POETIC JUSTICE Essay Series by Hilary Tham
Finding Your Voice
One frequent cavil about beginning poets is that their poems
do not yet have a "voice." By this, poets usually mean
the sense of self, of identity or personality that permeates a
poem and gives it authority and credibility in the mind of the
reader. As Will Shakespeare said so cogently: "To thine own
self be true. Thou canst not then be false to any man." This
is what Voice achieves in poems-the sense that the speaker in
the poem has a real sense of self in relation to the world and
is worth listening to.
When we speak of identity, we think of the Western concept of
self as originating in the uniqueness of the individual. The Asian
tradition of self is as a social construct-identity defined by
relationship, embedded in the interpersonal relationships of family
and clan. In the Chinese tradition, a person's identity is in
the person's place in the extended family.
The concept of a nuclear family is alien to the Chinese. A meticulous
classification of relationships exists and is in use even today.
For example, we have eight words for the English word "Uncle":
Shuk Bak (Uncle who is the older brother of my father)
Shuk (Uncle who is the younger brother of my father)
Kowfu (Uncle who is the older brother of my mother)
Kow (Uncle who is the younger brother of my mother)
Pew Bak (Uncle by marriage to older sister of my father)
Koo Shuk (Uncle by marriage to younger sister of my father)
Pew Jheong (Uncle by marriage to older sister of my mother)
Yee Cheong (Uncle by marriage to younger sister of my mother)
I subscribe to the Western concept of identity in the sense of
the individual, but I also believe that identity is rooted in
tradition like a plant that takes its nourishment from its soil
and shapes itself from its many nutrients. One cannot see a shape
without a contrasting background.Only after a person has examined,
by writing, her or his experiences and ideas, the rejected as
well as the integrated parts, can she or he have the understanding
of self that is identity. Family history, myths, legends, the
"forgotten" immigrant grand/great-grandparents' cultures,
all feed into a writer's mind and make good mulch for growing
In an earlier "Poetic Justice," I said that the poet
invents herself or himself in the act of writing. I would add
that, in defining what we are, we need also to articulate what
we are not, if only to ourselves. This is especially necessary
after transplanting to another faith or culture. Writing poems
has been my way of exploring and reaffirming my identity. Many
of my poems are memories revisited. Each time I write a poem retelling
myths, legends, value systems, customs-I examine what I believe
in, what I have discarded, what I have chosen to retain. With
each poem, I gain a stronger sense of myself, of who and what
When I came to America, and entered the religion and culture
of Judaism, I faced the question: What happens to one's sense
of self when we shift across cultures? Answer: Exile is hard on
a person but it can be a great motivating force for writers. There
rises a need to define oneself, to understand and evaluate responses
to different customs and standards. It is in the process of writing
with the eyes of the exile, the displaced person, having available
the contrasting memories and perspective of the exile, that we
define ourselves in relation to the new culture, the newly accepted
traditions. I believe that T.S. Eliot benefited in this way when
he transplanted himself from America to England.
This may be why poets write so many poems about childhood. In
a sense, we are all displaced persons, exiled from childhood.
Get your relatives to talk about the country of their forebears.
Look at what other things you may be an exile from; here be dragons!
(poems) as the old treasure maps said. Sometimes, I am asked how
I would identify myself today. I am a writer, a woman, a blend
of many cultures: Chinese-Malaysian by birth, American by love
of my husband and Jewish by choice. My identity is trellised on
Judeo-western principles and ideals, but my roots delve deep in
Chinese lore. I breathe light and climb, through the ideals of
the Constitution, the ideals of democracy, equality and freedom
for all. As a writer, I write about my life, my family, my people,
the cultures of my childhood and my adopted identities that hold
my mind's shape. This informs my writing, this is my voice.
Published in Potomac Review WInter 2001.
Some poets dash off a poem in minutes. Others write their poems
stages, feeling their way from rough draft to rough draft until
arrive at the finished poem. In music, Mozart thought out whole
even entire acts of operas in his head and then wrote them down
without need for revision. Beethoven wrote fragments of themes in
which he kept beside him and took years to develop into finished
The act of making a poem ranges between Mozart's method and Beethoven's
It does not matter which method is yours. (I confess I fall midway
the two.) What counts in either case is the vision that sees and
develops to its fullest a moment of original insight, achieves hopefully
result that is immortal.
When we write poems, we pursue immortality by way of truth. This
vain and ambitious and many poets may not articulate this to themselves
bluntly as it sounds. In his illuminating essay, "The Making
of a Poem,"
Stephen Spender calls this ambition "the purest kind attainable
world. They (poets) are ambitious to be accepted for what they ultimately
as revealed by their inmost experiences, their finest perceptions,
deepest feelings, their uttermost sense of truth, in their poetry.
cannot cheat about these things, because the quality of their whole
revealed not in the noble sentiments which their poetry expresses,
sensibility, control of language, rhythm and music, things that
attained by a vote of confidence from an electorate, or by the office
Laureate. All one can do is to achieve nakedness, to be what one
is with all
one's faculties and perceptions, strengthened by all the skill which
acquire, and then to stand before the judgment of time."
Poets have defined the purpose for writing poetry in more ways
than the six
blind men describing an elephant. In his poem "Ars Poetica?"
says: "The purpose of poetry is to remind us/ how difficult
it is to remain
just one person,/ for our house is open, there are no keys in the
invisible guests come in and out at will."
Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz in his interview with Elizabeth Lund
"The Face &
Place of Poetry," sees the same reason with a slight difference.
life is a process of transformation. One must build a new image
of self, out
of which comes new styles, new leaps in one's work."
He views the poet as an active participant: "Your life itself
is the medium
which you are transforming. The first great task of the aspiring
poet - the
task of the imagination - is to create the self that will write
Kunitz also says. "Poetry is born out of revelation to one's
self of the
meaning of your own life."
Contradictory as the two preceding statements seem, both are part
whole (elephant?) We see our truth and write it, but because we
it for publication, we evolve the self, re-create it to match more
we want ourselves to be. We create a better self so that we may
Poetry is the act of authenticating one's self, authenticating
the nature of
human experience, and since the truth of both is continually changing,
then, one must keep on writing to keep the authentication valid
and one must
keep on inventing oneself to authenticate a greater truth. In this
may be playing God, but very humbly we are affirming with this gift
divinely given to us that "I am that I am".
Wishing you pure ambition,
I've been spending the spring months as a visiting
poet in northern Virginia schools teaching students (high school,
middle school and elementary) to write poems. Actually, I don't
teach them to write poems. What I do is create a receptivity, an
atmosphere of hospitality for the expression of their ideas in poem
form. My writing exercises usually begin with a diversion, such
as an M & M's taste test before asking the students to think
about color in non-usual ways: example: What colors are happy? What
colors are sad? What color is Saturday? a headache? What color is
the sound of a lost puppy? (the color of sadness)What color is the
taste of a taco? My aim is to engage them in "creative seeing
and thinking" as opposed to "functional seeing and thinking".
The latter is what we all do when we are driving and see a red traffic
light. Our foot eases off the accelerator and shifts over to the
brake pedal. "Creative seeing and thinking" would mean
thoughts we associate with "red"- blood, rage, with "light"
and its flip side, "dark", with "circles", perhaps
the "road not taken", "journeys" as symbols,
metaphors for life and the human condition.
How does one get students to take the road less traveled? The one
that leads into labyrinths of thought and shades of meaning? One
of my favorite gambits is to have my students play word games such
as rolling similes. In the Rolling Similes game, the whole group
sits in a circle and each participant writes a simile with a second
line that makes the connection for the two, however wild. The whole
point is to play with images and language and have fun. Usually
a concrete thing is compared to an abstract noun like emotion or
homework. Then each passes the paper to the person to the right.
The next person writes another simile using one of the two compared
nouns in the first simile, adding a line as the raison d'être.
Everyone should be writing on a paper at all times. After each paper
has about 6 similes, they should write a wrap-up or concluding simile
and then have each read aloud the paper in hand.. The fun part is
the reading aloud of the poems of course. Here are a couple of rolling
simile poems from my students at Yorktown High School in Arlington.
Writing poetry is like bungee jumping
In both, you take a risk.
Bungee jumping is like a child in the womb,
both are dependent on the strength of the cord.
A child in the womb is like an unborn egg.
You never know when it will hatch.
Sadness is like a blanket,
covering all it touches.
A blanket is like a mother,
offering security at any time.
A mother is like a warm cup of hot cocoa,
warm and soothing.
A warm cup of hot cocoa is like a best friend.
Both make you feel happy, comfortable
A best friend is like the sun on a warm spring day,
bringing a wide smile to my face.
A warm spring day is like birth, the reincarnation and
regeneration of life.
Love is an eternal spring, it changes you forever.
An eternal spring is like herpes,
it won't go away.
Herpes is like an annoying younger brother;
it comes out from hiding at the most
Similes are the beginnings, the basic nuts and bolts of metaphorical
logic with which we poets build word structures of emotive images
and mazes to the heart of a poem's meaning. This issue's Young Writer's
section features poems from Yorktown High School students. They
take us into the world of beginnings, thresholds: the adult world
of clock tyranny (Alarm Clock); love mythologized (Her Eyes); love
that turns away ("from my heart"), or is turned away from
("pink"); choosing a college and all the implications
of a future ("Hunt") and nature/seasons ("It's That
Time of Year Again"). Several of my students experiment with
forms and I am delighted to report that the Muse is alive and has
a strong following among our young.
by Hilary Tham
THE SOUND OF POETRY
In the beginning of poetry, bards (as poets were then called) sat
in drafty halls of kings and lords or near the fire in an inn toasting
one side of the body and freezing the other, and the sound of poetry
was the strumming of the lute and the voice of the poet pitched
to reach an audience chomping on greasy hunks of meat and gurgling
ale amidst the clatter of wooden platters (no plates invented yet)
and loud conversation.
Today, the sound of poetry may be heard amidst the blare of traffic
as you drive your beat-up truck or brand new SUV with a CD or cassette
in your tapedeck. Or it could be very déjà vu, in
a bar or pizza parlor and the poet may be pitching his or her voice
against the growl of the cappuccino machine. The poetry world is
a wonderfully aural one again, and poetry is heard as well as read.
I want to encourage you to listen to poetry to hone your ear for
the music and to read aloud your own work while revising. Even better
would be to tape yourself reading the poem and then listen to it
in order to improve your poem for flow, sound and rhythm.
Books on tape is a growing industry in our time, and poetry too
is being read aloud on tape as well as live. I have found tapes
of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot reading their own work as well as
our nation's new Poet Laureate, Stanley Kunitz and other contemporary
poets. You should be able to find tapes of poetry at your library
or bookstore. The latest addition to poetry on tape is THE SOUND
OF POETRY: Maryland Laureates on Tape featuring four of Maryland's
official 6 laureates. Lucille, Clifton, Reed Whittemore, Linda Pastan
and Roland Flint. The first two, Maria B. Coker and Vincent Godfry
Burns did not leave recordings of their readings. Distribution is
by the Writer's Center, http://www.writer.org/gallery/gallery.htm.
"No (wo)Man is an island" though we poets try very hard
to prove John Donne wrong. We tend to be an introverted, solitary
lot and we must remember to make ourselves go out and listen to
other poets as well as ourselves. I am exhilarated at the poetry
scene today. In the eighties, there were very few venues for poetry
readings. Today, we have tons, all right, I exaggerate, but plenty
enough that we have a choice of events on any given night of the
You ask where are all these happenings listed? On hard copy, you
can find many (not all) readings listed weekly in the Washington
Post's Book World with the Sunday paper or monthly in the
Writer's Center's magazine, Carousel.
Thanks to the flourishing of internet and email, you can even have
the list emailed to you: DC's E-Poetry Update for the Week provides
a weekly listing of contests, readings & events in the Washington,
DC area. It is published weekly by The Word Works. The Editor/ list-master
is Tod Ibrahim email@example.com (Tod Ibrahim). Send him an email to be put on the mailing list.
Or you can visit BELTWAY: A POETRY QUARTERLY at http://www.washingtonart.com.
The Poetry News section features new book and journal releases,
calls for entries and area poetry readings.
Here's a sampling of poetry reading series in our area:
*** Sundays at 7:00 p.m., Julio's Rooftop Pizza, 1602-4
U St. NW, Washington, DC at the intersection of 16th St., U St.
and New Hampshire Ave. Telephone: 202.483.8500. I have not personally
checked this one out yet.
*** The Iota Poetry Series takes place the second Sunday
of the month at 6:00 p.m. Host is Miles David Moore. Iota Bar and
Restaurant is located at 2832 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, VA
(two blocks east from the Clarendon Metro) For information call
703-522-8340 or 703-256-9275. This has great Irish Nachos, friendly
mine hosts Steve and Jane makes every one feel welcomed and a very
friendly crowd of regulars who are enthusiastic for poetry of all
*** Cafe Muse Reading Series is on the second Wednesday
of the month 7:30 p.m. at Strathmore Hall Arts Center, 10701 Rockville
Pike, North Bethesda 1 1/2 block north of the Grosvernor Metro stop.
Open poetry reading follows the featured performers. Free to the
public. It is sponsored by The Word Works website: http://www.wordworksdc.com.
Grand room, contemporary art and a marvelous museum shop in addition
to the good poetry. Unfortunately the Hall closes at 9.30 and poets
can't linger and hang out after the readings.
*** Mariposa Poetry Series Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with featured
readers followed by an open mike. Host : Maritza Rivera. Mariposa
is located at 5000 Berwyn Road, College Park, MD 20740. 301-513-9422.
On my list of "To Visit Soon":
*** POETS ANONYMOUS runs a monthly reading the second Sat.
of each month at 2:00 p.m. at the Red Hot and Blue restaurant in
Fairfax City (next to jail!). Contact for more info is Jean Russell,
(703) 239-0960 or Sam Hurst at (703) 569-4887. This is a friendly
venue for beginning poets.
In the past I have visited and also read at wonderful series at
Grace Church in Georgetown hosted by Jeff Brown, and Westmoreland
Church hosted by Nan Fry. No listing of events at this time of writing
(August). They may be winter series.
In the summer, the Miller Cabin poetry series presents a
very unique experience: "Poetry Under the Stars" hosted
by Jacklyn Potter every Tuesday of June and July at Rock Creek Park.
It is sponsored by The Word Works website: http://www.wordworksdc.com.
Wishing you fresh scenes and sounds of poetry,
When a Poem kicks In:
Every writer, when despondent, asks this question: Why am I causing
the devastation of forests to mill paper for my printer? Or pen/pencil
if you are a die-hard techno-saur. We all have varying reasons for
writing, but I write for myself. To think (and thought is necessarily
a word process) and shape meaning from events, experiences, (vicarious
via reading or actual) in my life, and to better understand my own
responses to them. I found another reason wonderfully articulated
for my shapeless motive by Henry Taylor (Translator's Note, Black
Book of the Endangered Species by Vladimir Levchev; bilingual
collection of his Bulgarian poems, Word Works, 1999). He says: "Writing
poetry is often, if not always, a matter of conversing with those
poets who have gone before; most good poetry is, to some extent,
made out of poetry that already exists. Translation is a way of
extending and deepening that conversation". This may be why
many poets take to translating poems from other languages.
In this issue, we have some lovely translations from Chinese poems
and some contemporary haiku. (No, this is not a typo, there is no
"s" after the Japanese term haiku. It's like fish, One
fish, two fish, many fish.) Both the Chinese and Japanese focus
on Nature - usually a specific aspect to be a poetic metaphor for
the whole world. Poetry works best in focusing on a particular instead
of the general. We just do not resonate to 'Humans die. Dogs howl
at night". We do to "My neighbor died. His dog howled
all night". We can imagine how that dog had a reason for howling
and we can feel the effect of that noise on the people in the area.
It is in the particular that a poetic truth is apprehended and transmuted
into a truth applicable to the community of humans. Check this out
for yourself. Reread your favorite poems. As in every generalization,
there are exceptions. T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men" comes
to mind to refute my statement.
The truth of Henry Taylor's statement that we as poets are having
ongoing conversations with poets we read struck me forcibly. We
respond to others' poems by taking on the form, or the thought /
theme or person in the poems we are moved by. I have many poems
in the voice of a superstitious loudmouthed Chinese mother, Mrs.
Wei and my friend Miles David Moore has created a wonderful persona,
Fatslug, whom he describes as the "poster boy for the Low Self-Esteem
Society". So my Mrs. Wei spoke to Fatslug and he replied. The
paired poems are presented in this issue.
The interesting thing about persona poems is that they give us
greater freedom to get into the heads of a character and to present
a different perspective or reality. So if you ever hit that fearful
thing called writer's block, go and listen (read read) another poet
and soon you will be talking back. And remember, trees are a renewable
resource, and so are poems.
-- Hilary Tham
If poetry be music, play on
"The best way to get to a reader's heart is through the reader's
ear," said Robert Frost. Cat-scans show that music affects
the pleasure centers of the brain. To quote poet Tom Lux, "There
are three basic ways to make music in poetry: 1) rhyme, 2) rhythm
- the play between stressed and unstressed syllables, the dance
of words/sounds, and 3) onomatopoeia-the harmony of sound and sense.
In his January 22-23, 2000 "Every Word Counts" Master-class
workshop sponsored by The Word Works and the Arlington County Cultural
Affairs Division, Tom Lux said: "I read poems for the pleasure,
for the experience of reading the poem, and to help me endure."
Here, in a nutshell, is the reason we write and read poems. He also
said this about revising a poem: "Failed, failed again, failed
better!" To help us reach the third stage and beyond, here
are bits of wisdom he tossed out during his two day intensive workshop.
First thing in revising: put on your "Adjective guard"
glasses and cut out all hitchhiker adjectives who do not earn
their place in the poem.
Watch out for overused word couplings like "starlight
streams", "spirit flees", "heart sinks".
When listing, make sure items in the list are evocative and
earn their place in the poem.
Roethke said: One test to give your poems-what are the best
lines in the poem? Bring the rest up to this level.
Be chary of polysyllabic words-- they have few stress syllables
(weak in rhythm) and are usually abstract or telling words (they
don't evoke images).
In place of vague general category words like "smells"
,"sounds", use more specific words like "damp
wool", "baby's rattle" that trigger the reader's
senses. Recommended reading: Diane Ackerman: The History of
Do not confuse the truly mysterious with the merely confusing.
Beware of putting on the emperor's new clothes. Obscureness
in poetry may stem from arbitrary meandering on the poet's part.
Not to be confused with deep thought/intellectual exploration.
Either way, I like Lux's astringent way of putting it: "Obscurity
is a form of cowardice-fear of being known."
Avoid monotony in metric beat - you'll put the reader to sleep.
Practice distillation - cutting out unnecessary word, boil
the poem down to pure essence.
Many poets use "informed intuition" when they break
their lines. But when revising, check the end of the line words..
they gain double emphasis /weight by their placement. Don't
waste that tool on a "of" or "and"
Watch out for personifications that evoke cartoon characters.
Be wary of over used words and be as specific as you can. Here's
the Top Ten Over-used Words in Poetry -- dream, dark, love,
hope, myriad, silence, shadow(s), heaven, beautiful, tender,
shard, strange, remember. Okay, I went over ten, but you get
the point. We poets have been beating some words to pulp.
Wishing you fresh ink and fresh words,
Hilary Tham Spring 2000
CLOSURES or HOW DOES A POEM END?
Closure is a relative matter. A poem may be gently though firmly
closed, or slammed shut, locked and bolted. As the metaphor suggests,
the ending of a poem is a gesture of exit, and like all gestures,
it has expressive value. The manner in which a poem concludes becomes,
in effect, the last and frequently the most significant thing it
In most of Shakespeare's sonnets, the last couplet is both logical
conclusion and mathematical sum. Also in its purity and absoluteness,
it brings the poem to a point where any further development would
be superfluous and anti-climatic.
A summary ending is also true of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The above device is called a coda. Another device is hyperbole,
where a passage, by the effect of unqualified assertion, of universals,
absolutes and superlatives, can have a sort of dramatic validity
- often a signal of emotional climax, or extremity, a point where
the speaker is apparently striving for the ultimate, consummate
and most comprehensive expression of the motives and emotions of
the occasion of the poem. Ours is a society and time that is not
comfortable with pronouncements of absolutes or "absolute truths."
Hence we like closures without too much resolution. T.S. Eliot was
the master of the closure without resolution. In "Gerontion",
the old man's fruitless ruminations concludes with this reflexive
Tenants of the house. Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
The tenants of the brain will continue, presumably, to move aimlessly
from room to room, unable to rest until they dry up and turn to
dust. The poem and reader do rest, however, for in affirming the
fact of irresolution, the last line separates itself from the structure
of irresolution, and in acknowledging the affirmation that irresoluteness
exists, the reader has drawn an appropriate "conclusion"
· This form of closural allusion, implying death, or an
end to the life/event in the poem, is the most frequently used closure
in modern poetry.
To sum up: there are two types of closure. The closing door. Or
the allusive "take it from here" image /metaphor that
leaves the reader to draw his/her own conclusion(s). There is no
right or wrong way. The deciding factor should be what best fits
· 1. We must bear in mind that success and failure are absolute
terms while closure is a relative matter.
· 2. When a poem is experienced via a printed text, no matter
how weak the closure is, the simple fact that its last line is followed
by blank paper will inform the reader the poem is concluded.
· 3. The reader's experience of closure depends on his/her
interpretation of the poem, general impression of its intention,
tones and motives.
A successful ending is one that forces and rewards a readjustment
of the reader's expectations; it justifies itself retrospectively.
It feels right. A disappointing ending, on the other hand, is not
accommodated by such a readjustment; it remains unjustified and
the reader's expectations (as set up by the preceding lines of the
poem) remained foiled. Another way to put this is: a dissatisfactory
ending leaves the reader with residual expectations unfulfilled.
When you read poems, keep this in mind, see what expectations and
how the poet does it in his or her poem and at the end, ask yourself
if your expectations were fulffilled.
I wish you great expectations and great closures.
John Keats’ famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was an
ekphrastic poem: it dealt with the art painted on an urn (actual
urn now on display in the British Museum.) Ekphrastic poems are
poems "that describe or address -- speak out, or speak to,
or for -- specific works of painting or sculpture" (John Hollander, The New Republic, 1985.) It is not surprising that the "certain
slant of light" on a subject the visual artist brings in a
painting (or sculpture or photograph or pot) should bring triggering
images that inspire poets to reflect and refract that light to create
new light in words.
The sister arts, poetry and painting, have a history of close
interaction: artists and poets hanging out together like Oscar Wilde
with Whistler; and poems on art: W.H. Auden’s "Musée
des Beaux Arts" on Bruegel’s "Landscape with Fall of Icarus",
William Carlos Williams’ collection of poems - Pictures from
Bruegel, Wallace Stevens’ "So & So Reclining on Her
Couch" (Titian’s "Venus of Urbino"), W.D.Snodgrass’
poems in his collection After Experience on works by Matisse,
Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and Vuillard, and my own personal favorite:
X.J. Kennedy’s poem on the famous "Nude Descending a Stair".
Some writers have been doubly gifted working with both art forms:
William Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Charlotte Bronte, Rudyard Kipling,
Winston Churchill, the Japanese haikuists: Buson and Issa. Little
did Japanese and Chinese artists presumably know, when practicing
the Oriental tradition of completing their paintings with a poem
calligraphed on the edge of the painting, that they were writing
Like the wave of memoir writing that crested last year and
is still rippling through the literary world, the revived genre
of ekphrastic poems is an under-swell in the world of the arts these
days. Recently, the Arlington Arts Commission at the Ellipse ran
an Ekprastic poetry contest, Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland
two shows: "Painters & Poets International" in July
1997, of art and poetry from India and Metropolitan Washington and
in November 1997, "Four Plus Four": performance poets
with the work of 4 painters. I hear the Reston group Poets Anonymous meets to write ekprastic poems. And Tulsa University’s Nimrod magazine (V 41 #2, 1998) featured a section on "Painting with
Last year I was approached by artist Ronnie Haber, for Spectrum
Gallery, to participate in a 1998 project to exhibit visual arts
(painting, photography, sculpture, photography) with poetry inspired
by the art. It is my policy to never say "No" to a challenge
where poetry is concerned. And I am glad I agreed to Ronnie’s request.
When I met with Marilyn Minter, a raku potter, her work inspired
me to write three poems -one on her pots, one on the process of
raku firing, and one on pottery. All the poets I know involved in
this project are delighted with the poems we wrote from the inspiration
of the artists with whom we were paired.
Spectrum Gallery’s exhibit of paintings, photography, pottery
and sculpture with poetry inspired by art: "A Month of Sundays:
Visions in Verse", runs from June 30 to July 26, 1998 together
with Sunday readings by poets and receptions for the artists. Potomac
Review features some of the collaborations in its Summer issue
and in this issue. As you will see from the art and the poems that
were triggered by them, the poems do not merely describe the art
but takes us, beyond or sideways or behind the locus, to other insights.
So the next time you go to the Museum or meet a sister/brother
artist, remember to bring your pen along. Conversely, artists, don’t
forget your sketchbook the next time you read a book of poems. Wishing
you inspiration and ink,
On Poetry Groups
In the public mind, the image of poet as "loner, starving-in-a-garret
", co- exists with the image of poet as "extroverted, exhibitionistic
party animal spewing his innards up after getting drunker than a
feudal lord". I have found both to be true aspects of the poetic
personality. We poets love the limelight and lionizing it up at
a party now and again, but in general, poets tend to be "introverts"
as defined by the Myers-Briggs Method. After three hours of socializing,
we feel as drained of energy as a nine year old truck battery. We
need weeks of solitude to recharge. Extroverts get energized by
being with people - I have this theory (not scientifically proven)
that they suck energy out of dim lights and any poets standing nearby.
But I digress. My point here is that though poets need solitude
to write, they should test their work in a friendly yet professional
group of fellow writers. To write in total isolation is not doing
justice to our work. We need to strike a balance between solitude
and involvement with the poetic world.
Some poets say they want to write for themselves. But remember
that art is meant to be appreciated and that craft is part of the
art-making process. If you shun being heard, you eliminate an important
tool of the craft: your relationship with the listener. A writing
class or an informal workshop group can be helpful. Your peers'
reactions and understanding (or lack of it) give you a chance to
test the poem. Often, because they have the same technical interest
in poetry, they will be good critics, able to spot problem words,
lines, focus, etc. Even experienced poets find this valuable.
I have been a member of two groups for many years. Each group meets
once a month and I find that that works well for me. We chat and
exchange news for a while, then we set to and focus on one piece
of work per member, listening to it receptively, examining it on
the page with open-mind for what it says, how it is working or not
working within its context and scope of its aim(s). We discuss its
strengths and weaknesses, and offer suggestions on parts that could
be improved. The poet listens openly, not defensively, and makes
up his/her own mind afterward. The unspoken awareness that the author
has final control of the poem eliminates the need for the author
to feel defensive about the poem. The author is free to jot down
notes, to make use of any or none of the suggestions. All opinions
and suggestions, negative and positive, are voiced with the aim
of being helpful to the author on reshaping the poem. We keep our
I've found over the years that three things are key to the success
and longevity of a workshop group.
1) The poets in the group need to respect each other as persons
and as poets. 2) They must try to be fair and professional always,
honest without harshness in their critiquing of poems, ready to
enter the private landscape of each poet/poem and leave their personal
prejudices aside when reading a poem. 3) They should want each poem
presented for workshopping to be the best it can be - not compare
it with other poems to its disadvantage. We are mid-wives to each
poem brought to the group. Think of it as community service.
Writing is a lonely business. Why deny yourself a little bit of
congenial fellowship? I know it is draining, but you can always
put yourself in solitary for a whole month after each meeting! Enjoy!
---- Hilary Tham (From POTOMAC REVIEW Spring 1997 issue)