Saturday, October 27, 2012

Prompt #124 – Costumes

Halloween is just four days away—one of my favorite days of the year!

It's widely believed that Halloween was influenced by western European harvest festivals with roots in earlier traditions, especially the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st. According to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, the Celts gathered around bonfires lit to honor the dead. At Samhain, the Celts believed that the wall between worlds was at its thinnest and that the ghosts of the dead could re-enter the material world to mingle with the living. At Samhain, the Celts sacrificed animals and wore costumes (most probably animal skins). They also wore masks or colored their faces to confuse faeries, demons, and human spirits that were thought to walk among them.
Originally celebrated on May 13th from 609 AD, the date of All Saints’ was changed by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD to November 1st, the same day as Samhain. All Saints’ was followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd and, by the end of the 12th century, these days together became Holy Days of Obligation—days in the Church’s calendar set aside to honor the saints and to pray for the souls of the recently departed. Related traditions included groups of poor people and children who went “souling” from door to door on All Saints’/All Souls’ to beg for traditional soul cakes (mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentleman of Verona when Speed accuses his master of puling [whimpering] like a beggar at Hallowmas). In return for the soul cakes, the beggars promised to pray for the households’ dead. “Souling” is very likely the older tradition from which today’s trick or treating evolved. Click here for a Soul Cake recipe: Click here for a Soul Cake recipe.
Dressing up in costumes (called “fancy dress” in England) has a long history. Masked balls and other fancy dress occasions were popular long before the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween came into popular practice. Halloween costumes as we know them today were first recorded as late as 1895 in Scotland with little evidence of the practice in England, Ireland, or the US before 1900. Early Halloween costumes took their character from Halloween’s pagan and Gothic sensibilities and were worn mainly by children. These costumes were made at home from found materials, but by the 1930s, several companies began to manufacture Halloween costumes for sale in stores, and trick or treating became popular in North America. 
From the time I was little, I enjoyed Halloween costumes for the pure fun of them but also because in costume I was able to step out of myself and into another personality. Back on October 23, 2012, we wrote about masks. This week, in honor of Halloween, the challenge is to write about a costume that you’ve worn, would like to wear, or would never wear (an actual costume or a metaphorical costume).


Write a poem about a costume “experience” that you  had as a child or as an adult.

Write a poem about a costume that you’d love to wear. What’s the “character” you’d like to “become” on a Halloween night? Why and how would a particular costume take you out of yourself and into a new personality?

Write a poem about the costume would you never want to wear and why.

Write a poem about a Halloween costume that corresponds to a current news event; be sure to explain why you would choose this costume.

Write a poem in which you “create” a bizarre costume that makes no reasonable sense—a fantasy costume. Describe it and explain what it means to you.

Write a poem about the animal you’d like to dress up as and “become” on Halloween night.

Write a poem about a historical person whom you’d like to “become” on Halloween. 

Write a poem about about a costume party that you attended. 

Remember as you write to let your poem take you where it wants to go and to be aware of meanings other than the obvious.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Prompt #123– Something Magical

I know I promised that this wouldn’t be an “about me” blog, but sometimes an incredible magic happens when we take our poetry into the world, and I’d like to share a recent experience with you. Last Sunday (October 14th), I had the honor of reading at the 14th Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I read from my newest collection of poems, What Matters, which speaks to the fact that we’re all survivors of one thing or another (fear, grief, illness, loss). The individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors.

When I read from the book’s second section (which deals with my own breast cancer experience), I spoke about the conditions of survival and the ways in which we remember how to live. I also mentioned that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—a time to remember and a time to hope for a cure. Spoken word poet Taylor Mali read after I did and noted that he lost his mom to breast cancer; he then read a poem about his mom that he dedicated to her and to me—a lovely, spontaneous gesture.

After the reading, a lady I’d never met before asked me to sign her program and said my words would remain with her (that’s her with me in the photo above). On the way out of the building, a group of young people came up to me and thanked me for the reading—several shook my hand, and one said that his mother is a survivor and that he could hear her “life” in my poems. Later, in NJPAC’s lobby area, two ladies asked me to sign their copies of What Matters (I remembered seeing them at  the reading). One told me that she, too, is a survivor and how much my poems meant to her. In the book tent, a man came up to me and said that his wife is a survivor and that after hearing my poems he understands better what she went through. He said he was going home after the festival to give her a big hug and a copy of my book (I admit to the tears in my eyes.) These were all reactions that I couldn't possibly have anticipated.

Reading at the Dodge Festival was a special honor, and I send my sincerest thanks to Martin Farawell, Dodge Poetry Program Director, for inviting me to be part of such an exceptional poetry celebration. As always, the Festival brought people together and reminded us that poetry is about addressing the human condition deeply and, in the process, confirming that we’re all brothers and sisters—that we’re not alone. I’m so very grateful! 

This week, I’d like you to write about a magical moment in your life. There’s no formula for such moments, most come unplanned and unexpected, and are all the more meaningful for that. As Jane Kenyon wrote in her poem “Happiness,”

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet …

The experience you write about this week may be a major one (falling in love, your wedding, the birth of a child, a long-time goal achieved, surviving a challenge) or it may be a small moment of joy (a detail in the happiness of your larger life). Your moment may be part of a continuum as in “Painting”  by my dear friend and distinguished poet Ed Romond:


I still hear his voice urging
me to bring the brush back
to blend the paint into one
continuous stroke of green.
I don’t know why after 50 years
these words remain
like lyrics of a favorite song
but I keep seeing that Saturday …

This week, you’re called to remember and to write. Dig deeply into your heart’s archives and look around you (perhaps the leaves’ changing colors, a certain song, a photograph, or a souvenir tucked away in a dresser drawer will bring a special moment back to you).

Here are five tips:

1. Don’t simply tell a story (remember, this is a poem, not a journal entry, and you’ll need to avoid writing from a prose impulse as you move from the personal to the universal).

2. Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense). Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing” (gerunds).

3. Avoid over-use of adjectives 

4. Eliminate prepositions whenever you can (i.e., the sky’s length rather than the length of the sky).

5. Don’t over-write—watch out for too many details, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long. And remember what Dylan Thomas wrote, “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … you’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps … so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Prompt #122 – What Drives You?

A week ago, I was parked in the local Lord & Taylor parking lot and came out of the store to find that someone had hit the passenger side of my car. The damage was mostly streaks of paint from the other car with some sizeable scrapes – nothing huge, but the person who did it didn’t leave a note – nothing. Needless to say, I was annoyed. A friend compounded most of the paint off my car, but the scrapes are deep and will need a substantial amount of touching up. A few days later, the same friend’s 1968 Mustang won best in show at a car show. Then, a day or two later I came across the quote, “It’s not what you drive, it’s what drives you” in a magazine article; and this morning, on my way to the hairdresser’s, the old Car’s song “Drive” came on the radio. Click Here to Listen to "Drive"

Seemed a whole lot of driving-related activity, and that thought nudged me to reflect upon what drives us, what things motivate people, and how those motivations impact our own and others’ lives.

“What drives you?” suggests purpose – your fundamental “reason why.” What’s your motivating force, your energy’s inspiration, the essential gear in your metaphorical wheel, the axle around which your life’s wheel turns? What gives your life purpose and meaning?

Are you driven
  • to do well at your job,
  • to succeed in personal matters,
  • to care for your family,
  • to be healthy,
  • to serve others,
  • to be accepted,
  • to be popular,
  • to be honest and reliable,
  • to live a simple life,
  • to acquire wealth and status,
  • to create art,
  • to find spiritual peace,
  • to advance your career,
  • to be a winner,
  • to receive financial reward for your efforts,
  • to continue learning and growing as a person,
  • to remain close to your faith?
This week, the challenge is to write a poem about a major driving force in your life. You might write about something that drives you now, or you might consider writing about a past motivation, where it lead you, what happened as a result, and how/if that driving force changed over time. I suggest that you keep the poem to a maximum of about 25 lines (less is fine); work on defining your “drive” and clarifying through example. Use a figure of speech or two, and as always, let your poem develop layers of meaning (don’t just tell a story, give the story more than its obvious meaning).


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Prompt #121 – Weathering the Weather

We don’t have to be meteorologists to have an interest in the weather, and we all talk about the weather often enough (for some, it may be the easiest topic of conversation). Weather certainly happens to all of us, making it something that all people have in common. Weather may not be the only determinant for our emotions and moods, but it does seem to play a role, and it really can affect our thoughts and productivity. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) experience moods very strongly associated with the weather. Think about it: how do you feel on a rainy day, on a sunny day, on a snowy day, and when severe weather is in the forecast?

This year there has been an abundance of rain in my corner of the world. A hot, humid summer, and days of rain again this week with unseasonably warm temps, and high humidity (just as I was ready for some crisp, clear autumn air). With global warming, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods so often in the news, I thought it might be interesting to write about weather conditions and how they make us feel. Extending that thought, I wondered how we might use “weather” to write poems that go beyond the obvious. That’s this week’s challenge!


Write a poem about a specific event that you associate with a particular weather condition (something that happened during a rainstorm, a snowstorm, a sunny day, or any other weather). 

Create symbolic and metaphorical meanings. Write a poem in which you use “weather” as an extended metaphor.

We’ve all heard the old phrase “weathering a storm.” Think of “weather” as a verb rather than as a noun. What experiences or “storms” have you “weathered?” Write a poem not about an actual weather condition but, rather, about an experience that had a considerable effect on your life (emotional, spiritual, a trying time, a test of faith, etc.). How did you “weather" that storm?

Write a poem in which you use weather imagery to set tone and mood.

Write a poem about a “wind” that blew into your life to challenge or inspire you.

Write a poem in which you describe the “weather” of your love life.

Compare yourself (or someone else) to a particular weather (sunshine, rain, snow, tornado, hurricane, typhoon).

Write a “weather forecast” poem for something in your life (relationship, job, friendship, etc.).

For an added challenge, write a poem entitled “Whether or Weather.”

Remember to give your poem room to “breathe,” to go where it needs to go; and leave some spaces for readers to fill in.