Hunting for Poetry by Benjamin Leuty

Hunting is the wrong word. It is only fitting that this blog post about writer’s block should begin with a contradiction. But hunting is the wrong word. Too brutish, too primitive. As if I’m leaving the house wearing nothing but fox pelts, a notebook in one hand, and a club in the other. I’m leaving with neither and I wear regular person clothes. Sometimes I’m not leaving the house at all.

That first paragraph is perhaps the most appropriate example of my dilemma. Absent-minded musings about “hunting” and “poetry” and “foxes,” disgusting. I’ve been scouring the internet for some time now and much to my chagrin, most of the articles and remedies for writer’s block are written with an aura of thin detachment like the authors, between bouts of writer’s block, have already forgotten what it was like. So I thought to myself “Hey Benny, you write. You’re a writer. You write. You should write about writer’s block but not after you’ve overcome it, while you’re still in its grip,” as a catalog of sorts for future study. Genius. What my writing has been lacking for some time now is any sense of urgency and forward motion. I might enjoy individual sentences within that first paragraph, but altogether it doesn’t really get the reader anywhere, not to me at least.

It’s easy to chalk up this lack of focus to the quarantine and not my approach to writing but that notion is the opposite of comforting. The idea that writer’s block could swing in like a train (wait a sec); the idea that writer’s block could snuggle (nope); the idea that writer’s block could suddenly creep up on me like some sort of lizard-bug (time to move on) has the power to stick with me and keep me doubting any future success I have in writing. I refuse to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, wondering when I’ll suddenly be unable to write again. So ok, forward motion. What have I been doing to counteract this writing lethargy?

When I have writer’s block, it does not mean I am lacking in some kind of nebulous creative energy or divine writer’s karma, just lacking the ability to string that creative energy together in the moment. So I’ve been training myself to pounce on any remotely interesting thoughts I have and let them stew for a while in my notes app instead of immediately trying to jam them into a poem and forgetting them. Perhaps this is why I used the word “hunting” in the title. One part of me has hidden the poems, and they do not want to be found, and the other part of me is seeking them out. Eventually, I discover my poems in bits and pieces. Coaxing them off the street and into my notes app. Here are my notes after a short walk through my neighborhood:

  • I want to hop that fence
  • Some days I only see the sun in windows and mirrors
  • A ball bouncing against the rim
  • Brake lights = very red
  • DUCK QUACK QUACK DUCK
  • Fireflies and embers
  • Yummy stew (I never said these were all good)

And here is the rough draft of a poem I wrote the following week:

Noriega

                       I crave a “hop the fence” kind of certainty 

I crave the truth                                 until it turns me brake light red 

And some days I only see the sun 

Through windows and mirrors.

And some days I only see the sun. 

                                                          And speaking of red, some days fireflies 

                                                                    And embers are the same     

And some days, 

across from the burger restaurant,

The old men congregate to smoke cigars beneath 

This week’s billboard for cannabis. 

      

                                                               I see them on my walk.

And speaking of the restaurant 

      See at the condo beside it 

   Standing above the houses, standing 

Or leaning   against the grey sea   

See the planter bursting with too much dirt, bursting

                                                                       And now I stroll towards the ocean.

Look, there are basketball courts 

Where the school was

                                                           The ball bouncing on the rim sounds the same

Regardless of where it falls- 

Through the hoop or not.

Regardless of where it falls

And it scares me. 

Reach the ocean.

Find the Bird scooters and Lyft bikes 

Abandoned or locked by the beach’s edge

A ball will never bounce on sand 

A condo will never be larger than the sea

Embers and fireflies both start fires 

Not all fences are chainlink 

Some have teeth 

And minds.

It is by no means polished, but this piece is the first step towards slowly lifting myself out of this writing rut I’m in. One poem at a time. 

Benjamin Leuty, Class of ‘22

An English Class Poem by Emilie Mayer

Three weeks into my English class’s poetry unit I had managed to produce nothing that I could be proud of —although that could in part be due to my pandemic-induced creative rut. All of my poems were shine with no depth. They contained long, elegant lines, but I for one could not tell you what they meant. It was at this moment that a chance conversation with my student teacher completely turned my mentality upside down. Another student had expressed their struggle with producing work, which had compelled my student teacher to give an off-the-cuff monologue on writing. He had said, “Poetry is all feeling. Just write down your emotions, and then add in the fancy words later.” It sounded so simple. In fact, the Creative Writing Department Head had said something similar a few weeks before: “Your work doesn’t mean anything unless you’re taking risks. You should be crying over your poetry at times.” Even Emily Dickenson said, “If I physically feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know it is poetry.” 

And so, I did as I was prompted. Later that class period I sat down with my notepad and wrote about a moment that I had been unable to express up until that point. My inability to write stemmed from my search for the “correct” words. The moment that I just wrote whatever came to mind, my memories were finally able to exist on the page. Granted, the piece I produced was rough. After several revisions, I still believe that it needs about a hundred more drafts of work. But still, while I was writing that poem I cried. And I remembered the hidden and beautiful world of literature—the reason why I came to S.O.T.A. in the first place.

Emilie Mayer, Class of ’23

Stretching My Fingers Between Revelations: Poetry With Tongo Eisen-Martin by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

We had only three class periods with Tongo Eisen-Martin, current poet laureate of San Francisco, yet his effect on my zest for craft was immense. He imparted countless quotable pieces of knowledge. My hand could not write them down fast enough, and more than once I had to stretch my fingers between revelations. What were perhaps most notable were his various definitions of poetry, a bottomless well of angles:

“Poetry is a play on perception.”

“Poetry is how your mind wants to communicate when not tasked with social survival.”

“Poetry is in the intersections of a place’s backstories.”

Tongo’s preface to the unit was to assure us that if the advice he gave was not proving helpful for any reason, that did not put us in the wrong, or make us worse at our craft. This introduction paved the way for a laid back environment, and set everyone in the room equal to each other in terms of whether what we had to say was valuable. This was not a throwaway sentiment either, or a false impression of understanding. I believe his words were, 

“If you don’t vibe with what I say, don’t worry about it.” 

“I’ll be giving you potentials, not policies.”

“The speed of light in your universe can be different than it is in mine.” 

“My best line is no better than yours. It’s just that I extend them, hit them more often.”

The acknowledgement that as students we were worthy of respect, as well as not-yet-seasoned writers, was a large part of what made Tongo’s unit so beneficial to me. It did not hurt that, as many of us observed, Tongo’s intonation makes everything he says sound wise and significant.

The second day of the unit was dedicated to tips on dealing with writer’s block. I have often become frustrated in my education with the concept of manufacturing a push of creativity when writing poetry. Every one of my instructors has told me that the solution to writer’s block is to write; the act of expelling the bad poetry makes way for the good. I have ignored that lesson an egregious number of times. Writing bad lines when one could be avoiding it by not picking up the pen in the first place is horribly painful. Instead, I would wait it out, and when the next line hit me, unfortunate relief came with it. The self-righteous element of my mind said it was alright to wait for the elusive burst of inspiration, as it always yielded the best work. That is a blatant lie, but how convenient would it be if it wasn’t? I rarely pushed myself past the line where bad poetry finally turned useful again, like giving up on running water through dirty pipes until it emerges clear. 

Tongo told us that “writing is the art of beating writer’s block.” From this , I was already beginning to mentally reframe the experience. He gave us a list of tricks, simple exercises and tools. For example, line one can be bad. Then make line two a negation of line one. Then make line three something both the first and second voice can agree on. I’ll give you another: think of the poem as a living picture, and work at bringing individual craft techniques to the foreground.

“Use your internal weather to induce different voices,” or

“Don’t move the camera, move yourself,” or

“In every good line, there are implied questions.”

I could go on. Would you look at that, I said to myself, writer’s block is a persistent and constant part of writing. Here are ways to play a game with it, and cheat it out of the pleasure of clogging creativity up.

Tongo’s three days with us left me with pages of nuanced perspectives and fresh tactics. And it was not only the content of his lessons but the way they were presented which struck a particularly resonant chord. Not a lecture, not a diagram of the perfect poetic process, but an honest reflection of what he had learned in his time, and what we could learn in ours. 

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, Class of ’22

Letting Go & Just Listening by Leela Sriram

Translation is a key factor of life. We translate words in our heads when speaking. We translate the world by noting the colors and sounds that are seen and heard around us. We translate from language to language in spanish class. 

Last weeks unit in Creative Writing 1 with CW alumni: Josie Weidner, Noa Mendoza-Goot and Violeta Sticotti, was all about how translation is not just translating from language to language, but a way to interpret the world and society and transform the world into how we see Earth and society from our perspective. 

On the second day of “A Week in Translation,” CW I partook in an independent activity that let us free ourselves from the eye strain and headaches from the piercing bright lights that illuminate from the computer, and instead just listen to the world around us. A sound map charts down all of the intricate sounds created by the world around us, such as the echoes in the voices of hikers walking in Golden Gate park, or the scratching sound of a dog’s paws on a dirt path. This activity helped me let go of my mind and just listen to the world, and observe the sounds in the park that I hadn’t ever really paid attention to due to being caught up in my own thoughts. 

After drawing out my sound map, I thought intently about the connection sounds in nature have to translation. The two almost seem completely incomparable, but translation is not as simple as speaking Spanish and then saying the same sentence in English. Translation is not just verbal, but also auditory. A large part of translation is connecting sounds to visuals and objects. Translation is just putting together one big puzzle that is understanding the world.

Leela Sriram, Class of ’23

Decisions on the Cultural Heritage Project by Gemma Collins

With the new semester just beginning, the start of the fiction unit draws near. This year CW 1 is starting off the fiction unit with the sophomore cultural heritage lessons. These lessons, carefully planned and culminated over the entire past semester, are crucial parts of the preparedness for CW 2. As of the past Thursday, the presentations have started. I spent a large portion of my time this winter break editing and perfecting my own lesson plan and coming up with my best idea on what to teach the group about. This was a daunting decision, considering that for most of the year, I was wavering between different subjects to talk about and contemplating what I thought would provide the most educational yet enthralling lesson. 

When thinking about my culture, the foundation of the assignment, I found myself coming up blank. The presentation is centered around talking about ourselves, something I am not used to doing. The freedom of subjects to discuss was both freeing and confusing, as with the ability to pursue multiple ideas comes the dreaded need to make decisions for oneself. I never felt connected to any specific background, so when deciding my topic for my project, I decided to steer clear of the “culture/race/ethnicity” genre and into other possibilities.

Then there were the options of music, but I am definitely not the most musical person. I spent winter break going back and forth until I finally solidified my idea. I thought about what I felt passionate about and began my project on environmentalist poems. The best plan I could muster, I found poems to use and began to build my powerpoint complete with writing prompts and a homework assignment all based on poems that make a call to action. Soon my presentation was complete and I just needed to survive the presentation. 

A poem that I wrote while working on my project:

A Walk

I don’t know that I’ll be alive
If the world is run hot and dry,
Like a desert with a red sky.
A red sky that possibly in the far reaches
Of the atmosphere has one breath that
Escaped my mouth when things were 
Green for a little longer.

I am here now in a little longer.

When things were green.
How long a little longer is, I’m unsure.
I’m going on a walk today to
Appreciate a the green
Although I admit it will be hard not to be 
Distracted by crusty gum on the sidewalk
Or sewage smell at the bottom
Of the hill. 
But the walk is meant to be appreciative, so
I better not get hung up on 
undeniable bad things. 

I run my fingertips in the rosemary bush
Which I haven’t done in a while. 
I may not know how long a little longer is
But I know a while is 5 years.
5 years but the fresh scent is still as sweet
As my memory of it.
I hear two parrots squawk
In the tree above me, dropping red berries.
Their noise isn’t exactly pleasant, but
I find some joy in the raining red berries.
I wish it still rained.

Reach the top of the hill and look out at the view—
Bunny shaped clouds and
shimmery water and small waves
the rolling hills 

Can’t forget the city
Downtown buildings twinkle
I can almost feel the hot glittering
Sidewalk,
I look out at the view.

In the corner of my eye

I see the red rolling in.

Gemma Collins, Class of ’23

Poetry & the Greener Pasture by Jesper Werkhoven

I would say that poetry was fun. It was the first step in an enigmatic journey that has, most definitely, started off on too many wrong feet. My Eighth Grade was cut short by a demon sphere I couldn’t ever see, and whatever this is isn’t exactly filling the void. Then, I come here, and I trip on two rocks back to back, landing myself neatly above a drop into a ravine. Finally, after clawing my way back out, I’m greeted with my least favorite way to write. Sounds unfun, doesn’t it? All thanks to some real good paraphrasing.
Poetry was a new experience. For one, I didn’t think I could write it at all during the summer. It turns out I can, and I should probably start trusting myself more. This unit opened my eyes to the possible beauty of poetry. Shame I wanted to close them immediately after reading the instructions for the sonnet. I might miss poetry, now that the unit is over, but I think the excitement of the new topic might eclipse that.

Short stories are my thing. I don’t need deep meaning, or put in thought-provoking imagery. I can just make people fight it out for seventy-eight pages and call it a day. Fiction is freedom for me. It has no restriction other than the restrictions you create for yourself. Now that we’re moving away from poetry, I can finally put the Creative in Creative Writing to the max- or at least, I hope. It might be awhile until I can make people fight it out for seventy-eight pages.

Whatever the next unit throws at me, I’ll be ready to enjoy it to the fullest. Motivation and confidence will replace reluctance and uncertainty, and I’ll be having fun showing off how good of a writer I am to my friends.

Jesper Werkhoven, Class of ’24

CW2 Final Poetry Project by Otto Handler

In Creative Writing Two, we finish off each unit with a larger project. Due to the fact that we have different fellows teaching each of these units, these projects look different every time. I am a junior and getting ready to finish off my first poetry unit in Creative Writing Two. The project that our current poetry fellow, Angie Sijun Lou, introduced was a call for seven poems, most of which we had already been working on over the course of the unit, plus an artist statement, a short artist biography, and an introduction to your work written by another student in the class. This all may seem like a lot, but I planned out my timing well enough and it worked out fine. 

When I started the poetry unit back in early October, I was purposefully trying to write my poems in a singular voice so that the collection would be unified. I had recently immersed myself in the work of Raymond Chandler, and my poetry is inspired by his short and precise images. Chandler was an American writer best known for his mystery stories, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.  His characters are lonely and sharp-tongued, and the world they live in is dark and desperate.  My poems’ speakers feel like the similar people, the way many of Chandler’s stories feature the same famous detective, Philip Marlowe. My poems talk about isolation and being stuck in one’s own thoughts–I was, without meaning to, writing about the pandemic. 

My poetry has taken on a new tone throughout this unit, either because of the current turmoil going on in the world, or just because I felt like I needed a change from the work I was producing before the pandemic started. Whichever was the case, I feel as though this change was an improvement and a sign that I had grown as a poet since Freshmen year.

Otto Handler (Class of ’22)

Poetry With Angie Sijun Lou by Zai Deriu

Our first Creative Writing 2 unit of the year has come to a close. In Creative Writing, we are either taught in one large class with all four grades, or split in two, with freshmen and sophomores in CW1, and juniors and seniors in CW2. This is the first year for my grade, the class of ’22, to be a part of Creative Writing 2. Rather than being taught by Heather, our lovely department head, we are taught by fellows artists. In normal classes, this would typically mean working in the annex of the CW room, but now, it means a separate zoom meeting.

This past unit was poetry, taught by Angie Sijun Lou. Despite all the current difficulties of maintaining a successful class online, Angie has been a wonderful teacher for these past seven weeks. We would typically read a few pieces of poetry, discuss them, and then spend the rest of our time on a writing exercise. Other days, we would workshop each other’s poetry, offering compliments and criticism. By the end of her unit, I feel sad to see Angie go. Being stuck at home and doing school online makes it difficult to feel motivated, and without leaving the house, it is easy to feel as though the days mush into one another. The structure of CW during Angie’s unit helped remedy that for me. 

Being taught in a small group with the class of ’21 again for the first time since my freshman year feels quite nice. With the smaller group, class feels more intimate and community-based. I feel close with my own grade, and I think we and the class of ’21 work well together. Moreover, after two years of being taught by Heather in CW1, it’s nice to feel as though I have graduated to my next stage of writing, so to speak. Still, I am excited to go back into the larger group in the coming week and help CW1 with their poetry workshops.

Zai Deriu (Class of ’22)

Creative Writing II Poetry Unit by Tess Horton

The Creative Writing II poetry unit has spanned over the course of the past month. Our artist in residence, Emily Wolahan, structured the six-week unit in a refreshing way: every other week, we read poetry and essays concerning poetry at home, then discuss them in class. Every week in between, we workshop the poems we’ve produced throughout the previous week. This intensive poetry-production-process has tested my ability to constantly keep up the motivation to write. I’ve written poems I like, I’ve written poems I don’t like as much, but the important part of this exercise is that I am writing at all.

Part of the weeks when we aren’t revising is to respond to various in-class prompts that Emily gives us (usually in some relation to a poem/essay we’ve read); one of the prompts I have particularly enjoyed so far was the haibun prompt. A haibun is a three-paragraph prose poem followed by a haiku at the end. Here is the haibun I wrote in response:

The Tambourine Man Haibun

I met the tambourine man behind the carousel when I was a good age. I am not sure whether I was supposed to meet the tambourine man or not. He was sinking in his pinstriped cloak and the hairs shaking on his upper lip seemed to shine, like the black armor beetles sport even on hot Saturdays. The tambourine man was red in many unnatural places. Red on his scalp. Red on his chin and only on the tips of his fingers. Red on the sagging parts of his pants where his skinny knees were supposed to fit. Skinny knees, I thought. The air was hot and I was suddenly glad I wasn’t wearing anything underneath my dress. The tambourine man looked down at me and slapped his hand on his wrist as if he were expecting hard cow skin instead. I was three feet and his bulging sunshine boots were perfect.

 

Yellow morning was the time I put on sunscreen. The day is early and cold with the promise of heat and pink skin later. White cream becomes a pocket item. I hare that white cream. That white cream is sticky, it sticks to my tongue for many hours after I taste it on my thumb. Soap, like soap. Tied down to a felt seat backwards: is this supposed to be fun? I am sad with the white cream. This morning feels like a white box, sterile from its lack of color, and I feel as if I am suffocating in its whiteness, its medicinal taste.

 

The circus is wet and dark. The tent is orange, tethered firmly to the dew-grass beneath the tarp, and when my father opens the front curtain and we enter as a family, the white cream against his lapel smears. This tent is large and dark. The tambourine man plays his cowskin arm off to the side, quiet. I smile at him from my mother’s shoulders.

 

With a gentle hand

The tambourine man leans downwards to greet me

The cream on my hands is sticky, yellow shoes slip against the mud

 

-Tess Horton, class of 2021

Response Poetry Unit by Leela Sriram

I have never been particularly excited about writing poetry. I felt as if my work wasn’t “poetic” enough and I would spend hours deleting and rewriting the same line trying to tweak it into perfection. On the first day in Creative writing, I knew that our performance poetry unit was going to be our first, which stressed me out a little bit because I didn’t have much confidence in what I wrote. As the school year has been progressing, my poetry has been improving slightly each time I write and compared to my summer work I believe I have improved drastically.

Currently, Creative Writing is split into two classes, CW I (a class for the freshmen and sophomores) and CW II (a college-style seminar for the upperclassmen.) In CW I, we are learning about responding to poetry in our new unit, which I like to call our “Response Poetry unit.” Initially, I was a bit daunted by this idea of mimicking the form and style of other poems, mainly because I didn’t really know how to properly use certain literary devices, but after giving these “response poems” a try, I feel more confident in my ability to respond to poems and share out in class. One of my favorite things about our “Response Poetry unit” is that we have a lot of freedom regarding what we can write about, but the poems have to be in a certain format, such as four three-line stanzas and a couplet. So there is a lot to work with within the format, which gives some guidance.

For our “Response Poetry unit,” we have been writing a poem a night, for our project where we make a book filled with all these poems. When first learning about this assignment, the making of a book filled with poetry that we have written in response to other poetry really interested me. Here is a poem I wrote and turned in for this unit, inspired by “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

13 Different Ways of Looking at the Moon

I

Within darkness,

The only thing disturbing

The void, was the glow of the crescent moon

 

II

Wind blew idly by,

As crevices

Creeped up upon the surface

 

III

The Moon Lady is solitary, they say

But she has the sun, for an eternity.

 

IV

The ocean bleeds onto sand

As the First Quarter moon hovers, heavily

 

V

Seven hungry men

Run through every crater

Searching for

The mythic moon cheese

 

VI

Sometimes,

If you look close enough

The moon

Has three eyes

 

VII

The full moon

Enchants the earth

With its melted-silver glow

 

VIII

What is it like to be the moon

To look out at a sea of stars,

Yet the only thing sparkling is you

 

IX

In Between the trees

And the waning gibbous moon

Another twinkle appears

But its just a plane

 

X

Maybe the moon’s

Not just a fan of the dark

But also enjoys time with the sun

 

XI

Drenched in rainwater,

And the moon is still

Shining

 

XII

A tear rolls down

Its rocky crevised face

But the tear never falls off the surface

 

XIII

We fly from coast to coast

In a pitch black sky

The waning crescent moon,

Is always with us.

 

-Leela Sriram, class of 2023