Tag Archives: poetry

mimicking the masters

You know when you visit an art museum and you see an art student sitting down with her own easel and paintbrush, copying the brushstrokes of Degas or van Gogh or Michelangelo? Mimicking the masters. Imitating the greats. Practicing on others’ paintings before she finds her own voice, so to speak.

In January, my professor recommended that we journalists do this too. Take a great piece of narrative nonfiction. Copy it straight out of the book, magazine, newspaper. Pay attention to diction, syntax, how the writers connect words and use imagery.

When I have writer’s block, as I did last night and, well, still have today; when I’ve got the ideas but the language gets stuck in some cortex of my brain, that’s when I mimic my masters.

Except I copy poetry. Not journalism. Can’t escape my B.A.

It isn’t to be pretentious — I have a genuine, nerdy love for poetry. Some poems I read over and over again, and I cry the good kind of tears, the kind of tears that remind me that I am human and so were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and John Keats and e.e. cummings, and feeling defeated or paralyzed by emotions is so normal, so, so normal. Even on the shit days, you exist on this earth, a part of a large and beautiful ecosystem. It’s the type of crying that comforts.

Plus, writers of any sort (journalists included) can learn a whole lot from poets. Relying on their senses. Concise diction. Playing with language. It’s a comfort, sure. But it’s also inspiration.

Since it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share a few poems that I’ve copied down to try and heal my writer’s block. I only took my Derek Walcott and Anne Sexton collections off of my bookshelf, so the poems come from those writers.

Here you are. Have a good cry.

Love after Love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bead. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Endings (Walcott again)

Things do not explode,
they fail, the fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lighting flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

Anne Sexton’s re-writing of Cinderella (but just the end, as it’s very long)

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

 

 

 

 

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el gran mojado/arcangel

The myth of the first world is that
development is wealth and technology progress.
It is all rubbish.
It means  you are no longer human beings
but only labor.
It means that the land you live on is not earth
but only property.

This is not a benefit for UNESCO
We are not the world.
This is not a rock concert.

– Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange

scribbles//shame

Just returned from the NICAR Conference in Atlanta (or the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, for those of you who have normal lives and aren’t data nerds).

It was wonderful. I learned more in a weekend than I could in a month. I got to meet (and drink with!) some incredible journalists. New friendships abounded, old friends grew stronger.

Despite all of that,
and despite the fact that the conference was filled with brilliant, intelligent, curious women galore,

There were still
(a few)
moments where I felt dirty
For speaking out loud.

Once
A group of us
(Five women in our early twenties)
Was followed down the street
By a man
Who would just not give up.
We spent two hours in a restaurant
…And he stayed outside the front door
The whole time
Waiting.
For us to finish our pizza
And come back out.

Another man told me that I
“Only give a shit” about myself
When I pointed out double standards
Between men and women.

Well.

You can be twenty-four years old.
And you know better.
Because you’ve read the theory:
Betty Friedan, bell hooks.

But you’re still ashamed.

sourcing: a dance

Start the waltz with a phone call, maybe an email.
The first steps: Sometimes with a secretary  sometimes with a voicemail, and sometimes “I am currently out of the office” automatic reply.

Follow up, follow up, follow up.

Finally, reach the source–the first twirl.

“When can we meet? Are you available today or tomorrow?”
“Oh, you don’t have time until next week?”
“And you won’t have the data until the week after that?”

Again, again, again. Beginning to get dizzy.

Show up at the office. Time for the interview.
“So you’re saying that you need to reschedule?”
The first misstep. Clumsy! Hide that frustration. A proper performer never shows that she’s made a mistake.

But the waltz goes on, following this same pattern, twirling and missteps–weeks, weeks.

A proper performer never shows her exhaustion.

She’s not the only one. Everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, everyone’s booked. She reminds herself to be understanding. Still, she wishes that she didn’t have to draw out this waltz for so long. She wants a quick tango, then to move on to the next one. She would rather sit down and write.

Dizzy, feeling ditzy. But: Follow up, follow up, follow up.

look up, look up!

Anonymity is contentment.
When I was studying abroad in Cambridge, on a given lazy Sunday I would take the train on my own to London. Then I’d take the Tube to whatever stop seemed compelling: just me, my Oyster Card and a city running on the energy of millions of strangers.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

On a cold but crisp January day,
Walking with feigned purpose,
You can see the whole of London on Parliament Hill.
It’s crowded,
But the people don’t recognize you.
They don’t even look.
How refreshing, how energizing
To observe an entire ecosystem of humans
And languages and words
And trains, boats, buses
And trees, bushes, ponds
To feel like you’re involved in it all, but removed from it too.
No need to live up to expectations in the city.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn't mind. September 2011.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn’t mind. September 2011.

In high school, I had a fantasy that I would move to New York City. I’d go in college, of course, as any respectable eighteen-year-old would do. I had never been to the Big Apple before. This wasn’t uncommon in the Ozarks. People didn’t have a lot of money in that neck of the woods.

But I didn’t move, of course, because reality stopped by and forced me to look down. My feet were planted firmly into the Missouri soil, and I couldn’t afford to relocate.
(Technically, I couldn’t afford to attend a small liberal arts college and spend an entire year abroad, but I suppose $30,000 in student loans is better than $100,000.)
The desire to live in the city–to look up at a skyline of glass buildings instead of looking down at dead grass–never left. What a thrill it would be, to live in a space miles larger than I am, made of multiple histories, cultures, lives, stories. The thought scares some. It vitalizes me.

In two days, I’ll finally be in New York City. I’m going for a conference in business journalism, and I’m eager to learn what I can. But I’m also pining for that city sensation,
the paradox of being both a part and apart.

Quote

for when living gets tough

Wake, girl.
Your head is becoming the pillow.

Eleanor Taylor Ross

a woman who writes has power

Today is March 31st, and Women’s History Month is waning. Here’s the fun thing about women, though: our contributions to society are not limited to a 31-day time period. I know. Shocker.

With that radical reasoning in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five* of my favorite women writers from American history and today. Feel free to enjoy their poetry, stories, and novels in April. Or May. The summer months, too. Hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, try all year round.

Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley might be the most important person in American literary history, which is probably why she is never mentioned in public schools. Wheatley was the first-ever African American published poet and the second published woman in America, right after Anne Bradstreet. I might have forgotten to mention: she was born in Africa and sold into slavery at seven years old. A couple of other notable facts: she published her first poem in a newspaper when she was only twelve and her first book at age eighteen. Oh yeah, after she wrote a poem in support of George Washington, he invited her to his home so that he could personally thank her. No biggie.

All this from a teenager who was named after the inhumane ship that took her across the Atlantic and turned her into property.

Flannery O’Connor

O'Connor

Let’s skip forward to the 20th century (sorry, Dickinson and Alcott). I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in a class I took my first semester of college called “God, Sex, and Violence in American Literature,” after which I decided to study English. O’Connor suffered from lupus and passed away when she was only 39 years old, but she spent her life writing some of the wittiest prose on the grotesque I’ve ever read. She once wrote in a letter, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”

She was also really into peacocks.

Anne Sexton

Sexton

Ask me what my favorite poem is, and I’ll answer without hesitation. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Anne Sexton version. Here’s an excerpt:

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.

You can read the rest of the poem here, but I suggest picking up a volume of her collected works. Sexton’s reimagined fairy tales are only a few of her gems. Like her friend Sylvia Plath, she’s well known for writing her confessional poetry during a time when women who challenged the idea of the housewife were considered total nut jobs  Also like Plath, Sexton committed suicide; she dressed herself in her mother’s coat and took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself in her garage, killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. She was in and out of mental institutes for her entire life, but her writings on her private life are actually fairly representative of many woman who felt trapped in their prescribed gender roles and later embraced second-wave feminism.

Karen Tei Yamashita

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, contemporary writers. I read Yamashita’s novel The Tropic of Cancer in my capstone on global literature during my senior year. This book is the literary embodiment of post-modernism. Instead of a table of contents, it has a grid outlining which parts of the book are written from which character’s perspective, and potentially, you could read it in any order.  Yamashita is Japanese-American, born in California, and The Tropic of Orange is set in a Los Angeles that isn’t white washed with so-called “beautiful people.” Her characters are Hispanic, Asian-American, black, poor, rich, and all in the throes of magical realism. It’s a book that’s as entertaining and nuanced as it is socially aware, and it doesn’t romanticize multiculturalism for the sake of self-righteousness.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Achidie

If you’ve listened to Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless, then you’ve heard Adichie’s voice.  Beyoncé actually samples a TED talk given by Adichie titled We Should All Be Feminists. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she says. “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.'” Adichie is not technically American, as she was born in Nigeria, but I’m including her on the list anyway. I’m about to finish her novel published last year called Americanah, written about race relations in the States from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to comes to Philadelphia for university. The book is brilliant, and I plan to write about it as soon as I’ve had time to process it. Immigrants like Adichie are the new Great American Authors.

Remember. “A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” – Gloria Anzaldúa

*A difficult list to narrow down, obviously. Perhaps this would be better phrased as “five women writers who I’ve been reading a lot of lately but sometimes you’re just strapped for time.”