Saturday, December 21, 2013


My shipment of three boxes containing my books arrived yesterday -- 125 copies in all. We took pictures, drank a celebratory glass, and called friends. It was a moment worth savoring. I received word that my book was accepted for publication almost two years ago (Jan. 2012), so it has been a long time coming.

Now, I must mix business with pleasure. I have already sold several copies and feel proud that friends are promising to take their book home and read it. Other friends and family members have bought their copies on-line through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

In a few weeks, I will have my first poetry reading/signing with Calliope at the West Falmouth Library (Sunday, Jan.12). For several years in a row, my poet friend and director of Calliope, Alice Kociemba has held Epiphany parties on or around Jan. 6 to celebrate this time of renewal. Poets have brought poems about new beginnings, the new year, transformation, etc. Somehow, it seems fitting that my first reading with my brand new book should fall near this time. For me, it truly is the beginning of a new life, the beginning of a new adventure.

Note: I will be reading with Kathleen Aguero and Richard Hoffman.

January 12, 2014   3 to 5 PM. Open mike sign-up at 2:45 PM.
Kathleen Aguero 
Kathleen Aguero’s fifth poetry collection, After That was just released by Tiger Bark Press. Her previous books include, Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth, Daughter Of, The Real Weather and Thirsty Day.  She has co-edited three volumes of multi-cultural literature for the University of Georgia Press.  She is a winner of the 2012 Firman Houghton Award from the New England Poetry Club and a recipient of grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Elgin-Cox Foundation.  Kathi teaches Creative Writing in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Pine Manor College and in Changing Lives through Literature, an alternative sentencing program.

Richard Hoffman
Richard Hoffman is the author of the poetry collections, Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award, and Emblem.  His poems have appeared in Agni, Harvard Review, The Literary Review and Poetry, among other journals.  He is the author of the memoir,Half the House, as well as the short story collection Interference & Other Stories.  His new memoir, Love & Fury will be published by Beacon Press in June.  Richard teaches at Emerson College.

Robin Smith-Johnson
Robin Smith-Johnson’s first volume of poetry, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter was published in December 2013 by WordTechPoetry. Her poems have appeared in The Aurorean, CAPEWOMEN, The Larcom Review, Sandscript, Voices International, Yankee Magazine and elsewhere.  Robin grew up in Orleans, and currently works as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times and teaches at the Cape Cod Community College.  She is the co-founder of the Steeple Street Poets, and lives in Mashpee.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

As a writer I have found several things that help me practice my craft. Although I tend to draft prose pieces on the computer, I almost always write my poems in longhand. There’s something freeing about filling up the pages of a lined pad. Often I use a #2 pencil with a firm eraser so I can easily erase or cross out words. When I feel that the poem is finished (or nearly), then I copy the poem into a computer file.

I also like to collect scraps of ideas on loose paper. Often I bring home words written on the back of a napkin, an envelope or post-it note. These I throw into a shoebox or desk drawer. I don’t have any filing system, but if I’m stuck for an idea, I’ll rummage around in my scrap box and sometimes pull out a phrase, line or image that I can use to start a new poem.

Although I can search the Internet for word definitions, I find there’s nothing more satisfying than looking up a word in a hard bound dictionary. I also occasionally use a thesaurus to help me find alternate words. Sometimes the easy word (the one that comes immediately to mind) is trite. It’s fun to play with less common words in a poem.

The books on my shelf also inspire my words. One of my favorites is Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It’s full of practical advice for beginning poets. His chapters include writing about feelings, working from memory and fine-tuning similes and metaphors. His final chapter is my favorite: Relax and wait. He describes writing poetry as “re-freshening of the world.”

Another favorite read is Michael J. Bugeja’s Poet Guide: How to Publish and Perform Your Work. He talks about workshopping your poems, giving poetry readings and steps to publication. More general guides that I find useful: The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates and The Company of Writers by Hilma Wolitzer. These books give thoughts on the writing life and also the craft of writing. Fiction writers might enjoy a recent book by Noah Lukeman called The First Five Pages or a Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection File.

But, when all is said and done, I have to take my pencil in hand and start writing. Cue the music, pour hot coffee (or wine if the hour is late), and begin. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My book is out!


DREAM OF THE ANTIQUE DEALER'S DAUGHTER by Robin Smith-Johnson explores themes of loss, longing, and imagination by using natural images to better convey her inner world. Her poetry grows out of a need to discover what is authentic and meaningful in human relationships. The poet seeks the universal by paying attention to the small, telling details of her life as a mother, wife, lover, and quiet observer.

"Robin Smith-Johnson's work is grounded in the concrete and is, at the same time, luminous and ethereal. She seamlessly joins our conscious and unconscious perceptions of the world in fresh and surprising ways.These are poems to linger over."-Sheila Whitehouse

"Find a cozy corner and open this book. The poems in Robin Smith-Johnson's first collection, DREAM OF THE ANTIQUE DEALER'S DAUGHTER, draw the reader into a world of wistful longing. 'I cannot bring back/what has been taken away/All I can do is visit my life.' Travel with the poet as these dreamy memories evoke emotions we might recognize from our own private lives."-J. Lorraine Brown

"In her beautiful first book of poems, Robin Smith-Johnson tells the reader that 'There are four spaces in my heart:/ I could call them/ air, fire, earth, water;/ but I listen to the emptiness/ and hear: rage, betrayal, loss, despair.' Her poetry builds on letting go, pulling in and disappearing. Her words often times draw us images of women as mad, tired, assaulted empty vessels, all the while striving, hopeful, resilient, introspective and powerful. Her uses of water images are sad, brilliant and surprising and in poems like 'Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia' and 'The Next Wave' their haunting last long after the last poem in the book is read. This manuscript provides treasures that force slow and patient reads. I found it fascinating how Smith-Johnson juxtaposes poems in her well-crafted sections. The grouping titled 'Once Upon a Time' holds Smith-Johnson's variations of English language nursery rhymes. Within that section, 'Gretel's Complaint' reminded me of a poem included in 'The Landscape of Dreams' titled 'To a Brother Traveling West.' Nicely done. This book is not a 'world of small things' but an adventure of great depth and insight."-Jacqueline Murray Loring

Robin Smith-Johnson grew up in Orleans, Massachusetts where she honed her love of reading and creative writing. She has degrees in English from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her poems have been published in various journals, including THE AUROREAN, CAPEWOMEN, THE LARCOM REVIEW, SANDSCRIPT, VOICES INTERNATIONAL, YANKEE and elsewhere. Currently, Robin works as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times and teaches at Cape Cod Community College. She is also a co-founder of the Steeple Street Poets of Cape Cod. Robin lives in Mashpee with her family.

ISBN: 978-1625490629, 110 pages, $19.00

Available from booksellers everywhere

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dad -- This one's for you

The other day I was rummaging through a bureau drawer in my bedroom and found an envelope addressed to Robin Smith-Johnson, Poet. It was from my dad. The sight of that envelope almost moved me to tears because today (Nov. 27) marks the two-year anniversary of his death at eighty-eight years old.  Wendell Everett Smith was always my biggest supporter, especially when it came to writing. He was a critical reader, but a fair one of my many manuscripts. He and my mom also came to my poetry readings even when the weather was nasty or they were tired from doing an antique show.

My dad was known for his funny bone and tall tales. He was a writer of short pieces he called “Wendell’s briefs.” I loved the scope of his vision from writing about black labs in the cabs of Cape pick-up trucks to moving prose about the beauty and nature of Cape Cod. He loved Nickerson State Park in Brewster, MA and my family’s tradition was to celebrate his birthday there every June. He loved the written word and, of course, books.

Recently I asked my mother about the evolution of her antique business to one that included books. She laughed. “Well, first your Dad sneaked in one shelf of books. Little by little, those shelves multiplied until we had to say we were sellers of antiques and books.” When I was growing up, there were always books to read. On a Saturday afternoon, I would climb to the second floor of “The Incredible Barn” (on Main St. in Orleans, MA) where the books were kept and find something good to read. Paired with a juicy apple, this was my idea of heaven.

In a few weeks, I’ll finally have a copy of my first book of poems. It’s called “Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter.” I wish my dad could have been here to read my poems and share the thrill of holding my book in his hands. If I could speak to him again, I would thank him for giving me a love for words. 

A quote by Umberto Eco seems tailor-made for my father: “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Finding the Sublime through the Senses

        Writing a poem is sometimes like diving into deep water. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time. Whether I’m staring at a blank page or a blank computer screen, the experience is the same. I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen next.
            One thing that grounds me is using sensory description. I often tell my English students to use their five senses when writing; for example, I’ll say “What do you see, hear, smell, taste or feel?” It has become my working mantra. I hope that if they take away one thing from my class, it will be the memory of this refrain. My other frequent suggestion to them is to “be specific” and to name things.
            In one poem about an old woman, I tried to show what she looked like:
She is not who you think.
This woman is toothless, her mouth a scar
in her leatherback face.
Her lip curls up like a claw.
You might catch sight of her
at the grocery store.
Bag lady. Tramp. Old Bones.
I wanted to capture the visceral feelings of encountering her by giving some idea of what she looked like. In fact, this poem (“Old Bones”) was paired with paintings of the elderly by Betty Jamieson last spring at an exhibit at Highfield Hall in Falmouth.
            In another poem, I described the feel of a sculpted head that once resided in my parents’ antique shop: “I want to run my hand over it/as one might touch a gravestone/or an old tree, bent with many storms,/or even a horse put to pasture,/leaning its weight against me,/nuzzling my palm with its soft nose.”
            Sometimes I try to include how something sounds. My poem “The Let Down” is one of several poems in a fairy tale sequence. This particular poem echoes the story of Rapunzel with her long hair flowing out of a tower window. In this sequence, I describe the witch:  “Bone face,/voice like a creaking door, it called,/“Let down your hair.” This is followed by “It climbed, pulling my hair tight around its claws,/effort heard in the grinding of its teeth./I dreamed scissors to end the daily siege.” I wanted to capture the
 harsh sounds of an evil presence bent on destruction through my choice of words.
             In my poem “Way Station,” a woman is longing for her lover. I use the sense of

smell to highlight her feelings of isolation: “A whiff of oil from the harbor makes her think of hunger.” In another poem about childhood (“Twelve”), I bring in the sense of taste: “On waking, I ran to the bathroom,/so thirsty I couldn’t wait/to gulp down the cold water.”
            In all these instances, I worked to make my poems come alive by touching on one
 of the senses. As Nietzsche once said, “All evidence of truth come only from the senses.”



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mutual Muses VII

Last evening I had the pleasure of attending the potluck dinner for the seventh season of Mutual Muses of Cape Cod.  Every spring there is an exhibit at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth that pairs artists and poets. This is my third year participating in this creative and inspirational event. 

How it works: In November, artists and poets meet for a light meal, conversation and wine. After the festivities, each poet picks a manila envelope with a copy of the art work which will inspire a poem and each artist draws a white envelope with a poem enclosed from which they will paint (or sculpt) a piece of art. In the past, I have written poems to accompany paintings by Jamie Wolf and Vittoria Sault. This year I drew a beautiful pendant created by local artist Carole Johnson.  In an interesting twist, she received a copy of my poem “The Get Away” last year and made a pin inspired by my poem. Now, it’s my turn to use her art as the impetus for a new poem.

Usually, I place the print of the piece I’ll be working with on the piano in the living room. During the winter months I live with it. Come early spring, it’s time for me to come out of hibernation and write my poem. Once submitted, it’s a short wait until the night of the opening reception and poetry reading. The night is one of magic where poets, artists and friends meet in a mad scramble to view the exhibit and then find seats for the reading. Lauren Wolk, assistant director of the Cultural Center and participating poet, is the emcee for the evening.

Since there are typically fifty artists paired with fifty poets, the reading is a study in organized chaos. Each poet can read one poem and then must introduce the next poet in line. Names are called alphabetically. It’s a whirlwind evening, so I like to go back to the Cultural Center at a quieter time and spend an hour or two savoring the pairing of visual and literary art. Each poem is posted next to the artwork it inspired and vice versa. It is a transformative experience to see all the pieces arranged over four rooms. There is also a fluffy resident cat in attendance for a quick pat or scratch behind the ears.

All in all, it is a wonderful experience and I look forward to living with Carole’s creation and getting ideas for a new poem.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Meaning or the Muse

Writing poetry is sometimes a hit-or-miss deal. As much as I would like to write in my notebooks every day, I often don’t have the time or inspiration to write daily. When I do sit down to write, I like a quiet room, a clean space to write, and some nudge of an idea. Sometimes, I’ll sit down at the kitchen table, close my eyes, pick up my pen, and hope the muse visits me.
John Milton in Paradise Lost invoked “Sing, Heavenly Muse.” For my purposes, the muse might visit as a song on Pandora or as a friendly Face book posting. Sometimes my sons will encourage me with their whimsical insights into life and culture. What I really want when I start a poem is to tap into some deep emotion, memory or image.
When my father died two years ago, I felt his loss deeply. The result was a poem called “Island Palette” which harked back to his years living on Anna Maria Island, Florida. My dad liked to paint and one morning when I was visiting, he brought out all of his pastels for me to look at. I was so touched by his wanting me to respond to his art. In the poem, I refer to a “a small bird on a branch.” As a young man, my father studied ornithology at Cornell University. Somehow my thinking back to his paintings also reminded me of his love for birds and that found its way into my poem.
Of course, there are poems that somehow write themselves. When my twenty-year-old son, Neil, returned from a month long trip to Moldova to visit his girlfriend, he talked for two hours non-stop about his trip. It had been an arduous journey and he had been afraid for his safety in a foreign country. After he went to bed, I wrote down everything he told me. At the end of my poem, “Souvenirs of Moldova,” I wrote: “The bus drifts and curves/the long endless night/where boundaries are blurred/and the young man wakes/not knowing what country he is passing through/or when he can go home again.”
The pieces of my mind aren’t always linear or orderly. My poems often reflect the scrap work effect of my thoughts, but I love the freedom and “ah-ha” moments when writing. I also love that I have a vehicle to shape my experiences and memories.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Poet's Job: Pay Attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” 
Mary Oliver
I have always loved this quote by Mary Oliver and think it speaks profoundly to a writer’s need to pay attention to the world around her. Now that the beautiful colors of autumn beckon, I try to walk as much as possible. The other afternoon I spotted hundreds of tiny acorns peppering the ground. There were also wooly caterpillars sporting their cold weather coats. A neighbor’s chickens were invisible, but I could hear their cluck and chatter as I walked by the house where they are kept.
Will these observations become a poem? Perhaps. Several years ago I wrote a poem called“Wild Turkeys” about a group of turkeys that ambled across our driveway in the early morning hours. In the opening stanza, I wrote:

       a family of wild turkeys
                    crosses the driveway
                    at dawn, the young ones
                    scrabbling along the stones --
                    beaks down, eager for
                    acorns or nuts. The two females
                    dull-brown, strut briskly
                    as they scan for shelter.
                    Soon enough they cross
                    over to woodlands,
                    a flock of feathers
                    disappearing into brush.

This was poetry that came from direct observation and memory, but it was more
than that. I identified with the mothers marching their offspring around our neighborhood. I wanted to shape this moment in time and have it touch some universal experience. Later, in this poem, I wrote:

                    When a young turkey 
                    goes missing
                    the whole flock stops,
                    waiting for the little one
                    to return.
                    Like them,
                    I search the golden fields,
                    the grassy inclines
                    for that one moment
                    when I spot the beloved,
                    the world gone mad
                    with the frenzy of my longing
                    then a stalled breath,        
                    then quiet, then
                    fog lifting
                    over the dark earth.

Here, I extend the image of the mother turkey looking for her lost young one to one of the lover waiting for the beloved. I wanted to take something specific and make it work on another level. There are magical things awaiting the poet in the world and it’s our job to look, to see and to capture it in words.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Becoming A Poet

Many beginning poets are full of questions. How do I write a poem? Where do I get my ideas? As a new poet, you may be looking for words and ideas that have meaning for you and ones that can work to convey that meaning on many different levels. Write freely and make room for experimentation and word play.  There are as many different poets as there are poems. We all came to our love for poetry in different ways.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with words. As a grade schooler, I collected words, ones that sang to me like wisteria, moonshine and sapling. My love was indiscriminate. I read the backs of cereal boxes, the copies of McCall’s that topped my grandmother’s end table, and, of course, books.
At first I read Nancy Drew and Elsie Dinsmore books; later, I graduated to L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read my first adult novel in fourth grade – An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden. Then, one of my elementary school teachers read to us the William Blake poem “The Tiger” which begins: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright/in the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” I was hooked by Blake’s passionate and symbolic lines. Better yet, these lines burned a visual image of the lovely but menacing tiger that has never faded. I now understood the power of words.
I don’t have my first attempts at writing poems, but I imagine they were full of abstractions. Now I admire poems for their focus, their specificity, their honesty.  Poets pay attention to the world around them and attempt to capture their vision in words. I also liked the small scale of poems. A poem can be written on scrap paper, tucked in a pocket to be worked on later. I have boxes filled with the rough drafts of poems in various stages of revision. Sometimes I take these sketchy beginnings and use them as the starting point for a new poem.
As a teacher as well as a poet, I always urge my students to read as widely as possible if they want to improve their writing skills. Some ideas I recommend: peruse the shelves of local bookstores and libraries; ask friends for suggestions about their favorite authors; and read novels, plays, non-fiction books,  as well as poetry books.
One of the things I love about writing poetry is that I can take anything for my subject matter. It wasn’t always this way. As a beginning poet, I thought I had to write about the big themes: love, hope, war, friendship. Then, in college, a friend brought a poem about avocados to a writing workshop. It changed my perspective entirely.
Over the past two or three decades, my poems have addressed everything from hairballs to the prospect of having eye surgery. I do tend to write poems based on personal experience, perhaps having been influenced early on by confessional poets like Anne SextonSylvia Plath andRobert Lowell.
Another thing I have discovered is that I can be patient when reworking a poem. Sometimes, letting a difficult poem sit in a drawer for six months is a good idea. When I return to it, I look at it with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Sometimes I have to let a poem go. Maybe the images or metaphors aren’t working or, despite some great lines, the poem doesn’t hang together. Still, nothing goes to waste. It’s all fodder for my growing pile of papers.
One of my favorite books and one I’ve turned to many times to answer my own questions is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The book consists of ten letters that Rilke wrote, beginning in 1902, to a young man conflicted about joining the military. It’s a spare, eloquent offering to someone wrestling with issues of creativity and artistic identity. This is must-reading for poets, beginners and experienced alike.
At some point, poets will decide whether to take the next step. This might include joining a writing group. During my years living on Cape Cod, I have been a member of two poetry groups. I’ve found the experience of sharing manuscripts with fellow poets is invaluable to helping me revise and rework my poems. A note to new poets: develop a thick hide because not everyone will understand the poem as you intended. Also, it is helpful to combine compliments with criticism to sweeten any writerly advice.
Another way to grow as a poet is to attend poetry readings and read aloud to an audience. It’s a wonderful way to hone your skills to address an audience directly and see the impact of your words. I haven’t participated in slam poetry events but many poets enjoy these events, too.  I love the idea of experimenting with my life as an artist. I have also attended writing workshops and the annual Cape Cod Writer’s Conference in Craigville, MA. Last summer, I had the good fortune to spend a week studying with William Wenthe, a wonderful poet who teaches in Lubbock, Texas.
The final step is the decision to publish. Many poets are so eager to see their name in print that they spend more time promoting their poems than in the actual writing. It’s always better to take the publishing process slowly. I recommend subscribing to Poets & Writers for ideas about literary markets and contests as well as checking out websites like Poetry DailyVerse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac.
Writing poetry is a means to self expression and self awareness, but it’s so much more. I find that writing poems helps me to make sense of the world and my place in it. Emily Dickinson may have said it best, that good poetry made her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
So, go with your gut and your pen. Enjoy the ride!
Robin Smith-Johnson has had poems published in such journals as YankeeThe Larcom Review and Sandscript. Her poems also appeared in “A Sense of Place,” an anthology of Cape women writers. She was a finalist for the 2009 Providence Athenaeum: Philbrick Poetry Award, judged by Marge Piercy. Robin teaches as an adjunct professor in the English Dept. at Cape Cod Community College, as well as working as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times, where she also publishes a blog about Cape Cod history called Cape Rewind. She is a member of the Lead Pencil Poets and lives with her husband and three sons in Mashpee, MA. When she finds time, Robin shares her writing with brother and BTM contributor, Dell Smith.