Archives for September 2015

“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 5

This chapter of Tania Runyan’s book is about the ah-ha moment in a poem. Or, as Billy Collins puts it in “introduction to poetry”

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch

Runyan calls that moment “magic.” She also uses the word “surprise.” It’s the moment when you finally find the light switch.

“You, poet, should be surprised by your own work.”

I think most writers know this feeling, whether they’re poets or not. It’s that moment when you find yourself in unexpected territory, and even if you can’t articulate why, you know you’re on holy ground.

Recently, we attended a production of the play “Greater Tuna” along with a discussion led by one of the show’s creators and original performers, Jaston Williams. The show is largely a comedy, with enough jokes and gags to offend pretty much everyone in the audience. But there is a moment that usually does not offend people—it’s when the play takes a very dark turn. It seems to come out of nowhere, yet it feels completely justified. I think that scene in the funeral parlor is one reason “Greater Tuna” is the most-produced play in the United States. Jaston Williams said the scene just sort of sprang up in the midst of writing a bunch of loosely connected comedic sketches. It ties everything together.

I haven’t yet figured out how to tie everything together in my poem, to make that light come on in this dark room. The editor in me decided to look up whether either Potter or Randall county is dry, and neither is. (For you non-Texans, a dry county or precinct is one in which sales of alcohol are illegal.) I also don’t know anything about snakes in the Panhandle, so I chased that one for a while too. Not sure if my innate need to fact-check is killing my poetic instincts.

Here’s draft No. 4 of my poem.

Roadside Oddity (#4)

There’s nothing odd

about a wee white cross

in a dry Texas county.

Tire tracks dissolve


into pasture streaked by yellow tape;

“Do Not Cross.” We cross

drought-bleached grass

sift debris. The earth


curves away. We plant

a cross—entwined grapevines

rise toward ivory sky.

Prairie wind lifts our zephyr skirts.

“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 4

It’s time for that most mysterious aspect of poetry: line breaks. This chapter is titled “Lay a Path: Path Attention to Line.” Fittingly, the line from Billy Collins’ “introduction to poetry” Runyan uses here is this:

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out

(Sidenote: In Runyan’s book “How to Read a Poem,” I especially enjoyed chapter 3, which was also about the topic of line breaks.)

This chapter includes two fantastic poems. One I knew, “Course,” by LW Lindquist, and one I didn’t, “Tree,” by Andrew Hudgins. Runyan encourages readers to notice the line breaks in these poems and experiment with doing it differently.

I didn’t want to mess with perfection, so I played around with a poem titled “Courage” by Amelia Earhart—pilot and poet. First, here is her original poem with the proper line breaks.


Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

From little things;


Knows not the livid loneliness of fear

Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy can hear

The sound of wings.


How can life grand us boon of living, compensate

For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate

Unless we dare


The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay

With courage to behold resistless day

And count it fair.

Amelia Earhart


Here’s what I did:


Courage is the price that life

exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

from little things. Knows not

the livid loneliness of fear nor mountain heights

where bitter joy can hear

the sound of wings. How can life

grand us boon of living, compensate

for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate

unless we dare the soul’s dominion?

Each time we make a choice,we pay

with courage

to behold resistless day and count it fair.


What do you think? Would you do it differently?

Back to my poem, revising with an emphasis on line breaks. Something is happening at the end—something not based on the day we planted the cross, other than the fact that it is always windy in the Panhandle. It’s something that snuck in because I found the word “zephyr,” which will eventually change the poem.


Roadside Oddity (#3)

There’s nothing odd

about a wee white cross

beside a Texas highway.


Just a cross.

Entwined grapevines rising

from prairie grass


The earth curves away from the crash

tire tracks lead nowhere. yellow tape

insists DO NOT CROSS.


We cross pasture bleached by drought

stare at ivory sky. The wind, a mere

zephyr, lifts our skirts.


“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 3

Chapter 3 is called “Stir the Bees: Sound.” Runyan begins the chapter with another line from Billy Collins’ “introduction to poetry”:

or press an ear against its hive

Think about that word, “hive.” I can’t read it it without hearing the buzzing of bees.

This chapter is about sound, about choosing words with sound in mind. That can be rhyme, sure. Runyan also shows a lot of other ways to involve the sense of sound by deconstructing the nursery rhyme “Baa baa black sheep.”

She also encourages us to use word lists to choose the word that evokes sound or that simply sounds good when read aloud. So in my next draft of my poem, I did consult ye olde thesaurus. A couple of those words made it to the final draft.


Roadside Oddity (#3)

There’s nothing odd

about a wee white cross

beside a Texas highway.


“Careful there could be snakes,”

she says, but there’s no water

just a cross


entwined grapevines rising

from prairie grass

just past mile marker 95.


The earth curves away from the crash

tire tracks lead nowhere. Yellow tape

insists, DO NOT CROSS


We cross pasture bleached by drought

stare at ivory sky

Zephyr wind lifts our skirts


Note: This chapter opens with a poem I loved the first time I saw it at Every Day Poems—“Tiny Blast” by Peter Gizzi. It includes the wonderful line, “Turtle into it / with your little force.”


“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 2

The second chapter of Tania Runyan’s book “How to Write a Poem,” titled “Color It In: Imagery,” opens with the beginning lines from Billy Collins’ poem “introduction to poetry”:

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

Tania Runyan asks us to re-examine our use lazy use of adjectives. She quotes from an essay titled “Three Quick Studies of the Image” by Tony Hoagland:

“In the way that a noun is more solid than a verb or an adjective, the image anchors a poem, holds it in place. And mind of a reader almost always latches onto an image more strongly than an idea.”

Then Runyan provides two poems as examples, except one is not an actual poem—it’s lifted from a travel site. My favorite part of the chapter is when she provides sentences from rest stop brochures and asks us to rewrite them with an eye toward poetry.

Here is my second draft of the poem. My first was so bad—I literally just added line breaks to the freewriting. I was not particularly in a poem-y mood and couldn’t think of anything else to do. This second draft, based on this chapter, is going for more imagery. My title, taken from Runyan’s prompt, has never changed.


Roadside Oddity (#2)

There’s nothing odd

about a short white cross beside a Texas highway

although this cross

is not nestled in some Dead Man’s Curve.

This cross–not white but brown,

entwined grapevines–just past mile marker 95

rising out of pasture

so flat you can see the earth curve.


“Careful, there could be snakes,”

he says, but there’s no water in what is

literally a dry county.


“How can you crash when there’s nothing to run into?”

I ask. He shrugs. 

Tire tracks lead nowhere.


“Do not cross” says the words on the yellow tape.

We cross prairie grass, bleached white

by drought, stare at the empty cross under a vast white sky

wind knocks us to our knees. 


“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 1

(Pre-Script: I really love the poem that opens this chapter, “To a Poet, For a Poem” by Jennifer Wagner.)

As with Tania Runyan’s companion book, “How to Read a Poem,” this one is also organized around Billy Collins’ poem titled “introduction to poetry.” The first chapter is about getting started.

“In fact, I recommend starting without a poem at all.”

Instead, she says to start with freewriting.

“I use it when I begin essays, fiction, and, always, poetry.”

I started doing this a little more than a year ago. What started as a journal got too maudlin, and so I veered into freewriting. Now my columns, my poems, even the intros and conclusions to articles usually emerge in my freewriting.

As I said in my last post, I wanted to write about the day my brother planted a cross beside the highway where my cousin died. In Runyan’s book, she shares her freewriting followed by several drafts of the resulting poem. I’ll do the same here. One of Runyan’s prompts was “a roadside oddity,” which will eventually become the title of my poem.

It’s not a roadside oddity. There’s nothing odd about seeing a cross on a Texas highway. Although this one is not in some dead man’s curve or at the edge of a cliff. It’s just past mile marker 95 on I-27. Miles of flat pasture, so flat you can see the curve of the earth. How could anything happen here? How do you crash when there’s nothing to run into? And the cross—not white but made from grapevine. Brown. Adorned with tacky fake flowers, which, he told me, he tore off and threw away. Bare brown. Rising above the parched October grass. “Careful. There could be snakes,” he says. But there’s no water. Is it a dry county or only partially wet? The sky is white, clouds streaked across like someone poured all the water into the white and thinned it and painted over what had to be a better blue. Tire tracks lead nowhere. “Do not cross” the sign says. We cross. We walk unshielded, unbidden and plant a cross where nothing grows. 

“How to Write a Poem,” introduction

My copy of Tania Runyan’s new book, “How to Write a Poem,” came in last week. And since I was in between cycles for the magazine, I decided to put myself through a poetry workshop, one chapter at a time. It’s a book to be worked through, not simply read.

Each chapter begins with a poem, and I highly recommend taking time to sit with each one. Read it silently, then aloud. Journal it. There’s a lot to discover.

The book is titled “How to Write a Poem,” and I’d put the emphasis on “a poem.” In chapter 1, Tania has you do a freewriting exercise, and from that, begin a poem. The rest of the book gives you opportunities to revise that poem, looking at it from different angles.

I chose a topic I’d started on October 4, 2014, after my cousin Ashley Meagher died in a car accident. I’d made notes for a poem, especially following her funeral, but those words never went anywhere. Still, it felt like a poem that needed to be written. Following Tania’s guidance, I did seven drafts.

Since my poetry usually begins in experiences, actual life scenes, I have trouble making the sort of changes that would improve the poem and take it out of its original context in some way—maybe a different speaker or a different color of the sky. It’s a poem, not memoir.

So for any family members reading this poem, it is no longer an exact chronicle of what happened the day Dylan planted the cross beside the highway. For that, I have a photograph.


Tide (a poem)



As I set sail on this day, I don’t own any good

luck charms but I do own

good luck clothes.


Clothes that have done me right, served me well

on a choppy sea. When a day ends stormy



I toss the lot into the wash.

All those bad luck clothes need is the ebb and flow

of the washing machine


a little bitty baptism and spin dry on the casual setting.

But the clothes from the days we stayed afloat,

somehow swam to shore,


must be saved in the drawer below deck. Never

to be worn again. Listen

to the waves lap against the hull.

Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! It’s here!



I’ve been looking forward to this one! “Rooster Stories” is by Anna Mitchael, and the description on Kindle Singles says, “Part memoir, part screed, part whatchamacall it, Rooster Stories shows that sometimes the life that makes you happiest is the one you never, ever, not-in-a-million-years imagined you’d be living.”

Perfect. And a tad profane, but I don’t mind. In full disclosure, I edited an early draft of the book, but I still enjoyed reading the final version last night. It’s short, the equivalent of 40 pages.

Anna writes a monthly column for the WACOAN magazine called “Notes From a New Mother,” although she’s not so new at motherhood anymore or at country living. But she combines the two in ways I, as a city girl, would never think to.

My favorite part is near the end, when after returning from a sonogram appointment, she sits on the front porch “for five solid minutes,” and she has, shall we say, a moment with a chicken. Followed by an imaginary chewing-out from her rooster, (King) Kenny III.

My children are nearly grown—one in college, one a junior in high school. I have no advice for moms, new or otherwise. Some days I think I’m going crazy. “But crazy felt more honest than yet another apology.” Observations about the behavior of a succession of roosters named Kenny (after Rogers) and a duo of chickens nicknamed The Uglies in the context of early parenthood makes so much more sense to me than the latest mommy manual.

And when Anna said she had stopped flashing forward because “I discovered it was not in my nature to flash forward to times of sweeping happiness,” I nodded my head in understanding. Like her, I’ve found happiness in unexpected places, even in a fresh egg.