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June 2013

I know of several new books out this spring and summer that offer prompts and inspiration for poets. One of those is Writing Poetry To Save Your Life: How To Find The Courage To Tell Your Stories by my friend and mentor, Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Maria's book is all about how she writes and some of her beliefs about poetry.

First off, she says we all have stories to tell. Our stories. And those stories are best told and most universal when they are rich with the details and truth of the actual experiences. Whether she is working with her graduate students as director of the creative writing program at Binghamton University-SUNY, or running a weekend retreat with old and new poets, she has her ways of helping writers get into that dark and frightening cave that holds our stories, and ways to get past that crow that sits above us and frightens us from saying what we know is the truth.

The book offers a series of short, readable chapters on ways to find those stories, make your writing stronger and get past the many fears that poets (including herself) encounter. The chapters include model poems, generally her own writing with background on the situation, and exercises.

The final section is more than a hundred pages of short prompts in groups of five. They are often a phrase and rarely more than a sentence. In workshops, Maria will often call out a half dozen suggestions to a group and just ask you to choose one that resonates, or combine several.

For this month, I have chosen a group of Maria's prompts that share the theme of traveling. You can try writing about:
a train, bus or plane that you missed
riding on a school bus
leaving Penn Station, Canal Street or any specific location
a cab ride
running away from home
Start with "I have driven highways..." or
"on the street where we lived..."

For a sample traveling poem to consider, we read "The Bus Through Jonesboro, Arkansas" by Matthew Henriksen.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


On the shoulder, another flowered cross
in memory of the dead. We've passed so many
planted in roadside gravel along this
deserted stretch of two-lane; crosses blooming
on hilltop and in arroyo. Each one gives
pause, an angel of the road with outspread
wooden wings. On a hairpin curve,
a crest, a blinding straightaway aimed for
sunset, a cross. Someone ended here. This one,
nailed to a leafless, savaged tree - proof
of what metal propelled at 80 mph does to bark
and cambium and heart-wood. Maybe
a lady lives just down the road, maybe she
once cradled a dying child - does her
throat seize as she drives past this flowered
cross? A field of cows. We're doing sixty,
not much faster than the posted speed.
In noonday sun, a heifer meditates her cud.
What do grass and sky and wind say?

Taylor Graham


Naples in 1958 was still crumbling
From a war only 13 years before
One felt the press of the Sunday morning crowds
Glancing in the restored shops;
One turned ones head in curiousity
To the sunless side alleys
Where the laundry hung between
The seven story tenements.
And the windows were guard by old ladies.
There were police in Napoleonic uniforms
Who strode in pairs oblivious.
To the crowds.
It was the set of a Rossini opera..
One had been warned of pickpockets
And my hands were held at ones' side.

Though warned of the P*rker pens
And of the fake watches
I did not want to believe
The told truth of confidence men.
I bought.

The watch told time for only a day
It has lain in a drawer
The paint flaking to tarnished steel.
Yet it has told time well
If only twice a day
It told me of a dream time
A time I am always traveling to.

Edward Halperin


In December, on a road
in Oklahoma, the pale silence
unsplintered by a rushing car,

I saw
yellow fields punctuated by black
silhouettes of leafless trees,
rounded mountains fading into
silver, horizontal clouds, a hawk
riding the wind with beveled wing,
suspended like a splash of brown
on a Pollock painting.

I saw
cattle, black and white, grazing
in open fields under looming
banks, beside ponds sparkling in the
winter sun, inside barbed-wire
fences with gray-and-black posts,
some tilted crazily, supporting rows
of cedar, bleached stalks of grass,
wisps of summer flowers.

I saw
a single blackened oak standing
mute by a shingled stream, limbs
tangled and shorn by wind and ice,
bereft of any leaf—form without
substance, note without sound,
cell without movement—the beauty
of becoming etched in stark strokes
on the winter air.

I saw
a washed gully, gaping, mud-
dappled, snaggled banks flecked
with specks of foam unwinding
from the road, tapering to the
horizon, cutting a silver gash
far across a golden field in sinuous
runes, running cadences.

I saw
tall pines in a single stand marching
up a hillock like a lone invading
army, out of place in this oak and
cedar world, needles riffled by a
breeze, cool darkness spreading
on mulched earth beneath.

I saw
bedraggled houses set in lonely
copses by the sides of graveled
access roads; dull-metal, algal-
spotted tanks lifted high above
disheveled yards, like squat
guardians, with battered, muddy
pickups and wooden trailers
drawn beneath.

I saw
the road stretch its black and
twisted path down the valley,
white and yellow racing
down its center toward me,
receding into the blue and
tremulous haze of distant
undulating mountain folds;
beyond here, beyond now.

I saw
the pale silence unsplintered
by a rushing car, in December,
on a road in Oklahoma,

the eternal moment of a day.

Robert Miller


On the street where I lived as a boy,
"traveling" meant getting in a car.
We rode the bus to places near but far
when no one who drove a car was around.
No one I knew had flown on an airplane.
Even my father, a WWII veteran,
had traveled around the world
on battleships but returned from California
when all that was over by train.
I was the first in the family to fly,
the first to go to college,
the first to travel to Florida.
My parents thought that traveling meant more
than just going a distance in space and time.
Still, I never rode in a taxi until I was in college.
The farthest our family ever drove was 440 miles
so that we could visit friends of my parents
who lived near Niagara Falls.
But we never visited the Falls.

Charles Michaels


i am standing in the back of a darkened sanctuary,
all for the light coming in through smokey stained-glass windows.
it is dreamy

and the thing i think of as the altar seems far away.
the entire squat building is weeping
the noise is of hushed and constant chants,
the calling out of loved ones names.
it smells of sage and sweat.
the earth is dry, so that it puffs when i take a step.

to the left a door
beyond it hundreds of white candles,
flames licking shadows on the walls.
the ceiling is smudged, close.

there are gifts of faith;
crutches, canes, shoes tied together with laces older than me.
crosses and photographs, coins and love letters.

the hum of the place fills my every orifice
and seeps into what i think might be called my soul.

i think it is raining
but it is me,
my heart has wrung itself out to know this love.

to the right there is a small hole in the ground,
it is the size of a child's wagon wheel.
the story is told that this hole is never depleted,
you take the soil away.

i touch this ground, it is a brown dusting powder.
i put some on my cheeks, my lips
i ingest a few boney grains.
the taste is nothing
but the power takes me to my knees
and i remember this is what prayer is.

i am crying because i belong.
i am crying for faith and history.

i am crying because there is nothing else i can do.

Patty Joslyn


Twenty-three years old,
and a boating accident.

In the Trauma Unit, life support is given.
His body sufficiently cooled
to preserve brain function.

The doctors said there was, at most,
a one or two percent chance
that he would live,

and with that slim chance,
a condition.

For the rest of his life,
he would be dependent
upon mechanical devices.

Michael lived life at 100 percent.
Two percent came nowhere near.

A mother's love could not save her child,
but she had the strength to release him.

And she did.

Now, for the rest of us, the difficult search
for a new normal begins.

One without Michael in it.

Bobbie Townsend