days. The goal of this checks-and-balances system is to give yourself the space to let it rip when you’re writing without fearing interference from your inner editor. Don’t worry: If it’s bad now, it will still be bad next week; you can fix it then.

Once you feel you’ve exhausted every last drop of poetic possibility in the writing of the first draft, or any time you get stuck and don’t know where to go next, put your poem aside for a while. The next time you return to it, you’ll be wearing your editor hat.

In my experience, time is the greatest of editors. The longer a poem sits untouched, the more likely you are to have a sense of how to proceed when you sit down to revise.

Activity:

Don’t know where to start with your revisions? Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is most alive in your poem? Underline the line(s), word(s), phrase(s), stanza(s) that seem to be the kindling feeding the fire of this poem so you can easily reference what’s working throughout the revision process.
  • Is there introductory information at the beginning or summary information at the end that could be trimmed?
  • Who is speaking? What would the poem be like if told from a different perspective? (For example, if a poem is about an experience shared by a mother and daughter, and told from the daughter’s point of view, try telling it from the mother’s point of view.)
  • Where is language weak and flabby? How can you give it more energy and muscle? Can passive verbs become active? Can modifiers be cut? Should “dropped” be changed to “plummeted”?
  • Verb tense: What would your poem be like in a different tense than it was written? Even if it happened in the past, try the present, and vice versa. See what gives it the most power and energy.
  • Does the shape of the poem (line length, stanza breaks, white space) mirror the emotion and rhythm of its content? Should it?
  • Are punctuation and capitalization consistent?
  • Is there good music of repeating sounds throughout the poem?
  • Does each line break create the desired interest, pause, movement, and focus on key moments or words?
  • Does the title serve the poem? How can the title take the poem further?

Remember that only you know the best way to craft your poem. Have fun, be willing to experiment, and you’ll learn a little more about revision each time you try.

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Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing, publishes the Writing the Life Poetic Zine and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Sage has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She curates a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. To learn more, visit www.sagesaidso.com. Join the conversation about living and writing a poetic life at www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com!

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Peer Review, Teaching Advice, Writing Process
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Jim Carroll: 1949-2009

posted: 10.7.09 by archived

by Cecilia Seiter

Poet, musician, and author Jim Carroll died of a heart attack in New York on September 11th of this year. He was best known for his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, about his high school years playing basketball for a private school, while simultaneously supporting his growing heroin addiction. The New York Times has a good obituary; The Guardian writes about Carroll’s poetic legacy; for a more personal remembrance, with pictures, poetry, and an interview, try poet Tom Clark’s blog.

While learning more about Jim Carroll’s life, and reading some of his poetry (I picked up Fear of Dreaming, which contains selected poems from 1969-1993) what struck me was how inextricably linked his life and works were to New York City. Born on the Lower East Side, spending his adolescence in Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan, and going to high school on the Upper West Side, Carroll had the run of Manhattan from a young age. The poetry workshops on St. Mark’s Place, which he attended starting in 1965, encouraged his writing. And, what better place than Manhattan during the sixties and seventies to find the mix of art, drugs, and rock and roll that were so influential to his work?

In many of his poems, Carroll refers to specific streets and and places in New York, as if to let the reader in on the places where he hangs out. These references also ground the poems in geographical reality, and invite the reader’s knowledge of the street or neighborhood to  enhance the experience of reading the poem.

You could do your own walking tour of Manhattan based on Carroll’s poetry, though the streets aren’t the same anymore. In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, Carroll himself said,

The New York that’s in my poems is the New York that’s in my head…I walked past Times Square the other night and it was just like being in Vegas or something. But it wasn’t the sleazy Vegas. I can remember when I was a kid going up to Times Square and it was this breathtaking sense of depravity, which I think every kid should go through and be exposed to. Now, it’s more like Disneyland or something.

Jim Carroll is definitely worth watching and listening to. You can hear him read his poem “Heroin” here, thanks to the Paris Review (who first published his poetry in 1968, and published excerpts from The Basketball Diaries in 1970). This video, from the film Poetry in Motion (1982), shows Carroll reading “Just Visiting”, from “The Book of Nods” (the clip ends with some bonus footage of Charles Bukowski).

A final thought on writing poetry (versus playing basketball) from Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973:

Poetry has too many variations. Mr. Frost was right about one thing: there are always promises to keep, and variations on that theme. With basketball you can correct your own mistakes, immediately and beautifully, in midair.

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blog-photo Cecilia Seiter is an associate editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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Wallace Stevens, Poet of the Month

posted: 10.5.09 by archived

Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879—130 years ago—and led what seemed, on the surface, a rather ordinary life.

Educated at Harvard, he became a lawyer and spent his life practicing law, eventually becoming vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co.  While leading the daily life of a lawyer, Stevens produced some of the most important American poetry written in the twentieth century—composing lines in his head while walking to work in the morning and writing them down at night. Like composer Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens happily joined work and art, turning down a professorship at Harvard to remain at his firm. Widespread recognition came late, just a year before Stevens’s death in 1955, when his Collected Poems was published.

The Poetry Foundation’s biography summarizes Stevens’s talents: “an extraordinary vocabulary, a flair for memorable phrasing, an accomplished sense of imagery, and the ability to both lampoon and philosophize.” Stevens is frequently regarded as a difficult poet—his poems are opaque and philosophical, his images whimsical, his language complex—but the visceral power of his words is on display in his recordings of his poems, like this one of “To the One of Fictive Music” (with some creative animation):

(See also recordings of Stevens’s poems here and here, as well as these two clips from a documentary.)

Though appreciation of Stevens’s poetry was a long time coming, it is now near universal. Stevens’s Selected Poems, recently published by Knopf, has garnered a lot of attention and occasioned reassertions of Stevens’s place in the pantheon of modern poetry.  “[W]hen we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets,” James Longenbach writes in The Nation, “it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear.”

Reviewing the book in the Times, Helen Vendler makes the case for Stevens as the poet of our age:

Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the  physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of    philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always—as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn”—by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.

Happy 130th, Wallace Stevens!

Activity

1. As noted above, Stevens was unique in his ability write great poems while achieving success in the legal world. Why is this so rare? Are poets opposed to work? Consider some poems that deal with the mundane world of work—perhaps “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Gray or “The Unknown Citizen” by Auden—and discuss how the poets conceive of this work as related to their craft.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Hayden Carruth, Poet of the Month

posted: 8.17.09 by archived

Earlier this month-August 3-would have been Hayden Carruth‘s 88th birthday.

Carruth was a prolific American poet who authored over 30 volumes of poetry, beginning with The Crow and the Heart in 1959. He also contributed essays, introductions, and his critical and editorial acumen to many other books and projects.

Fascinated and guided by the innovations of jazz, Carruth experimented with poetic forms throughout his lifetime. Still, he was considered a modernist who upheld the ideals of 20th century modernism as expressed by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, e.e.cummings, and William Carlos Williams.

At the age of 75, he won the National Book Award for his 1996 collection, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.

Here’s an excerpt from “Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey” on the Academy of American Poets Web site where you can also hear two recordings of Carruth reading his poems.

Scrambled eggs and whiskey

in the false-dawn light. Chicago,

a sweet town, bleak, God knows,

but sweet. Sometimes. And

weren’t we fine tonight?

Galway Kinnell has said, “This is not a man who sits down to ‘write a poem’; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, ‘Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.’ So it is with Carruth. And even in hell, knowledge itself bestows a halo around the consciousness with, at moments, attains it.” (See more on the Academy of American Poets.)

Critics and contemporaries had to a lot to say about Carruth’s linguistic skill and existential bravery. Alastair Reed is quoted on the Poetry Foundation Web site: “[Carruth’s] poems have a sureness to them, a flair and variety. . . . Yet, in their dedication to finding an equilibrium in an alien and often cruel landscape, Vermont, where the poet has dug himself in, they reflect the moods and struggles of a man never at rest. . . . His work teems with the struggle to live and to make sense, and his poems carve out a kind of grace for us.”

Carruth died on September 29, 2008.

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Graphic Novels in FYC

posted: 3.11.09 by archived

I recently asked about using graphic novels in FYC. Here are some of the most popular graphic novels people use:

Maus
Persepolis
9/11 Commission Report

There is also Bradway and Hesse’s book on creating nonfiction , which uses graphic novel excerpts. Plus, Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, and the TED lecture he gives on comics.

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