Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lost and Found; Finding Poetry, Part I

Before I begin I want to thank two people and dedicate this post to a third; I want to thank the poet Denise Brennan Watson for introducing me to "found poetry" and I want to send a sincere thank you to Diane Solis at Creativity As a Way of Life for suggesting that I write a post about it.  Lastly I want to dedicate today's post to Chris Al-Aswad, who tragically left us at the age of 31.  I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed reading his poetry and essays.

As I mentioned above, I first discovered found poetry in a week-long workshop taught by Denise Brennan Watson at the summer conference of the International Women's Writing Guild.  Denise's book, The Undertow of Hunger, a collection of food poetry, had just been published.  In her class Denise continued with her theme of food and cooking; each day we experimented with different ways to use food and its related associations as poetry prompts.  The idea of "found poetry" was discussed from the start.  Denise suggested that cookbooks and food magazines were brilliant places to find "hidden tidbits" of writing that went way beyond recipes.  This was because in order to sell food, it must be presented to readers as more than something that tastes good.  The words used to describe food are often sensuous, multi-layered, and evocative of childhood and our most cherished occasions and memories.  To demonstrate her point, Denise had brought to the conference an entire suitcase of food magazines she generously shared with us to cut, slice, and dice our way into finding the poetry inside.  Right away I was hooked, totally addicted; my writing and my life changed from that week forward and I haven't been the same since.  Seriously!  Until Denise's class I never knew what treasures could be found between the lines of an innocent article on say, how to bake a raspberry tart or melt chocolate for a fondue.

Denise's workshop was exactly ten years ago this summer.  Over those years I have worked hard to develop her ideas and use them in ways that are uniquely my own in my pottery, art journaling, and collage.  One small project I have on the side is I am writing an entire "found novel" from scraps culled solely from food magazines.  Here are some of the things I have learned to help you find and create your own poetry:

  • Anything and everything can be turned into found poetry.  What you are looking for are snippets of meaning when lines of prose are taken out of context and removed from their original source.  For instance, during that same IWWG conference in 2000, I went to an evening performance where the poet Judi Beach recited lines from a menu--verbatim--as poetry.  I will never look at apple pie the same way again.
  • If you use magazines to find your cut-out words and lines, it's a good idea to stick to a single type of magazine for coherency, theme, and word association.  I still love using food magazines, but you can express yourself best when you use magazines that express your personal interests, e.g.,  tennis, finance, history, sewing, fine art...  The list of subject-specific magazines is endless. 
  • It can also help to become adventurous and jump into a magazine world you would normally avoid:  Motorcycle Rider when you'd rather be reading Elle and vice versa.
  • Besides the straight-out text of a magazine article, I find headlines, advertisements, and the table of contents to be full of good lines just waiting to be grabbed and turned into poetry.
  • Other sources besides magazines can include:  overheard conversations, Twitter, Facebook, old letters and greeting cards.  The key is to never simply repeat what you find, but to completely reassemble the seemingly ordinary into the extraordinary.
  • Old manuscript drafts can be a wonderful source of material.  Never throw away a piece until you've taken all the good lines out for future use.
  • A method I have yet to try but is certainly on my list of future goals is to dismantle/alter/change an entire book--one of course that is in the public domain and no longer known.  Used bookstores are full of obscure and forgotten books just waiting for you to give them new life.  The poet Mary Ruefle did this with great success in her book, A Little White Shadow which started life as an obscure Victorian novel of the same title.  Ruefle's technique for finding the poetry in this text is what's called "erasure."  Ruefle used white-out to delete all the words and lines surrounding the lines she wanted to keep and use.
  • While white-out, felt pens, and tape are all good ways to block out your chosen text, I prefer using an X-acto blade to cut out the lines I want.  I love seeing how far I can cut my way down the page, often finishing with a multi-lined fragment that could easily pass as haiku or a tiny verse all on its own.
  • Much of the charm of found poetry is in the arrangement of the words on the page.  While the cut-out lines can sometimes look like those poison-pen letters in an Agatha Christie novel:  "beWARe the KnIfe wAitS 4 U" they can also look fresh and original when positioned neatly on a piece of art paper or your sketchbook/art journal.  Any artwork you can add to the piece for embellishment is a great plus, too.
  • I like to paste my smaller pieces onto unlined index cards for both future reference and as a way to present them as a "mini book" on their own.
Judson Jerome in The Poet's Handbook defines poetry as "metrical writing."  That's it!  However, he does go on to say that there is a tug-of-war within the poet as one chooses, picks, polishes, and twists words into a form:  "Prose lies flat on the page.  Poetry (good poetry, that is) stands up off it, rounded like a piece of sculpture because of its imposed form."  To me, found poetry is all about the choosing and twisting and making a new form from what is otherwise a flat piece of prose.  Next week I'll share some of my found poems and offer you more ideas for creating your own.

Tip of the Day:  Start looking; start cutting--gather up your magazines, phone books, old manuscripts.  Don't be afraid to put your own stamp on the mundane and turn it into a piece of startling imagination.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Readers' Discussion Guides--Make Your Own

A few years ago I joined a romance book club because I wanted to study the genre and also because it gave me an opportunity to discover new writers.  The club has since widened its range to include memoirs, the classics, and even the occasional mystery.  What we do prefer though are books that end well and happily, and yes, have an emphasis on a romantic relationship.  For that reason alone we still like to call ourselves the Romance Book Club, but ever since we moved our meeting place to a local Borders Books & Music, the store insists upon calling us the Ravioli Book Club.  Sure enough, once a month a large sign reserves a prime table in the cafe for us:  'RAVIOLI BOOK CLUB."  There doesn't seem to be any way to change the sign or the name, and by now I think we actually enjoy the surreal distinction of being the strangest book club in the store.

Similar to the way the club name "just happened" it also became my job somehow to find, print, and bring to our meetings the publishers' reading discussion guides for each of our monthly choices.  I love these guides.    They're very simple to find--I just Google 'em.  Not every book has one, but I wish they did.  Not only do they liven up our meetings, but they help me to think more analytically and deeply about what I'm reading, which always carries over to what I'm writing.  Which then made me think, I need my own reading guides too!

Several weeks ago I started work on two guides:  one for my Egyptian mystery for middle-grade readers, The Great Scarab Scam and one for my young adult novel, Better Than Perfect

Over the weekend I finalized them so you can read or print a PDF copy of each here:  Better than Perfect and The Great Scarab Scam.

While I was writing the guides, I thought that just like making book trailers before you publish, writing up your discussion questions as you work through your drafts could also help strengthen your writing.  Here are some of the points I considered:
  • When designing your questions, try to avoid anything that can be answered with a plain "Yes" or "No" without more qualification.
  • It's also important to remember there is never any "right answer" to a question, especially when writing a guide for children or young adult readers.
  • Characters are usually the most important part of your story.  Search for questions that encourage readers to explore why they could identify (or not) with your characters, for instance through profession, family issues, or personal challenges.
  • A good plot should present your characters with troubling choices.  Characters don't always act rationally or sanely when faced with a crisis.  Think of questions (and reasons) that revolve around why this is so for your own book.
  • Evaluating characters' choices can lead to "what would you do?" types of questions.
  • A good ending should leave the reader wanting more.  Create questions or topics that let readers imagine future scenes or alternative endings.
  • What does the book remind you of?  Encourage discussion of other writers and genres that point back to your book.
  • How do you want readers to possibly describe the overall mood, tone, or theme or the book?
  • Is your theme universal or could it only be true for one part of the world?  Think of questions that explore the locale of your book as well as any unusual bits of information you use to make your story unique.
  • What have your characters learned?  Or left undiscovered?
  • What would you like your readers to have learned?
  • Is the story believable--or not?  (If not, this could be a good time to fix it!) 
Not every guide you create needs to include all of these points, but they are certainly something to keep in mind while brainstorming both your manuscript and your questions.

Tip of the Day:  Search out reading guides for some of your favorite titles and start by answering the questions in your journal.  You might even want take this a step further by discussing the questions with your writing group if you don't already belong to a book club.  It's easier to write your own guide once you know the kind of questions you like to discuss, and which ones you find frustrating and pointless (not that rare of an occurrence, I'm sorry to say!).  And have fun:  discussion guides are meant to enhance the love of reading--readers should never feel they're defending a thesis or trying to pass an exam.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Am Editing

My three favorite Twitter hashtags are:  #amreading, #amwriting, and #amediting.  Whenever I see one of those I always stop to read the tweet.  #Amreading alerts me to great new titles; #amwriting inspires me to write those extra pages, and #amediting reminds me to take the work seriously.

For the past few weeks I've been doing my best to stay in #amediting mode.  It hasn't been easy.  I readily confess to loving first drafts:  the thrill of new characters; speed writing; first thoughts/"best" thoughts (or so they seem!).  Sometimes editing feels too much like doing my homework when I'd rather be eating dessert.

But this week there's been a shift; around Tuesday I found myself starting to enjoy the process of preparing a manuscript for print.  It may have had something to do with passing the "100 page" mark at last.  As it stands now, my manuscript is 429 double-spaced pages, printed in New Courier 12 font (easiest to read, I think).  I figure that if I stay on track editing a minimum of 14 pages a day I'll be finished by August 1.

I waited a year to start this final edit and I'm glad I did.  Enough time has passed to almost convince me someone else wrote the book--a wonderful advantage when it comes to slashing sentences, cutting excess description, and doing my best to wordsmith my way to a clearly-told story.  Often I'll come to a passage and I won't even remember writing it, allowing me to be utterly ruthless.

One of the reasons for my reluctance to start this particular edit was my fear that concentrating on editing would somehow lead to me forgetting how to write.  Absurd, I know!  But I was worried that skimping on my daily freewriting would be like an athlete not staying in shape, or a dancer lounging in front of the television instead of showing up in the rehearsal room.  How wrong I was.  Writing IS rewriting.  Sticking to an editing plan and schedule is where the real magic happens.

Now instead of groaning at the thought of my daily editing quota, I look forward to each 30-minute session (after 30 minutes I begin to read, not critique).  I have my manuscript neatly tucked into a new, large binder that accompanies me most of the day and night.  I don't like to let it out of my sight and it's always ready to work on whenever I have a free moment.  Believe it or not, it's a great way to spend the summer!

Tip(s) of the Day:  I have two:  1) The longer you leave a manuscript between edits the better your editorial eye will be.  Don't rush to edit.  And 2) If you write every day--even just a few minutes between editing sessions--you will build a body of work, which means that you will be able to leave off editing your manuscripts for a year or longer.  That way you will never run out of manuscripts to polish, submit, and, sell.