The Ear as Portal

When the pen is stuck, my first inclination is always to read. To crack open a book or journal and roll around in someone else’s words and syntax for a while, let my vision guide me to a key that will unlock something new inside my own lexicon. Being a reader is an important practice for every writer, but I often forget how important it is to use the ear, to listen to the work of others to concentrate the mind and the ear on words that are NOT in front of me, to process them in a purer, more challenging way.  I have been doing this electronically through the wonderful Commonplace Podcast with Rachel Zucker, but I always learn something from hearing poets read live.

I was reminded of this last night at a wonderful reading sponsored by The Poetry Center of Chicago. Their Six Points reading series, at which I have had the pleasure of reading myself, hosted Tarfia Faizullah and Kaveh Akbar sharing their poems and then a conversation about Tarfia’s upcoming book and poetics in general. Having been enraptured by Seam when it debuted four years ago, I was not surprised to be enamored with every poem Tarfia Faizullah shared from her upcoming Graywolf Press book Registers of Illuminated Villages. 

Even in the small number of poems she shared, I could hear the multiple meanings of the word “register” – an official list or record, part of a range of voices or instruments, and the action of detection or recognition. These were poems of witness, of generations, the great melodies of all the small things that register in the heart. Faizullah’s reading style was engaging and strong with no hint of artifice or “poet voice.”  My reaction to Kaveh Akbar’s reading was similar – I was familiar with many of the poems from his chapbook Portrait of An Alcoholichaving reviewed it earlier this year, and those poems were lovely to hear in the air, along with newer poems. All were image-rich and full of turns, his reading style all sway and angle. Both poets held the audience with their voices, registers finely tuned to the instruments of their words.

I had a notebook with me, as I always do, but I took no notes. I was present in that moment, listening, as was the rest of the audience packed into the tiny art gallery, an audience that included many other celebrated young voices in the poetry world. During the conversation portion of the evening, I did write down one thing Tarfia said that I wanted to remember:

“We all write with a particular combination of vision & blindness.”

It is this dichotomy that draws me to poetry, the push/pull of initiating & then following the poem’s path, even if I’m not sure where it came from or where it is going. Tuning into the registers of language that are singing somewhere in the hollows of my brain.

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Fill in the Blanks with Lennart Lundh

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After realizing that only women had been featured so far on Fill in the Blanks, I was happy to get some responses from Lennart Lundh, a generous and vital member of the Chicago area poetry scene who I met two years ago at the launch of my first book. Len’s poems, which you can sample here, are diverse in form and subject, but all touched with a tenderness and palpable sense of longing.  His extensive bio is listed below, and many of his chapbooks are written during National Poetry Month to raise funds for cancer research. Find out more about Len as he fills in the blanks.

If I could have written the inauguration poem for any former US president, I would have chosen Dwight Eisenhower because he’s the first President I remember, taking office when I was four.   
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The light source that would best describe the impact of my writing is that of the full moon, since it illuminates things we’d miss seeing in the night. 
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If I could start my own cable network, it would feature readings of works by poets and authors both living and dead, and interviews; the cartoons of Crusader Rabbit, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and The Animaniacs; and the works of Ernie Kovacs, the Marx Brothers, and Robin Williams.
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When people tell me to grow up, my first inclination is to tell them I’ve already triedand failed several times. 
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A sense of humor is the best gift I have ever received.
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Lennart Lundh has been published as a poet, short-fiction writer, photographer, and historian since 1965. He served a blue-water deployment with the Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group Bravo in support of Marine Corps operations in South Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. In late 1970, he was discharged as a conscientious objector. Both events continue to influence his life and writing.

Len and Lin, his wife of forty-seven years, have three grown daughters, six grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. The space in their northeastern Illinois home that was once filled by the daughters is now given over to dogs, cats, and an awful lot of books, music, and movies.

To find Len’s books of aviation history, search his name at the Web pages of Schiffer Publishing (www.schifferbooks.com) and Squadron/Signal Publications (www.squadronsignalpublications.com), or at http://www.bookfinder.com.

Examples of his short fiction can be found in the archives of the original Liars League (www.liarsleague.com); Arachne Press’ 2013 Weird Lies anthology (www.arachnepress.com); and Issue 6 of Jet Fuel Review (www.jetfuelreview.com). A chapbook of short stories is due from Writing Knights Press in December.

His poetry can be found online in venues such as Poetry Storehouse (www.poetrystorehouse.com), The Lake (http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk), and Postcard Poems and Prose (postcardpoemsandprose.com). In print, his poetry and photography can both be found in several of the Squire anthologies produced by Writing Knights Press (www.store.writingknights.com). WKP is also the publisher of three of Len’s six chapbook: Four Poems, Pictures of an Other Day, and So Careless of Themselves.

Three self-published chapbooks (Poems Against Cancer 2014, Poems Against Cancer 2015, and Fifth April 1973) are available by contacting Len at lenlundh@aol.com The annual Poems Against Cancer volumes are written during National Poetry Month to raise funds for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which sponsors research into childhood cancers, and all proceeds from sales of them continue to go to the Foundation.

There are readings of several poems, and the full text of an interview done for Arachne Press, on YouTube. And, if that’s not enough, there are scores of other print and online venues that have included his work over a period of fifty years. Perhaps Len’s favorite among the print journals his work has appeared in is The Binnacle, published by the University of Maine at Machias, which has the sensibility, look, and feel of issues of Poetry Magazine from back in the Seventies.

Len keeps promising to create a Web page, but so far has managed not to. Find him as Lennart Lundh on Facebook, or contact him at lenlundh@aol.com.

Fill in the Blanks with Sarah Winn

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I was reading the poems of Sarah Ann Winn before I met her. And now that I’ve met her and had several chances to experience her work, I’m convinced that she is one of the most genuine and original writers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in recent years.
Let’s see how Sarah filled in the blanks…
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If I could grow any inanimate object (other than money) in my garden, I would grow blue Bic pens sprouted on vines in clusters like hot peppers because I am constantly losing my pens, and I’m particular about what I like to use. (But also because I suspect they’d make pretty good jam if they were a fruit.)
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My writing would provide the perfect platitudes for a superhero named The Masked Gerund (He’d have drive a MG. Because puns.) The line he/she/ze would use as a catchphrase would be“Just add -ing!”
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I have more charging wires than I should, but never enough power (My husband can attest to this. I am constantly running intensive programs simultaneously. Who doesn’t use Pinterest, Pages and Ingress at the same time?!?)
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Rewrite this old folk song for today’s world:  “Oh give me  back roads where the traffic is low, so the poets can safely speed.”
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If I could have a narrator for my daily life, I would choose Frank Oz because I can imagine how my retracing my steps, singing along, and flailing hand gestures would be translated in to a Wonder Years-esque back story to how I will one day grow up to become a muppet.
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Damn. I forgot to return my library books again. (Ripped from the headlines.)
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Links:
Blog/About
Facebook
Twitter
Portage (available as a free e-chap!)
Extended bio:

Sarah Ann Winn is Associate Poetry Editor for ELJ Publications. Her poems have appeared or will appear soon in Bayou Magazine, CALYX, Cider Press Review, Entropy, The Good Men Project, Hobart (online), Massachusetts Review, Nashville Review, Quarterly West, Rhino, as well as many other journals and anthologies online and in print. She has been an honorable mention in Shenandoah’s Graybeal-Gowen Poetry Prize, runner up in Tupelo Quarterly’s Prose Annual, finalist in December Magazine’s Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize, and runner up in Conium Review’s Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Ashley Farmer. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart Prizes. She won the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize, judged by C. Dale Young, as well as Cobalt Magazine’s Gabriela Mistral Poetry Prize. Porkbelly will be releasing her micro chapbook, Haunting the Last House on Holland Island, in Summer of 2016. Her chapbook, Portage, is available as a free download from Sundress Publications. She holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing Poetry from George Mason University, as well as a Masters in Library Science from Catholic University of America, which she uses to dispense book recommendations as a free-range librarian in Manassas, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, two lovely beagle/lab mixed dogs, and one bad cat.

OPP #11: Franki Elliot

Piano Rats Front Cover Curbside Splendor in Chicago makes lovely books – they look good and what’s inside is even better. At AWP this year, I picked up Franki Elliot’s collection Piano Rats. These poems are each their own small universe, populated with people and places that we all seem to know, yet are at the same time completely unique. The title poem in the collection is one of my favorites:

Piano Rats

Linguists have pointed out that the Hopi have no word, no

phonetic sound, no grammatical form whatsoever for what

we call Time.

And he told me rats live in the piano. I can’t think of

anything sadder than rats living in a piano.

And my grandfather, he used to garden, play drums,

smoke cigars, but now he can barely open a letter.

He sits quietly, hearing lost, so we can never be sure

what he’s really thinking.

And that violinist on the steps of the art museum said that

this all goes back to Constantine and the gypsies, they each

had one page of the bible that they hid in their chests.

And the other day a woman called and said, “I have to

cancel my appointment. My husband, he has cancer.”

And the Bubonic Plague, oddly enough, started with rodents,

and fleas. Something so small (something hidden in a rotting

piano) and suddenly, you’ve got 75 million people dead.

And every morning in the shower I say to myself, everything

is going to work out. It is because it has to.

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I’m a sucker for poems that make leaps I can follow, and a double sucker for poems that can do this with attention to detail. The leap from the call about cancer to the line “something so small (something hidden in a rotting/piano)” is heartbreaking. The poem, filled with the quirks and conspiracies of people who populate the speaker’s life, ends with an unexpected affirmation. Despite all of the differences, the sadnesses, the failures, and the conflicts, there is the morning shower. There is the faith that everything will work out. And isn’t that all most of us have?

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To read more: Kiss As Many Women As You Can – typewriter poems in perforated postcard format

Her Tumblr: http://frankielliottypewriter.tumblr.com/

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If you want to write:

1. Choose a small living thing and place it inside a musical instrument. See where it goes.

2. Choose two professions, a family member, and a person of indeterminate relationship (as in the linguist, the violinist, the grandfather, and the woman) and try to link things they told you.

Writing Process Blog Tour: In Which I Try to Explain the Inexplicable

I have been trying to post more often, but often don’t feel I have anything worth sharing. Then along comes Joseph Harker to tag me in this writing process blog tour wherein each tagged poet answers some questions about his/her writing process, and then tags two more. Joseph blogs at the link above, (where he writes complex and brain-twisting prompts in his “recursions” section) and he is starting a new journal, The CSHS Quarterly, that is currently readying its first issue. This blog tour links to several other poets – follow back through the links starting with Joseph’s above to read the answers of fine writers such as Lesley Wheeler, Jeannine Hall Gailey,Kelli Russell Agodon and Sandy Longhorn, to name a few. I still don’t know if any of my answers will be worthwhile, but they were interesting to consider and much harder to answer than I thought.

What am I working on? 

Way too many things. Seriously, I’m in over my head a little at the moment. I am addresing final revisions of a sixth chapbook manuscript based on the myths surrounding the Amazon pink dolphin, I have decided on an initial set of poems for a second manuscript (which needs quite a bit of work), and I am delving into drafts for two other sets of poems, one based on the names of monastic prayers and the other on items from The British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. I also am running a new feature on my blog once a week called OPP, which celebrates other people’s poetry, especially poets that I perhaps have missed or that others may not know much about. Oh, and I’m into the worst part of my teaching year with middle schoolers – two weeks before Spring Break.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That is nearly an impossible question to answer. As a genre, poetry is so diverse in style and purpose that every poem is different from another poem. Even my own poems are different from year to year or series to series. I hope that my poems are well-crafted and well-realized enough to resonate with readers. I don’t tend to write one type of poem – some are narrative, some lyrics, some prosey, some even a little “experimental.” I would not label myself a political writer or a nature writer or a formal poet, but elements of all of these can show themselves in my work. If I had to pick one quality that is consistent in my work, it would probably be attention to sound-maybe that makes my work different from others? Hard to say.

Why do I write what I do?

In terms of genre, I am drawn to the compact and intense nature of poems, the fact that a poem is its own self-contained universe with galaxies in every line.  Although I have also written short stories, I have trouble maintaining interest in anything longer. If I consider why I write about the topics or issues I choose, I wish I knew. I’m sure I have been influenced by my reading, but there aren’t any particular influences I can point to. (I actually find it fascinating that two different people have referenced Millay when talking about my poems since, up until last year, I had very little exposure to her work other than the “The Harp Weaver” and whatever I read in college lit class.)

Many times, I become a little obsessed with an idea and write about one thing for a long time. (For instance, the chapbook manuscript about Amazon pink dolphins was sparked by viewing a Michael Palin travel special about Brazil, which reminded me that I had learned about the dolphins when visiting the Amazon thirteen years ago.) Sometimes it is simply a piece of language or an image that sticks in my head until I free write to develop a scenario or a speaker that intrigues me. Mostly, I write because I feel compelled to do so, to both wonder at and demystify the world around me and how humans navigate its strangeness.

How does your writing process work?

It depends. (I know, that’s a cheater answer, but it’s true.) I certainly don’t need a café, or cup of tea/coffee, or any type of particular setting. I actually don’t like to write in cafés or coffee shops – too distracting. I like natural light, but I also write at night. I can write just about anywhere, although I certainly prefer to be comfortable. Actually, now that I said that, I will clarify that I like to be comfortable to draft. I usually do my best revision work, however, at a table or a desk, somewhere that makes me sit up and pay attention.

I do usually write at night, especially during the school year. Since I’m up and out before 7 AM every day and usually home around 4:30, by the time I work out, have dinner and complete any chores or work tasks that need attention, any drafting time would be on the couch with my husband while we relax and watch TV. I have a skill that annoys my husband and son, which is to be in the room and seemingly present with them yet completely engaged in what I am doing to the point where I barely know they are there. When I am away at a conference or residency, I often write very late, into the wee hours of the morning when the mind is free. I don’t have the luxury of doing that ten months out of the year, however.

As I said above, I often free write based on an image or piece of language and see what happens. Sometimes I use source material (like the British Museum book mentioned above) as a way in, and sometimes I use prompts. However I begin, I am a fairly fast first drafter, not worrying too much about where things are headed. I just follow a train of thought and see where it goes. It is very rare that I sit down to specifically write a poem about a certain topic.

I usually put first drafts away for a day or two, and then I go back to mine anything that seems worth saving. I know that seems like a short time period compared to what other writers do. But I get too excited about a promising draft to let it linger for longer than that without a second look. It’s almost like, if I leave it sit too long, all the first-draft-magic will drain out, and it will become just another random bit of scribbling. And I have enough of those already, thank you.

Then the fun begins – I love to revise. Changing line breaks, experimenting with diction and sound, chopping out the throat-clearing and the extraneous adjectives – revision is my favorite part of writing. I try not to hyper-analyze a revision, though. When the poem has settled into a form and syntax that pleases me, I am willing to send it into the world and see what happens. I don’t seek perfection, because it doesn’t exist. At least, not out of my pen.

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Next week, watch for posts by these two talented poets as the Writing Process Blog Tour continues:

Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming in Adanna, The Bellingham Review, Yemassee, and Weave, among others, and her chapbook Dear Turquoise was recently released from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review.

Carol Berg’s poems are forthcoming or in Pebble Lake ReviewFifth Wednesday JournalqarrtsiluniThe Bakery, Spillway, and in the anthology A Face To Meet the Faces. Her chapbook, Ophelia Unraveling is available from Dancing Girl Press, and two other chapbooks, The Ornithologist Poems (Dancing Girl Press) and Her Vena Amoris (Red Bird Chapbooks) are also available.

 

 

Rolling in the Deep: AWP Panel Reflection #1

Thursday afternoon at AWP, I had the good fortune to attend a session called Creating Emotional Depth: Tools and Inspiration from Various Genres. I chose it for a few reasons, one being the topic. What writer wouldn’t want insight on creating emotional depth? Another was the cross-genre panel, which included Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Tim Siebles, David Jaus, Karin de Weille, and Robert Vivian. But the third was curiosity. How would these writers explain emotion, something that writers have been trying to do for centuries?

Laure-Anne Bosselaar began with a quote from another writer (whose name I did not get in my notes) that “To write is also not to speak.” She continued that the images, metaphors, direct address of the reader, personification and pathetic fallacy used by the writer need to be carefully selected, need to use an originality of showing that will surprise the reader. She discussed the poem “The Two Trees” by Larry Levis as an example of these devices used to evoke emotion.  She also discussed the idea that poems that take leaps in topic or image can sometimes be labeled as unemotional if they are distant or feel like they are randomly selected. But these types of poems, she asserted, can have emotional power if the associative images you use are personal. If the images are personal, the reader will follow you even through difficult abstractions. She ended her portion of the panel with a question and a quote. The quote was from Larry Levis – “the art of the poem withholds its howling so we can only imagine its sound as our own.” The question I had heard from her when I had the good fortune to workshop with her at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway – What is the urgency in the poem that causes the speaker not to remain silent? To her, that urgency is the emotional center of every poem. That is a question I can certainly ask myself about each draft.

David Jaus presented the four most common ways that writers try to convey emotion: direct abstract statement, internal physical sensation, body language/placement, and metaphor. He provided examples from each category which were very interesting. I was particularly struck by his discussion of body placement, how a speaker/character can say the same words and have them mean something completely different only by changing body placement. For instance, a character can look directly at another character, holding them tenderly, and say “I love you” but if the character says those same words from across the room, back turned, standing at the kitchen sink and looking out the window, that “I love you” means something very different. He also discussed the two most common “avoidance” techniques that writers use when writing about emotion: glossing and sensory bypass. Glossing is interpreting the emotion for the reader without allowing him/her to experience it. This frequently focuses on the eyes, as in “his eyes widened in horror.” Sensory bypass takes a shortcut to abstraction – “she was horrified” – that gives the reader no way in to the emotion.  I found myself wondering how many times I had been guilty of those techniques – probably too many to count- and also knew that these terms would be useful in trying to teach my seventh graders to avoid abstractions.  He ended with a Shakespeare quote – “Action is eloquence.”

Tim Siebles continued, using Ai’s poems “The Tenant Farmer” and “One Man Down” as a way to discuss tone and emotional risk, the poem as a vehicle for the writer to declare extremes of emotion and control how she wants the reader to respond, “gut-wise.” He posited that sometimes extremes in emotion can be handcuffed by polite poetic sensibility, and that stepping out of these bonds can lead to new generative content to match that undone tone. Emotional/intellectual engagement with difficult material can evoke a strong reader response. The poems, especially “One Man Down,” were great examples of how arresting images can involve the reader’s emotions immediately.

Karin de Weille used a long sentence or two from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf to discuss how form and syntax can trigger tone and emotion. Her passion for the structure of this passage was infectious, and she convinced me completely to pay more attention to movement on the level of the syllable to inform syntax for prose and line breaks for poems. Finally, Robert Vivian discussed the role of play in discovering emotion in your writing, asserting that play is a generative force behind all human culture, and thus all human emotion, that playing radically with words is an important way to reach emotion. I took to heart his statement that play and seriousness are not opposites but companions.

After this panel, I have much to think about in terms of revision. Though I am primarily a poet, I have been writing more short prose in the past few months, and these varied ways of approaching emotion in text will inform both my poetry and prose in ways I can only hope will improve them both.

OPP #7: Nina Corwin

Many poets/writers can probably point to a few people who were pivotal in their development as writers: mentors, confidantes, fire-lighters or sages. Nina Corwin is one of those people for me. She is the host of a long-running reading series in the Chicago area, which happened to be the first open mic/feature reading I ever attended. With a poem in my trembling hands, I took a seat at the back of the room and Nina introduced herself, asking if I wanted to sign up for the open mic. I must have looked terrified because she assured me of a kind audience and added her wide smile in such a way that my fear dissipated. She has been a friend and champion of my work ever since, and I am proud and happy to return the favor. She deserves as many readers as she can get.

Her work is astounding. Nina’s poems often seem to tumble in opposing directions, but she is a masterful weaver. All strands convene into a cohesive, astounding conclusions, no matter what her subject matter. This poem, from her book The Uncertainty of Mapsis one of my favorites. 

Irregulars

It starts with Inspector 29, her nervous tics

and squinting eyes gone bad in the strip-search

for the wayward thread or almost invisible discoloration.

Or should I say, it starts with the apparel

on their hopeful parade from production line

to seller’s rack. But there’s always somebody judging:

saying yay or nay, fast track or going nowhere fast,

fine department store or strip mall cheap boutique.

As for me, you’ll know me by the labels

on the clothes I wear.


Gathering up the also-rans, the factory seconds

that stumbled under scrutiny, I who was always the last

to be chosen for blacktop kickball teams, I celebrate

irregulars! Those mail-order pantyhose marked down

for their slightly wavering seams, the snags that only

Inspector 29 can see, the skirt unevenly pieced together

by the anonymous sweat shop sewing machine operator

who must’ve had a really rough night. I welcome

their cut-rate selves into my home, sisters in imperfection,

standard-bearers and tainted saints of human error.


Once my breasts were a perfectly matched set.

But life comes along with its caustic shadows

on mammograms, its ambiguous cysts.

Life with its imperfect science, the winking

of uncertain stars. Like those forced choices

where vanity meets cancer in a face-off for a good

night’s sleep and next day when you wake up,

you find your right breast sporting a jagged new smile,

sagging a bit smaller than the left and thankful for it.

After awhile, you hardly notice.


There are times I see Inspector 29 in my dreams,

smug as the angel of cleanliness buzzing about

the right hand of God. She plucks me easily

out of a line-up of department store wannabes

with my collection of scars, my uneven teeth and

too big smile, my piles of papers cluttering every

available surface. She drops me into a large vat

along with all the other misfits where we are slapped

with Irregular labels: Inspected by 29. Loaded

into boxcars and destined for bargain basements.


We are assured, if merchandise doesn’t move

within thirty days, further markdowns will be taken.

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I adore the way this poem discusses what seems like a quirk of shopping frugality then turns to the serious business of accepting self – including the imperfect and inescapable body – to the knowledge that the flaws of living will continue to accrue. Nina also slyly works in the politics of sweatshops and a slice of spirituality in the last stanza. Her poems can be mazes, but Nina drops breadcrumbs all the way through for her readers to follow. Do yourself a favor and click on the link below to hear Nina read her work- she is a powerhouse of a reader.

You can hear Nina read this and other poems here at the Fishhouse: http://www.fishousepoems.org/?p=4817

Nina’s first book Conversations with Demons and Tainted Saints is also wonderful, including persona poems from characters as diverse as Salome, Candide, and Orpheus.

If you want to write:

1. Use four of Nina’s line starters – once, but, after awhile, there are times – to begin your own new piece of writing.

2. Choose a seemingly unglamorous job – like Inspector 29 – and compare the work of that person to an event in your life.