The Mark Blog

Poem of the Week: "Scheherazade" by Richard Siken

This week's poem was suggested by Hilary McCreery.


Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
                                                       and dress them in warm clothes again.
         How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.
                   It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
         it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
                 how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
                                                                                       to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
         we’re inconsolable.
                               Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
                                                                Tell me we’ll never get used to it.


Richard Siken (2005)

Writing Prompt Thursday: Put Yourself in a Painting

It is a Sunday afternoon on the Grand Canal. We are watching the sailboats trying to sail along without wind. Small rowboats are making their incisions on the water, only to have the wounds seal up again soon after they pass. In the background, smoke from the factories and smoke from the steamboats merges into tiny clouds above us then disappears. Our mothers and fathers walk arm in arm along the shore clutching tightly their umbrellas and canes. We are sitting on a blanket in the foreground, but even if someone were to take a photograph, only our closest relatives would recognize us: we seem to be burying our heads between our knees.

I remember thinking you were one of the most delicate women I had ever seen. Your bones seemed small and fragile as a rabbit's. Even so, beads of perspiration begin to form on your wrist and forehead — if we were to live long enough we'd have been amazed at how many clothes we forced ourselves to wear. At this time I had never seen you without your petticoats, and if I ever gave thought to such a possibility I'd chastise myself for not offering you sufficient respect.

The sun is very hot. Why is it no one complains of the heat in France? There are women doing their needlework, men reading, a man in a bowler hat smoking a pipe. The noise of the children is absorbed by the trees. The air is full of idleness, there is the faint aroma of lilies coming from somewhere. We discuss what we want for ourselves, abstractly, it seems only right on a day like this. I have ambitions to be a painter, and you want a small family and a cottage in the country. We make everything sound so simple because we believe everything is still possible. The small tragedies of our parents have not yet made an impression on us. We should be grateful, but we're too awkward to think hard about very much.

I throw a scaling rock into the water; I have strong arms and before the rock sinks it seems to have nearly reached the other side. When we get up we have a sense of our own importance. We could not know, taking a step back, looking at the total picture, that we would occupy such a small corner of the canvas, and that even then we are no more than tiny clusters of dots, carefully placed together without touching.

Ira Sadoff (1975)

In "Seurat," a prose poem by Ira Sadoff, the first-person narrator takes the form of a figure in Seurat's 1886 painting, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." In describing the setting of the painting, the people in it, a beautiful woman he is observing, the noises of children, the feeling of the hot sun, the aroma of lilies, the personal tragedies of his parents, the painting comes alive, and we forget that the scene exists on a canvas, that all of this life is no more than dots clustered into shapes.


While the brilliant turn in this poem couldn't be replicated, the prompt here is to approach a painting (or drawing, or sculpture) that speaks to you, and write a poem from inside of it.

This could mean: your poem is narrated by a figure in the painting; your poem becomes the art work's backstory; your poem mirrors the mood, the colors, the light and shadows in the painting; your poem invents characters involved in the situation of the painting, or puts the artist at odds with his or her work. You can also always read William Carlos Williams's poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" to feel like an artist.

More on art and poetry

Wallace Stevens wrote poems about art, the art world, and the parallel attributes of painting and poetry. In his essay, "Relations Between Poetry and Paintings," Stevens argued that both practices become "a vital assertion of self, in a world where nothing but the self remains."

Read about ekphrasis
More on ekphrasis

Up the Ante Wednesday: All About The Stegner

Your midweek goal booster has rolled around again. Today, the Mark Blog is featuring the esteemed Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where five fiction fellowships and five poetry fellowships are given out each year. These rigorous fellowships last for two years, and convene weekly in a three-hour workshop with faculty like Tobias Wolff and Eavan Boland (whose book, The Making of a Poem, we featured last week).

Fellowships also include a stipend of $26,000 per year, and admission is based on the quality of the writing, not degrees or publication credits.

Read more about this program. We suggest you keep its FAQ section bookmarked simply as a general guide for your writing career. It pretty much covers everything. And of course, the Stegner is the perfect program to have as a long-term goal. Grooming yourself for something like the Stegner will prepare you for a whole wealth of other opportunities - like submitting manuscripts to agents, or presenting yourself as a professional writer to the world at large.

The Flirty and Errant Sibling of Prose by Mehnaz Turner


 As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. I began writing poems in middle school, and this habit has persisted till today. However, I did not make the formal decision to become a poet until more recently. Growing up I thought that my poetry writing was something secret to be kept hidden in a box at the back of the closet. Real writers, I imagined, committed themselves to writing fiction. So I wrote poems in secret and decided I’d eventually write stories to share with the public. I imagined poetry was a cryptic, numinous discipline reserved for mystics and other eccentrics.

And the truth is that I fell in love with reading novels before I fell in love with reading poems. But my explorations in writing began with fragments...with poems...and then evolved into fiction writing after college. I wrote short stories...maybe a dozen or so in my twenties. And I even completed the first draft of a novel by age thirty. Hardly any of this work has made it to it into print. As far as my formal prose publications go, I have a couple of essays and a couple of flash fiction stories to boast about on my CV.

During my forays into fiction, I kept plugging away at poems in journals, and tossing these journals into the back of my closet. On occasion, I’d read a poem in public for some arts event in the community. But the “real work”, I imagined, would come when I got busy working on one long & consistent narrative.

It took me years to wake up to the aesthetic significance of poetry and to realize that I am more a poet at the core than a fiction writer. It’s true that storytelling, historically speaking, began as an oral tradition delivered in poetic form—making it easier to memorize and preserve from generation to generation. The invention of writing genres is, relatively speaking, a more recent development. Many contemporary writers compose in multiple genres—viewing the boundaries between disciplines as artificial categories imposed by critics. And a novel can surely be a poetic, post-modern creation; conversely, poems can be narrative-driven and plotted. New hybrid forms, like verse novels and prose poems, are emerging constantly. Ultimately, the impulse to express oneself on the page across genres is a similar creative impulse.

Yet most of us are more comfortable separating genres into distinct categories and these categories can be helpful. As a writer, I personally like to identify myself with a particular genre. Yet this makes me wonder…why have I chosen poetry writing as my main aesthetic form? I was writing stories in my twenties, and there are times I am still wooed by the possibility of crafting narrative. So why do I insist on engaging in this cryptic, numinous discipline reserved for mystics and other eccentrics?

The fact is that line breaks are sexy. To read a poem, one must slow down the breath, experience the words sensually & viscerally, which is why many readers struggle to appreciate it. Poems represent a way of seeing that is quite distinct from fiction. Like a photograph, a poem captures a moment. Collectively, poems are political in that they resist the narrative view of the world and thereby complement it. In a good poetry collection, closure is not possible and the complex, fragmentary nature of thought is mirrored on the page. More readers are comfortable with a seemingly closed narrative…with the escape and accessibility a good story provides. Good poems, however, often take unexpected leaps, jump from memory to meaning in the midst of a stanza, & bring attention to wordplay. They are, for good reason, an acquired taste.

I engage in this cryptic, numinous discipline because I enjoy playing with words and having the freedom to take unexpected leaps in my writing. And I like to do this in brief strokes...on a whim. I can jump from topic to topic in my poems and ride the range of my interests.

My love for reading fiction has been consistent my whole life. My love for reading poetry, in contrast, emerged slowly as did my appreciation for writing it. Narrative is sexy, but line breaks are sexier. To read a story, one holds hands with the prose—but to read a poem well, one’s got to kiss it. Not all readers and writers are comfortable being so intimate…not all word-lovers are open to such mystery & debauchery.

Making the choice to engage with poetry requires vulnerability. Poems coast the flesh of ambiguity—take some eroticism to appreciate. I find it satisfying to live in a world where multiple genres warm the skin. And I write poems to brave intimacy with the emotions I am experiencing in any given moment. I wish more readers would open up to the pleasures of poetry, for poems, to be sure, are just the flirty & errant sibling of prose.

Weekend Literary Roundup

Anniversaries, Anesthesia, and Elizabeth Bishop
 (The Millions, August 10, 2011)

Literary Loins, by Their Cubs  (The New York Times, August 10, 2011)

Overrated: Authors, Critics and Editors on "Great" Books That Aren't All That Great (Slate, August 11, 2011)

"Championship" by Melissa Broder (Guernica Magazine, August 2011)

Actress, Poet Amber Tamblyn: The Self-Interview (The Nervous Breakdown, August 5, 2011)

The Rumpus Books Sunday Supplement (The Rumpus, August 14, 2011)

Poem of the Week: "A Breath of Air" by James Wright

This week's featured poem comes with a writing prompt. #bonus
Courtesy of Heather Simons, Program Manager for PEN in the Classroom.

A Breath of Air
by James Wright

I walked, when love was gone,
Out of the human town,
For an easy breath of air.
Beyond a break in the trees,
Beyond the hangdog lives
Of old men, beyond girls:
The tall stars held their peace.
Looking in vain for lies
I turned, like earth, to go.
An owl’s wings hovered, bare
On the moon’s hills of snow.

And things were as they were.

PROMPT: Sometimes it's fun to change the first or last line of a poem and see what happens. Choose the first or last line of this poem, switch it up by putting it in the negative or by changing a word, and then use the line to begin a poem of your own.


Writing Prompt Thursday: Adam and Eve

This week's writing prompt comes from Poetry Instigator, a fantastic resource for poets that provides daily writing prompts. The site describes itself as "a fine poetry-making machine." They go on to say, "It may be used to create poems of all shapes, sizes, schools, and sensibilities. The Poetry Instigator consists of two parts, PROMPTS (Blog) and POEMS (Forum)." Looks like a well-oiled machine, no?

Adam and Eve is a prompt that first instructs you to read Jaime Sabine's "Adam and Eve."

Then, write a sequence of poems based on a well-known story, fable, myth. Retell the story from an alternate perspective or vision.  Your poem could still be told through the voice of the original narrator/speaker, but how would the story change if the narrator/speaker had the perspective of a contemporary person with different emotional responses, or if you believed the narrator/speaker’s motive was different? How would the story change if it was told from the perspective of a “minor” character?  Let the sequences show a progression of time moving forward.

Up the Ante Wednesday: Consider a Residency

Our midweek encouragement post has rolled around again, and this time we're spotlighting the renowned Yaddo Colony. An exclusive artists' community located on 400 acres in Saratoga Springs, NY, Yaddo also boasts classical Italian rose and rock gardens.

An excerpt from their History page reads:

Some believe that the land itself at Yaddo is the source of mystical creative power. The property on which Yaddo now stands previously housed a farm, gristmill, and tavern operated by Jacobus Barhyte, a Revolutionary War veteran. Many well-known writers of the 1830s and 1840s dined at Barhyte's tavern, among them Edgar Allan Poe, who is said to have written at least part of "The Raven" on a visit there.

What more does a poet need to know? Well, there's this:

Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 49 Whiting Writers' Awards, a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976), and countless other honors.

And this:

Visitors to Yaddo include Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Alfred Kazin, Ulysses Kay, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Anne Porter, Mario Puzo, Clyfford Still, and Virgil Thomson.

How to apply:
Artists who qualify for Yaddo residencies are working at the professional level in their fields. An abiding principal at Yaddo is that applications for residency are judged on the quality of the artist's work and professional promise. Yaddo accepts approximately 200 artists each year.

January 1, for residencies starting mid-May of the same year, through February of the following year.
August 1
, for residencies starting late October of the same year through May of the following year.

Flirting With the Ordinary by Mehnaz Turner

I recently moved into a new apartment, and it’s taken me weeks to get organized. In fact, using the past tense here as I’m doing is inappropriate. I am still organizing...there are boxes to my left and right, stacks of paper on my desk, and clothes strewn across my bedroom floor. I’m also waiting on a handyman to come by later this week and hang up my paintings and mirrors. In the past month, I’ve made several trips to furniture stores and supermarkets, buying things I want or need to make this new space work. Yesterday, for instance, I headed over to Pier One and got myself a bookshelf, a vase, and some colorful kitchenware.
Though at 700 square feet my new apartment is tiny, I have to say that I find it creatively spacious. It’s a psychic intuitive thing. The Pergo laminate flooring is cheerful and the white cabinets in my diminutive kitchen spell comfort. I dig the building I occupy, the cryptic carpeting in the hallway, the smell of cinnamon that permeates the corridors. What I’m getting at is though this place is just another ordinary apartment complex in the valley, I really like it, and I’ve gone all organizational nerd on my drawers and closets, giving each object its own particular home, mentally labeling cabinets as I go.
My sense is that this apartment is going to be significant for my writing–in particular, my understanding of writing in relation to my life as a whole. The first night I moved in, I scribbled a poem. And the first morning I woke up here, I read aloud a bunch of sonnets in bed, letting my sleep-infused voice fill the space of my new home. It felt ritualistic too, like I was blessing the ceiling and walls with a prayer. But I think I was also setting up an intention–an intention to write.

And I have written here. And I have felt my writer self breathe better here. And I have read more poems past midnight than I care to admit. But I also notice that the nurturer in me is coming out–and I’m motivated to bake muffins and chop onions and sip tea while I work. And as ludicrous as it sounds, I also like cleaning this place up, taking care of it, dusting the livingroom blinds. It feels creative somehow. It feels meditative. Kind of the same mind set that comes out when I’m about to pen a poem.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately–creativity, writing, space, & nurturing. Maybe this is one of the side effects of moving...everything seems fresh...banal rituals come alive. And if I’m in some honeymoon phase in this new abode, so be it. But I’m connecting a few dots here that I feel will have a long-term impact on my sense of artistry. I’m seeing everything in my life as an extension of a poem...and my poetry as an extension of everything in my life. Watering a plant or fixing a cup of tea can be like scribbling a line of verse. Writing a stanza of poetry can be like color coordinating an outfit; polishing my nails–a bold Haiku. Somehow, I feel a blurring of the boundaries between art and life taking place. And it’s kind of awesome.
On Sunday, I went to LACMA and saw the Tim Burton exhibit. His gothic drawings and paintings reminded me of children’s book illustrations, and I felt drawn to the delicate strokes of his pen, at once dark and affable. And I thought: I would love to put up some of his sketches in my apartment; I want to take out my sketch books and experiment with drawing; I’d like to write a poem in the spirit of Burton’s mood; I would like to see more black in my wardrobe once summer is over.
Simply inspired, I felt myself feeling the buzz of creativity again–the desire to feel simultaneously excited about numerous ordinary things. And I think this is what it means for me to be a working artist: the ability to view every act as a kind of art. The Buddhists speak of making every act a it chewing toast in the morning or knitting a scarf. But the meditation metaphor, though apt, is less intuitive for me. I prefer a more aesthetic interpretation.
Viewing our daily habits as an expression of our creativity seems sort of beautiful. It’s a balanced state of mind I love to inhabit. And it means that the writing doesn’t end the moment we put down our pens. True creativity, I’d venture to say, is permitting the blending of life and art. It is the extraordinary act of flirting with the ordinary.

Monday Feature: The Making of a Poem - A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms

This Monday, The Mark Blog directs your attention to The Making of a Poem - A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. If ever there was a book that could turn a student into a poet, this is it.

From the Introductory Statement:
This book looks squarely at some of the headaches and mysteries of poetic form...
In order to provide some answers, we have gone back to the exuberant history of forms, have drawn them out of their shadows in French harvest fields and small Italian courts and have laid out as clearly as possible their often turbulent passage across centuries.


"Most useful are the selections themselves, which illustrate how particular forms have been employed over time, from canonical classics by Chaucer, Shelley, and Elizabeth Bishop through newer pieces by Hayden Carruth, Michael Palmer, and Thylias Moss." - Publisher's Weekly

"Much more poetry than commentary appears, making the book both a splendid classroom tesxt and, since the selections are top-drawer poems by first-rate poets, a book any poetry lover... may learn from and love." - Booklist

Mark Strand was born on Canada's Prince Edward Island on April 11, 1934. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, as well as two books of prose, several volumes of translation, several monographs of contemporary artists, and three books for children. He has served as Poet Laureate of the United States and is a former Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He currently teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She has written ten poetry collections, as well as Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (W. W. Norton, 1995), a volume of prose, and After Every War (Princeton, 2004), an anthology of German women poets. She has taught at Trinity College, University College, Bowdoin College, and she was a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She is also a regular reviewer for the Irish Times. She is currently a professor of English at Stanford University where she directs the creative writing program.