Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Making Resolutions



Every year I ring in the New Year by writing on the first blank page of my newest journal. Before I do this, however, I reread the previous year’s journal. I like connecting with the people, places and emotional highs and lows that have been part of my life. I’m often too preoccupied in my busy life to write every day, but I try to update my journal at least once or twice a week. Rereading is like watching an old favorite movie. I remember the good parts, cheer for achievements and mourn disappointments.

2014 was a banner year for me since my book, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, came out last winter. I took part in a Calliope reading at West Falmouth Library as one of the featured poets in January, had my book launch at the Cultural Center in South Yarmouth in February, participated in a Voices in Poetry event at the St. Christopher Church in Chatham in April, as well as reading and playing piano at the International Woman’s Day in March (also at the Cultural Center). In June, I had my book displayed at the Author Palooza at the Osterville Library (hosted by Books by the Sea), as well as a book signing around Labor Day. The Steeple Street Poets gave a poetry reading at Sturgis Library in November.

Now, it’s time to contemplate 2015. My New Year’s resolutions are usually the same: Write more, exercise more, eat less. Sound familiar? I read recently that resolutions should be more specific. In other words, I might resolve to write for fifteen minutes a day, finish the first draft of my young adult novel (the one I’ve been working on for years), submit to more poetry journals, etc. 

I want to try something different this year. With time on my side, I would like to complete a new poem every week and find an old poem to rework. I know some poets aim for a new poem every day but I think, for me, that’s unrealistic. I also want to submit to at least two journals a month and also subscribe to several literary
journals and buy new poetry books (or at least check them out of the library). Hopefully, I can report back in a few months that I have at least been semi-successful in keeping my resolutions. Meanwhile, I know I’ll enjoy writing in the pages of my journal.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What inspires your poetry?



At our Steeple Street Poetry meeting this morning, poet Judy Askew invited us to describe what inspires our poetry. It was an interesting assortment of answers:

A photograph

Visual images or images from nature

Passion for life (poet Betty Jamison said since she is getting older, she wants to seize her passion now)

Emotional responses to life situations

Childhood memories

Travels abroad and remembering interesting people met along the way

Song, dance, movement, intimate gestures

Moments captured in reflection

Love in all its forms, loss, parting, sorrow

The poems offered for critique were often astonishing in their power and beauty. There was a poem about returning to Germany and confronting the horrors of the Holocaust, one on meditating on a fall photograph, and another exploring what it means to confront death. Several poems were more lighthearted: a children’s story based on the Night before Christmas, a memory of playing with a Ouija board as a child, the sensual description of a tree in fall.

Since our poems inform our lives and our passions, it is helpful to think about what has inspired them. Sometimes it’s good to experiment, to open up the white space on a page, use original words and images. My son, Devin, said he likes to write poems that he can share with others.

Judy left us with some inspirational quotes from famous authors:

“Inspiration exists – but it has to find you working.” – Picasso

“Wherever you are is the entry point.” – Kabir

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” – Anna Freud

“A great poet […] must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, October 13, 2014

15 Minutes a Day

How do we find time in our busy lives to write? Work, family, appointments all weigh us down. Our free time is precious but fleeting. Sometimes the need for sleep is another factor in our not burning the midnight oil to finish a poem.


It makes sense to have a plan. One method that has worked for me is to set aside fifteen minutes a day for writing. Mornings work best for me. When my children were little, I waited for the school bus to whisk them away before I sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a blank piece of paper. Now I am more likely to plant myself in front of a computer screen but the idea is the same.


Married poets, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, often spent their mornings working on individual poems and then shared their efforts. To me, this seems ideal. Since I am busy with two part-time jobs, I don't have the luxury to write for hours. I find if I set aside fifteen minutes, the writing starts to flow and I work for longer periods of time.


Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, is a proponent of timed writing sessions. She recommends setting a stove timer ("...go for ten minutes, fifteen, a half hour"). Her ideas for writing: "...once you begin writing, you might be surprised where your mind takes the topic. That's good. You are not trying to control your writing. You are stepping out of the way. Keep your hand moving."


I often get my creative juices flowing by reading a poem or two by a favorite author. Somehow, the rhythm and beauty of the lines inspire me. Sometimes I need to do some free writing to loosen my writing muscles. A chance image will leap out at me and serve as the beginning of a poem. If I'm working on a revision, I sit quietly with the poem for several minutes before I begin changing words and lines. I don't want to rush the poetic process.


My dream is to have time for all my creative pursuits, but writing comes first. Set aside fifteen minutes a day and see what happens. As Laurie Halse Anderson (author of the YA novel Speak) puts it:
Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.
scribble… scribble… scribble…  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Writing Challenge: Using Synesthesia

Synesthesia is an intuitive connecting of the senses in which one sense is used  to describe another. This might be something not associated with a sense, for example, words used to excite the imagination  -- taste of sweet or sour described as a taste of green.

Challenge:
For each color or texture, list something not associated with color/texture:

Red wind     white memory     smooth love

1. blue                                                  2. orange
3. red                                                   4. velvet
5. satin                                                 6. turquoise
7. opaque                                             8. transparent
9. textured                                           10. rough

Use words not associated with scent

Six fragrances in the sky

11. smell                                               12. aroma
13. bouquet                                          14. fragrant

Name things not connected with sound

Hear heat

15. listen                                               16. hear
17. beckoning                                       18. calling

Use the words listed with things not seen

I looked into the sound of morning.

19. look                                               20. see
21. visualize                                        22. picture
23. gaze

Name things you can not literally touch

Embrace the shadow.

24. feel                                                 25. grab
26. embrace                                         26. caress
27. touch

example
I hear the wind
washing my hair with icy fingers
clearing away the weight of the day
and rinsing it in the moonlight.
n      Vicky Edmonds Verver


HAVE FUN WITH THIS EXERCISE!

(Note: This was an exercise originally presented to the Guyer Barn Poets in December, 2001)





Sunday, August 10, 2014

Notes from a Poetry Workshop

In the summer of 1995, I had the opportunity to take a poetry workshop with Cape poet Donald Baker. For many years, he led a successful workshop at the Brewster Ladie’s Library and was a mentor and friend to many local poets. I recently came across my notes from that long-ago summer class and thought I would share them. There is wisdom and intelligence in his questions and comments.

Questions to ask about (your, our, his, her, my)  poems:
  1. Is it a poem? Or is it an outline, a sketch, an idea for a poem that has yet to be developed?
  2. Is too much jammed into it? Can words, lines, sections be cut without loss and with improvement of the poem?
  3. Are the parts in the best order, or should words, phrases, lines, even whole sections be transposed? Should the first line be the last? Should the last line be the first? Should the first stanza be the last? Or the last the first?
  4. Is the title an integral part of the poem, leading the reader into what follows it?
  5. Are there surprises in the poem? Unexpected words, twists of phrase, juxtapositions?
  6. Is the poem coherent? Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end?
  7. Does the poem get anywhere? Does something happen in it? Or, when it ends, are you right where you began?
  8. Should the poem be written from another point of view – third person or second person rather than first, for instance?
  9. Does the poem comprise chiefly abstractions? Or does it work through concrete particulars? “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams.

Would you like some rules? Try these:
Cut, cut, cut
Look for a better word (in pen, I had written concrete, precise)
Get rid of familiar phrases
Change the order of things: words, lines, stanzas, sections
Use images, not statements
Do not say it more than once
Try another point of view
Dramatize: make a place, an event, a speaker
Do not report: invent
Balance on the fulcrum
Keep the good; dump the bad
Listen to the sound the words/lines make
“The language of a poem should be as simple as possible, as clear as possible, and as consistent as possible.” – Donald Baker
“Self-expression is not art.” – Denise Levertov
“The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part: It is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.” – Annie Dillard

I remember loving this workshop and polishing several poems in the aftermath of taking it. Its lessons still resonate for me to this day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Writer's Paradise: A Guest Post with Laurie Smith Murphy


For my readers: My sister, Laurie Smith Murphy, recently spent a magical week at a writing retreat in Edgartown, Massachusetts. She is a middle-grade author with a new manuscript under her belt. Although her advice pertains to fiction writers, I thought some of her insights could also benefit poets. The Noepe Center for Literary Arts is open to all writers, poets and fiction writers alike. This post comes from Laurie’s blog: Random Acts of Writing.

I spent a week in Martha’s Vineyard in quaint Edgartown, participating in a children’s writing retreat at a lovely inn called Noepe Center for Literary Arts. I call it a writer’s paradise. Anyone interested in writing, at any point in their writing path, should consider spending time here. The offerings include residencies, workshops, poetry readings, and even book launches. The setting is idyllic, perfect for inspiration and muse finding.

“Noepe has a very simple mission to provide established and emerging writers with time and space to create, and the resources and community to support, encourage and inspire writers at all stages of their writing career.”

It was a small, intimate gathering of twelve women, all with works-in-progress in various genres and stages of development, and one wonderful mentor, Emma Dryden, of drydenbks. We spent each morning on a different topic, with hand-outs, writing exercises, and wisdom from Emma. Morning workshops focused on first pages, voice, world-building, and  revision.

Nuggets gleaned from Emma’s workshops:

  • The first line/page is the crystallization of the whole story.
  • What you leave off the page, can be as important as what’s on the page.
  • Most books use the home/away/home theme.
  • Allow space for the reader’s emotions.
  • Create rules for the protagonist’s world and a personal set for your protagonist.
  • In the first draft, write with abandon! Keep it messy and do not edit!
  • Paraphrase your story in ten pages, then five pages, then one page, one paragraph, one sentence.
  • Cut the first paragraph and the last paragraph of each scene.
  • List all the decisions your protagonist and antagonist makes. Do the same with supporting characters. The character’s decisions/actions should interfere with the protagonist’s.
  • List the first ten things each character does.
  • Ask yourself why you have to write this story.
My thoughts:
            I know what my protagonist really wants.
            I know why I have to write this story.
            Revision takes a long time and there are many processes to choose from.
            The scariest revision process is probably the one I should use.
            My beginning needed work, but I’m on the right track.
Children’s writers are bright, generous, and fun to be with. (Okay, I already knew that)
When you find a great mentor like Emma, feel fortunate. (I do!)

I feel blessed to have been part of this inspiring, emotional, week-long journey. For more info about this amazing place, check out the website at http://noepecenter.org/. For more information, drydenbks, go to http://drydenbks.com. You can find Laurie's blog at http://lauriesmithmurphy.blogspot.com/.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy News!

I always love checking my mailbox – there’s always the chance that some good news will come my way. Yesterday, among the bills and circulars, I saw a hand-written envelope addressed to me. Inside was a letter that began “Congratulations! Your poems “Gale Warnings” and “Flax Pond” won First Prize for body of work in the Adult Poets Category of the 2014 Katherine Lee Bates Poets Contest.”

Every year the Falmouth Historical Society sponsors a contest to coincide with the birthday of Katherine Lee Bates, a Falmouth native and author of “America the Beautiful.” On the date of her birth, August 12, there will be a poetry reading featuring the winners of the contest. I will receive a gift certificate and a booklet of all the students and adult entries that won recognition.

Happy news! I am particularly happy to have taken first place and also that new poems have been recognized. On hearing the news of my win, friend and Cape Cod Times editor Gwenn Friss said, “Those can be in your next book.”


So often, poets work alone and don’t have feedback on new creations, so this win was a nice validation. It also fires my desire to keep writing and keep submitting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Cover Magic

There are so many things to consider when an author contemplates having her first book published, but one item is essential. An eye-catching cover will draw the reader in and capture the spirit of the poems or story within. Terri Guiliano Long, in an article for Indiereader.com writes, “A book’s cover is the first thing a potential reader sees and it can make a lasting impression.”

After the initial excitement over having my book of poems accepted for publication, I downloaded the contract from my publisher. After perusing the four pages of small print, I noticed that I could supply my own cover art. I immediately thought of my sister-in-law, Liz, for this project. She is an artist and crafter from Lowell, Massachusetts. I e-mailed her with my request and she accepted.

Now, I knew my cover was in good hands. Over the next few months, Liz and I kept in touch. I knew she would be working with a photo of the Incredible Barn, my parents’ antique and book shop. Her intent was to do a sketch of the photo which also depicted my parents standing in front of their shop. I liked her idea and trusted her to capture the spirit of my childhood home.

As the summer approached, I asked Liz if she would like to read my title poem. She said it wasn’t necessary. A few weeks later, she said she would like to see it and I promptly sent it off to her. In her blog, Mill Girl, Liz recounts what happened next: 

“Well. The title poem is not about the kind of dream I had assumed. It was not ‘dreamy’ and ‘nostalgic. It was powerful, intense, and dark. The dream was more like a nightmare. My heart skidded to a lurching stop. I immediately realized I was completely wrong about the art I had planned to produce. I realized I should read the whole book and start from scratch.”

I sent her my manuscript and waited. Liz chose a quiet day to sit with my book and read each poem twice. My book contains fifty five poems with seven sections. These include poems about my childhood, love and relationships, mothering, travel and nature poems, and a section of fairy tale poems.

After this careful reading, Liz decided to change her approach to how she would create the cover art. It would be done in mixed media collage, a genre she was not familiar with. She took on the project with a spirit of adventure and the joy of creating something new.

Finally, it was time for me to click on the link Liz had e-mailed to me. I was in my office at the Cape Cod Times when I looked for the first time at the beautiful cover she had created. I was overwhelmed with its beauty, power and originality. In Melanie Lauwers column “Cape Cod Book Scene,” she writes of my book: “Liz Smith’s intriguing cover hints at poems of nature and the past and the way human lives are stitched together.”

 The cover depicts a bed with trees for posts and vintage fabric stitched into a cozy coverlet. There are birds overhead and a clock depicting time passing. A map of Moldova and the photo (by brother Dell) of a mannequin. The open window shows a painting by my dad and a stack of books by the bed was painted by Liz’s mom, Marilyn. The cover art is intimate and personal to many of the poems in my book. It is everything I could have wanted and more.

To read Liz’s account of creating my cover, please check out her blog. http://madeinlowell.blogspot.com/2014/07/creating-cover-art-for-dream-of-antique.html.



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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Inspiration from the Seasons

It has been said that every poet writes at least one poem devoted to spring. The change of the seasons, particularly from winter to spring, can open a floodgate of poetic images. As I write this, the world is celebrating the summer solstice -- June 21.

Many of my poems have been inspired by New England weather. For example, in my poem "Late Night," written about being newly married, I write "A long season has begun in this cold place where we have bedded down, tasted ice." In another winter poem, "Wychmere Harbor," I explore how a desolate landscape mirrors inner isolation. "Ice piles by the dock ... There is nowhere/to find shelter,/to hide." In the final stanza, I find some resolution in imagining movement in this static place: "If I stay/I'll become stone/set, settled, unmoved/until the ice melts,/pushes me on."

Spring, of course, signals a release and the coming of warmer weather. After a long Cape winter, I wrote "May Poem." I had noticed my cat, our resident hunter, bringing home small birds and animals. In my poem, I write "In these spring days ... the light staying longer each night/I see the beginnings of things." Later, "she (the cat) fetches home small birds,/feathers carpeting/our front steps./Somehow life is richer/for these tiny killings." The presence of death amid the stirrings of life seemed poignant and true to the message of the poem.

For people on Cape Cod, summer is a time to glory in warmth and visits to the beach. Since we are so close to water, the images of swimmers and sunbathers are prominent ones. In my poem "The Art of Levitating (South Cape Beach, Mashpee)," I draw a portrait of a bather: "In between the swimmers/and far off, a lone sailboat or two,/is a man floating ..." I compare the act of floating in the water to that of levitating, slipping the bonds of earth's gravity.

Autumn brings deeper colors, more solemn tones in both images and themes. In a recent poem, "Wild Turkeys," I write "Autumn takes her/first hostage,/my delicate she-cat./No cry, no thrashing/in the underbrush." Again, the change in seasons alerts the poet to her sense of mortality, that need to capture life and one's experiences in words. In fact, the changing seasons can be a catalyst to creating fresh images.

Sometimes the seasons are out of whack. After Hurricane Bob hit the Cape in August 1991, the aftermath of the storm led to a second spring with trees and bushes sprouting new growth. One winter, we had unseasonably warm weather. This inspired me to write a poem called "A Cherry Tree Blossoms in January." I described the landscape as "a place out of time:/bears forget to hibernate,/birds land on the golf course,/
children dream fireworks/months early."

Writing poetry is always an adventure and using natural images can help to convey one's inner world. The poet can find universality by paying attention to the small, telling details of the world around her.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cape Cod Writers Center Conference 2014

One of the great opportunities for local writers is a chance to take courses at the annual Cape Cod Writers Center Conference each August. Once situated at the picturesque Craigville Retreat Center, the conference now takes place at the Resort and Conference Center in Hyannis. In the past, I have studied with poets William Wenthe, Donald Baker and Gail Mazur, as well as taking a young adult writing seminar with Jacqueline Kolosov. Each class taught gave me fresh insights on the writing process, as well as inspiring me to try new writing techniques.

This summer the theme of the conference is “Powerful Storytelling Today.” The classes encompass many genres of writing, including fiction, memoir, screenwriting, and, of course, poetry.  For poets, there are several intriguing options. Acclaimed poet Kathleen Spivack will lead a class in Developing your Poetry Manuscript. This three-day course offers  “personalized attention to developing your poetry manuscript.” Local poet Gregory Hischak will offer a two-day class entitled “Imagery in Poetry and Prose.”  He writes that this class will “explore the devices and techniques that can help you create and apply vivid imagery and how to let imagery enhance and propel your narrative along.”

Other classes that might appeal to poets include “Insider’s Guide to Getting Published” with Michael and Patricia Snell, “Social Media and Blogging” with Nina Amir (she will also be teaching a class called “Blog a Successful Book”), and “The Writer’s Voice” with Chris Roerden.  Local poet John Bonanni will lead the poetry workshop for young writers.

The 52nd Cape Cod Writers Center Conference will take place August 7-10, 2014. Keynote speakers this summer are Alicia Anstead, an award-winning arts and culture reporter, editor, consultant, and educator and Rishi Reddi, the author of  Karma and Other Stories, published by Ecco/Harper-Collins and winner of the 2008 PEN New England/L.L. Winship prize for fiction. The Keynote Presentation will be on Saturday, 6:15 p.m. in the Cape Cod Room.

There will be agents available and manuscript evaluation/mentoring. For more information and to register online, visit www.capecodwriterscenter.org. A limited number of scholarships are available. Among them is the Kevin V. Symmons Scholarship for Second Career Writers. You may submit a letter by June 28 stating financial need, a ten-page writing sample and a registration form indicating your suggested courses.


This conference offers the opportunity to meet fellow writers, take informative workshops and get help with manuscript development. There is also a conference bookstore which sells books by faculty and Cape Cod Writers Center writers. On Friday, Aug. 8, there will be a poetry reading from 8:30 – 10 p.m. If you have some free time this summer, I highly recommend this conference as a way to jumpstart your writing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Revisiting Revision

Whenever I start a new poem, I’m in the moment, happy to be putting fresh ideas on paper. However, after that first feverish outpouring, I put the poem away to look at later. Sometimes a poem is complete, but often it needs more work. This is where the hard task of revision comes in.

When I cover revising in my English classes, I have my students notice that the root of the word is “vision” or to see; therefore, revision means to take a second look. I ask them to revisit their original drafts with fresh eyes. In like fashion, poets often need to revisit their creations.

I will often wait weeks, even months to revise my poems. Sometimes I’m in the middle of my busy family/work life and don’t have the quiet time to work with older poems. Sometimes I think a poem is finished until I go back for a second look. Other times, I take a new poem to workshop and have fellow poets critique my work.

At present, I have five to ten manila folders with workshopped poems with notes and suggestions from my peers. My goal this summer is to work through each poem and make revisions as I go along. Some changes will be minor: take out unnecessary words or articles, change the order of stanzas or take out lines that don’t work. In some cases, I may do more extensive revisions so I’m really creating a new poem.

As an example, I brought a poem entitled “Floral Brigade” to workshop recently and had a varied response. Last summer the flowers were so brilliant and prolific, that they were an assault on my senses, so I used war imagery to introduce my subject. In the first stanza, many readers objected to this line: (hydrangeas) “miniature bombs waiting to go off.” Since this poem was written shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, readers didn’t like the reference to bombing here. In my revision, I will take out that line. By taking out this one line, I will then use three line stanzas rather than four line stanzas.

Revision can have a cascading effect. Change one thing and I’m forced to change a host of other things. In the second stanza, I wrote: “Summer’s riches pile up, spill over,/as if we could keep the plunder,/have it last through winter.” In order to minimize the war imagery, I might rewrite it this way: “Summer’s treasures pile up, spill over,/ as if we could keep these riches/ have them last through winter.”

Many poets didn’t like my last two lines: “The long siege has begun --/Another day flowers and expands.” If I take their advice, I might end my poem with “I want to grab the elegant lilies,/find a tower and spill them/over the edge, watch them drift/down, to land on some unsuspecting head, a bombardment from the universe.”


So, this poem is a work-in-progress that demands a closer look. I find revision interesting work. It challenges me in unexpected ways. My advice – don’t be afraid to revise. It might make your poem stronger. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Phone call during a spring blizzard leads to article


A few weeks ago, the Cape was visited by a late March blizzard. My class was cancelled and I decided to stay home from work. The winds were howling and snow was coming down sideways. It seemed a good day to stay inside. Although the lights flickered once or twice, we were fortunate not to lose our power. In the early afternoon, I noticed I had a Facebook message. The editor of the Mashpee Enterprise wrote to say one of his reporters wanted to speak to me about my recent third place win in the WOMR contest. Soon after, I had a twenty-minute phone interview with Lannan O’Brien. This article appeared in the Mashpee Enterprise on Friday, March 28.



Mashpee Resident Places Third in Outermost Poetry Contest
By Lannan M. O Brian

Mashpee resident Robin L. Smith-Johnson was pleasantly surprised when she learned that her poem placed third in the regional category for the WOMR/WFMR Outermost Poetry Contest, out of hundreds of entries from across the country.

“I received the press release at work and I looked at it, and it didn’t compute,” she said. “I said, “Oh, wow!””

Ms. Smith-Johnson, a newsroom librarian for the Cape Cod Times and an adjunct professor of English at Cape Cod Community College, recently released a new book of poems titled, “Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter,” with collage-style cover art by her sister-in-law, Liz Smith.

The book was launched at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod the same night that she received news of her award, and several other winners – Judith Partelow of Harwich, who won second place in the regional category; Lauren Wolk from Centerville, who earned an honorable mention, and Neil Silberblatt from Chatham, who was mentioned in the results as one of the “top poets” from Cape Cod – who happened to be in attendance were invited to read their award-winning poetry.

“It was amazing that everybody had their poems with them,” Ms. Smith-Johnson said.
Additionally, members of the Steeple Street Poets group that she leads with fellow English professor James Kershner at the Mashpee Public Library each read one of her poems and one of their own.

Ms. Smith-Johnson’s winning poem, titled, “A Dropped Stitch,” uses imagery of a woman knitting to depict isolation and death.

“I guess I’ve been working recently with thinking about isolation and how it affects people,” Ms. Smith-Johnson said. “Because I live in a family setting, I’m not isolated, but I guess I’m just interested in that.”

At the time, she was attracted to the theme of her subject knitting “threads of her life” because she was knitting herself and reading a book about knitting.

Unconsciously, Ms. Smith-Johnson said, her interest in death may have been partly inspired by her father’s death two years ago, for which only she was present. Through lines that describe “hoarse breathing” and “pulsing in the neck or wrist/until it too stopped” she recalls feeling  her own father’s pulse in his last moments of life.

The last stanza describes the woman gathering dropped stitches  only to drop them again. Finally she is instructed, “Never keep what won’t last.”

Although she has been a finalist in several other contests, including two others judged by writer Marge Piercy, the judge of the Outermost Poetry Contest, and one judged by poet Naomi Shihab Nye at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, this was her first time winning a contest.
           
“I guess you do it (enter contests) for validation,” she said. “You want to see if you’re making progress.”

Moreover, she said that there is a community of writers and poets on the Cape who enter contests and encourage each other to do so.

When she was 9 or 10 years old, Smith-Johnson, who was raised by parents who were both writers, was inspired to write poetry when a teacher read William Blake’s “The Tyger” in class.

“It was one of the first times I thought, ‘I could do that..’” she said.

Ms. Smith-Johnson lives on Ships Anchor Drive off Mashpee Neck Road with her husband, Gregory R. Johnson, and her son, Ross.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mutual Muses: “Angel of Cape Cod”


I love the phrase ‘Mutual Muses’ – it denotes a shared creation and the exhibit/poetry reading last night perfectly captured that idea. The artist who received my poem “The Season When” created a huge painting of spring flowers in a vase. By contrast, I wrote a poem titled “Angel of Cape Cod” for Carole Johnson’ delicate pendant.

Often when I begin to draft a poem, I have little idea what the finished product will be. I might have an image or brief narrative in mind. Working with a visual picture gives the poet focus. For the past few months, I have studied the angel-looking pendant as its picture graced the piano in our living room. Lauren Wolk, associate director for the center,  had told me last November that the name for the piece was “Angel of Cape Cod” so I took that for my theme.

I knew I didn’t want some ethereal, floaty depiction of an angel, but something more earthly and evocative of the Cape. In my poem, I addressed my angel like this: “Oh, barnacled one, with gull feathers for wings,/skate egg cases as eyes,/seaweed dangling – a bedraggled gown.” My husband, Greg, thought my description was creepy but I liked its raw, sea-inspired tone. Later in the poem, I wrote: “Shy soul adrift in the waves/you float over blue harbors/kettle ponds and salt water bays./Birds trail in your wake, their cree cree/signalling your earthbound work.” When the angel is called back, there is “only mist as it rises/over open waters.” I wanted to capture power and healing, presence and absence.

Now, it was time to share this new poem with a hundred people! I think it was a good omen that the very first creature I saw on entering the Cultural Center last night was the resident cat sitting by the front steps. I almost think she gave me a wink as I entered the large, noisy room brimming over with expectant people looking for their friends.  During the reading, I anxiously awaited my turn. Since the poets are called up in alphabetical order, I was one of the last to read. I sat clutching my poem and my reading glasses as I waited. When my name was called, I tried to remember to slow down my reading. I realized it’s easier to read a familiar poem rather than a brand new one. Still, there was a nice roar of applause when I sat down. It was a magical night and wonderful to share with so many local poets and artists.

In the next few weeks, I hope to travel once again to the Cultural Center to take a quiet hour or two to study the pairings of artwork and poetry. Perhaps I’ll take a friend or family member to share the experience with. It’s a nice way to absorb the experience and feed my creative spirit.
(http://cultural-center.org/)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Writing Prompt #2

Writing Prompt #2


One of the many joys of being in a poetry group is sharing and exploring different ways of writing poems. Last October, James Kershner, leader of a Buddhist Sangha on Cape Cod and co-founder of the Steeple Street Poets, led us on a haiku walk. Our group meets at the Mashpee Public Library near Christ the King Church with its lofty steeple, thus our name and the street the library is on (Steeple St.)

Before we went outside, James asked us to walk in silence. Our group of about ten poets spent a quiet ten or fifteen minutes walking in the park area opposite the library. On our return, we composed our haiku in silence. I wrote: “Hearse pulled up to curb/white church steeple overhead/our silence a prayer.”  The traditional haiku is three lines with five/seven/five syllables. In more contemporary poetry, haiku is often written in anywhere from eight to thirteen syllables, usually with a nature theme.

Next, James had us try an experiment. We would do some free writing, then meditate for a few minutes, and write some more. One short piece I wrote prior to meditating: “Vintage buttons in a jar/fireflies of the past winking.”  As we quieted our minds and our breathing, James asked us to imagine the air we breathe in connecting us. After I opened my eyes, I tried writing again. I think this later writing was more expressive: “Time flows backwards/nothing here but my heart.wanting waiting” and “Sign language/gestures of the heart/grown too big/explosion.”

The next part of this session involved each of us writing an alphabet poem. Some of the resulting poems were creative and intellectual. I chose to write about animals: “Adder’s sting/bee’s breath/cats slinking…” and ending with “venus fly trap/wasp worries/x-tra kibbles/young hatchlings/zookeeper’s dream.” It was fun to use my imagination in this poem.

Finally, James had us try a list poem. I chose to write about things I’ve discovered: “Even in an ordered life/the unexpected can happen” (philosophical) or “Dust bunnies = broken vacuum” (humorous).  All in all, it was a wonderful session and I came away with new ideas for creating poems. In future posts, I will offer more writing prompts and would also love to hear from readers of this blog. If you have a writing prompt that works to unleash your creative voice, please send it rosmithj@yahoo.com.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Writing Prompt #1

Sometimes when a poet encounters writer’s block, that inability to write or come up with ideas, a writing prompt can help open up the poetic floodgates. A simple definition might be “a writing prompt is basically a question which helps the writer move into action.” Writing prompts can also allow for experimentation or revision.

In our Mashpee poetry group, the Steeple Street Poets, we have a volunteer leader for each monthly session. Often, that leader chooses a theme for us to try. In recent months, we have looked at persona poems, haiku, six-line poems, etc.

In this post, I would like to examine one of our more successful writing prompts introduced by fellow poet Jarita Davis. She had asked us to bring in a poem and we would work on changing/transforming it. At the beginning of this workshop, she asked us to fold our poem in half. Now, she instructed, we would work with only one side of the poem showing. After a few questions, we busied ourselves with  Jarita’s novel concept.

The poem I brought to workshop, “Swept Up,” is about taking my college students for a walk. It begins “I broke with ritual today.” When I folded the poem in half, the right side looked something like this: “today/desk and notes/strolled green paths/sang/quietly.” Interestingly, there was still meaning in the words. Jarita explained this method helps you excise unwanted lines and words and still keep the integrity of the poem.

Next, she had us write the poem using opposite phrases. For example, my title became “Turned Down.” The phrase “newborn and blank” became “ancient and wise.” Again, this was a way to turn the poem upside down to yield surprises.

Finally, Jarita handed out scissors and glue sticks. We were instructed to cut up our poem into one or two line segments and glue the small sections to a clean sheet of paper. After studying these pieces of a longer poem, I came up with a completely new short poem called “Too Much Faith in Words.” It reads “I would be something fallen/newborn and blank./Between letters,/I would be the white space.”

Looking over my notes from that day’s session, I could probably find even more poems. It was a great exercise and one I want to try again soon. So, stay tuned! In my next post, I will look at another inspiring writing prompt.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Launch

On Thursday evening, Feb. 13, I traveled with my family to the Cultural Center of Cape Cod for a magical evening of poetry and music. My husband, Greg, along with fellow musicians, Dinah Mellin and Denya LeVine, played as friends and poetry supporters gathered for the reading. The venue was a beautiful one with rooms filled with art and even a retired bank vault that was transformed into an indoor woodland scene, complete with twigs and branches. Folks sat at round tables and there were plenty of refreshments to go around.

The evening continued with members of the Steeple Street Poets reading one of my poems and one of their own poems. I enjoyed hearing my poems interpreted by my fellow poets, each in an original voice. When it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium and looked out at the crowd. My nerves melted away and I began to read. I was especially glad to see my sister, Cindy, sitting with my sons Ross and Devin. For twenty minutes, I chose poems that spoke to my heart and, hopefully, resonated with the people listening attentively in front of me. My poem “Gretel’s Complaint” met with some laughter at the end, so I was happy my audience was staying with me.

Afterwards, I introduced several poets who had just that day found out they were winners in the WOMR Outermost Poetry Contest. We heard from Judith Partelow, Lauren Wolk and Neil Silberblatt. Although I didn’t read my winning poem, I was happy to know I had won third prize in the contest (judged by Marge Piercy).

After the reading, people mingled, drank wine or sparkling water, and sought me out for a few words of greeting and congratulations. I also sold and signed some books. Although the night was rainy, windy and foggy, I was happy that my friends and family members had ventured out to share this special evening. Even the resident cat seemed to enjoy the festivities. It was truly a night to remember! 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My First Interview

Interview with Poet Robin Smith-Johnson by Dell Smith (from Beyond the Margins website:
http://beyondthemargins.com/2014/02/interview-with-poet-robin-smith-johnson)

I was raised in a house full of books and writing. My parents wrote novels and kept journals, and so it was natural that my three sisters became writers as well.
My sister, Robin Smith-Johnson, has been writing and publishing poems for years in journals like The Aurorean, The Larcom Review, Sandscript, and Yankee Magazine, and has just published her first collection called Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter. Robin’s writing is informed by her life on Cape Cod, her family, and growing up as the daughter of parents who collected and sold antiques and rare books.
Robin Smith-Johnson sits down with BTM (and her brother) to discuss how she approached structuring her poems into a book, balancing a busy home, work, and writing life, and her influences.
Dell Smith: Congratulations on Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter.  I found reading this collection emotional and very rewarding. You blend lyricism and naturalism seamlessly. Many of your poems include striking descriptions of nature, landscapes, and atmosphere. Does this infusion of the natural world come from living on Cape Cod, historically a naturalists’ paradise? How much did our father, who painted Cape Cod landscapes and wrote about nature, inspire you?
Robin Smith-Johnson: I think growing up on Cape Cod influenced my poetry and my way of looking at the world. It is a rare opportunity to live in a place surrounded by water. I have always loved walking the local shorelines and this is a theme running through my poems. For example, my poem “My Son at Four, Walking the Beach” describes my young son collecting shells. “No one had to show him/the art of discerning/one from another:/conch, razor, slipper shell.” I also think Dad’s love for painting Cape landscapes was a subconscious influence as well. We always had his paintings scattered around the house. It seemed natural to express myself artistically because I had artistic parents.
DS: The antique dealer of the title is our mother, who began collecting and selling antiques when we were all very young. How did our mother and her antiques inspire you?
RSJ: Some of my favorite memories are working in the Incredible Barn (the antique shop our parents owned on Cape Cod) and seeing all the wonderful, whimsical things our parents would bring home from their many antique buying trips. In my poem “Discovery, One Spring Morning,” I paint a portrait in words of an old sculpted head that Mom had in her shop for years. “Over my head/I see the face, perfect like a lily,/singular and white, staring from the shadows.” Also, the title poem – Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter” – tells the story of my relationship with a mannequin in our shop. A local artist, Robert Vickrey, eventually bought her to act as a kind of scarecrow to scare the ducks from his dock on Crystal Lake in Orleans. “At twelve, we wore the same size./Faded skirts, lace dresses,/old petticoats.” It really was a charmed childhood and I wouldn’t have traded it.
DS: How would you describe your poetry? Autobiographical? Fiction? Or is poetry in general a combination of the two?
RSJ: That‘s a tough question! I think many of my poems are autobiographical or slightly disguised fiction. Of course, some are from my imagination; for example, I include some of my fairy tale poems in the section “Once Upon a Time.” Lee Roscoe, in her review of my book in the Barnstable Patriot wrote, “These days poetry often serves autobiography, and has to be judged as such, rather than as poetry per se. Robin Smith-Johnson’s well-constructed poems are a memoire. She travels through youthful nightmares, to adulthood, the external world, and even the next world, in seven sections …” So, yes,  I definitely think many of my poems are personal and explore themes that relate to my life.
DS: In your book you break the poems down into thematic sections, including a series of poems based on fairy tales and a section focusing on your three sons. How did you approach this structure?
RSJ: When I first decided to put together a collection of my poems, I found that not much had been written on the subject. Michael Bugeja, in his book Poet’s Guide, has a chapter on “Assembling chapbooks and books” that was helpful. I also studied books by other poets to give me a feel for how poetry books are constructed. Since my poems span thirty years, I decided to have a somewhat chronological organization; therefore, I cover poems of my childhood, love and relationships, my children and life as a mother, travel poems, nature poems, etc. I couldn’t leave out my fairy tale poems, so I placed them after the section about children. The last part  is a miscellany of poems that didn’t fall naturally into any of the other sections. My friend and poetry mentor, Sheila Whitehouse, has a wonderful collection called Flint and Needle. She used lines from her poems to use as titles for her sections, so I did the same in my book.
DS: You play piano in a couple of bands on the Cape. How do you compare playing music to writing, and does one creative outlet feed the other?
RSJ: Playing in a band is a highly social, collaborative, and even athletic endeavor. When I play rhythm keyboard with Polka Dan’s Beetbox Band, I’m using every ounce of energy in my body. I think writing poems is more cerebral and intuitive. And, writing is more solitary. The two artistic forms feed different parts of my psyche (one dramatic, one more inward). I love writing poetry, but I love playing music, too. The two art forms complement one another and enrich my life.
DS: You also write stories and novels. In your writing life, do you consider yourself primarily a poet? Did you always want to be a poet?
RSJ: I do consider myself as a poet first. I started writing poems at a very young age and always considered myself a poet. The young adult novel I’ve been working on for several years is more of a hobby. It may never be published but I enjoy stringing words together to tell a story. The act of writing poems is more like breathing. I have to do it to make sense of my life.
DS: You lead a busy life, teacher, musician, and you work as the reference librarian at the Cape Cod Times. Not to mention you raised three sons. When do you find time to write?
RSJ: I mostly write in spare moments. Many of my poems are written on my off days while sitting at the kitchen table. When I sit down with pen and paper, my body relaxes. I’m giving myself permission to write. Often, a poem will have been rattling around inside my head. Some poems come in a torrent. When my son, Neil, came home from his month’s trip to Moldova several years ago, he talked for two hours non-stop, then announced he was going to bed. There was no way I could go to sleep so I sat down and wrote the poem “Souvenirs from Moldova” which ends “the young man wakes/not knowing what country he is passing through/or when he can go home again.” I hadn’t planned to write that poem; instead, it found me.
DS: Who are your favorite writers?
RSJ: I grew up loving Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In college, I read Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. I also read A.R. Ammons, Denise Levertov and Carolyn Forche. Over the years, I’ve dipped into books by Linda Pastan, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty and others. For fiction, I love the novels by the Bronte sisters (my all-time favorite book is Jane Eyre), Willa Cather and Rumer Godden.
DS: What would you say to a young poet just starting out? Or to an aspiring writer trying to decide which type of writing to try?
RSM: I think the best advice to a young poet or aspiring writer is to read widely. Peruse the shelves of a local library or bookstore. Ask friends for advice on good books and authors to read. Subscribe to literary journals and see what the current trends are. Find a poetry mentor to work with. Sign up for classes at a local college, join a poetry group or take advantage of the many writing conferences available. For example, the yearly Grub Street Conference in Boston is the Muse and the Marketplace. Then, experiment with writing. Keep a journal for ideas, quotes, lists of characters, etc. I think most writers find early on what they have an affinity for, but sometimes it expands their creative minds to try something different.
DS: I write fiction–short stories and novels. I read very little poetry (outside of yours of course). I know I should read everything, including poetry, but I have to admit I don’t always ‘get it.’ What advice can you give a struggling poetry reader?
RSJ: Dell, if you want to expand your poetic horizon, try going to websites that post a new poem each day. My favorites are Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. These sites feature the best contemporary poets and will give you a taste for different types of poems being published. I also visit Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac which features a daily poem, too. Try checking out the poetry section at Barnes & Noble or the library.
DS: The cover of the book works well to convey the themes of your poems. Full disclosure: my wife, your sister-in-law, Liz Smith, designed the cover. Liz says:  “I wanted a person picking up Robin’s book to get a feeling from the cover about what was inside, I wanted the cover to evoke an overall feeling that accurately represented the contents. A close reading would reveal the correlation between certain poems, lines of poetry to the various symbols used in the cover image, like a little treasure hunt, a puzzle solved.” Tell me a bit about that process of working with an artist to represent your work.
RSJ: When I read in my book contract that I could supply the cover art, I immediately thought of Liz. I approached her and she was very enthusiastic about doing this. I think her original idea was to work from an old photo of our parents’ antique shop, but after reading the collection, she came up with a collage form that incorporates themes and images from the book. The whole project took about three months since Liz was working in a form she hadn’t tried before. When I finally saw the finished cover art, I was astonished by its beauty and close attention to the themes in my book. It was a great collaborative process from start to finish.
DS: What’s next for you? Will there be a sequel to Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter?
RSJ: I would love to try a chapbook next rather than another full-length book. And, who knows, maybe I’ll finish my young adult novel. For now, I’m enjoying being a first-time author.
DS: Robin, thanks for answering my questions! Good luck with your book.
ROBINpictureRobin 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 and Yankee Magazine. 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. Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter is published by Word Poetry press.
Robin previously wrote a guest post for Beyond the Margins called Becoming a Poet.