Sunday, August 16, 2015

Until next year...

Each year, I have two learning opportunities which greatly invigorate me. I look forward to the Dodge Foundation's "Spring and Fountain" poetry sessions. At those March/April sessions, I don't "have to" write, but simply can listen and appreciate works from old and new poets alike. Writing during the school year generally never happens. I have no idea how Cat Doty teaches Language Arts and writes poetry during the school year---super hero! I also look forward to the summer aTi sessions. In July, I am free from the requirements of my job (at this point, can I call myself a professional data analyst?) and can concentrate on what I love: writing. 

I enjoy the aTi sessions because of the diverse people who I meet. I always give credit to the participants who try a field that is outside of their comfort zones (Melissa, from our group, gets "props" for her bravery). I also enjoy the sessions because I get out of my comfort zone and write about topics that might not have otherwise crossed my mind.

The beginning of the new school year is not too far away and I know that soon enough I'll be reading essays, grading essays, helping students analyze literature, and on and on, but I always know that July brings aTi with it.

Until next year...

Favorites from Showcase

During the afternoon, we got to see all of the work that other participants created. I'm always impressed by the oil painting group. Within five days, they seem to produce such an array of pieces. Denise (who I remember from last year) once again wowed me with her paintings. She discussed how the group had to complete a still life painting (she painted a pitcher and flowers). Then, she experimented with the image from the still life and used it in other paintings.

I also was intrigued by an artist who talked about how difficult it was to paint subjects she knew from a photo. It's one thing to paint from a photo of some random person or even of some celebrity. A lot more is at stake when you're painting from a photo of someone you know. I think that the same could be said for poetry. When you write fictitiously, there's less at stake than if you write about someone who you know/knew. I think, however, that the better art is created by using those we know as inspiration.

From the mosaics group, Karen's piece moved me the most. The piece is a tribute to her mother. She spoke about how her mother passed away and how selling her mother's home was an incredibly difficult experience. Within her mosaic piece she incorporated the key to her mother's home. Art truly can help us heal...and remember.


"I don't want to read first"--aTi Showcase

After lunch, the aTi showcase began. This is when we rotate from group to group and see what the different participants have accomplished.

As usual, the poetry group went first. There were six chairs lined up. I definitely did not want to read first, but reading last didn't seem too great either. I took seat #5 or #2...depending on the viewpoint.

I decided to read "How to Spice Up the Bedroom" and "Someone I Know." I was nervous, but tried just focusing on my poems. I did my regular motion of placing my hand on my upper leg---something I tend to do when nervous---but otherwise, there was no shaking of the voice or anything.

I love this culminating day because all of our personalities come out through our pieces and how we read them. This was my fourth year of aTi and third time completing the poetry sessions. I can sincerely say that this group was the best group I've ever worked with. Cat created an environment in which we felt comfortable enough with sharing...everything. Everyone in the group also respectfully helped each other critique/improve our poems.
aTi 2015 Poetry: Cat Doty, Carolyn, Renee Ashley, Svea, Mary, John, me, Melissa

Hand splayed out on's a thang;-) Also, decent hair day--yay!

Day 5

Any morning that starts with desserts is surely a good one. Our last day of aTi certainly fit into that category. Lemon meringue pie had come up in conversation during the week, mainly because of one of Carolyn's poems. We discussed the sound of the word ---lovely sound, isn't it? We discussed the challenge and care that goes into making a lemon meringue pie. As someone who only makes Pillsbury Funfetti cupcakes, lemon meringue pie definitely intrigued me.

We came into our classroom on the last day of aTi and Cat surprised us with....lemon meringue pie!

For the record, the lemon meringue pie was phenomenal:)

During our morning session, we had a special guest with us, Cat's friend, poet Renee Ashley. I met Renee at last year's aTi sessions and also had a spring Dodge session with her. Cat lovingly refers to Renee as "the slasher" since Renee can edit a piece to contain only what it needs. I remember working with her last year. Even if you do not write similar to her genre, she doesn't critique your genre. She simply zones in on your word choice and intent.

I decided to share the piece I wrote in response to our games prompt: "Seven Minutes in Heaven." I was actually proud of myself because there was one line in stanza three that I wanted to completely omit; Renee agreed with me. There wasn't too much that was recommending for editing. As Renee said, "The piece does its job." In other words, I wrote this poem as a playful recollection of an adolescent game, I'm not making a political statement or toying with new genres or patterns. This certainly is not my best piece or the piece I am most proud of from this week, but it was the one I decided to share.

Each person got a poem critiqued by Renee on this final day. First, the "non-writer" would read the piece being critiqued. Then, the poet would read his/her piece. Cat and Renee had good points in that if the poem features anything awkward, the non-writer would be the one would stumble while reading. This is beneficial information to have, as it greatly helps guide the editing process.

Drafts and Critique

On day 2, I wrote a poem draft; I didn't share it until day four. My original draft featured the ending lines of "You do not love, admire, or caress./ You exist." I had trouble coming up with an ending and use these bullshit, cliched lines to end the poem----even though I knew they were bullshit, cliched lines. I always struggle with endings in my poetry. In the final draft, you can see that the group's critique helped me end the poem--I just got rid of those last two lines. No need to replace them; without them, the poem ends on a stronger note.

I also struggle with titles. Years ago, I thought that titles did not really matter. Your poem was what really mattered. I would create lame one word titles like "Storm" or "Broken." Through my workshop time at aTi, I have realized that a title can immediately engage your reader. Some poets even use their titles as gateways for the poem's opening lines. The group had asked me what I wanted to title the poem. I had no clue. Someone asked me. "Well, who is it about?" I replied, "Someone I Know." Bam! There was a title.

In retrospect, I do think that Cat's giant list of first lines also sparked my interest in writing this particular poem. I decided to use Ellen Dore Watson's "I want things whole, but I love things broken" as an epigraph for my piece.

Shown below are drafts 1, 2, and 3.


Day 4, 7/16/15

Our day four morning started off with lots of productivity since we critiqued four writers' works: Svea, Mary, John, and Carolyn. Once again, one of the wonderful parts of aTi is that you can see the diversity in writers' works. Svea's poem was titled "Texts From My Sons" and featured small snippets that almost any parent could recognize or relate to, with stanzas having the starting line of "Something happened." John's pieces, on the other hand, seem to resemble stream of consciousness works, but many of them had the reoccurring character of Howard. Carolyn's pieces often have elements of dark humor in them (hearing them read in her voice is incredibly enjoyable). Mary's pieces are mysterious---this is totally too simplistic of a word to describe them, but it is the word that currently comes to mind.

We also spent the morning sharing several resources, some academic and some just for fun. Case in point: The Rat's Ass Review, an online publication in which Svea had her work. By the way, my current goal is to be published in The Rat's Ass Review. How phenomenal would that be?

During the afternoon, we worked on a writing prompt featuring poetic forms such as villanelles and sonnets. Even though poets have used forms such as these for centuries, I detest them. I detest these forms because they tend to pose a challenge for me. Yes, I guess I am just lazy.

I decided to go to one of my favorite writing spots on campus (a concrete bench in the middle of a grass field in front of a mansion...yes...that's a lot of prepositions) and try writing a villanelle.

  Writing the villanelle was frustrating. There are two ending lines in villanelles that repeat several times. Since these lines repeat several times, it is imperative that they are meaningful. Now, I NEVER write nature poems. I live in northern NJ; the nature we appreciate is concrete and girders at malls. Being outside on "my bench" helped inspire me to write about nature. It all started with a bee circling me. I ended up writing a villanelle about an insect circling me. I changed the type of insect to "wasp," just because, to me, it has a more interesting sound than "bee."

Below is draft #1 in which the repeated lines "A wasp circles me" and "But I still feel free" can be seen. I struggled with whether I wanted to write "A wasp circles around me" or "A wasp circles me." The group helped me decide on the latter. "Circles around me" would be redundant. I also have posted draft #2, although honestly, there are not too many changes. I like posting written drafts because it gives people an idea of the struggle of writing. Words do not perfectly align on the page. There's indecision.

Overall, writing the villanelle was frustrating, but it was also very worthwhile. I would try writing one again another time, although I definitely would like to read several more of them to help me better grasp (memorize) the form.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Translation prompt--great classroom idea

During one of our sessions, Cat gave us  "translation prompt." Basically, she gave us several poems that were written in other languages. Based on the appearance of the words, as well as syllabication patterns, the idea is to write an English "translation." The activity was incredibly challenging for me, but I think it would work well for students. I kept trying to match up words closely and was getting frustrated. I think students would, however, be very open to this kind of writing activity.

These are some of the poems that Cat gave us.

I attempted to "translate" the top poem and came up with these lines:

Asking for happiness
May be dangerous
Now, giving of amulets   (that's the line where I gave up b/c my poem turned wacko)

I tried translating the same poem a second time and had a little more success.

Asking for happiness
is my daring act.
I'm not going to understand
your death or missing you.
Now that I've imagined living,
I ache to persuade you.   (Still not the most solid piece of work, but again, prompts are not meant to act as the "be all, end all." Prompts are just another way to get "into" a poem and begin building one). 

Day 3, 7/15/15, afternoon session

At the end of our morning session, and a bit into our afternoon session, we had some time to write. We were supposed to take one or more of the lines from the fruit/vegetable exercise and incorporate them into a poem.

My mind was completely blank and, much like most of us do when we feel blank-minded, I turned to my phone for some respite. I noticed a fascinating Facebook post that featured an article from the website, mentalfloss. The article was (phenomenally) titled "Making Out Isn't As Popular As You Think It Is." It basically detailed romantic/sexual kisses in Western culture vs other cultures. 

This particular paragraph caught my interest:

From that paragraph, my "writer's block" became cured. I started writing a poem about a tribesman who comes to the U.S. and is unaccustomed to seeing women who cover their bodies.  The other person in the poem is a woman who is used to the "game" of dating--- being wined, dined, and having "requisite kisses" at evening's end. I ended the poem by having the woman kiss the tribesman, whereupon he screams. 

I was able to incorporate Melissa's line of "broken roots without a home" into my piece.

The poem is still very much a work under construction, but this is the first stanza: 

We spent a large portion of the afternoon listening and critiquing each other's pieces. We read/listened to Svea's "Since You Asked," a poem written after we had read Billy Collins' "Litany." Frankly, I liked Svea's poem better than Collins'. We also listened to one of John's poems and a poem by Melissa. Although I knew it was a very rough draft, I shared my poem about the tribesman. 

One of the comments I received was that the readers did not know exactly where the poem was taking place. In my mind, I perceived the tribesman as being in the U.S. For revision, I have to make the setting clearer. Honestly, I wanted to turn the piece into something quite ridiculous. I'm thinking that the setting might be in a mall food court. Another comment I got was connected to my usage of the line "pillage, penetrate, and leave" in relation to the tribesman's experiences in life.  I knew those were not the best words when I wrote the piece. They're loaded words that bring have a definite negative, horrific connotation with them. The tribesman poem is nowhere near being completed, but I welcomed the valuable feedback that I received and will definitely be revising the poem in the future. 

Prompts-- I love 'em and hate 'em

Okay---so this is supposed to be a reflection from day one, but it ended up a bit out of order. Anyway.....

Writing prompts work well because one can never utter, "I don't know what to write about." Prompts give guidance, like an adult holding a child's hand while walking across the street.

I immediately knew that prompts two and three did not appeal to me, which often also means "too challenging." If I really forced myself, I know that I could have written to one of those prompts and probably written something decent (if you can do something "decent" for a first draft, you've gotten a good start).

I chose to use Edwin Brock's poem as a springboard for my own.

Brock's poem---

My poem: "Five Ways of Irritating the Neighbors" (draft one)

Day 3, 7/15/15, morning session

On this morning, we looked at two poems: "Talking to an Identical" by Taylor Mali and an excerpt from Wallace Stevens' "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together." We also came into class and were greeted by this colorful scene.

Stevens' poem describes a pineapple with such lines as "...It has a hundred eyes" and "The sea is sprouting upward out of rocks." Cat told us to look at and touch the various fruits and vegetables on table. We then were to create short snippets. The idea is to just get the mind thinking in different directions and to come up with metaphors/phrasings that normally might not "just appear" in one's mind. Some of the phrases might end up in a poem and some of them might end up being nothing, but the exercise pushes your mind.

Here were some of my musings:

coconut- stubble on a man's face that I touch and soothe after a long day of labor

ginger- misshaped fingers of a man in a freakshow

carrot- spear that I brandish in the air as I conquer the world

dragonfruit- used sheets of sandpaper laying across a worktable, waiting to be used again

eggplant- body of a fertility goddess

We later went around the table and everyone read from their lists. We were supposed to take note of lines that appealed to us, for use in a later poem. I took note of "fat man's thumb" and "broken roots without home."

During the morning, we also listened to/critiqued ("green roomed") Mary's poem, "Hansel and Gretel." Cat talked about nonceforms; this is basically when a poet uses a new form/pattern one time for a particular poem. A more elaborate definition can be found here: 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

day 2, 7/14, afternoon session

The afternoon session is tough to get through. I blame this on the delicious, but carbohydrate-laden Panera lunches.

In the afternoon, we read Charles Bukowski's "Ask," as well as a poem written in chronological format. We critiqued Mary's cat poem (a poem written from the viewpoint of her cat, Tony) and Svea's autobiography/chapters poem. We also read Galway Kinnell's "Hide and Seek" and were given the option of writing in response to Kinnell's poem.  As a group, we brainstormed various traditional children's games too.

Here's Kinnell's poem.

Here's my first draft. I'm sure that Galway Kinnell would appreciate that his poem inspired me to write a poem about Seven Minutes in Heaven (which also features an introductory stanza with Jordan Knight from NKOTB).


John's poem and what I love about aTi

What I love about aTi is that there's such a wide range of people and talents. Our group is interesting in that each person has his/her own writing style and while all of our poems are very different, they are all spectacular. I realize that sounds a bit hokey to say, but I feel that it's true.

We also did the "green room" critique of John's poem on day two. John's poetry is so incredibly different than mine. Even if I aspired to write like someone else in the group, it wouldn't be able to happen. We all bring different experiences (both writing experiences and life experiences) to the proverbial table. We can, however, fully appreciate each individual's skills as a writer.

This is John's poem:

While I was clueless as to how to use the line "Ok, partner, this is it," John easily (or so it seems) weaved the word into the beginning of his poem. He also used the Sappho quote too. I love the eerieness of the poem (graveyard behind the casino) and the little details (purple chair) that really make the piece.

Sometimes we say, "I wish I had written that!" In reality, we need to be the best writers that we can be while also appreciating the gifts and uniqueness of others.

Day 2, 7/14, morning sessions

We started out the morning by reading several poems: "Gone Ladies" by Christopher Logue, "Naming My Daughter" by Patricia Fargnoli, "Litany" by Billy Collins, and "Self-Portrait" by Sue Standing. While all four poems were vastly different, we agreed that they all featured their own types of repetition. Additionally, each poem featured the theme of identity.

Our goal for the morning was to use of one of those poems as a springboard for a poem of our own. Another option was that we could write our own autobiography by using 10 chapter titles and descriptions. The group dynamic is interesting. Some of us are the A+ students who take Cat's directions and follow them to heart. I guess I am the C student; I take the prompt directions, but sometimes deviate from them. I figure that the point of the aTi sessions is to develop our craft by whatever means possible. Sometimes the prompts work for me, but when they don't, I depart from them.

Shown below are my two drafts. The first draft really shows what happens when someone writes. Words get crossed out, then added back in, and then crossed out (case in point: my line about "You don't worry..." --- I was quite undecided between the words cancer, pain, time, and death). In the last stanza, I changed the word "concern" to "remorse," being that remorse is definitely a stronger, more calculated emotion. One of my stanzas is also boxed-- a signal to me to move it later in the poem.

Shown below is draft #2, typed. There are small changes, but they are there (I changed "because you will use all of it" to "because nothing will go waste." I'm looking forward to sharing this with the group and getting more feedback.

The remainder of the morning was spent critiquing John's poem and my poem ("Five Ways to Irritate My Neighbors"). In terms of feedback, the group said that the poem features so many colors, but when I describe the wrought-iron animals, I just say that they are "colorful." Instead, I should go back and decide on color words to use. This is a small editing suggestion, but one that will definitely add to the piece. The line "mosaic of imbibed enjoyment" was abstract (which I definitely kind of felt anyway), so I'm going to get rid of it. Another line, "in contrast with theirs," is not really necessary to say, so I'm going to get rid of that too. The thing with poetry is that, especially with smaller pieces, there are not necessarily gigantic revisions, but the revisions that occur do make all of the difference.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"The Green Room," critiquing Cat Doty style

During the afternoon, we had another prompt to attempt. We had to write how-to directions for a task or give instructions on how something happens.

As a writer, I struggle with finding my voice. While I appreciate descriptive writing, whenever I attempt it, it feels forced. I'm rarely satisfied with the results either. I consider myself a sarcastic individual, but I can rarely get humor into my writing.

This is the draft that I came up with (this is actually the second draft, although the changes between the first and second draft are minimal). I actually think it captures my voice pretty well:)

During the afternoon session, Cat had us do the "green room" critique technique. This consists of having the poet's work read twice (generally once by the poet and then by someone else). Then, for 15 minutes, the poet is in the imaginary "green room." The rest of the group discusses the poem (likes/dislikes for lack of better words, questions/confusions, suggestions for revision). After 15 minutes, the poet is allowed out of the "green room" and can converse with the rest of the group.

I find the "green room" technique to be helpful. It's interesting to listen to your readers discuss your poem and not be able to immediately jump in and say, "Oh, what I meant is..."

I really liked what I shared with the group because I thought it showed my personality. Sometimes, when I'm writing in a group, I feel censored. I didn't feel censored or uncomfortable at all, which says a lot about our group dynamic on day #1.

Day 1, 7/13/15

This is my fourth year at aTi and my third year of completing the poetry sessions. This year, the session is once again being led by Cat Doty. I took aTi sessions with Cat last year too. I appreciated the open environment that she created.

Our group consists of six people: Svea (I met her last year--she is a high school teacher), Mary (another high school teacher and also Svea's colleague), John (an intriguing poet who owns a Staten Island house that is also a historical landmark), Mary (a music teacher who also has known John since 2004), and Melissa (a third grade teacher). Most of us have previous experience with writing, but Melissa is new to the genre of poetry. What I like most about aTi is that the organization encourages people to break free from their general disciplines. While many of the aTi participants are either art or writing teachers, it is always fascinating to have people who teach other disciplines/grade levels too.

We started off the morning by reading several poems that Cat gave us. Some of the poems were ones many of us knew well ("Did I Miss Anything?") and others were completely new to some or all of us.

One of the topics of discussion that came up was titles. I know that when I was younger, I used to put little effort into my poems' titles. The titles would generally be short, 1-2 word phrases. I could easily see myself having poems with titles like "Cornfield," "Broken Heart," or "Loneliness." We discussed how the poem could easily get the poem started and could basically get it "running." For instance, in Tom Wayman's poem, he could have started the first few lines by describing a scenario of a student asking if he/she missed anything from the previous class. Instead, Wayman titles the poem "Did I Miss Anything?" and then begins the poem with the first response: "Nothing..."

A title seems like a small thing, but when you think about it, titles are extremely important. People judge books by covers, but they equally judge books (and poems too) by titles.

We also spent a substantial amount of time on two list-style poems, "In the Basket Marty Brought to the Hospital After the Cesarean" by Thorpe Moeckel and "What's In My Journal," by William Stafford. While both poems were similar in that they were written in list form, we spoke about the differences between the two. The Stafford poem left me, as a reader, thinking. There were lines that confused me and were, dare I say, enigmatic. The Moeckel poem simply irritated me. I've concluded that a headache after reading a poem is one of two things: 1] completely negative because the poem has annoyed you or 2] completely positive, although frustrating, because the poem has gotten you to think.

At the end of the morning, Cat sent us off with a few prompts. We could use Edwin Brock's "Five Ways to Kill a Man" as a springboard for a "Five Ways..." poem of our own. We could incorporate the line "Okay, partner, this is it" into a poem. We could also attempt to use a fragment from Sappho in one of our pieces: "I would not think to touch the sky with two arms."

Off we went to write...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Day 5, Afternoon presentations and goodbyes

During the afternoon, the aTi participants were able to see the final products completed in the various workshops. Printmaking impresses me because although the final pieces look "easy," I know that the artists have to print layer upon layer; it's a time-consuming process. Songwriting/music tech impresses me since it's like writing poetry, but going one step further by adding instrumentation. The participants in book arts always have to exhibit patience throughout their entire work process. Seeing what the pottery participants create interests me since I took the aTi workshop with Deb Goletz last summer. Overall though, I'm always most impressed by the oil painting workshop attendees. They seem to produce so many paintings within the five days---it's impressive. I also enjoy seeing the various subject matters that they paint. Similar to poetry, seeing artists' paintings gives you a look into their lives.

Below are some of my favorite paintings.

Artwork by Denise... 
Lisa's artwork
Once the time came for the aTi poets, we individually read two of our poems. We didn't have microphones, so I was worried about how well my voice would project. Then again, I am a middle school teacher----projecting a loud voice is something at which I am skilled.

I chose to read "Outside World" (my Paraclausithyron piece) and my cocoa butter poem. I tried to look up at the audience while reading the poem, but I was nervous too. At one point though, looking up at the audience just seemed to be the right thing to do....because then my poems were not just stand-alone pieces with which I could connect and engage...others were then brought into the poem too. 

The end of aTi reminds me of the end of summer camp. I was excited to go home, see family and friends, and get back into regular "routines." Even though I did not participate in the "residential" aTi experience this year, these aTi workshops are consuming. I called my workshop "poetry boot camp." We'd be at our sessions from 9-5; then, once we got home, we'd continue working on drafting and revising.

On the last day of aTi, I begin worrying, How will I make time for poetry ? The fact of the matter is that if something is one's passion, she will make time for it. I am reminded of a favorite quotation by H. Jackson Browne, Jr : “Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”

I'm hoping that this summer's aTi experience was simply the beginning of my creative journey for this year, but I'm already looking forward to aTi 2015.