Friday, July 31, 2020

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems

For many poets, a title is a necessary evil, a part of the work that the writer would rather not bother with. After all, the substance of the poem is in the body of the poem, right? What’s to be gained by adding some frilly header that repeats what’s already in the poem, or that only relates obliquely to the rest of the text?

 

But titles can play an important role in bringing the reader into the poem. I enjoy the titles that the poet Robert (“Bob”) Hershon gives his poems, so I interviewed Bob recently about his ideas on titles.


Poet Robert "Bob" Hershon

Q. Do you like to title your poems?

 

Bob Hershon: I do. One thing I like about a title is that it can do the work of several lines in the poem that you can then omit. A good title eliminates the need for that “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of filler.

 

Q. What’s your advice for writing a good poem title?

 

BH: Something that speaks to the poem without summing it up. I’m partial to “No poetry but in things,” to paraphrase William Carlos Williams. Your title should stand out, it shouldn’t sound like everybody else’s titles.

 

Q. What do you think about poems that don’t have titles?

 

BH: When I see a poem that’s just called “Untitled,” it seems like an opportunity lost. Many poets, including writers I’ve published and whose work I like, don’t use any title at all. In that case, it’s hard to identify the poem. For all practical purposes, the first line then becomes the title.

 

Q. What do you think of simple titles or one-word titles?

 

BH: I think a title should be fun. I know that many poets I admire and like personally take a different approach and use simple, generic-sounding titles. They’re entitled to their titles.

 

Q. Are there kinds of titles you just plain don’t like?

 

BH: There’s something terribly ostentatious to me about calling a poem just “Poem.” I also don’t particularly like a title with a “This and That” structure, such as “Truisms and Inconsistencies.” That particular construction annoys me, for some reason.

 

Q. What’s a recent title you’ve written for one of your poems, and how did you arrive at it?

 

BH: Recently I wrote a poem about the brain’s inability to forget old song lyrics. Initially I had a kind of flat title for it. This morning I woke up with a different title for it in my head, “An Old Cowboy Went Riding Out One Dark and Windy Day.” Some people might recognize that as a line from the old pop song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But even if you don’t recognize it, the title works on its own in a different way. Adding that title allowed me to cut a line or two from the middle and tighten the poem up.


Robert Hershon’s most recent book of poems is End of the Business Day. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was executive director of The Print Center for 35 years and has been coeditor of Hanging Loose Press since its founding in 1966. Among his awards are two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, July 10, 2020

Does a Poem Have to Stand on Its Own?

An intriguing question came up in my poetry writing group the other day. One of the poets brought in a poem that had exciting language, and seemed to be about a fascinating topic. But no one in the group could quite figure out the general subject of the poem. Once the poet clued us in about the theme of the poem, all the pieces fell beautifully into place, and we could see how strong a poem it was.

The writer said that the poem made sense in the context of a collection in progress, where several of the poems that come before this one are about the same topic. The poet asked, “Should a poem be able to stand on its own?”

Great question! Thinking about it, I realize that we usually encounter poems differently now than we did before the Internet became the dominant source of information. In a collection of poems by the same writer, there are many opportunities for a poem to rely on the works around it for context and support of its meaning.

Books of poems where individual poems are just part of the volume or part of a series within a collection were once not unusual, such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs

Handwritten manuscript of Wordsworth's The Prelude
Few of the poems of those books make a lot of sense when you read them individually, with no idea of the project of the entire collection, but taken together, each poem is understandable. Well, fairly understandable, in the case of Pound or Berryman!

But how often do we now read an entire collection assembled by the same writer? Usually, we read poems online, in literary magazines online or in print, or in anthologies, where poems are rarely in the setting of several other related poems by the same writer.

These days, authors are lucky if one to three hundred readers pick up an entire collection of their poems. Much more frequently, our poems are encountered one webpage at a time, experienced separately by a reader. This is one huge advantage that poetry has over other literary genres, such as fiction or drama—most poems can fit easily on a webpage. Why give up that advantage by requiring more context to understand a poem?

So my personal answer to the question, “Does a poem have to stand alone?” is an unequivocal Yes, especially in the era of the Internet.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Hubs of Creativity: Why Do Certain Places at Certain Times Become Artistic Centers?

In the history of literature, visual art, and music, there are times when an extraordinary group of artists gathers in one specific place and time, seemingly defying the odds. I’m thinking of two examples: Florence, Italy, in the Renaissance; and Detroit USA during the heyday of Motown Records in the 1960s.

Given that “talent is widespread,” as the writer Ishmael Reed once said, it’s surprising that large circles of great artists seem to spring up in particular places and times but not in others. Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance, had a population of roughly 60,000, about the same as the current census in Bismarck, North Dakota, or Terre Haute, Indiana—not exactly known as artistic hotspots.  How is it possible that a city of that size could produce a roster of great artists too lengthy to even list here, including Michelangelo, da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi, etc., etc.?

The Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s central square
Similarly, Detroit in the 1960s gave rise to so many of the greatest artists in the history of rhythm and blues, including all of The Four Tops, The Temptations, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and all the Miracles, etc., etc.

All of Motown’s hit records were made in a recording studio in the garage of a house in Detroit
In literature, these hubs have also occurred at various times and places, including the Romantic poets in England in the early 1800s, the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, the Beat Generation in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s. Why does a particular place and time spawn so many major artists, and other times not, even in the same location?

I think part of the magic formula is that a community of artists is willing to shape work to make it accessible to a large audience, and that their work meets a particular need at a particular time. At the other end of the equation, there have to be people who appreciate and support a specific art at a given time.

Florence during the Renaissance was a global center of finance and trade. Families such as the Medici built powerful banking empires. But not every banking empire has spawned painting, sculpture, and architecture like the Medici did in the Renaissance. After the otherworldly focus of much medieval visual art, there was also a collective need in the late 1400s for a culture that celebrated worldly beauty. To quote a renowned poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself:

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia
di doman non c'è certezza.

He who would be happy, let him be,
Of tomorrow there’s no certainty.

The artists of the Italian Renaissance were incredibly good at creating beauty that built upon the Catholic tradition but also championed the sensual in everyday life. Think of Botticelli’s Primavera or The Birth of Venus, or Michelangelo’s nudes.


Michelangelo, Dusk and Dawn from the Medici Chapel, Florence
Artists of the Italian Renaissance also worked to make their art accessible to the public, creating sculptures for urban piazzas, and painting frescoes in churches. Art became part of the public identity of the Florentine people. I remember visiting Florence when I was in a pre-teen in the 1960s and learning about a nursery rhyme that children recited in the city, attributed to Michelangelo. The rhyme makes fun of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati because his Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria was not as well carved as the adjacent David

Ammannati’s statue of Neptune, Florence, Italy
The rhyme went like this: “Ammannati, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato!” “Ammannati, Ammannato, what a beautiful piece of marble you ruined!” Art became part of the fabric of life in Florence, a source of civic pride and enjoyment for every inhabitant.

Similarly in Detroit in the Motown era, there was both a willingness on the part of artists to address a public hunger, and a supportive audience. The rhythm ‘n’ blues of the 1960s followed the period of the 1950s when convention and traditional values tried to suppress the pleasures of sensuality and passion. It was a time when couples were almost never portrayed as even sharing the same bed in movies and television. The audience for popular music was eager for an affirmation of love, energy, and passion, and the artists of Motown were ready to provide “Dancin’ in the Streets,” a hit song by Martha and the Vandellas.


Barry Gordy Jr., the entrepreneur behind Motown Records, was also a genius at recognizing and promoting talent. He was particularly savvy about what it would take to get people outside African American communities to accept the energy and sensuality of that music. Gordy hired Maxine Powell, who had a finishing school for fashion models in Detroit, to guide Motown performers on how to walk, talk, and dress so that they would make a winning impression when performing or giving interviews.

So, in both Renaissance Florence and Detroit in the 1960s, there was a marriage of artists willing to make their work accessible to a wide audience, and an audience that was thirsting for culture to give them permission to enjoy facets of experience that had been repressed.

I realize I’m leaving out something extremely important. Florence in the late 1400s and early 1500s was heir to an artistic tradition stretching back hundreds of years. The city had been a center for art dating back to the great Byzantine paintings of Cimabue in the duocento (1200s of the Common Era). Detroit music of the 1960s also drew heavily on centuries of civilization, building on the legacy of African and African American culture that can be traced back to the sacred rituals of Yoruba and Ibo religion of West Africa. Hubs of culture don’t appear in a vacuum.

But for many great artists to flourish in a particular place and time, there does have to be that particular match and tinder of the artists’ willingness to bring their work to a wide audience, and a moment in history when the audience thirsts for art to meet a fundamental human need.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers
How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Interview with poet Jacqueline Berger

For this blog, I interviewed the poet Jacqueline “Jackie” Berger, whose work includes a surprising combination of laugh-out-loud humor and deep pathos. Jackie’s poetry raises intriguing questions and provides much inspiration for writers.

Poet Jacqueline Berger
Her most recent book of poems, The Day You Miss Your Exit, was published by Broadstone Books. 


Her first three poetry collections all won prestigious prizes:


Jackie’s poems have also been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. She’s a professor of English at Notre Dame de Namur University and lives in San Francisco.

Zack Rogow: Your book The Day You Miss Your Exit includes many different emotions, from sadness, to nostalgia, to uproarious humor. Sometimes you switch moods several times in the midst of a poem, often shifting from one line to another. Do you plan these mood changes or do they occur organically as you’re writing? How are you able to combine seemingly contradictory emotions in one poem, such as the amazing poem “Obituary of a Stranger”?

Jacqueline Berger: I don’t plan anything when it comes to writing! Though I sometimes do begin with a persistent image or idea. But writing, for me, in the generating stage, is a free fall. Because I always go after the raw material by hand and am devoted to the practice of keeping the hand moving, no stopping and thinking, I love most when sometimes after writing I really don’t know exactly what I’ve written at all. That suggests another part of the brain has been in charge. Not unlike the part that dreams come from.

So, yes, the mood changes occur organically. And this book was written in the shadow of my parents’ nearly back-to-back deaths when my emotional state was all over the map. Grief has a way of recruiting every other emotion, including but not limited to longing, regret, hilarity, or is that hysteria? I think it’s like that for many people.

ZR: Several very moving poems deal with an aging father, and fathers in general. What inspired you to write about that topic at this point in your life?

JB: As I said, I wrote most of the poems in the book as my parents were dying, and then just after. My relationship with my father was complicated, and I apparently needed to go over and over that terrain, at each pass trying to come away with fuller understanding and more compassion, for both of us. And though they didn’t make it into the book, I wrote an equal if not greater number of poems about my mother, most of which simply didn’t move beyond “wahhh!!!” These were poems of emotional necessity, but perhaps because the emotion was so overwhelming I simply had no room for perspective, let alone craft.

ZR: Many of the poems also deal with the details of growing up in a very specific time and place, in your case, Los Angeles in the 1960s, I’m guessing. How does a writer incorporate the very personal specifics of her or his background into poems in a way that can engage a wide audience who may not have shared any of those same experiences growing up?

JB: West L.A. in the 60s and 70s, yes. For years I was never able to write about place, the same way that, before this book, I was never able to write about family. Just not my subject matter. Then the floodgates opened and I couldn’t write about anything else.

But I do think specificity is a form of intimacy. Anyone’s details, rendered with precision and, hopefully, beauty, connect us back, as readers, to our own details. I might not know your streets, but your naming makes me remember, makes me return.

Then, too, my parents’ moment in history as first-generation American Jews tells a story of the 20th century that I think is worth remembering. My father fought in World War II, then on the GI Bill became a nuclear engineer. His career played out against the initial optimism of peacetime atom-splitting and then its demise.

And his own birth, as I mention in “Obituary of a Stranger,” came about because of his mother’s failed DIY abortion. Meanwhile, my mom’s mother worked with Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement. We kids inherited this rich mix, though we weren’t necessarily aware of it. Our obsessions—we just missed the hippies, but still listened to Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, grew pot in the closet, generally took wild advantage of our second-generation, middle-class privilege.

ZR: Several poems deal with end of life, both the loss of elderly parents, and the writer’s heightening sense of her own aging and mortality. Do the poems offer any sense of consolation, given that the book doesn’t have a traditional religious perspective?

JB: I hope so. This is how I experience consolation: the night my mother died, my husband and I jumped into the car and drove from San Francisco to L.A., staying at the Ramada on the Grapevine, then arriving at our family’s house the next morning. Already there were cousins and old friends and neighbors setting out lox and bagels.

Later that day, my brother and my husband and I drove to Mt. Sinai in the Valley to view the body—horrible expression—which involved my clinging to the coldness of my mother while my brother stood in the doorway weeping. We also purchased funeral plots, which our parents, in their death denial, had failed to do.

Afterwards, we went out for cocktails in Pasadena, and it just felt good being in this pared-down moment, drunk and happy and sad. I knew when I was back in my regular life, grief would nail me, and it did, but this first week after my mother’s death, I was held aloft by love. I hope some of this feeling made its way into the poems.

ZR: Your book ends with a poem called “Day of Atonement” that refers to the holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Jewish calendar. In this poem, the speaker pleads with God to write our names, but not in the traditional Book of Life, but in some of the most rough-and-tumble places that words could appear:

            Inscribe us on a wad of paper
            pulled from a coat pocket,
            the pen, almost out of ink,
            pulled from another pocket

Why is the speaker asking god to inscribe our lives in the most mundane and scruffiest of places, and not in a more exalted place?

JB: We live our lives in the scruff, and if there is any inscribing to be done, which is the work of memory, it’s not exalted, but messy, “in the midst of,” minus God's leather-bound ledger of names. Of course the poem is also an ironic questioning of the emotional usefulness of the whole idea of God. My dad stopped going to temple after his stroke because he felt abandoned. So it was liberating to speak directly to God in the poem: “Scar us, kick us hard enough to bruise.” But hopefully the WTF humor comes through as well. That’s what saves us. That and how great it is to be here at all.

ZR: Do you have any advice in general for new and prospective writers who hope to publish their work?

JB: Try as many angles as possible. Go to poetry readings and workshops, get to know lots of poets; publishing, like everything, happens through personal connections. Also, send your work out, enter contests, if you can afford it, and certainly have an online presence with social media, though I’m the worst person to give that advice! And beyond that, try to limit the amount of emotional energy you put into publishing or not publishing. You write because you need and want to. Make sure that’s center stage.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, February 7, 2020

Spontaneity, Wit, Improvisation, and Automatic Writing: How to Write Better Than Your Conscious Mind

When a person is about to say something funny during a conversation, s/he starts to speak without forming an idea of what words to use. A witty comment usually begins with only a vague impulse that the moment and the context are ripe for humor. This is an intuitive feeling, and it’s the act of launching into the conversation that helps the speaker to form specific words that make people laugh.

Similarly, when a jazz musician is about to start a solo, I don’t think that person has a clear idea what s/he is going to play. It’s just a willingness to jump in and get into the groove the band has set in motion that provides the impulse for that riff.

Automatic writing is also like that. Writers in the surrealist movement in the early 1920s invented automatic writing—André Breton described the process this way in his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924):

Portraits of André Breton by Man Ray
Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.

In other words, write faster than you can edit with your rational mind, and the results will outpace anything you thought you could create.

The surrealist group practicing automatic writing in the 1920s
The human mind is far more brilliant than our conscious mind. One of the challenges of writing is to let go of our thoughts so that we can actually think with our deeper psyche. Not with the reptilian brain, but with the brain powered by what Federico García Lorca described as the duende, the mischievous sprite that rises from the raw energy of the Earth.

Of course, this dynamic often applies more to poetry than to prose. Fiction and nonfiction writers have to plan, outline, create structure. But poetry thrives on this sort of spontaneous fabrication, taking flight from a platform that is itself already airborne. Or, to paraphrase André Breton, “Trust in the inexhaustible fountain of whispers.”


I don’t mean to suggest that all spontaneous writing is great. Some of it can be downright foolish. But I would say that spontaneity is the source of much of the best and most unexpected writing.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry