Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How “I” Write a Poem by Doug Holder

How “I” Write a Poem

By Doug Holder

I am about to embark on another teaching adventure since being laid off from my job at McLean Hospital over a year ago. I will be teaching two creative writing classes at Endicott College. The class will start out with poetry writing, then move on to memoir and end in fiction. Since poetry heads the pack I have been thinking a lot about my writing process. I view myself primarily as a poet and journalist. I have had a fair share of poems published, edited the poetry magazine “ Ibbetson Street” for 12 years, interviewed a slew of poets from the famous, infamous, to the obscure. Of course what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Poetry is an art that deals with emotion and feeling—and that is the very stuff that can’t be pigeonholed into any scientific formulas.

First off I carry in my back pocket a small notebook. Like a western gunslinger I am ready to take it out at the slightest provocation. If there is a snippet of conversation that gets my tattered red flag up, if the whiff of perfume from a beautiful girl entices me, if the weathered face of the man adjacent to me in the cafĂ© sparks my creative juices—I am ready. For me the essential tools for a poet is walking and reading. Walking you say? Damn straight. And maybe even strolling. We move so fast these days that all we get sometimes is the blur from a car window, the animated advertisement outside the subway window, the flash and bytes on our computer screen. I pick up so much material when I walk. The conversations, the parade of people, the strange way nature sprouts from the cracks in the concrete, etc…

Now reading may seem an obvious point to many. But I am surprised to find at times that aspiring poets often read very little. The only way we start to learn is by example. When we are young we imitate other writers we admire (God knows I beat the Jack Kerouac thing to death!), and as we mature hopefully we find our own voice. Now I don’t mean only read the classics. I mean read everything you can get your hot little hands on. The morning rag for instance. Scans of the daily newspaper are great places to glean ideas. I always read the Arts/Leisure section of the New York Times, book reviews, and obituaries (I love these to “death”). There is always something to use, and make sure you jot it down in your little book. Also-read poets of course-- from Homer to Hollander. Browse through contemporary literary magazines like Poetry, Rattle, Istanbul Literary Review, American Poetry Review, Ibbetson Street, Endicott Review, and others. This of course covers a wide spectrum of magazines. I believe you should read the little magazines, as well as the top shelf ones to see what is out there.

For me, and I think most writers worth their salt will agree; it is important to write every day. Write, write, and write, even if it is gibberish. Keep a journal. This will keep you in the practice of writing. Writing is like a muscle—it gets flabby when it is not used. Make writing a daily ritual, like that 8A.M. cup of java.
I would also advise you to form your own writing groups. Despite the romantic notion that poetry should be written in isolation, while you moodily walk along the beach downing pints of whiskey— well, you can forget that. I mean there are retreats and such, but you need to get feedback from other writers. So form a group with writers you respect and who will be honest about your work. And make sure you have a tough skin. When you are passionate about your work and someone criticizes it can hurt and hurt badly.

Remember first drafts of poems or any writing are seldom finished. I don’t think any poem is truly finished. The famous poet Robert Creeley told me he never revised a poem; if it didn’t work he threw it in the trash. I wouldn’t advise that. Good poems come from bad poems. Great things come from the compost heap of literature. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was gleaned from a cheap soap opera of the day for instance. So Revise, Revise, And Revise.

I was once writing an article about Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the United States. He said the problem most young writers have is that they are afraid to appear stupid. To compensate they use big words, and high-toned rhetoric that sounds pretentious and stilted. Don’t afraid to be stupid. Success is built from failure. They are opposite sides of the coin, but they are still part of the same coin.

Of course this is just the barebones of poetry writing. But hopefully it will get you in the right frame of mind to write. And remember it won’t be easy at first, but as my cornball uncle used to say “It could be verse!”

***** Doug Holder is the founder of the "Ibbetson Street Press." His work has appeared in Rattle, the new renaissance, The Boston Globe, Endicott Review, and many others. He holds an M.A. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University. He teaches writing at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 8, 2010 A Reading By Mark Pawlak and Mary Bonina in Down East Maine

SUNDAY, AUGUST 8, 2010 A Reading By Mark Pawlak and Mary Bonina

By Chris Cittenden ( "Owl Who Laughs" Blog)

August 2nd marked a special day for poetry in Down East Maine. Editors, writers and literary leaders converged to hear Mark Pawlak and Mary Bonina read at the Machias Public Library. In attendance were: (a) the Salt Coast Sages, a flourishing group of poets based in Machias, led by Jerry George, (b) the editors of Off The Coast, our area’s only world class literary magazine, Valerie Lawson and Michael Brown, (c) various wordsmiths of all backgrounds from near and far, (d) a polyglotism of curious tourists and onlookers. The room was packed, rare for our region, and the atmosphere hummed with expectation.

Pawlak, in a nutshell, could be described as historical, amiable and brilliant. He has edited Hanging Loose Press for thirty years. Also, he hobnobbed with some of the legends of poetry. You’re dealing with someone who studied extensively with Denise Levertov. For detailed information on this wonderful and talented bard, check these



Over the last five or so years, Pawlak has bestowed an especially great honor on my hometown. He has been using Lubec, Maine as a muse. Happily, there is now an accumulated body of Pawlak work that could be called the Lubec Collection. Some of these poems, each an acute vignette of the people or place, can be found here:

---------- http://www.shampoopoetry.com/ShampooThirtythree/pawlak.html http://www.breakwaterreview.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=34&Itemid=53 ----------

As if the Down East region weren’t honored enough by the presence of Pawlak, his wife Mary Bonina also read for us in Machias. It was a memorable convergence, indeed! Bonina also studied with Denise Levertov, as well as Ken Smith. She has many publications and seems especially prone to winning grants and awards. One of her pieces, we were informed, had been chosen for a granite monument! I could kick myself for not writing down the details. I believe this immortalized poem is etched on an obelisk somewhere in the Boston region. For more on Bonina’s publications and various accolades, check out her homepage: http://www.marybonina.com/home.html

I would like to mention that Bonina has completed a chapbook for Cervena Barva, one of my favorite small press publishers. Cervena Barva is associated with a group of poets in the Cambridge region. I’m not sure of the whos and hows, but these cool poets participate in a number of literary projects, including the following (as well as Cervena Barva): The Bagel Bards, Wilderness House Literary Review, Istanbul Literary Review, and Ibbestson Street Press. I’ve worked briefly with editors Irene Koronas and Robert K. Johnson, who are affiliated with this group. The experience has been nothing but positive and indelible. They love poetry and painstakingly struggle for vigorous awareness.

At our get-together, Bonina read many poems that could be described as freshly nostalgic. The well-crafted phrases enticed us like fluent and lissome creatures of air. Pawlak’s work was sometimes political, often satiric, and always expert at combining disparate yet connected images. Much of his repertoire consisted of found poems, that is, poems constructed of excerpts from newspapers, books and other media. He proved himself a master at this skill, swinging from humor to sharp insight--or sometimes merging them in a deftly tuned cluster of phrases. I deeply and emphatically thank both Mark Pawlak and Mary Bonina for gracing us with their warm presence and their unimpeachably fine art. Viva Pawlak! Brava Bonina! Excelsior Down East Maine!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Place of the Yellow Woodpecker by Hugh Fox

The Place of the Yellow Woodpecker
By Hugh Fox
185 pages (2010)
The Drill Press, Cedar Park TX
ISBN 978-0-9840961-5-2


Hugh Fox is a perpetual mystery to me. I’ve read about a dozen of his books (and edited one) but, for me, it’s hard to tell where one book ends and another begins. I’m convinced that Hugh Fox sits at his typewriter/computer and types for three or four months or until he thinks he has enough material to fill yet another volume whereupon he cuts it off, slaps a title on it and calls it a book and oddly enough he often finds someone to publish it.

This little volume, The Place of the Yellow Woodpecker, takes place on an island off the coast of Brazil during the course of roughly a year. All the usual suspects are there, Harry Smith, Bernadette, Blythe, and assorted characters (or is it caricatures) from his other books. Hugh slips easily between non-fiction and fiction with the same characters appearing in both and only a disclaimer on the cover informs us of the difference. This is fiction … I think or he thinks. I don’t really know.

Hugh’s style is stream of consciousness. Sometimes descriptive – at one point he spends three pages describing the little hamlet, too small to be a village – that serves as the location for this work – sometimes pure narrative – we learn all about the characters that inhabit this place. My personal favorite is the old man who sits in his kitchen all day reading Thomas Aquinas. Why? We’re never told except that he serves as a foil for his mid thirties daughter, an old maid by local standards – sometimes philosophical – not in any organized way but more like the wise comments your grandfather user to utter at odd moments.

Be warned, reading Fox is not for the faint of heart; strong coffee, a bright light and a willingness to place yourself completely in the hands and mind of this prolific scribbler are required to suck the elusive juice from the page. Fox combines the best (and worst) of Charles Bukowski (of whom Fox is a well renowned scholar) and the worst (and best) of Kerouac. In short, I love him and hate him all at the same time. Your mileage may vary.