Performance Poetry by Eva Whitney

Between the two introductory weeks of Creative Writing where we swam, visited museums, attended readings and got to know each other better, and our Fall show, there is an empty period of time. During my past two years in the department, we have filled these weeks with Spoken Word and Experimental Fiction lessons in which we were introduced to niche genres of writing. Both lessons were fulfilling and gave me a new perspective to incorporate into my writing for the following months. This year, we had a Performance Poetry unit taught by Taylor Duckett, a local spoken word artist and MFA student. With our daily practice of writing to music and analyzing lyrics, she introduced the idea that popular music can have literary qualities and that words on a page can have musicality.

The class compiled a playlist with each of our favorite songs. From “Wigwam” by Bob Dylan to “Feel it All Around” by Washed Out, there was great variation in the choices. For the length of the song, we would all write in response to the music. In the beginning, I found it challenging to write in conversation with the song, especially songs I had never heard before. I soon realized that the only way to learn how to mimic rhythm in a piece of writing is through practice. By the last prompt, it felt more natural to write to music than to write in silence. I found it interesting to watch what came to while writing based off of what I was listening to. This is an example of a prompt I wrote in response to “In the Kingdom” by Mazzy Star, a song complete with an organ introduction, a swinging guitar melody, drums, electric guitar solos, and a mellow female vocalist:

In Hawaii, the whole island grows dark at night. People sleep with the sun, the animals too. Streets, unlittered with lampposts, are wide and welcoming for the late-night bikers. On the beaches, small crabs glow and the moon, like a stadium light, illuminates the sand. If you want to stay awake, you have to go to the beach. The water turns gelatinous, and the fish hold their position until dawn. Once, I tried to swim in the water at night, but it would not accept me. I wish I was one of those Hawaiian sea creatures, cradled nightly by the sea.

In addition to writing to music, Taylor taught us about our writing as music. We had various assignments in which we would write poetry to a beat. I noticed how, with the knowledge that the piece would be set to music, my content changed. I no longer tried to create a narrative but chose words that sounded nice together, typically ending lines in a rhyme. My group and I created a ridiculous rap that would have read awfully on the page, but, set to a beat, had a good flow. I realized how difficult it is to write music that both sounds good and reads well on the page, and now understand why most musicians prioritize rhythm over meaning.

The performance poetry unit introduced me to the importance of rhythm in writing. Even if the meter is subtle, the innate pleasure one finds in a beat will improve their experience as a listener and add a foundation the piece. As we prepare for the upcoming Fall show, I find myself returning to the lessons Taylor taught us about reading to an imaginary beat, and how to attract the audience by doing so.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

“I feel like an old oak door” by Max Chu

Over the summer I was in a funk. Whenever I tried to write, I got the overwhelming sensation that I was wasting my own time, in addition to whichever poor friend who had to read my own piece. For months this creeping sensation followed me, making itself intertwined with the heat of the summer like a cat in a curtain! I roamed about my day to day of summer nothings with this funk gnawing away at my creativity and only at night when it got cooler could I assess the damages. After the summer, I named this time in my life the “Funky Hours,” and out of the Funky Hours came nothing but that grey spitting funky mush.

The one and only salvageable thing I wrote over the summer came to me thusly, on the hottest day of the year. I was sitting at a kitchen table, sweltering. The window yawning, and through its mouth I could see the greater countryside of Britain. A man stood in front of me, and had been talking and talking for maybe days, who was I to say? I tip my chair back, and while balancing on the tip of two legs is when I deem it appropriate to evaluate how each part of my body is feeling, specifically (as I do in moments of great…inaction). I start with my toes, work up, and come to this conclusion, expressed best in the poetic form:

I feel like an old oak door

by Max Chu

              I
feel      like
an        old
oak
              door
.

This may be the best poem that came out of the Funky Hours. In the moment of conception, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the truest poem I could have written. As the author, I can tell you with full assurance that the speaker and the author are one, that the old oak door that the speaker describes is the same to the one that the author envisions in his mind’s eye! Therefore, whichever old oak door that the reader envisions the speaker to be envisioning is the same to the one that the author, me, is envisioning.

My godmother use to own this enormous house in the wilderness of Inverness. Whether it was actually in the wilderness and whether it was actually enormous is unknown to me, as I have not been back to the house since my childhood. However, in the mornings, my godmother would take a dog food dish and fill it with birdseed before leaving her front door and placing the food on the front porch. Then she would turn around and go back inside, closing the red old oak door behind her. I bet you didn’t expect it to be red!

Max Chu, class of 2020

Poetry Inspired by Music By Nadja Goldberg

Carmina Burana is a cantata written by Carl Orff in the 1930s, using the Latin text from a collection of medieval poems. A cantata is a narrative piece of music with singing and musical instruments. On April 26, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center, several art departments from SOTA are participating in a show inspired by the works of Carl Orff. The show will involve vocal and instrumental music, a dance performance, and visual artwork; and I and five other creative writers will read pieces we have written in response to the cantata.

To prepare for the show, we met up twice and played sections of the music while writing. As the music resonated throughout the classroom, I was enthralled by the elaborate texture and emotion the music conveyed, with deep, sorrowful solos, delightful, high-pitched melodies, and shrill chords on the violin. We also read the English translation of the 24 Carmina Burana poems, and identified a few common topics from our writing and the poems, such as rivers, mountains, birds, beetles, spring, and cycles. We each then wrote a piece incorporating those topics. I wrote a poem about a lakeside scene at dawn:

 

Five Silhouettes

The lilies sit, glossy and ruffled
Atop the navy water; silver wisps of fog
Drift slowly; from the murky shore, a frog
Croaks a persistent, heavy heartbeat.

The moon hovering, bright and full
Coats the water’s surface with
A white, gleaming sheet.
Frozen, windless air—
Unmoving like a buried breath,
Fearful under the moon
And its unceasing glare.

A single loon drifts along.
Beneath it, water ripples, trembles.

Five silhouettes ascend
The distant hillside; footsteps brisk,
Rhythmic, as pale sunbeams peek
Eagerly over mountain tops, extend
Long fingers that lightly tap a creek
Trickling through grass; night becomes day.

A tiny swift darts overhead;
Sharp wings and tail poke
Up at sky as it lands
On a twisting branch;
Chirps a sugary melody.

Two of the five silhouettes
Tilt softly outlined faces
Toward the swaying tree top.

Kar Johnson by Angelica LaMarca

Kar Johnson In Creative Writing II, the juniors and seniors have recently completed a unit with artist in residence Kar Johnson, where we studied the “personal” and “political” and how these labels may become interchangeable in the context of poetry. Over the course of about two months, we studied various poets such as Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Carolyn Forche, and how their work pertains to our course aim. We spent much of class time discussing “-ism”s present in our society, and how poetry may be wielded as a vehicle through which to combat said injustices in an accessible, well-articulated form.

One of the first pieces Kar brought in was an article by Audre Lorde, entitled “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Here, it is emphasized the importance of speaking out against injustices, even if it makes you afraid. Lorde begins the article by citing a cancer diagnosis as the provoker of a p deeperiod of self reflection, as it forced her to recognize her own mortality. It was during this time when Lorde realized the artificiality of silence; whether or not one chooses to combat injustice, injustice will always be there. This concept really impacted me. After being introduced to this article, I found myself, in small ways, explicitly attempting to defend myself in situations both personal and political. I learned that it is always worth a try.

In our country, there is a tendency to view “ism”s as impersonal, abstract concepts. Those who are privileged may view incidences of racism/sexism/etc as simply newspaper headlines because these injustices don’t intimately affect their lives, and hence, the experiences of marginalized people are needlessly politicized. The politicization of these topics is often used to dismiss those who speak out as those who are “concerned with politics” rather than those who are simply articulating their realities. I think it is important to acknowledge that what’s “political” is often also personal, especially for those who are marginalized and do not have the privilege of having their stories be the default narrative.

Here is a poem I wrote near the conclusion of our time with Kar, entitled:
“When The Ocean Decided To Investigate”.

When the ocean decided to investigate
there were albatross babes in the schoolyard
and the farmer
was arranging to wheel his grapefruits up to the town

so when

the tapered inns on the cliff-fringe suddenly began to
uncrease themselves
as the hazy manes

of ocean waves
surged in

I watched my cushions                             simply bloat up with salt
as otters filled my slippers and my stove

I maneuvered my way up the chimney
with porphyra in my mouth

only to find two swordfish gasping on the unsoused roof
the neighbors yowling out to God
and
unfar

the approaching yokes of sea foam!

Sometimes I am afraid I am this obvious.

In kelped vehicles
invaded women pinch the water out of their sleeves.

Look, there: the man is sprawled across a spinning minced mattress
he purrs
as the sea lifts him closer to the chandelier

and there: submerged

delicate boys cork sea shells into their ears
in hopes
the air in their heads
will help them float back up

Angelica LaMarca, class of 2018

The Sophomore Poetry Lessons by Eva Whitney

For the six weeks preceding Winter Break, the Creative Writing Department focused on poetry. We split into Creative Writing One and Creative Writing Two, or, more simply, the underclassmen and upperclassmen. In Creative Writing One, we spent the majority of the six weeks reading from The Discovery of Poetry, a poetry anthology edited by Frances Mayes. All sixteen of us would sit around a big table as if we were about to have a grand feast, and, with the hum of Creative Writing Two in the adjacent room, we dove into sestinas and sonnets and villanelles from an assortment of poets, contemporary and ancient. It was truly like the poems we read fed us! I felt full of words and ideas after each class.

The poetry unit allowed me to get back into the swing of writing as we wrote a poem nearly every night. Circling around that grand table and hearing how each person interpreted the prompt the day after was always fascinating, and I found myself able to finally find the same joy in poetry that I found last year and lost over the summer.

For the first week of December, at the end of our six weeks of poetry, the sophomores of the Creative Writing Department taught poetry lessons about our cultural heritage to our fellow sophomores and the freshmen. We heard lessons about Chinese Communism, Korean Commu- nism, the Beat Generation, Russian Communism, and Immigrants. A sophomore would bring in an array of poems of their choosing and we would discuss them and pick them apart, and even write in conversation with them. It was a way to learn about each other better, as well as hear po- etry that the six of us find beautiful and fascinating.

In my lesson, I hoped to introduce Zen Buddhist poetry to my peers as an approachable section of poetry. Buddhism is often revered for its difficulty, but many do not realize how accessible the religion, or even just its core practices, can be. I brought in poetry by Gary Snyder, Ikkyu Sojun, Philip Whalen, Stonehouse, Jane Hirshfield, and Ryokan. I created pairs of poems, alternating between a contemporary Buddhist poet and an ancient one. The poems of each pair were connected somehow; I did this in hopes of showing how constant Buddhist values are and how even poets from four centuries ago could share the same experiences or have the same ideas as a living Buddhist poet.

Teaching this lesson and experiencing my peers’ lessons was entirely rewarding. Know- ing that I may have made a slight impact on one of the students fills me with a simple joy! Zen Buddhism has been such a large part of my childhood, and now young-adulthood, so to share it with my peers was a special experience. It took some strength on my part to constantly share my ideas and keep everyone engaged, which is not something that comes naturally to me, but after- ward, I was glad I persevered. Watching my classmates do the same impressed me immensely, and allowed me to see them as real, capable people with interesting backgrounds.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

Haiku by Xuan Ly

For the past month, Heather has led the freshmen and sophomores through a six-week poetry unit. We have read and analyzed many wonderful poems such as E.E. Cummings’ “Chanson Innocente,” Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and Rupert Brooke’s “Sonnet Reversed.” We have explored concrete poetry (or shaped poetry), open form poetry, and traditional form poetry. The most recent traditional style we have learned about is the haiku.

This form of traditional poetry originates from Japan. The Japanese courtsmen would pass letters in 5-7-5 form for the recipient to respond in 7-7 syllable form. This five line, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable poem they would create is called the tanka. The haiku comes from the longer tanka, taking only the beginning 5-7-5 part. Courtsmen would write about a single moment in nature that expresses something larger than the haiku describes. For example, this haiku about the emotions the speaker felt after a staring eye-to-eye with a snake by Kyoski:

The snake slid away.
But the eyes that glared at me
Remained in the grass.

This poem describes moment after locking eyes with a snake. The glare stays in the speaker’s mind similar to an afterimage. The first line slips off the tongue like a snake slithers smoothly through grass. One of the words that stands out the most is “glared” in the second line. It breaks the silky feeling that the first line gives. The word “glared” portrays an intensity of the moment that cannot come across by using a word like “gazed.” The third line, “remained in the grass,” signifies the impression that the snake left on the speaker. It also could represent the shedding of the snake’s skin that often shows change. If this poem were taken into the context of real life relationships, the snake could represent someone that came in and out of the speaker’s life but left a lasting impression that the speaker cannot forget. There are so many ways readers can interpret this haiku, which is one of the most amazing aspects of this traditional form.

Haikus may be one of the most well-known forms of poetry. The haiku is seemingly straightforward, but as we learned this week, haikus complement Japanese culture’s appreciation for nature and simplicity. We also experienced the difficulty in creating such a short beautiful representation of nature and life relationships. In class, Heather had us collaborate with the person to our right to create a tanka. One person would begin by writing a haiku. We would then pass the poem to the next person for them to respond in two lines written in 7-7 syllable form to complete the tanka. The result of the tankas were astonishing. The thoughtful lines and responses connected so well. Despite the similarities of nature and love, each tanka was entirely unique to themselves.

Writing haikus is much for difficult than throwing words into a form. Haikus are intended to express nearly indescribable emotions and surroundings in only a few syllables.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021

The Poetry Unit by Nadja Goldberg

We are now entering the fourth week of our six week poetry unit. In this unit we have discussed and practiced many aspects of poetry: the traditional forms (sonnets, quatrains, etc.), rhyme schemes, the shape of poems, concrete and abstract imagery, metaphors and similes, and more. Our studies are based on reading The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes, a book that explores many poetic devices and provides a range of examples for each one. Every night, we have a poem prompt due the following class. The prompts are usually related to the area of poetry we were focusing on that day or inspired by a poem we read. For example, after reading “A Blessing” by James Wright, our assignment was to write a poem with the same title. Another time, when we were learning about traditional forms, we were asked to write a poem with a traditional form about a certain mode of vehicular transportation (train, car, boat etc.).

After numerous nights with poem prompts, we did a day of workshopping where each of us brought in three of our favorite poems and received written and verbal feedback from the three members of our workshopping group. I think this practice is what truly strengthens our writing, as it allows us to get helpful criticism from classmates who also have experience with poetry, and it gives us a chance to listen to and appreciate others’ poetry.

I first took interest in poetry when I had to write five to ten poems for my portfolio. At first, that was the part of my portfolio I dreaded, and when I started writing it, I considered it my weakest style of writing. But as I began to study famous poems and write more poems to submit, working intensively to revise them, I realized I was actually enjoying it. Now that we are diving into the art of poetry in Creative Writing and I have several assignments to inspire my own poetry, I cherish the time I have to work on my poem when I get home from school.

After the process of revising a poem, I often like to compare the revised copy to the initial version and notice how much it has evolved. Here is an example:

Before:

Adolescence

At night the park transforms.

The jungle gym
that once invited me
to clamber
to the top
now stands
in its cold, metal
complexity
in which I fear
I will be trapped
A trail pressed in grass
from wandering feet
that trek countless circles
waiting for the right moment
to stop
Stars point through drifting holes
in fraying fog
As the wind
brings a chill
to my skin.

 

After:

At Night the Park Transforms

The jungle gym
invited us to clamber up
vibrant blue, criss-crossed ladder
hook spindly legs around a bar
and dangle
shirts plummeting
pale bellies revealed
faces turned crimson from gathering blood

Despite the heaving effort
put upon upside-down lungs and heads
we laughed

When vigorous rounds of tag
left bodies taken over
by automatic rapid breaths
that inflated and deflated our tiny torsos
we lay in shady splotches
on mounds of damp soil
beneath sun-soaked leaves
coolness extinguishing the flames
on our cheeks

Now
as I press a trail in grass
with wandering feet
the jungle gym stands
daunting
in its cold, metal complexity
in which I fear
I will be trapped

Once refreshing shade
has become eerie moon shadows
trickling toward me

Formerly
friends frolicked on cloudless afternoons
that rolled into exuberant evenings
munching candied fruit and salted nuts
crumbly crackers and crinkled chips

Now
years later
I tread countless circles
at nightfall

My dog follows
with weary paws
drowsy
longing to return home

Though numbness stiffens
each limb of my sleep deprived body
I cannot stop trudging
I’m waiting
for the pound of thoughts to deccelerate
hoping, pleading
I won’t have to lie
when I look into my parents’ faces
their eyebrows sloped with concern
and say
“I’m alright.”

Stars point through drifting holes
in fraying fog
as the wind
brings a chill
to my skin.

Nadja Goldberg, class of 2021

Funicular by Sequoia Hack

Lately, I have been thoroughly enjoying playing with form in poetry. Our current six-week unit, poetry, has enabled me to freely experiment with the shape of the work I produce. We were recently instructed to write a piece about a vehicle of our choosing. The form of our work must correlate with the vehicle of choice. My poem describes a funicular’s ascent to the summit of a mountain. I wrote twelve rhyming couplets and placed them to depict the steady upward direction in which it travels.

Take one last breath of sea-level air
I promise you will need it to stay aware

Place a cautious foot on wooden planks
now is the time to give your thanks

Don’t look down, please just trust me this time
we are only beginning this climb

Once doors close there is no turning back
zone out to the rhythmic click and clack

Snow covered meadows glisten to your left
heartbeats seem absurdly fast, are you stressed?

Why do your clever eyes appear forlorn
for you should not be feeling such scorn

This is a once-in- a-lifetime experience
do not furrow your brows and appear so furious

Atop the summit, you may sigh
but to the village below, wave goodbye

Hold in your nausea for one more second
the end of the track is nearing, I recon

Look! We made it to the mountain top
wait to get off, your pulse will surely stop

Go on, take a step through the door
I cannot wait to dash off and explore

Emptying its riders atop the peak
trusty funiculars prove not weak

Sequoia Hack, class of 2021

A Poem Every Day by Hannah Duane

With the onset of winter, the Literary Arts department has begun poetry, so for the past week Creative Writing 1 has been writing and analyzing poems daily. I have been enjoying the simplicity of theses exercises. Every afternoon I arrive for Creative Writing, and settle into the warm room for our careful analysis of a variety of styles of poetry.

I’ve been hearing poetry for most of my life. My father would read me William Carlos Williams poems as bedtime stories, and I can still remember him telling me how Williams’s simple but precise language was what made each poems melodious and refreshing. Now, being able to discuss poetry with friends has been insightful as well as enjoyable. Reading poetry is also crucial for writing poetry. It’s hard to improve one’s own work without reading masterful examples to learn the craft. My personal favorite poem of the week was “An Atlas of the Difficult World” by Adrienne Rich, a freeform piece with the refrain “I know you are reading this poem,” that creates a comforting feel, assuring both the reader and writer that they are not alone in their appreciation for poetry. Imagery also creates pockets of worlds, familiar and unfamiliar.   

For homework each night, we write a poem. Monday night was emerging from a blank screen and noticing the space around ourselves, Tuesday a blessing, Wednesday an invitation and Thursday an aubade (a poem about dawn and the morning). Though before joining the department I wrote poems fairly frequently, I have found formalizing the ritual and having a prompt as well as editing to be relaxing and informative. Most days there is an opportunity to share these prompts, and reading my work aloud for my classmates, while nerve racking was encouraging. We discuss everyone’s piece, which gives room for feedback. For me, sharing is definitely a stretch out of my comfort zone, but is also a positive and informative experience. I don’t know what to expect for the next five weeks of poetry, but I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer and make connections with the people in the department.

Hannah Duane, class of 2021

Spring Poetry by Dalia Harb

For the past month, Creative Writing has been in our poetry unit. In this unit, the sophomores have each taught a one-to-two day lesson surrounding their culture. This unit has been enchanting and delightful. Each new theme has been refreshing and taught me something new. I have been able to explore new cultures and writing originating from it, and my own writing has evolved with each new style. The sophomores give us poetry prompts at the end of their unit, a way to extend the lesson past the classroom and allowing us to experiment with writing on our own.

These units have helped my poetical voice develop. Through workshopping and reading new pieces, my writing has improved immensely.

Being able to explore the different poems from multiple cultures has opened my eyes to the different styles of poetry. With each unit, my eyes have been opened to exciting new voices and forms of poetry.

If I were to teach my own mini-unit I would bring in some poems surrounding Middle-Eastern culture. I would bring in some poems, such as ones by Mahmoud Darwish and Naomi Shihab Nye.

This unit is different from our previous unit, fiction, because in our poetry unit we have a larger range of diverse writers. In our poetry unit it has been much more personal and, while teaching us plenty about the culture, it has taught us about the person teaching the unit too.

My favorite has been Solange’s unit which was focused African-American culture. Solange brought in poems and showed us music videos by artists like Solange Knowles, Beyoncé, and Todrick Hall. These were significant because she was able to compare contemporary African-American poetry to older works, and how both still combat the same issues.

We get weekend prompts as well from Heather Woodward, our department head. One of the prompts was to write a poem having to do with a conspiracy theory. This was our first one given therefore the weakest of my poems this unit.

When we turn in the prompt to the sophomore who assigned it, they read over and edit it. Then we fix the edits they had made. We’re to edit all of our poems from this unit and hand them in as a portfolio.

We will be able to use the poems we have written for our upcoming poetry cafe. The poetry unit has been my favorite thus far. It has given me the opportunity to delve into different cultures and enhance my knowledge on certain topics, such as Native American dances and the history of Tagalog. I look forward to see what next year’s poetry unit holds.

Dalia Harb, class of 2020