Thursday, April 30, 2015


Marilyn Singer was recently named the winner of the 2015 NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award.

As soon as I heard the news, I thought about the reverso, a poetic form to which I was introduced through Singer's Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems.

Each reverso in this collection  turns a familiar fairy tale upside down--literally.  We are forced to look at the tale from different angles and perspectives.

Portraits of well-known characters shed new light on their stories, relationships, and motives.

Reading down and then up again, changes our tales in surprising ways.  We are given many reasons to pause, puzzle, ponder... and smile.

If these poems delight us, we can enjoy more in Singer's second and most recent offering, Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems. This one also focuses on traditional tales.

Singer explains how she created the reverso in response to her own question:

We read most poems down the page.  But what if we read them up? That's the question I asked myself when I created the reverso.  When you read a reverso down. it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization it is a different poem. 

According to her author's note, her first reverso was about her cat.

A cat
a chair:

A chair
a cat. 
Singer's reversos deal with fairy tales, reversing our familiar fictional worlds, creating topsy-turvy reflections.

Reversos, however, don't have to be fun and flirty.  They can just as easily, powerfully, and effectively turn serious, sad, or current issues on their ends.

After my father died last year, I was drawn to poems on grief.  I discovered Myth by Natasha Trethewey in The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing edited by Kevin Young.

Trethewey's Native Guard: Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, also contains this poem, as well as others examining grief, but I don't remember noticing the reversible structure when I initially read this poem in this collection. Perhaps because, as yet, I had no name for it.

As I researched reversible poetry, I discovered much interest and many variations on the structure.

Reversible, mirror, or palindrome poems can be created by reversing each line, each word, or even more challenging, each letter.

A quick search online results in varied instructions and many samples.

A challenge to try writing a reverso is  issued on the Miss Rumphius Effect Blog's Poetry Stretch.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater has written on reverso each day since she was introduced to the form.

Read PJ Perry's reVerse Poems: A Reversible Poetry Collection.  His reVersed poems reverse word by word, which is a little more challenging.

 No consideration of reversible poetry would be complete without considering two internet favorites: Our Generation by 14-year-old Jordan Nichols and Lost Generation by Jonathan Reed.

 And finally, here is my first attempt at writing  a reverso, Baltimore April 2015, my way of processing recent events.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Read several sample reversos or other forms of reversible poetry.

What makes this structure a powerful form? What are hindrances of this form?

As you try your own, what do you find comes easily and naturally?  What proved difficult for you?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Discovering the American Sentence, I muse why now-- why not!

I bathe in the freedom to write small-- unrestrained by lines and limits.

One new sentence of wisdom and flashes of insight  mark this moment.

The American Sentence opens new writing frontiers and choices.

Each of these sentences represent my initial attempts at a form I have just discovered.

Invented by Allen Ginsberg, the American sentence offers us the beauty and brevity of haiku but removes the strict line limits usually imposed in English, making it a more fluid, flexible form.

The rules are simple.  A complete sentence 17 syllables long.

This form captures all that attracts in the haiku but seems better suited to English.

I have always loved haiku-- As I go about my daily life, small moments compose themselves into haiku.  Many times these are never written down, but simply serve as my special way of savoring a feeling,  an observation, or  a memorable moment.

I guess my natural instincts have been searching for this form for a long time.
I have always felt that  if I needed to add or subtract a syllable for the sake of sound, beauty, or meaning,  my Japanese writer-mentors would forgive me and nod in agreement.

Likewise, I teach my students, both children and adults, that poetic rules should not lead to rigid structuring that won't bend and wave.  Meaning is always first, while structure and form provide frames and containers to enhance that meaning.

In teaching haiku, ironically, one tip I usually provide is to begin with a sentence that holds your intended meaning, one that causes readers to notice a shift or juxtaposition, to pause----  only then play with sounds and syllables.

A discussion of haiku on Wikipedia includes the following:

The essence of haiku is "cutting" (kiru).This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line containing seventeen Japanese characters, while haiku in English often appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku. 

That single vertical line seems to more closely resemble our linear sentence then the 3 lines of phrases that we have traditionally used to compose haiku in English.

Bob Holman & Margery Snyder write  that although Ginsberg is a staunch advocate of sparing words and condensed writing:

...(He) never went for the haiku. In talking with him, he spoke of how the 17 characters of this Japanese form just don’t cut it as 17 syllables of English, and that divvying them up in 5-7-5 syllable lines makes the whole thing an exercise in counting, not feeling, and too arbitrary to be poetry.

As with any new form that I want to explore, I  needed to read many American Sentences, allowing them to teach me how to write them.

I found many references and samples online

Paul Nelson has devoted several pages of his website to the American Sentence and, since his introduction to the form, has written one each day.

His article, American Sentences: Catching the Shadow of the Moment, includes samples of Ginsberg's earliest American Sentences:

American Sentences as a poetic form was Ginsberg’s effort to make American the haiku. If haiku is seventeen syllables going down in Japanese text, he would make American Sentences seventeen syllables going across, linear, like just about everything else in America. In Cosmopolitan Greetings, his 1994 book, he published two and a half pages of these nuggets, some of which had scene-setting preambles. For example:
Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y.Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till
I’m dead.
August 8, 1990, 3:30A.M.
According to Nelson, Ginsberg also reflected on the number 17--17 syllables like haiku in Japanese and like the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra in Buddhism: Gate, gate, paragate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha ( which translates loosely: Gone, gone, gone beyond altogether beyond, Awakening, fulfilled!-- He was interested in Buddhism in later life.)  He began to wonder about the recurrence of 17 and whether it had a universal property. 

Paul Nelson gives us some keys for getting  started with American Sentence

Here are more samples from Ginsberg and samples from other folks.

Steve Kowit, editor of Serving House Journal published American Sentences (#4, Fall 2011)  
and here are even more samples.

These books contain useful sections about the American Sentences.

See Chapter 8
See Chapters 4 and 5

What do  American Sentences seem to have in common?
What isessential to this form--besides the 17 syllables and a complete sentence?

Will I abandon haiku, the form I have loved and embraced most of my life? Of course not! But I now have a new form to add to my writing toolbox. 

And I now have  a new decision to make when writing small--haiku or American sentence?

Previous Posts Related to Short Poetry

Haiku Meditations
Oulipian Exercises and Text Transformations
Book Spine Poetry
Conversations in Poetry

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

The American Sentence is a short poetic form created by Allen Ginsberg.
Read samples of American Sentences using the links in this post.

Write several American Sentences marking moments you wish to savor or explore.
Remember to use 17 syllables, if possible.

Can you write a poem or short prose piece composed entirely of American Sentences?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Image by John Bebbington FRPS

These Days
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
                            Just to make clear
                           where they come from
                                                         -Charles Olson

Whenever we write,  it is always in the context of what else has already been written.  This is particularly true in academic writing, in which we are careful to contextualize our work within the knowledge previously constructed and the ongoing conversations already taking place in our area of interest and address.  

In the first words of Writing with Sources: A Guide for Students, Gordon Harvey reminds us of this:

Knowledge never stands alone.  It builds upon and plays against the knowledge of previous knowers and reporters, whom scholars call sources. 

We include literature reviews in our academic writing, in which we share this context with our readers--summarizing, evaluating and clarifying the work that has gone before us. We set our writing in the midst of this work-- highlighting similarities and differences, questioning aspects, and outlining new directions for our own work. (See previous post on Writing with Sources)

The poem, These Days by Charles Olson reminds us as teacher-researchers that we are part of a larger community and that our work has roots. 

In academic writing, the roots are purposely left dangling.

If we consider the larger world, we find that everything has roots. But the dangling roots are not always visible.  Looking for those roots and examining them in detail enriches any area of observation, study, or  pursuit in which we might engage.

Several beautiful picture books of poetry provide a musical illustration of this academic principle of "dangling roots".
Just as we examine the larger context of our written  work,  I see the rhythm details the history and progression of African American music, beginning with its African roots—including all of its historical and more current iterations.

Through poetry and magnificent images, each book below deals with a singular and specific aspect of this larger context of African/African American music (blues or jazz, or one’s own experience in general)  and locates it clearly in this same larger context.


As a side note, and to further extend the notion of roots, I realized the creators of  these four texts are two father-son pairs--Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, Arnold Adoff and Jaime Adoff.

Where else can we look for dangling roots?

One place is our own writing-- our own poetry.

This previous post, Love and Poetry traces the roots of my love affair with  poetry as a genre and some of the poets who have influenced my poetry. It all began with this pink book---the tip of my dangling poetry roots.

The Golden Picture Book of Poems to Read and to Learn

Where are your dangling roots?  

 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on your own writing-- or art or music or other area of interest.

What is the context of your work? How does your work fit into the larger conversation and landscape?

Write a poem or essay about your dangling roots.
Trace your roots in a personal narrative.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


A Prism Scene Rendered with Indigo RendererMarcellusWallace

This one moment.
This one crystallized moment broken open --spilling
the essence of all contained and hidden
within its boundaries of time
and space
and imagination.

This one moment
This one divine moment deconstructed --laying bare
all the shades and shadows, all the layers
all the phases and phrases leading up
to this moment
and beyond.

This one moment
This one significant moment explored and exploded--opening
revelations and visions of all possible moments
re-membering our own stories
while reflecting forgotten truths
This one moment.

Poetry--  good poetry-- can make us look at a single moment, 
revealing the prism of meanings---the rainbow 
of interpretations missed
if we do not stop and capture them
if we do not pause and drink this moment
if we keep walking, talking, and sleeping past this moment

Ted Kooser (U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006) made the following statement in his American Life in Poetry Column #269:
It is enough for me as a reader that a poem take from life a single moment and hold it up for me to look at. There need not be anything sensational or unusual or peculiar about that moment, but somehow, by directing my attention to it, our attention to it, the poet bathes it in the light of the remarkable. 
In that particular column, he offers us a poem by Carolyn Miller, The World as It Is as just such a poem.  Here are the opening lines:
No ladders, no descending angels, no voice
out of the whirlwind, no rending
of the veil, or chariot in the sky—only
water rising and falling in breathing springs
and seeping up through limestone, aquifers filling
and flowing over, russet stands of prairie grass
and dark pupils of black-eyed Susans....

Poetry calls us to memorialize moments--small and large. 
Poetry forces us to recall fragile feelings,  rare relationships, and ordinary observations.

As I drove early in the morning to a Diocesan Convention this past November,  the sunset painted and prefaced the day with such beauty that as I continued to drive,I composed the following haiku:

Sunrise - a new day
with shekinah potential
and orange possibilities

A moment savored. A moment saved.

 In You Reading This, Be Ready, William Stafford calls for us to  be present in each moment. He reminds us to pay attention to our surroundings, our thinking and our feelings as we move through the world. 

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?...

In the introduction to the Teachable Moments section of Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, we find these words that further remind us of the power of poetry to help us remember the moment:

The teachers describe how reading poetry provides a low-tech version of time-lapse photography. Poetry captures the single luminous moment. From this moment we can reflect, savor, and more deeply understand. 

We find powerful moments on which to reflect daily if we pay attention.

Sharon Olds has such a moment on the subway as she faces her whiteness and all that is signified by it,  while sitting opposite a boy in the same car in all his blackness. She records her thoughts in a poem, On the Subway:

The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness. 

He has the casual cold look of a mugger,
alert under hooded lids. ...

I am wearing dark fur, the
whole skin of an animal taken and

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone (own work))
[CC BY 2.5 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

And finally I invite you to not only to remember and reflect on selected moments, but to explore and explode these moments-- seeking more details, more understanding.  See my previous post,  Exploding a Moment: Exploring with Writing, for samples, suggestions, and related resources.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Consider the past day or two.  Select a moment that stands out in your mind.
List details-- metaphors, comparisons, sensory information, emotions--all that you remember about that moment.

Write a short poem capturing all that is essential.

Explore your moment.
What additional details do you now remember?
What sensory details can be added? Where can further description be expanded?
What comparisons occur to you?
Can you add analogies? Are there appropriate metaphors that can be included?
What did it mean?  How did you feel? 
Now write a second poem that explodes the moment.

See my previous post,  Exploding a Moment: Exploring with Writing, for samples, suggestions, and related resources.