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Poetry Begets More Poetry

Actually, I find any-kind-of-writing begets more any-kind-of-writing. Unless you go and strain a writing-muscle through stress from over-exertion. And yes, that muscle is located in your head not in your hand (trust me, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to this kind of science. I’m an English major.) But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start just over a year ago — we could go back two years, or even ten years, but you aren’t here for my life history, and besides, I’d need more than just one blog post for that*.

So anyways, about a year ago, high school was just winding down and my life was a flurry of essays, exams and endless excuses to avoid writing. Including this disaster. But, amidst this madness, I had to think about an end-of-the-year-teacher’s-gift to end all end-of- the-year-teacher’s-gifts for the English teacher who changed my life. I was maybe going to write her a poem or something, like I used to do for my parents’ and grandparents’ birthdays, but… That would be lame. And what kind of present is that? Gosh, that would make me seem rather full of myself. And she wouldn’t even like it. And. And. And. Excuses, excuses. Anything not to write. You know, despite all my well thought out plans to write so much that summer.

But then I found myself bored one weekend, so I took out a book of poetry, a collection of villanelles, and read way more poems in one sitting than is recommended by most doctors. Because doctors are science people. So they don’t like poetry. William Carlos Williams excepted, of course. Anyways. Poetry. So I had villanelles on my mind. And I had this teacher who I needed a gift for on my mind. And my mind is very good at making connections. So I thought of a villanelle for this teacher. And I wrote it down. And I rewrote it and tested how the words tasted in my mouth and I rewrote some more. Finally I loved it. I showed it to my mom and she loved it. I showed it to my grandfather and he loved it. Okay. Great. I figured it out. I was going to write a little, mini poetry collection for this teacher. I’d write three more poems, which would get me to four — see, this English major can even do math!

So I wrote and revised and wrote and revised, and I loved it and hated it, and it was impossibly easy and impossibly hard. You know, just your standard creative process. And I finally finished this project (or at least got it to a point where it was hand-in-able) around two a.m. the night before I planned on giving it to her. I was really proud of that collection of poems. And it was the greatest teacher’s gift she’s ever received in twelve years of teaching. At least that’s what she told me. Or maybe I just told myself that. Hmm. It was a whole year ago, cut me some slack.

So, okay, reading that collection of poetry that one wild weekend was the joyous conception of the poems I later labouriously birthed. So to speak. And then the cuddly, precious new poems I now had were supposed to convince me that I needed to write even more poems because, aw, just look how soft and pink they were! But that didn’t work out so well. Because I just couldn’t forget the hardship of bringing them into the world like I was supposedly supposed to.

Also, I believe that the ordeal had overworked my already-injured writing-muscle. Which, again, is located in the cranium. (That means head. I think.)

And then, being myself, I jumped head (and writing-muscle) first into a remarkable act of stupidity. Shortly after the above mentioned incidents, it was three days after my last exam, a week or so before prom and graduation. And someone on my twitter feed informed me that Camp NaNoWriMo had started yesterday.

“Hey!” I thought. “How about I write a novel this month!? I could expand that fragmentary story that would work so well as a novel!”

“Hey!” one of the voices in my head should have shouted back. “How about you calm the #*@& down! Write ‘cuz it makes you happy, not cuz some dumb chart on a website tells you that you still have 1008 words left to write today! And calm down!”

Well that voice kept its mouth shut, so instead I dove in, ignoring the sign on the pool deck that clearly stated NO DIVING, and I hit my head on the bottom of the pool. I’m not really sure what the pool (or anything else, for that matter) is supposed to represent in that metaphor. Let me know if you figure it out.

So yeah. I kind of did some serious damage to my writing-muscle. So writing wasn’t really begetting more writing for a while. It was begetting frustration. Not writing was also begetting frustration. Because it’s no fun to be a writer (at an artsy school where my writing was supposed to flourish, no less) who doesn’t write.

And you know what helped? Not writing. Not forcing it. Forced and enforced writing and writing habits made writing a chore, and a painful one at that. So for a while I didn’t write much. And while I wasn’t writing much, I was reading books that I thought would make me smarter, more literary, more inclined to write. Then I came home from being away at school and I stopped that nonsense. I started reading stuff that I wanted to read. Mostly fun, light collections of essays from the humour section by the likes of Nora Ephron and Mindy Kaling.

And then I read a whole collection of poetry by Bronwen Wallace in one sitting, maybe two. She’s a brilliant Canadian poet, and it just occurred to me it was one of her poems which I based my “masterpiece” on a year ago. It’s rather fitting too, because a day or two after reading her poems, a poem of my own flew through my head. And I caught on to it and wrote it down. This was only two or three weeks ago, but since then, lines from poems that want to be written keep coming to me and I keep writing them and more and more poems continue to fill up my notebooks.

And they don’t have to be good and they don’t have to be about important things. They just have to be and just by being, they will even more poems to be. And the more poems filling my notebooks the better, right?

Hey there! You, yeah, you in the corner! What inspires you to write? What kind of writing are you doing these days? Do you see much of a connection between what you read and what you write?

*But if you wanted to know where I’d start that story, it would be here, at the ripe young age of eight.


Twitter Poetry and a NYPL Contest

If you don’t know the premise of Twitter — posting micro-thoughts of up to 140 characters — you must be anciently old or infantile-y young.

There are obviously some polarized thoughts on this no-longer-new form of expression.

Blah, blah, deteriorating attention spans, darn lazy young people, blah, blah, blah.

Blah, blah, new forms of expression, advancing society, blah, blah, blah.

Blah, blah, social media marketing, brand-consumer interaction, blah, blah. Blah.

Was that quite enough blah’s to make your brain hurt? Okay then, moving on. I think that all those people with the polarized views are missing the point. As people with polarized opinions often. Yes, I think it’s a shame that people’s attention spans last about five seconds due to the constant stream of… whatever, but I read somewhere that decreasing attention spans has been a lamentation-du-jour for centuries.

And as a writer, Twitter’s limited space for expression is a great place to practice using language economically. “Brevity,” as we learn in Hamlet “is the the soul of wit.” I agree entirely with the sentiment, despite the irony of the fact that it comes from Shakespeare’s long-winded, dull Polonius. This is true whether we’re discussing humour, poetry or a novel. Why waste a paragraph on what can be said with more strength in one sentence?*

Really, twitter works with the same premise as poetry. I think my creative writing teacher from last year explained that poetry is prose distilled, and I think that in an ideal twitterverse, tweets are blog posts distilled.

They’re also a great medium for an up and coming form — Twitter Poetry! That’s right, poems composed of 140 characters or less. The New York Public Library has caught onto this trend and they are having a super cool poetry contest! You can find out all about it on their site and enter if you have a twitter account and live in The States (which I now do, so yay me!). The contest only runs until March 10, so get writing and check out my submissions at @asolitaryramble!

May the brief, witty, poetical forces be with you! (Whatever that’s in reference to…. Seriously. I have no idea what I’m referencing there. Something science-fiction-y?)

*Disclaimer: the only form that this does not hold true in is the academic high school (and possibly university) essay. In such pieces of writing, it is essential to be as redundant as possible, rephrasing the exact same idea using different words and examples as much as you can without absolutely dying of boredom. For some reason, teachers love this and will call your work things like “excellent” and give you mid- to high-nineties. There will be the occasional hundred-percent, but only if you say in five paragraphs what could have been summed up in one sentence.

Dissecting Pigs VS Dissecting Poems

Back in when I was in grade 11, I was under the false impression that taking Biology was a good idea. It wasn’t. Towards the end of the year, we had to dissect fetal pigs. I, of course, was the kid who didn’t even bother putting on rubber gloves. Because I was the kid who spent the period curled up on a chair, cowering in the corner, breathing (as little as possible) through my mouth, with my face towards the wall. Needless to say, I do not intend on pursuing a career in medicine.

Then some moron (read: teenage boy) thought it would be a good idea to cut off his pig’s nose and flail it around in front of me. He was very much encroaching on my personal space and I was terrified that he’d touch me with that disgusting, smelly, drippy thing, which was in very close proximity to my face. So I reacted as maturely (read: femininely) as I knew how. I kicked him in the stomach (I was high up on a lab chair, so his stomach just happened to be what was in kicking distance — he’s just lucky he wasn’t a little bit taller). It certainly made him go away. He even apologized and the next class he assured me that he wouldn’t do anything like that again. I obviously made quite an impression.

I have photographic evidence of this experience, but I don’t want to look at those pictures again and I assume you don’t either. Photo credit:

The reason for this outpouring of  a (clearly traumatic) experience which occurred a year ago, is that today I’d like to explore some of the differences between dissecting a fetal pig and dissecting a poem. I like to think of it as a highly analytic and empirical study in contrast, if you will.

Dissecting Pigs

Dissecting Poems

The fetal pig was killed/never even given the chance to be born, so that you could learn from it.

The poem was written, therefore given life, so you could learn from it

Learning from the fetal pig means desecrating and butchering it, especially if your partners are stupid teenage boys. Once a fetal pig has been (sometimes literally) torn to shreds, there is nothing you can do to save it.

Learning from a poem means taking it to a higher level and giving it new life. Even once stupid teenage boys have ruined a good poem, it is not dead. There’s nothing a good English teacher can’t revive.

Once a group of kids have learned by dissecting a pig, no one else can learn from that pig.

There is no limit to the number of people who can learn from the same poem.

Pigs die when people learn from them.

Poems die when people don’t learn from them.

Two more thoughts that are unrelated to the previous train of thought:

Pigs smell like formaldehyde and dead pig.

Poems smell like paper, which is a good thing. Or like the books they’re located in, which is a super good thing. Or, in the best circumstances, they (psychologically) smell like the lilacs or forests or freshly cut grass they’re describing.

All pigs are more or less the same. Everyone learns the same thing from every pig.

Every (good) poem (ideally) has a new, fresh, original message, or at least expresses an old message in new, fresh, original ways. And everyone can perceive and understand each different poem in their own way.


In conclusion:

Dissecting poetry is better (and more awesome) than dissecting pigs. The End.

(Note: This is mostly tongue in cheek. I see the value of learning science and I am totally not  one of those weirdos who refuse to eat meat. If you are one of the weirdos, that’s totally cool, I am just not one of you. My qualm is not so much that animals die to be dissected, it’s that most of the kids in my class were very “disrespectful” to these animals and I think that the exercise (and  the pigs lives) are potentially wasted on high school students who don’t know how to behave themselves.)

Dulce et Decorum Est — It is Sweet and Right

A few days ago, I talked about the first poem I can recall reading, in honour of National Poetry Month. That poem was the first step towards my love affair with reading; the poem I’m going to talk about today was one of the first steps towards my love affair with poetry.

Today’s poem is “Dulce et Decorum Est”, written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. I read it in English class last year and my love of it is probably owing to my fabulous teacher’s excellent and extensive analysis. My copy of the poem is completely filled with my notes, to the point that you can barely even see the actual text. We dissected nearly every word, however unlike when those weirdos who take Sciences dissect frogs — where they learn something, but then it’s dead — dissecting this poem just  made it come more alive, on so many more levels. In addition to all the insight it provided about the war, this was the first work that really showed me the importance that each and every word carries.

I love this poem (and all my annotations) so much that a whole year after learning it, I dug out my old English binder to find this poem and hang it in my room. It’s still there and, as a writer, it’s a really beautiful example of effective writing techniques paired with insightful content.

Even aside from hanging on my wall, this poem refuses to stay out of my life.  When I was in England over the summer, I was at the British Library and saw an original draft of it, in Owen’s handwriting , with an extra verse that he later removed as well as various crossed out and replaced words and sentences. It was so fascinating to see a great poet’s writing process seemingly take place before my eyes. To see the way real writers put so much thought into each word, rather than just throwing a bunch of them on a page and calling it a day. This poem, in conjunction with the original manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s handwriting, made me burst into awed, overwhelmed tears. Clearly I get a little emotional over silly stuff like great literature.

Then in my Literature class, we read the book Regeneration, a fictionalized account of Craiglockhart War Hospital, which includes real, live people like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. So of course we had to read “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which is (as I may have mentioned) one of my favourite poems. And it reminded me of my trip to the British Library. So of course I felt the need to start tearing up over this in the middle of class. Yeah. That was kind of awkward…

Well, now I have to go finish writing an essay for my Ethics class… So here’s a link to the poem, I hope you love it as much as I do.

So? What do you think? Do you love it as much as I do? (You probably don’t —  that would be impossible.) Furthermore, tomorrow (April 26) is Poem In Your Pocket Day, a day when people carry poems. In their pockets. It’s that simple! What poem are YOU carrying with you? Is it in your pocket or in your head?  Both count in my book.

National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! It seems as though April is National Poetry Month, which didn’t occur to me until last week,  which I worry makes it a little late to get involved in all the festivities, like NaPoWriMo, a challenge in which poets write one poem each day all month.

However, despite my being a little late, I want to get involved in this cause (can poetry month be considered a cause?) by sharing some of my favourite poems, which have been influential in my life.

Today I’m posting the poem “Sick” by Shel Silverstein. Silverstein was my first “favourite poet” and I’ve loved his work since I was little (which makes a lot of sense, seeing as he wrote for children). While this may not have been the first poem I ever read, it’s the first poem I can recall reading and it’s still one of my favourite poems. I read it for the first time when I was in grade two, and in a way it was kind of life changing.

I was one of the “late readers”, placed in the teeny, tiny remedial reading group, also known as “the stupid group”, deny it as our teachers might. At the ripe old age of seven-and-a-half (and a quarter) I was still slowly making my way through picture books, while it seemed as though all the rest of my peers were reading what seemed like epic novels, consisting of ten whole chapters. Aside from the social stigma, I was none too bothered by my lack of reading skills.

Then in my little, six-person reading group we read the poem “Sick”, and I fell in love. Not only did it make me laugh, but it was relatable, it resonated with my entire seven-and-a-half-year-old being. It was the piece of writing that taught me the merits of the written word, and made me care about learning how to read. (Well that may be romanticizing the experience just a little, but still.) I went home that night and told my family all about this wonderful poem that we had read in school. I was so excited that my group was presenting it to the class that  I practiced my few lines over and over so I’d be able to share it with the class effectively, so they could also appreciate its awesomeness.

Now, of course, I’ve caught up with, and perhaps even surpassed, my peers as far as reading goes; in fact, I’m one of the few people in my Literature class that actually bothers to finish the assigned reading on time and I’m getting pretty good grades in that class so far — if I do say so myself.

Attributing my ability to read and my love for literature entirely to a single poem that I read in grade two is perhaps a big leap. Regardless, I’m still very appreciative to Shel Silverstein and this poem, and furthermore, to the teacher who taught me this poem, because it showed me how enjoyable reading can be, and motivated me to care about learning how to read.

You can read the poem here, and hopefully I’ll post some more before the month is out.

Have you read any memorable poems that really stayed with you?

Beach Reads

We’re in Miami for break, and on Tuesday I reflected upon my reading material over the past few years we’ve vacationed in Florida. Today I want to talk (write) about what I’ve been reading this trip.  I brought five books with me, and bought one here (I love Barnes and Noble — books mixed with coffee has to be one of the best scents in the world).

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There’s Brave New World, which I finished reading (for English class) on our first or second day here. I sat reading it by the pool and I was just drunk on the heat of  the sun beating down on my face. I was reading about the problems with fake happiness and being contented into obedience with the help of drugs like “soma”, yet the combination of sun and reading a brilliant book made me feel just like I  was away on a soma holiday. (Soma’s the fictitious, all-purpose drug in Brave New World.) Some people find BNW thoroughly disturbing and don’t like it at all. While I don’t normally read science fiction, aside from 1984 and such for school, I was completely mesmerized by this book. All the super-disturbing parts were just so fascinating. The really jarring part, was that so much of it bears eerie resemblance to the society in which we actually live. Aside from conditioning, (which, thankfully, our society doesn’t seem to have come close to) I really didn’t find very much of it to be all that far-fetched. On second thought, I think advertisements, and even the toys we give children to play with, come do come close to conditioning. Frankly, I think it’s kind of sad that this book has lost (or is losing) it’s power to shock (at least for me). Aldous Huxley probably intended for his imaginary world to stay that way — imaginary. It was ment to be shockingly far-fetched and crazy. And now? We’re already living in a shockingly brave, new world, and insane conjectures and predictions are becoming everyday life.

On a side note, I really loved all the beautiful Shakespeare references. We just finished reading Hamlet in English class and there are a ton of allusions to it.

“To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come[?]”

That’s one of my favourite quotations from the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy and seeing it alluded to in BNW just made me giddy!

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Next I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver for my Literature class. Last year my former English teacher suggested that I’d love it and I was about to start reading it when I  heard that we’d be learning it in Literature, at which point I decided to wait until this year. I’m really happy I waited, because I enjoyed it a lot more now than I would have a year ago. I finished reading it today and I think I’m still a little too awestruck to share any articulate thoughts on it. I always need some time after reading a powerful book to fully absorb the impact and start thinking full thoughts about it, beyond “wow, that was amazing! How’s the author manage that?” I find that since I’ve started writing and especially since taking Writer’s Craft, I focus so much more on the craftsmanship of a novel. Sometimes even to the point of being distracted from the actual content. I’ll just sit there, dumbstruck, wondering how the author could possibly be so brilliant. How anyone could possible be capable of compiling an entire novel and how that novel can be so perfectly, wonderfully constructed.

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I also brought two collections of short stories by Alice Munro. The first one, Runaway, my former English teacher (yes, the one I’ve mentioned a million and a half times) lent me. She handed it to me and pointed out a single story in the collection she wanted me to read. The story, “Tricks”, was absolutely brilliant and I love it so much, especially because it also refers to a couple of Shakespeare’s plays. The crazy thing is, just a few months ago, I think I really would have hated this story, due to its semi-tragic ending. Now the tragic ending is what I find so brilliant. It’s just positively, painfully  astounding and profound. I told this teacher how much I love it, but wouldn’t have a few months ago. She told me that she knew, and that it’s because of my Literature class. I told her I give her the credit, more so than that class. She’s happy, because, now I can appreciate a wider range of literature. Personally, I think she and my Lit. teacher broke me a little. You know, stole (i.e. ripped away) some of my innocence and doe-eyed naiveté. And let’s be honest here, I like(d) my innocence and doe-eyed naiveté, I kind of mourn its loss sometimes. Of course, I guess the whole, wide world of literature, that’s now open for my appreciation and pleasure is a bit of a consolation.

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Then there’s the other collection by Munro, The Dance of the Happy Shades. I started reading it for a short story analysis assignment in Writers Craft, but we only had to read three stories from it for the sake of the assignment. So now I’m working my way through the rest of the book, although I think that the ones I used for the assignment will prove to be my favourites. We only had to present one of the stories we chose to the class and I picked “An Ounce of Cure”, it’s a really great story and I wish I had picked one that I didn’t think was quite so brilliant. I think I got just a little too excitable and didn’t quite articulate my thoughts as clearly as I might of. I also managed to use the “word” “formulaic-ness”. It’s a good thing I’ve been in this teacher’s class for a while and she already knows that I do in fact have somewhat of a functioning brain in my head.

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I also brought a delightful little books of villanelles from Everyman’s Pocket Poets. I got it for my birthday and it’s such a wonderful little book. It also has such a pretty cover, which never hurts. While I was here I bought Sailing Alone Around the Room, a great collection of poetry by Billy Collins.

Whether I’ve made much progress through the latter four books over the course of this trip is another question entirely. I’m here with my siblings and a bunch of cousins and they have been given some of my attention. If I was ever “lonely”, per say, and wanted some company, all I would have to do is sit down somewhere (anywhere) with a book and I’d be joined within ten minutes. And, of course, as much as I like reading, I also happen to love talking, so my various books ended up being closed a lot of the time. I was also expected to attend meals on a regular basis (can you believe such a thing) so that also cut into my reading time.

So, readers, what kind of books do you like to take with you on vacation?

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