Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

True to my word, I have eked out a bit of time during the holidays to try some of the craft tips and writing prompts in The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward.

If I feel reluctant to put my thoughts on paper, I sometimes take refuge in a received form. Traditional forms are puzzles to work out. Formal verse is a constraint that forces me to look for le mot juste.

To learn about how to write a sonnenizio, a term Kim Addonizio coined to name her variation on a sonnet, go to page 61 in The Crafty Poet.

Lockward includes Addonizio’s sonnenizio in the sound section of her book. In this form, Addonizio borrows a line from an existing sonnet. She then chooses a word from that line to repeat in the subsequent 13 lines.

The reason Lockward shares this prompt is to encourage the poet to see how repetition of a word or words in a poem can influence the poem’s music. In my poem, I chose a line from Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to García Lorca,” translated into English by Donald D. Walsh.

Even though Neruda’s poem is not a sonnet, the line I chose contains 10 syllables in English, and so I worked it into this sonnet variation.

Walsh has translated the line in English “when to sing you shake arteries and teeth”; Neruda’s original line is “cuando para cantar sacudes las arterias y los dientes.”

Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

When to sing you rattle doors from their frames,
your singing jolts the marrow in my bones.
When to sing you shake arteries and teeth,
your singing fells the glass from my windows.
A draft hisses through my rooms. An owl’s song
fibrillates the night with an odd birdsong,
songs of darkness, songs of a single note.

When you open your throat to sing, starlings
singsong their shadows across the gray sky.
A chorus of poplars sing their dried leaves
over a blues-singing sunset. Boulders,
their lichen mouths split wide, appear to sing
as they gasp for air, a thin winter song,
a song-fraught December, a solstice psalm.

Writing this poem was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I kept thinking of García Lorca, who was assassinated by the Spanish Civil Guard during the Spanish Civil War. And it was during the solstice when I was writing, the skies gloomy and quick to turn dark.  But the hardest part was repeating variations of “to sing.”

The other reservation I have with this poetic form as I applied it in my poem is that, apparently, a sonnenizio is a parody of the sonnet in the same way that Billy Collins’ paradelle is a parody of the villanelle. By keeping García Lorca in mind, there was no way I would be writing ironically.

December Sky, by Christine Swint

December Sky, by Christine Swint


Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.

Recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Terrance Hayes has a 20-part poem titled “Arbor for Butch,” written to a sculpture series by Martin Puryear. Hayes also experiments with form in this poem, as it is a pecha kucha.

The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. 

I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony  lives on through poetry!

Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.


I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.


Found Poem

words from my diary, 11/11/1981

The pupils of my eyes
are very small,
as if the dark spots
were nostrils.
When I look at them
in the mirror, I feel
cold and ugly.
I float in and around
whatever is bothering
me without knowing
what it is.


The above passage is taken directly from my diary, which I wrote on 11/11/81, 6:30 pm, in Athens, Georgia. Like many twenty-one year olds, I turned to my journal whenever I was feeling blue. I took the passage and shortened the phrases, turning it into a poem of sorts. I liked the image of pupils like nostrils.

Most of the diary entries from that year are about my relationship with my boyfriend. Here’s a quote referring to him.

I lie. I don’t love. I am not kind to people. Conrad was right in his idea that people are dark and savage in their hearts. My heart feels like lead in my chest. Do I dramatize these feelings? Maybe I’m feeling sorry for myself because I’m not making any progress with developing my thoughts and finding an art. The thought of being an artist has been in my mind for a long time, but now I know I’ll never be one because my personality is two-dimensional, as Stephan would call it.

Stephan is what I’m calling my boyfriend at the time. I don’t want to say his real name, because he comes off here as being very critical of me. In truth he was a fun-loving, creative person. I was suffering from depression during our time together but didn’t realize it. He was very patient with me, for the most part, as patient as any twenty-three year old guy could be. I cried a lot and was moody, and, like I wrote in the found poem, I had no idea why I was so sad. I’d start fights with him just to have something to blame my feelings on. I’m glad I finally broke that pattern. It only took me thirty years!

Athens, 1983

I remember when we took these pictures. We were walking around Athens, looking for interesting shots, but also saying goodbye. We would both be leaving soon, Stephan for Stockholm, and I for Madrid. I still love Athens, and remember my time there as magical. I think anyone who lived there during the late seventies and early eighties feels the same way.

me, 1981, in Central Park

A group of us drove from Athens to NYC in one weekend to hear the Side Effects play at the Peppermint Lounge. Or it could have been CeeBee GeeBee’s. I went to both of those clubs to hear bands from Athens.

Tarot Poems

The editors of Medulla Review just released their latest issue of poetry, stories and art inspired by the Major Arcana. The artwork is by the editor, Jennifer Hollie Bowles, who gives a statement about the process of creating this ambitious journal in an open letter, found here.

She explains in her letter that although she is not a trained artist, she did not receive enough art to have an image for each of the cards, and therefore she decided to produce images herself that would reach into the psychic places the tarot is known to trigger.

Here’s a direct link to my poem, “High Priestess.” I wrote this poem for the prompt during a week when a few of my poetry buddies and I were completing an 8-day poetry writing challenge.

Once our writing spree came to an end, I revised “High Priestess” and sent it off. If not for the 8-day challenge, I doubt I would have had the discipline to write to the Tarot prompt in time for the submissions deadline, so I’m grateful my friends inspired me to write.

Mosaic at The Crossings in Austin, Texas. I took this photo while at a writing retreat there with Amherst Writers and Artists.

Performance Poetry

Poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is known and loved for her ballad-like poems and the ironic yet confessional lyrics she often paired with expressive drawings. But she was also one of the first performance poets–she created a performing persona for her poetry festival readings during the 1960s.  At the age of sixty  she wore lace stockings and pinafores to her readings, and she even sang the poems during her performances.

Many others have set Stevie’s poems to music. Here’s a jazz version of her poem “Mother Among the Dust Bins.”

Vic Chesnutt recorded “Not Waving But Drowning.”

In an essay I’m writing about Smith, I argue that listening to Stevie’s recordings provides another layer of meaning to the experience of her work. During my research, I’ve rekindled an interest in Spoken Word poets in general, and I’m thinking about how my own writing will change as a result of what I’m discovering.

More Performers:

Here is a quote from an interview on Stephen Mill’s Joe’s Jacket with poet Megan Volpert, who has performed her poetry and competed in Slam competitions. Megan has transitioned from her performance work (although she still gives entertaining, creative, and interactive readings) to writing poetry collections, but she has this to say about what she has learned from her both stage and writing experiences:

This is one thing I am pretty sure about though: a poem built for only the page or only the stage is most likely a failure. All poets ought to make the most of both.

Megan’s next project, Sonics in Warholia, will be released in December, 2011 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

Another inspirational performance poet is Sarah Kay. Listen to her tell her story on TED–you won’t even notice the time as she skips from one story to the next.

Statue in Honor of Francis Scott Key, “amateur poet” who wrote the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Review of Clamor by Elyse Fenton

All winter and into spring I’ve been reading and writing about poetry in the courses I’m taking. One of my assignments was to write a review of a prize-winning first book, and I chose to review Clamor.

As the University of Wales web site states,  the Dylan Thomas Prize “is awarded to the best eligible published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author under 30.” Fenton is the first American to win this prestigious, international award, which comes with a prize close to $50,000.00 dollars.

Clamor also won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize in 2009, selected by poet D.A. Powell.

Subject Matter

Part of what intrigues me about Fenton’s work is the subject matter–she has written about her experience of living far away from her young husband while he was deployed in Iraq following the 911 terrorist attack.  The theme of young love and the Iraq War gives her project a heightened sense of relevance that one does not always expect from an emerging artist. The collection, which revolves around a central, narrative theme, places the project squarely within current trends of poetry books that also tell a longer story, such as Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard or Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door.

Continue reading

Wind and Poetry

The howling wind tonight reminds me of Tess Durbeyfield when she wanders across the moors dressed in rags.  I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles around the same time that Nastassja Kinski appeared in Tess, a 1979 film adaptation of the novel,  but I haven’t yet seen the 2009 Masterpiece Theater version. Good times await!

Thinking of Tess brings to mind the nineteenth century and persona poems, both of which I love, and although The Suitable Girl (Pindrop Press, 2011) contains much more than period piece poems, there are some delightful ones to savor among the rich variety of poesy in Michelle McGrane’s latest collection.

The photo of the wine and my gorgeous copy of The Suitable Girl was taken at Kavarna, a coffee bar in Decatur, GA, near midtown Atlanta. The book is the first project from Jo Hemmant’s Pindrop Press. What a lovely debut collection! The Suitable Girl, in addition to Michelle McGrane’s wonderful imagination and gift for words,  reflects Jo’s attention to detail and her excellent taste in poetry. Jo, a fine poet in her own right, has a keen eye for the printed word and a well-tuned ear for verse.

A List Turns Into a Funky Sestina

On the Monday after Christmas, Big Tent Poetry proposed a list poem for their next prompt, and Carolee suggested we try a little irreverence in the piece. She’s unconventional that way, and I like her for it.

So, I first did a focused free-write on the stuff that’s under my bed, but without actually getting down on my knees to look. What came out of the free-write is a sestina I’ve now been tweaking  since before New Year Eve! It’s called “While the Dogs Nap on my Bed.” I start by listing real stuff I have left or stored under the bed, but since I had to repeat the end words, strange things happened. I ended up cutting a part I will try to use elsewhere, about an imaginary woman named Agnes who lives under my bed.

Thanks Big Tent Poetry! I’ll let you know if there are still publishers out there who will publish a sestina or two.

Online Resources for Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is best known for her sonnets and ballads, although after 1967 she wrote primarily in free verse. She is associated with the Black Arts movement, but because of the breadth and scope of her writing, many place her in a category all her own. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Below is a partial list of some of the items included in an annotated bibliography I prepared for a course in 20th century American poetry. I’ve only listed the resources available online, but there are plenty to keep you busy for an hour or so.

The Academy of American Poets

Although there are many free recording of Gwendolyn Brooks online, sells a wonderful CD of Lucille Clifton and Brooks reading at the Guggenheim Museum in 1983. Brooks tells wonderful back stories to her poems that are entertaining in and of themselves.

The Library of Congress Website for Gwendolyn Brooks

Armenti, Peter. “Gwendolyn Brooks: Online Resources.” 30 July, 2010. Web Guides, US Poet  Laureates, Virtual Services Digital Reference Services, US Library of Congress.

A list of just about every type of Brooks-related items: audio recordings, videos, websites, lesson plans, books, reviews, obituaries, histories, and criticism.

Baker, Jr., Houston A. “Review of Blacks by Gewendolyn Brooks” Black American Literature  Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3 Autumn, 1990, pp. 567-573 St. Louis University. 26 October, 2010. Web.

In his critical examination of The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper, 1971), a collection of her poems from over three decades of work, Houston Baker offers a succinct summary of many classic Brooks poems, as well as an exploration of her interest in race, gender, and class. He also shows how her work grew out of, yet differed from, the poetry of such well-known African American writers as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

BBC Poetry Archive

Brooks is one of only a few American poets included in the BBC poetry archives. This BBC website contains a brief  but informative biography, as well as recordings of Brooks reading the following seven  poems: “Kitchenette Building,” “The Mother,” “a song in the front yard,”? “of DeWitt Williams on his way to the Lincoln Cemetery,” “We Real Cool,” “The Lovers of the Poor,” and “A Sunset of the City.”

The Poetry Foundation

Many of Brooks’ poems first appeared in Poetry, which has enabled this website to share a great number of her poems, including those written after her pivotal Fisk University experience. There is an excellent critical biography and a long list of both recorded and printed poems. I especially like the details about her publishing experiences after she left Harper’s. There is also a long list of reviews, books, biographies, and obituaries for those who might be interested in conduction a more in-depth research of Brooks’ work.

Socialism and Democracy Online , Issue #53 Vol 24, No. 2. 2002. Research Group Research.  Group on Socialism and Democracy.

Contains a copy of “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee” from her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, 1945. Also included is a brief but useful note on how Brooks fits into both the Harlem and the Chicago Renaissance.