Apricots

A few days ago, while selecting apricots from the fruit bin at the local health food store, I had a sudden flashback…nine ragamuffin kids eager for a box of bruised apricots from Uncle Oliver’s garden in Santa Clara–a place of summer sun and outdoor sprinklers. Not for us.  Living in San Francisco, we had summer fog, jackets and scarves and work to be done.

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At some point, childhood becomes a distant landscape.  While there was a dearth of love, there were also heroes.  Sometimes the mind chooses one, a bright spot on the horizon, and hinges there in private gratitude.

On a rare occasion, Uncle Oliver would appear at our front door.  His entry was sunshine walking into the house as he placed a small cardboard box of apricots on the dinette table. Uncle Oliver, a round name, a round face, head thrown back and round-syllabled laughter tossed like a ball into our cluttered living room.  A pleasing sound to our laughter-starved ears.  Did one need permission to laugh so fully, so boldly? Laughing involved his whole face, his whole vibrating body.  Musical.  Tears squeezed out the corners of his laugh-slit eyes.  His laughter affected us, if only for the moment.  A laugh that one could trust and believe in.  His voice was musical too, as if each syllable was a note played on a piano, rising and falling with a quality of comfort like soft flannel, enveloping.

OliverEach apricot radiated a sweetness that came from some foreign land where climates were warm enough to grow apricot trees–Santa Clara? Those apricots, by the time we got to the bottom of the box, were bruised and wormy, but their sweetness and Oliver, himself, are what pervade the memory.

WRITING PROMPT:  As you go about your business today, be open to a flashback moment,  a positive experience that is triggered by something in the present. Describe everything you possibly can about where memory sends you.  Once you’ve written this, go back and introduce some comparisons to enhance your writing.

WRITING TIP:  Notice the comparisons in my piece above…”comparing childhood to a distant landscape, laughter tossed like a ball, comfort like flannel, sunshine walking in the front door”…these are some examples of how to include comparison in your writing.

Be pleased with yourself.

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Hasn’t it all been said?

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Say “hello” to your inner critic. WHY WRITE? HASN’T IT ALL BEEN SAID? AND MANY TIMES OVER? DO WE NEED ANOTHER BOOK? ANOTHER POEM? ANOTHER WRITER? ANOTHER BLAH, BLAH AND BLAH?

Is this a common argument for you not to write. Or is it merely an excuse, avoidance?

This is what I’ve found.  Each one of us has a unique voice, a unique way of saying things. Your writing will connect with the “EARS” that can hear your voice.  I also believe that in these times, it is necessary to think and write outside the box.  As you do your own deep work and write from that place, there is the strong possibility that something new will be revealed to you.

Have you had this experience yourself or witnessed it with your children? Your mother gives you a lecture on, for instance, why you should practice the habit of saving part of your allowance.  You are half-listening while inwardly saying “yeah, yeah, yeah…” Then, your favorite aunt or uncle says the exact same thing but in a slightly different way and you begin tucking away part of your allowance every week.  Alright, maybe that’s not the best example…a child has to rebel against parental authority.

However, the point is, some writers reach us while we dismiss others who might be saying the exact same thing in a different way.

Do throw your voice into the ring of writers if this feels like something that is important to you.  These are not the times to be timid or quiet if you have something you want to say.

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In other words, as said before in a different way, inspiration is everywhere and in everything.  Ideas and images adrift in a universe and you, the writer, snatch the ones for which you feel a passion.  You extract what is of value to you, command the language, wield your wordy power and shape, fondle and create something that might have been said before, but now it’s made new or renewed through your particular voice.

Author and poet, Kwame Alexander recommends that you say “YES” to writing as “…language has the power to alter our perceptions.”  That’s no small thing.

WRITING PROMPT:
What in the whole universe are you writing about today?  Are you being true to your writer’s voice and allowing what wants to come forth to come forth? Is there something else you’d rather be writing?  WRITE YOUR ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS IN YOUR JOURNAL.

CELEBRATE YOUR UNIQUE WRITER’S VOICE.

Playing in the Field of the Daily Mundane (part two)

Years ago, in a creative writing class, the assignment was to write a “copycat poem”. In a nutshell, you borrow another poet’s perceived intention, the basic form and any other prominent features and write your own poem with a theme of your choosing. In the previous blog, I invited you to deeply notice Al Zolynas poem, The Zen of Housework.   If you are able to, you might want to print out a copy of Al’s poem as you begin this next step.

Following is my copycat poem based on Al Zolynas’ poem, The Zen of Housework.  Note that I’ve given Al Zolynas full credit for being the poet who inspired my poem.

That Which Rises
© by Christine O’Brien
–based on an original poem, The Zen of Housework by Al Zolynas

I look down my arms
to where my hands disappear into sticky dough
looking like swamp things
emerging from entangling algae.
My hands tentatively grip a cup of flour,
distribute it evenly over the gooey mess
and work it in.

The earthy alchemy
of flour, water, oil, salt, eggs.
The dough pulling away from my fingers
like shed skin, transmutation.
The dough, now cohesive, resilient,
as my fingers plunge, knead and release,
grappling with life’s challenges.

I set the dough aside to rise,
covering it with a white linen towel,
modest veil to the pregnant belly.
This force of yeast
pushing from within
asserting its musky promise
that all is one.  That one is all.
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The fragrant loaf opens the window
to an eternity of wheat fields.
Golden tassels dusting the sky–
the earth calling down the rains
as I join with this ritual of
crusty, golden loaves
now cooling on wooden racks
on the bare kitchen table.

Ah, aromatic offering–
Set one slice aside
for the goddess.

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I want to emphasize that when reading or sharing your copycat poem publicly, it is respectful to give credit to the original author and his or her poem (as I have done in my copycat poem above).  And it could be a good idea to get firsthand permission if you choose to publish your copycat poem.

Regardless, this is a fine way of practicing and playing with another poet’s style while writing a poem that is distinctly your own.

I invoked the author’s general mood–the sacred within the mundane.  I have the same number of stanzas although my line length and number of lines in each stanza, vary.  I use metaphor and simile as Al Zolynas does throughout his poem. I drift between the hands-on experience of baking bread to the metaphorical meaning for me, sanctifying what is considered commonplace.

Writing Prompt:
I am going to share a simple technique that can be used as a basis for writing a poem, an essay, song lyrics, prose and more.  List-making.
Choose a mundane task that you perform. The task–is it vacuuming, laundry, sweeping, mowing the lawn…you decide. Write the task at the top of a blank page.  Now list any of the steps it takes for you to accomplish this task (break it down into its components)…note the tools you use, where you are, the time of day, the process you follow, whatever it takes for you to accomplish this task, anything at all, however remote that you associate with this task. List them.

Reviewing your list, notice if there are opportunities to make comparisons–similes or metaphors.  Write these comparisons beside your listed items.

Using the mood of Al’s poem, the sacred quality within the mundane task, write your own reflective poem, integrating your comparisons as appropriate.

Put your poem aside for a day.  The next day, reread your poem.  Is there anything else that wants to be expressed?  Added or subtracted?  This is the beginning of crafting a poem.

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Playing in the Field of the Daily Mundane (part one)

A poem by Al Zolynas

The Zen of Housework
I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.

My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.

Full of the grey wine of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.

I can see thousands of droplets
of steam–each a tiny spectrum–rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly–like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.

Ah, the grey sacrament of the mundane!

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Al’s poem certainly elevates the mundane task of washing dishes to…a sacrament!  And, it illustrates that anything is fair game for inspiration from which to write your own poetry.  Reading Al’s poem, we become very present with him as he washes the dinner dishes.

When reading a poem, I recommend that you read it at least twice.  And aloud, slowly. The writer has placed line breaks where he feels they are appropriate.  Reading it, let the line breaks support the meaning of the poem.

There is no writing prompt today.  Instead, review Al’s poem giving it your full attention. Some things to notice are the shape of the poem on the page, the number of stanzas, the number of lines in each stanza, line breaks, the opening line , the closing or concluding line, cohesiveness, the punctuation (or lack of), rhyming or not, a rhythmic quality. Notice how the poet uses simile and metaphor and shifts his description from the actual to the metaphorical and back again.  In your estimation, what is the purpose of this poem? Is there anything else that stands out for you? What feeling(s) does it evoke in you?

Have fun playing in the field of the daily mundane!

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Poetry Handles the Big Stuff for Me

Salty Tears
© by Christine O’Brien

“Be brave, stay busy.”
Well-intentioned remedies for a broken heart,
but she’s no longer here for me to see.

Taste of salty tears
as I bake pumpkin cookies.
I’m sure she would do
something like this
if it were me who died.
Like Water for Chocolate
will those who partake
share this terrible grief?
I wonder.
Would it heal something in them?

This crazy, lonely, isolating grief.
Sometimes, it’s hard to breathe
and a falling leaf which softly
brushes my shoulder recalls her.
And then,
there are so many falling leaves…

The uncried tears from my entire life
tumble
until I’m wrung out;
and then there are more.
I search my house for
every tangible thing she gave me
–a scrap of blue velvet,
an old Christmas card,
the wired butterfly earrings
she fashioned for me–
all become more precious.

Any command to be done with this grief
too soon
rings false.

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This is one reason why I love poetry.  It helps me to navigate the tough stuff. Losing a dear friend, suddenly, a few years ago, I went into shock.  How could I make sense of this? How would I traverse this painful chasm?  While well-intentioned others want us to put on a brave front, everything inside says to feel this loss all the way down to the bone. Poetry has helped me with this countless times. Sometimes it is through reading other’s poetry that I find validation and support. Frequently, it is through my own writing that I am rescued.

WRITING PROMPT:
What about you?  As a writer, artist, poet, how do you handle the big stuff?  Do you try to avoid it?  Or do you enter this territory when you are called to? How does your creative process and chosen genre support you in writing or painting your way through loss or change?  Write about this in your journal.

WRITING TIP:
As we learn to process and integrate “the big stuff” of life, we become writers with depth.

Have a peaceful day.

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Betwixt and Between Prose or Poetry

Where Do Poems Come From?
© by Christine O’Brien

Plucked from the heavens
or scavenged from dread–
Swung upon a star
or in the lover’s eyes–
Breathed through
a baby’s first cry
or landed on the moon

Where do poems come from?
The gnarled roots of a
toppled pine–
The ecstatic branches of a
grasping redwood–
Dropped to the earth
in a widow’s tears–
Sprung up from a new flower
hatching the world

Where do poems come from?
Pushed out between my thighs
or sobbed into a pillow–
Creeping through the house
during the longest night–
Inherited from ancestors
too numb to speak
Chanted
in mindless media messages–
Twitching on the cat’s tail
as she leaps towards her prey

Where do poems come from?
Spread-eagled on the ground–
arms outstretched
Faraway places
without dreams–
Under the lamppost
kissing new promise–
In a child’s prayer
to the gods who deliver
a happier life

On the surgeon’s table
when the heart stops cold
Groping in the back seat of a car
and more
Raked embers of pain
Tattered ideas
A fallen meteor
Rotted earth poems
Encrusted pearl poems
Fusing my experience
as I
witness the universe

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Each one of these images can be translated into at least one poem (likely many) or into a story or prose.  Do you agree?

And I do believe that any story can shapeshift into a poem.

This is a game that a writer can play with him/herself.  That is, transitioning between poetry and prose and back again.  Each writing form lends something to the development of a piece that you are working on.

For me, poetry has been a soul-touching expression.  It has engaged my deepest writer’s voice, plugged into my emotions and rendered–a poem. While prose  has been meandering, meaningful, and cathartic for me, poetry got me to the crux of whatever I was trying to express through writing.  Poetry takes me directly to the heart of what I want to say.

WRITING PROMPT:
Dancing Between Poetry & Prose:  Borrow one of the lines from the poem above (or draft your own list of where poems come from) and write a short prose piece. You decide the time limit on this one.  Then, reread what you’ve written.

Walk away for at least 24-hours.
In the next day or two, reread your prose piece.  Extract an emotion from this piece and let this feeling be your guide into writing a poem.  If the poem wants to go another way than initially intended, let it determine its own course.
This exercise is not about producing a polished poem or prose piece.  It’s an exploration in playing with two different types of writing.  Invite in the spirit of play and curiosity.

WRITING TIP:  You can glean words and phrases from your prose to develop your poem and vice versa.  By the way, there is also prose poetry.  (You can google it if you are curious.)

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“The Rules for Writing Poetry”

This is another one of those times when I don’t know the origin of something and so I won’t take credit for this.  However, I have borrowed the following “rules” from anonymous and I thank anonymous for letting me borrow these rules.  I have modified them a little according to my own experience with poetry.

I also apply these rules to writing prose in its initial draft stages.

  1. Write for yourself.
  2. It doesn’t have to make sense.  (It will in later drafts, but don’t concentrate on that at first.)
  3. Let yourself be surprised by what you write.
  4. Don’t plan what you are going to say.
  5. Trust your imagination.
  6. Let yourself be foolish.
  7. Don’t worry about spelling punctuation, grammar or neatness.  (They are important but not in first drafts.)
  8. There is no wrong way to write your poem/prose.
  9. Relax and enjoy the process!

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I remember reading somewhere that the gifted poet, Mary Oliver, said that she writes between 40 and 50 revisions of a poem before she is ready to let it fly. That’s a lot of working and reworking and it shows in her finished poem. She doesn’t dash down a perfect poem, a completed product in one sitting .
I love Mary Oliver’s poetry and if you haven’t read anything by her, please visit this youtube of her reading one of my favorites, Wild Geese.

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In an earlier post, I said, that in poetry I had been promised total freedom, and now I’m giving you rules.  Re-reading these rules, I see that they are basically telling the poet how to be free.  Many of us have our own built-in rules and restrictions.  We have habits that bind us to a code of writing behavior. English Grammar 101 or some such class; or we hear the echo of  that instructor who threatened to keep us in at recess if we didn’t understand some facet of the week’s lesson on past participles and verb tenses. Whatever.

WRITING PROMPT:
Do you have anything you want to add to the list of Rules for Writing Poetry?
So, what are you waiting for? Go forth and write your poem. Inspiration is everywhere. (You could even take one of the rules above and write a poem in response to it.)

Enjoy the poetic freedom.

The Fear & Dread of Poetry

I didn’t fall in love with poetry in high school.  Recently, I found “A Second Book of Poetry” from that period of my life.  The cover has doodles, appointments and names scribbled on it.  I must have had a teacher who encouraged us to write in our poetry books. Inside, I’ve taken notes and scrawled an ongoing commentary on many of the pages.

My formal education lapsed after high school as my father required that I get a job immediately to help support my younger siblings.  With an early marriage, life’s course was redirected once again.  In my thirties, I returned to college studying English and Creative Writing.  When we began the module on poetry, the instructor emphasized that within poetry you have total freedom; something inside of me sighed in deep relief. Never before in my life had I been told I had “total freedom”!  That was the moment that inner walls crumbled and I discovered a medium in which I could express my true self. POETRY!

I couldn’t have imagined how much my soul craved this expression!  I ran with it.  Every feeling and wayward thought found a home in free verse.  I didn’t bother with rhyming or other poetic forms in those days.  I wrote short or rambling, unpunctuated lines, upper or lower case letters, whatever flowed through me and demanded a voice.  Prior to this, journal writing had worked its own cathartic magic.  With poetry, feeling-imbued thoughts were given free rein and I was off and running…daily.  I remember times when I slipped from the bed to the floor with my pen and poetry journal in hand, writing poem after poem.  It was as if a long-muzzled creature had suddenly been freed and given voice–there was this and that and this and then that!

Writing Prompt:
Have you experienced a fear and dread of poetry? Did you have a coming of age where you finally began to appreciate poetry? Have you found and released your inner poet? Write about your poetic roots or initiation into poetry.

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Remember, you have total freedom in poetry.

Getting Comfortable within the Creative Process

bird.cafe1 I did not invent this; I found my way to it intuitively. And at the time, I named it process-oriented writing before I heard it had already been named. Ira Progoff, Ph.D., is one of the hallmark leaders in the development of process-oriented writing. And there have been many others who have taken this idea and run far and wide with it. This is part of my spiel on it–the one I wrote on my brochure when I was giving creative writing workshops.

“In a fast-paced, product-oriented society, process is equated with laboring. We want the prize and we want it now! We continually discover that once we achieve a particular goal, dissatisfaction sets in and we fixate on the next goal and the next. Understanding this, leads one to appreciate–PROCESS–which is the never-ending journey.  To be a writer of depth, it helps to engage your own process.”

We live in a society that is bent towards PRODUCT at all costs.  We want something complete.  Something SELLABLE.  Something desirable (to ourselves, our audience or our clients).  We think that we want these things above all else.

The creative spirit sees this goal-orientation differently than the popular norm. The creative spirit wants to re-create you as it potentially creates a product! In other words, the finished product is sort of a by-product of your own creative process.  While the creative spirit wants a commitment from you–that you are going to show up to the page, the canvas, the draft table, workbench or sewing machine, it also wants to break free from the requirements of a system that doesn’t truly elevate the intention of the creative spirit–that is, fostering your own growth.

Contemplate the flux and flow of your own creative process over the course of your life. When you were in process with a piece, were you excited?  Did you feel anticipation, anxiety even? Did you get stymied, stuck and have pitfalls that ultimately lead to breakthroughs?

Writing Prompt:
Choose a work in process which you’ve tucked away for sometime or a piece that you are presently working on.  Get quiet and present; reread what you’ve already written, at least some of it, and then enter into the energy of this piece. Continue from where you left off, following your flow with this piece. Write for at least thirty minutes.

Afterwards, notice what happens inside of you when you re-engage with and follow the flow of a piece?  Were there obstacles?  Was there ease?

Today, appreciate where you are at in your creative journey.

 

More on Repetition as a Deepening Tool

The Observer  by CGO

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway,
Her aproned, pocketed self,
strip of white hair
fell forward
as she eternally stirred
a big pot of soup.
A single drop of liquid mucus
slid the length of her
curved Italian nose
and hung at the tip
for an indeterminate moment.
Just when it seemed
it would fall into the soup,
she snatched a well-used tissue
from her pocket,
swiped at it,
repocketed the tissue
and continued stirring.
I didn’t speak
and she never turned.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
to find out who she was
to get answers by silent osmosis
to find out who I was to become
to get a sign that she was
more than an aproned role,
robotic, dutiful
to see if she would sense me there
turn, smile and perhaps say she loved me
or invite me into the kitchen
to teach me what she knew of
making soup and being a woman.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
because I wanted to tell her
things would be alright
that I loved her
that the length of kitchen
between us
separating us
wasn’t necessary
that we were safe.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
a distance of ten feet
because she needed space
her boundaries with him were nil
and she always felt threatened
she couldn’t tell by whom
…and she held me all those embraces away
because love always hurt.

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Read this poem a second time.

Notice how I’ve used the line “I watched my mother from the kitchen doorway” to lead myself, as the writer, deeper into my subject?  As the reader, do you feel the rhythmic quality of this poem as this repeated line invites you into “the story”?

WRITING PROMPT:
Is there a theme that you’d like to deepen into?  Write one line that could be the initiator of this process and let your writing be guided by this repeated line.  By the way, the repeated line doesn’t have to begin the stanza; it could be within the body of the poem. That’s another type of challenge.

Good luck.