How I “Found Poetry” This NaPoMo

Yeah, yeah, yeah. April is National Poetry Month. Who cares?

Ooh! Ooh! We do! There are so many National Poetry Month challenges, it’s not even funny. But this year, I participated in The Found Poetry Review‘s challenge titled PoMoSco, and it was, as a colleague of mine so eloquently puts it, amaze-balls.

What worked? The people. “202 participating poets published 3,861 poems.” Yes, indeed. And…the prompts. All “found poetry” prompts. Think found poetry is just taking a source and picking out some words? Think again. Think “White Out” where you, you guessed it, take white out to a source to create something new. Think “Picture It” where you take a source and make art all over that shit to create…wait for it…even more art…but poetry. Think “Order’s Up” where you take a menu and poem the crap out of it. Yes indeed.

This was such a blast. I won’t even mention the super-fantastic #AWP15 off-site reading at House of Balls (bowling balls, carved). Oops!

Look. You want to write something good? Something new? Something amaze-balls? Yeah? Then you’ve got to write. Sit down and write. That’s it.

Check out some of the thousands of poems that the scouts created this April here. Try some found poetry…if you dare. And share that experience. Share your inspiration, share your writing, share the love. And, while you’re at it, check out my personal favorite from this past month, Gary Glauber’s “Yes It Is.” Here’s an excerpt:

“All the love despite
silent rages and vague stares
came pouring through
with starts and stops,
desperate efforts.

I want to go to bed, be in my head, just wear red.
Red is the color that my baby wore
and once more, it’s true. Yes it is,
it’s true.

A lullaby: woods and river
calling child to go to sleep.
She sang it every night.” 

Source Text: Bloom, Amy. “Silver Water.” Come to Me. New York: HarperCollins Books, 1993. Print.

I love the way the poem flows around the italicized stanza. This poem is one result of the “Pick and Mix” prompt where participants chose stand-out words and phrases from a text and then put them together in any order. 146 people wrote poems based on this found poetry prompt. Fantastic!


And now for some shameless self-promotion. My favorite of the poems I completed (not as many as I would have liked, but what’re ya gonna do?) is a “Picture It” sourced from Marlin Barton’s short story “Short Days, Dog Days” from his new collection Pasture Art. It’s titled “Sleep is a Lock-blade Knife.” Enjoy!

What did I find this past NaPoMo? I found Found Poetry. I hope you’ll try some, too. It works.

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

by Rhonda Browning White


Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.

An excellent example of understated yet powerful emotion is present in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “The Circle”, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated short story appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review. “The Circle” relates the stories of two characters—one a young female narrator grieving her husband’s recent death, the other a grief counselor named Ruth who is in denial of the cancer that’s taken root in her breast—deftly juxtaposed and intertwined. Death and cancer: two painfully grim subjects that if not handled correctly, especially when examined in one short story, risk leaving a reader morose and depressed, potentially swearing off the author’s work forever. The last thing needed in a story of this gravity is melodrama, but there is equal danger in making light of such serious subjects through use of glib dialogue, inappropriate humor, or unrealistic character actions.

Fortunately, Pietrzyk’s “The Circle” conveys honest emotion through the body language, dialogue, and the internal thoughts of both of her point of view characters, without veering across the line into melodrama. One case in point is the recent widow’s bleak expression of hopelessness when describing the room in which her support group is held:

“Drab, large, as shapeless as something with four walls could be, so that while the room was rectangular, the boundaries felt ill-defined. Alternating between stuffy and chilly. Windows high up on the walls, offering squeaks of light but no view. Fluorescent lighting with a slight buzz. An unplugged coffee maker on a long table covered with a plastic, red-checked tablecloth with dark brown burn circles where someone had set down something hot. It was a room where sad people collected, people with vast problems. She stared at a wall calendar with a picture of a European castle, wondering why something seemed off, and finally realized she was looking at last month’s dates.”

Pietrzyk doesn’t tell us her character feels hopeless, nor do we see the young woman moping, shoulders sagging, as she drags herself into the room. Why? Because that would be melodramatic. Instead, as we see the room through the character’s eyes, we feel her heavyheartedness.

We see a concurrence of bleakness—this time expressed through anger—in grief counselor Ruth, when she refuses to call her doctor, refuses to schedule a breast biopsy, and lies to her friends about doing both. We feel her resentment when she takes control of what she worries may be the short amount of time she has left.

“People ramble through grief at their own pace—tiptoes to raging bulls—and Ruth does not judge. It’s not a race.

“No, what Ruth finds disturbing is the steady gnaw of anger as she listened to the widows speak that first night. She’s been tired lately, maybe, or about to get her period. Maybe that ill-advised Mexican meal. But today, home after work, after not calling the doctor, she realizes why: those bitches are alive, and she is dying.”

Again, the expression of emotion is restrained, yet ruthless, and in a story that deals with difficult topics such as death and cancer, this is crucial. There can be no histrionics, no clichés, nor any falsely callous song and dance. This careful balance when walking the fine line of emotional expression in writing is what allows readers to engage and immerse in the story and experience truthful emotions alongside and through our characters.

 Gettysburg Review Winter 2013




What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.

Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.


Why the repetition works

Why The Repetiton Works
by Cheryl Russell

One of the stories from The Best American Short Stories that I remember is Julie Otsuka‘s short story “Diem Perdidi,” a Latin phrase for “I have lost the day.” It is a phrase the narrator’s mother remembers from her high school Latin–a subject she was so proficient in she was awarded honors at her high school graduation. But now, the narrator’s mother is suffering from memory loss and by repeating the phrases “she remembers” and “she doesn’t remember,” Otsuka is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s grief as losing her mother a bit at a time.

Nearly every sentence in the story starts with one of two phrases: “she remembers” and “she does not remember.” If a sentence doesn’t start with one of these phrases, then it is probably written into the sentence. By using these phrases, Otsuka shows the cruelty of her mother’s disease, as well as it’s progression.

“She remembers” her fifth grade teacher, her mother killing the family’s chickens before this Japanese family was relocated to the desert, and her first love. “She does not remember” the names of those closest to her–her husband, the narrator–what she’s just done, such as pick a flower to put in her hair or eating lunch.

“She remembers” much of her past–in great detail–her father abandoning their family when she was young and her mother scattering salt in the corners of the house after his departure and the daughter who survived only moments after birth.

“She remembers” the names of the people at the grocery store where she currently shops, but “she does not remember” the names of her immediate family.

By repeated use of those two phrases–“she remembers” and “she does not remember,” Otsuka is able draw the reader into the narrator’s grief at her mother’s slow passing. While physically she remains in good shape, the essence of who she is, is fading away. “She remembers” and “she does not remember” serve to point out the slipping away of this woman, contrasting what is known to what is forgotten, and how what is own is continually slipping away, until “she does not remember” will become more frequent than “she remembers.”

The Best American Short Stories 2012
The Best American Short Stories 2012

Otsuka, Julie. “Diem Pardidi.” The Best American Short Stories 2012.” Ed. Tom Perrotta. Series ed. Heidi Pitlor. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 152-161. Print.

Timeless Surprises in Open Secrets

Alice Munro’s Open Secrets: Stories is a collection of eight short stories, each centering on the whole-life spans of women who experience loss; most often, the loss of love, though the quiet, underlying theme of self-deception and self-delusion is foreshadowed in the title itself: the truth is plainly visible, but only if the characters choose to see it. It is important to note that readers of these stories must detect truths and answers, none of which are clear cut or easily discernable, and that we may change our interpretation of the truth behind the secret at another point in our lives if we come to these stories again. Munro uses various points of view (omniscient, first, second and third) in each of these stories to cloud the narrative, giving readers a puzzle to solve—one that has no defined solution at the story’s end. One might expect to find this ambiguity annoying, but instead, the narrative shifts and disturbing images Munro invokes in her work cause the reader to reconsider and ponder each story’s enigma after finishing the tale.

Munro helps create this sense of mystery by painting characters we aren’t sure we can believe or trust. In “Carried Away,” the protagonist is a wine-drinking librarian who falls in love and exchanges letters with a man she doesn’t know and who may exist only in her imagination. The narrator in “The Albanian Virgin” is a bookstore owner who relates a strange story told to her by a bizarre customer named Charlotte, who may or may not be Lottar, a woman once kidnapped by Ghegs and rescued by a Franciscan priest. “Open Secrets” relates the horrific story of a teen girl’s disappearance using an omniscient narrator who paints suspicious images of three men (Mr. Siddicup, Lawyer Stephens and Theo Slater), any of which could be the girl’s abductor, and she dangles the solution to the “open secret” before the self-deluding eyes of protagonist Maureen during a moment of divine clarity, yet Maureen refuses to believe herself. Perhaps most disturbing of these unreliable characters is the pacifist Bea in “Vandals,” who ignores the fact that two children are being sexually molested by her husband.

Munro causes readers to reevaluate what we know through the protagonists’ obstinate method of carrying on with their lives as if everything were fine in the aftermath of horrific events, but we are also often required to reassess the direction a story is taking based on a few simple lines of powerful writing. These twists in the stories are unexpected and sometimes astonishing.

It is through these puzzles and mysteries that Munro not only requires the reader to reexamine their impression of the story—what we believe actually happened in the narrative—but also to examine our own frame of reference: why have we reached one conclusion over another, equally fitting, conclusion? We arrive at our own interpretations, which may differ from that of another reader, based on what we’ve experienced to date in our own lives. Perhaps this is why Munro covers complete life spans of her main characters, instead of writing these stories as “slice of life” vignettes. Munro’s Open Secrets stories are therefore timeless (even though her characters and settings are specifically dated), because our understanding of the outcome of these stories differ at different periods in our lives, depending upon what we have experienced, or the secrets we keep.

Work Cited

Munro, Alice. Open Secrets: Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1995. Print.