Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Poetry Archive: The Ghazal Page

The Persian-style ghazal consists of a series of thematically unconnected couplets (shers) with lines of equal length, unified by a refrain (radif) at the end of the second line of each sher (in the first, at the end of both lines). The radif is preceded by a monorhyme (qafia). Traditionally the writer's name occurs somewhere in the final sher.

I first became aware of the ghazal form in the wake of 9/11. On that day my son George, an ethnomusicologist specializing in Persianate cultures, opened at random his volume of the medieval Persian poet Hafez. Hafez is regarded as an oracle in the Persian-speaking world, much the same way Virgil was in medieval Europe. And George landed on a ghazal which spoke to him so powerfully that he made a rough English translation. The refrain (radif) was Do not be consumed by grief. I put it in the winter 2001 issue of Types & Shadows, the Journal of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, of which I was then editor.

The foremost advocate and practitioner of the Persian-style ghazal in English was the late Agha Shalid Ali (1949-2001), who was dismayed by the prevailing fashion for defining a ghazal as a series of disjointed couplets with neither radif nor qafia. I have his own book of Persian-style ghazals in English, Call me Ishmael Tonight, as well as a collection he compiled of Persian-style ghazals by American poets, Ravishing Disunities. They are both delightful and inspiring, the moreso since so many of them depart from the traditional subjects of romantic love and mysticism; some are playful unto hilarity.

When I tried my first ghazal, I found it to be such a congenial form that I wrote several more. The disjointed couplets provide a great way to use the bits and pieces which inhabit my mind, and the monorhyme spurs odd connections. As for putting my name in the final sher, I have a triple advantage: I can use Esther, green leaf, or mirror.

Having written four that I felt were presentable, I cast about for a place to submit them for publication, and found The Ghazal Page. Gene Doty, a retired professor of Engish based in Missouri, goes by the editorial nom de web of Gino Peregrini. On his site he explores the ins and outs of ghazals in styles both Persian and Arabic.

I sent him my four ghazals, which he published in the October 2007 issue: Progress, Chocolate guzzle, Agenda, and Threnody. He added an editorial comment (below the last one) that floored me.

The following year Gino presented us with a series of challenges, i.e. everyone was to write a ghazal on the given radif. I participated in two of those: Clouds and Rain and Sugar .

Gino is also interested in exploring the possibilities of the ghazal form for variants, hybrids, and the like. The tercet challenge asked us to find a way of writing 3-line shers. I tried expanding the monorhyme into what I called a Welsh ghazal. Another hybrid, which was published in this year's April Fool issue, was Haibun: Failed ghazal with interruptions

The ghazal continues to be a form I turn to for inspiration, for instance when I'm stuck during National Poetry Writing month.

Friday, May 28, 2010

My poetry archive: Folly

The short-lived ezine Folly specialized in parody and satire. I daresay old hands know the identity of "C. Sharpe," the editor; I do not. Parody lovers will be grateful to Rose Kelleher for preserving it on her "Rambling Rose" site. The five issues boast contributions from a number of masters of light verse, and provide a wonderful diversion; they also bear the stamp of the Bush years.

(For those who write metrical poetry, Rose also maintains an annotated list of Venues for Formal Poetry on her site, listing print and web magazines that are either exclusively devoted to, or noticeably friendly toward, poetry written in forms.)

Back to Folly: The final issue, for October 2006, included two of parodies of mine which I believe marked my online debut in a literary zine. Both have backstories.

Little plastic hangers from new pairs of socks is the third in a series of poems on that subject. The first was a collage of quotations from various prose and poetic sources; the title is the first line, from one of Don Aslett's decluttering books. The result was startlingly apocalyptic, so much so that I challenged myself to do another collage in a more meditative vein. After that, I decided that I should really generate a poem using my own words. The poem in Folly is the result.

(Little plastic hangers #1 is in the current issue of Pemmican. It won't be archived, so read it while you can. If I find a publisher for #2 I'll post the whole series.)

My last duke was the culmination of a game played on The participants took turns suggesting an object for each player to write a poem about. When we got up to 25 objects, we challenged ourselves to write poems using all 25. This is mine.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My poetry archive: IPBC - Fall day in the park

In August 2007, another poem received an honorable mention on IPBC. Of this poem I remember that, after a string of rather dour poems, it came to me in Quaker meeting that I should make this one a poem of celebration. Writing it felt like a victory.

Fall day in the park

In the lapidary light
of the sea, I am a flatfish
prostrate on the floor
of a cathedral, the eyes
on my back attuned
to the coruscation
of corals, polyps, bryozoa
swaying in the current’s sunlit blue.

Now on dancing eddies
I levitate in celebration,
vault and sweep and skew,
pitch and bank and camber
a hymn to overarching glory.
Then I sink again, canting
like a falling leaf, and rest

in the mud, where one day soon
my center eye will contemplate
the bare ruined reef while the other,
the wandering one, keeps watch
for the green ghosts hovering
amid the welter of weeds.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My poetry archive:, IBPC, and getting started with poetry online

In 2003, during one of my sproradic bouts of poetry writing, I decided to look for an online poetry forum. The only one I knew of back then was, the website of the Academy of American Poets. I signed up, but then discovered the forums weren't active, and forgot all about — and poetry — for a couple of years. Then suddenly on May 23, 2005 — five years ago today — I received notice that the forums were active again.

There was a mad scramble as all the old members tried to post years of pent-up poems. I looked on with dismay, but the furor died down in a couple of months, and I timidly posted an old poem, which was thoroughly misunderstood. I went on posting old poems and gradually gained confidence. Then in the fall a weekly poem spark was instituted, which I faithfully participated in. One spark was a sestina, and I wrote a rambling one about how I would write a poem if I could find my pencil.

A short time later it occurred to me to try a sestina using the notes of the medieval Gregorian scale — do, re, mi, fa, sol, la — as end syllables in lieu of end words. It was such a departure for me that someone opined, when I posted it, that I must have been smoking pine needles again. Not only was it well received, it was one of three poems chosen to send to the monthly Interboard Poetry Competition — where it won first prize for December, 2005.

Gregorian Sestina was my first publication in a literary venue. The link will also take you to judge-of-the-month Ravi Shankar's comments, below the poem itself.

Friday, May 21, 2010

My poetry archive: The New Verse News

The New Verse News publishes at least one poem each day related to the current news from a progressive standpoint. The editor, James Penha, is a New Yorker who has lived in Indonesia for the past eighteen years, and has taught English at the International High School in Jakarta. He has just published a chapbook collection of Indonesian folk tales, Snakes and Angels.

Of course in a zine such as The New Verse News, topicality has to trump craft. Still, I'm impressed by the consistently high quality of its verse; there's so much bad political poetry out there. If you need to vent about what is going on in the world, give it a try; if you're new to publishing poetry, it's a good place to get your feet wet. Responses usually come within a couple of weeks.

I found The New Verse News when I was just starting to submit poetry for publication. On October 30, 2006, I sent an angry poem which I obscurely felt had a Halloweenish feel to it. Within a few hours I got a response, something like this: "Trust me, we don't usually respond this fast, but once in a while we get a poem that is just when we need just when we need it." Sanctuary was posted on October 31. It's still my favorite of the poems of mine James has published. The others are listed below, latest first:

Tea Party with Walt
Paradelle: U.S. Congress and Copenhagen
Dissolute Sonnet
Noam Chomsky Vindicated
The Two Prophets
Plus Ultra
Same Old Story

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My poetry archive: Tilt-a-Whirl

As of this writing I've published 65 poems in sundry magazines. The majority are available online, a number of them in issues that are still current. My previous attempt to "archive" them on a website was axed by att, and I've been trying to figure out how best to provide access to them on this blog. I'd also like to voice appreciation for the magazines that have published them, and think I will essay a sort of narrative.

A fairly new magazine which has recently taken a couple of my poems is Tilt-a-Whirl: A Poetry Sporadical of Repeating Forms, a zine devoted to forms in which one or more lines or other elements are repeated. These include many French forms, ghazal, pantoum, sestina, etc; for a full list see the Cheat sheet on the site. (She adds new forms to the list as she finds them.) The zine is edited by Kate Bernadette Benedict and is a spinoff of her better-known zine, The Umbrella.

Issue 2, which is still current, contains my pantoum, Halo, as well as Arrgh poetica, a Treinte-sei. The latter is a 36-line form invented by John Ciardi, which I would never have dreamed of attempting had I not been experimenting with oddball forms while involved in a challenge. (Kate told me in accepting it that she had resolved not to publish poems about writing poems, but felt impelled to make an exception—partly, I suppose, because the form was new to her. It was new to me too, and poetry writing was the easiest subject to practice on.)

Back issues of Tilt-a-Whirl will be archived by form, rather than by issue; thus, when issue 3 comes along and the above links to my poems are outmoded, you can find them under the form in the archive.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking Back on NaPoWriMo

This April was the fourth time I participated in National Poetry Writing Month, in which the challenge is to write a poem every day for the month of April. The first time, in 2007, I just plunged in. Each year since then I've stopped writing poetry sometime in March, and focused instead on making notes, gathering ideas for NaPo and experiencing varying degrees of trepidation.

It happens regularly that two or three times during NaPo I feel like giving up, but manage to keep going with small things, limericks, cinquains, fibs, triolets, surrealistic haiku, etc. In coping with the intensity of the roller-coaster ride that is NaPo, I've found that my most reliable sources of inspiration are:

1) forms. There are tried and true forms, such as the villanelle, which I can write in my sleep; and then there are exotic ones to experiment with (Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms, 3d.ed., and Robin Skelton's The Shapes of our Singing are good sources). When writing in forms I rarely worry about the content, which may be quite surrealistic; the results are sometimes happy, more often plodding, but if so it still gives me courage to try the form again later.

2) building on the work of other poets. I've kept a running list of ways to do this, which sort themselves into broad categories: a) starting with a borrowed title of phrase and going on from there, arguing with it, etc. b) using borrowed lines as the basis of a villanelle, rondel or other (usually) French form; c) playing with a longer chunk, or a whole poem— writing between the lines, doing paraphrases or "translations" such as homophonic, antonymic, Oulipo +7, etc.

3) This year I also got quite a bit of mileage from cannibalizing some of my old failed poems which in former years I didn't have enough distance to let go of.

In previous years I was so exhausted by the end of April that I wrote very little for the rest of the year. I wonder if that will be the case now. I ended on a high note, with a clear feeling that over the month I had learned something about structure. A few days into May I participated in a 7/7 challenge at The Waters. I have much more of a sense of direction this year, and hope to maintain enough momentum to participate in a 7/7 challenge every month or so.

Participating in NaPoWriMo or any other challenge involves commenting on the work of others. Not critique, but positive encouragement so that we can all keep going. I'm too introverted to be good at this, but appreciate the comments others make about my efforts, and admire people to whom such responses seem to come easily. A NaPo group with lots of participants is especially daunting; I start out with good intentions, but tend to fold midway through. With luck I will gain some practice while doing shorter challenges.