Monthly Archives: December 2014

Thirteen Little Poetry Projects



This is the final post for 2014.

I’ll be back in January with musings on Shakespeare, why I’m a sucker for kids’ poetry, the pros and cons of daily practice, prose vs. poetry, writing reviews, basking in obscurity, and other observations from the writing life.


Thirteen Little Poetry Projects

The list below contains my favorites from “20 Poetry Projects,” the creation of the late Jim Simmerman, a poet and professor from Northern Arizona University who died in 2006. I’m grateful for these little nudges in the direction of creativity, and refer to the list often. Mix them up; rearrange the list; choose three or four at random. You’ll have fun, and you might get a poem out of it.


  1. Begin your poem with a metaphor or a simile.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  5. Use a word – slang? that you’ve never used in a poem.
  6. Use an example of false cause-and-effect logic.
  7. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard.
  8. Make the character in the poem do something he or she could not do in real life.
  9. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  10. Write in the future tense, so that part of the poem seems to be prediction.
  11. Modify a noun with an unlikely object.
  12. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  13. Make a nonhuman say or do something human (personification).


Reprinted from Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets by Erica Goss

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



Step Up to the Open Mike


Everyone in the café heard me clear my throat into the microphone, my “hello” startling me through the loudspeaker. Fifteen years old and wearing a dress I’d made from an Indian bedspread, I delivered a quavering version of “Cameroon,” my favorite Miriam Makeba song, accompanying myself on guitar. Three minutes later I left the stage, having just performed at my first open mike.

I’ve attended hundreds of open mikes since that first time. I’ve heard amazing poetry and dreadful drivel, often on the same night. The open mike is an equal-opportunity performance alternative: anyone can sign up and read whatever they have with them. No criteria exist beyond showing up with a poem, song or joke.

Reading at a microphone is harder than it looks. We’ve all watched a reader adjust the mike for his or her height, never quite getting it right. Tall people like me stoop, while short people stand on tip-toe to reach the mike. Some hold the mike too close to their mouths, resulting in unpleasant clicking and slurping sounds, while others stand a foot away, rendering themselves inaudible.

I’ve seen people read poems neatly typed or handwritten on a sheet of paper, or inked on their hands, or from their phones, tablets or laptops. Some recite from memory (and occasionally go blank, start over, go blank, and give up). Some step up to the mike and then search their pockets for that elusive poem, never finding it. The audience generally forgives these lapses, as they can and do happen to everyone.

Not everyone is well behaved at the open mike. Some use it to air their favorite political viewpoint, or to advertise something. Some launch into a friendly but increasingly pointless conversation with the audience. Some read work that’s inappropriate for the venue (i.e., explicitly violent or sexual poetry at the public library) and some go on for way too

DSCN0865long. So it goes in the territory of citizen-performers. I’ve sat through open mikes where everyone was friends with everyone else and freely commented on each other’s work, both negatively and positively. I’ve read at open mikes where no one clapped (or snapped, a la the Beats). Most of the time, however, the open mike is a source of enjoyment, and sometimes, delight.

The open mike can change a person’s life. I’ve heard the beginnings of brave new voices in the tentative poems of strangers who got up the courage to read in public, often for the first time. Plenty of famous people started out at open mikes: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres among them.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a huge variety of open mikes in just about every town. Go out and find one, and boldly share your work. You never know what might happen.

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Stick and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life




The Black Dogs of Rejection

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” We writers sweat over every sentence, agonize, rewrite, and rewrite some more. When we finally get a piece of writing ready to send out, we face that unfortunate fact of every writer’s life: rejection.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that rejections fall into a pattern. I’ve compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of the ones I encounter most often:


The Poet’s Top Ten Rejections


  1. The normal, everyday disappointment: “the New Yorker turned me down again.”
  2. The shocker: “my alumni magazine said ‘no’?”
  3. The self-defeater (also known as “pre-rejection” or “fatalism”): while browsing the calls for submission in Poets & Writers, you convince yourself not to send anything to anyone because you can already see the emails rejecting you.
  4. The Submittable message: “Your submission’s status has changed. Click here:”. The status changes from “in-process” to “denied.”
  5. The silent treatment: after hearing nothing for months to a year after you send in your submission, the journal posts the contributors to its new issue, or the winners of a contest, on its website. Your name is missing.
  6. The disappearing act: you never hear back. The website goes dark. The journal vanishes. So does your contest fee.
  7. The stalker: after rejecting you, the journal sends email after email asking you to buy the winning book, to make financial donations, or to subscribe to their magazine.
  8. The repeater: the rejection you get from the same place, over and over.
  9. The love letter: the eloquent message telling you how much the editors liked your work, but it wasn’t “quite right” for the issue, followed by:
  10. The invitation to re-submit: See #8.

Feel free to add yours!

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Interview: Alina Sayre, YA Author


Alina as a young reader, lost in a book

I’m happy to have Young Adult author Alina Sayre as my guest on today’s post. I met Alina at Village House of Books in Los Gatos last spring during California Bookstore Day. Her spirit and enthusiasm were infectious, as you’ll see as you read on. Alina is the author of The Illuminator’s Gift, a fantasy novel for ages 9-14. This week is the launch of her second book in the series, The Illuminator’s Test. Please welcome Alina!

Interview with Alina Sayre, December 2, 2014:

Were you a reader as a child? If so, what types of books did you gravitate toward?

Absolutely! My preschool teacher surprised my parents when she told them I was already reading (in fact, I was getting in trouble for correcting her when she ad libbed at storytime J). The first book I can remember reading solo was Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. But after that I especially loved fantasy (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader), fairy tales (“Beauty and the Beast” is my favorite) and historical fiction (I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder so badly that my dad built a makeshift covered wagon for my eighth birthday party). Interestingly enough, these are the genres I still love most today.

Did your parents read too? Did you see them reading?

One of my favorite memories of childhood (and adolescence, for that
matter) is reading aloud with my family. My dad starting reading to us from his college copy of The Lord of the Rings when I was eight, and it’s been my literary inspiration ever since. I was so proud when I could read well enough to take my turn reading aloud. Now one of my favorite parts of being an author is getting to read aloud to kids. Especially for auditory learners or reluctant readers, reading aloud is a great way to express the drama that your imagination can find in a book.

Quite a few adults read YA fiction. Can you explain this Ebook cover smallbehavior?

Secretly, adults (including me) are just big kids. While I do also read “adult” books, I love to read (and write) children’s literature because it’s a picture of a better world. Kids aren’t dumb, and they know that bad things happen in the world. Bad things happen in middle-grade and young adult books, too. But the distinction between good and evil is a little clearer, the story’s quest is a little better defined, and the hero or heroine faces life with a little more hope. Maybe we read children’s lit because we want to remember how to look at the world the way children do. Maybe the world would be a better place if we did.

How can we instill a love of reading, not just for content but for pleasure, in children?

One of my day jobs is as a private writing tutor, especially for kids who struggle with language arts. Of course I want my students to excel in reading comprehension and thematic analysis. But my biggest, long-term reading goal for these kids is to get them to love reading. Kids who read for pleasure read more, read better, and challenge themselves of their own volition, something no teacher or tutor can make them do. To that end, I start my reluctant readers with books that are a little below their reading level and on subjects that interest them. I’d rather a student have the experience of “mastering” a book and feel pleasure at the experience of reading than check off a box on their AR reading list. It’s a trade-off for long-term success, because a student who learns to enjoy reading is a student who will become a lifelong reader.

Can you relate a story where you convinced a reluctant reader to get through a book? How did you do it?

It’s key for students to understand that literature, especially classic literature, is not just a bunch of boring pages full of big words written by some old dead guys. The reason classics stay classic is that they speak to universal human experiences and help us learn to live. One of my favorite moments was teaching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a middle-school tech geek who has a bright future as an engineer and thought literature was so boring. We compared Dr. Jekyll’s transformative potion to modern-day technology: iPhones, Facebook, the Internet. Some people blame such technology for the problems in today’s world. But as we read through the book, we realized that the potion, like today’s technology, is just a tool, neither good nor evil in itself. It’s what people do with this powerful tool that determines whether its effects will be good or bad. It was the thrill of my life that when the student wrote his evaluation at the end of the year, he listed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as one of his favorite books.

Are kids too distracted these days to really appreciate the world in a book?

Maybe it takes kids a little longer to learn to appreciate reading today, but I definitely don’t think they’re incapable of it. The fact of a world dominated by the Internet, texting, Snapchat, Instagram, and images rather than text is that kids are bombarded with a lot of information and not nearly enough time to process it all. Teaching them to work slowly through a book, especially one without illustrations, can be like training a couch potato to do crunches. The imagination is a muscle too. But literary enthusiasm is contagious. My students probably forget most of the information I teach about literature, but I hope they see my eyes sparkle when I talk about it.

IMG_0189I can’t remember many facts about The Iliad, but I remember a college professor who literally came to tears over Hector’s death. By the end of class, I was crying over Hector too. That moment impressed me deeply, and I hope to infect my students with the same contagious passion.

How does reading factor into your own creative process?

As I constantly tell my students, good writing comes from good reading. So I practice what I preach and read voraciously—kid lit, adult fiction, theology, psychology, biography, cereal boxes. I think reading multiple genres cross-pollinates my ideas and keeps me from getting stagnant. I hope this breadth of interests shows up in both of my books as the characters explore everything from chemistry to linguistics to navigation to manuscript illumination.

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