Writing poems around a theme

Poet and author Shirley McPhillips is back today with a post on how to harvest students’ interest around a specific topic so that it opens up writing possibilities. For more tips on poetry in the classroom, head over to the Stenhouse website to preview Shirley’s book Poem Central.

All I Want to Write About is ——: Poems Around a Theme
By Shirley McPhillips

poem-centralWhat to do about Jerome. “All he wants to do is write about dogs.” Mandy’s a head-scratcher. “She draws stars and spaceships all over everything.” Lawrence is exasperating sometimes. “He’s been scribbling for two months with one topic to show for it. Basketball.”

I read somewhere that writers have only one or two seminal themes in their lives. That everything they write comes out of those. I have no data but I think that’s probably true for many writers. The ideas, situations, experiences, beliefs that infuse and fuel what we think, what we do.

So why not share this notion with Jerome and Mandy and Lawrence? That it’s okay, even grand, to pull different types of writing out of the same writing well. Get them making a collection around a theme. Many poets do.

I’ve given Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs to so many friends for one dog reason or another over the past couple of years. For these folks, one dog poem is not enough. It’s about that special human-canine relationship. It’s also sharing what that relationship reveals about the meaning of our own lives. If I could locate Jerome, I’d put a copy of Dog Songs in the mail.

A few years ago, Tess Gallagher wrote a serious, playful, sassy book called Portable Kisses. “There are as many nuances and inflections for kisses as there are lips to kiss,” she said.

Swirl by Swirl, Joyce Sidman’s nonfiction poems celebrate the elegance and usefulness of spiral shapes in the natural world and across galaxies. Mandy could have used this for inspiration.

Lawrence’s passion for basketball might have been greatly validated as a force for writing if he could have read the 2015 Newbery Medal Winner: The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. In this coming-of-age novel in verse, we come to know something of the lives of two brothers, both on and off the court. Also, imagine Lawrence being inspired by another sports enthusiast, poet and anthologist Paul B. Janeczko. That Sweet Diamond, a collection of his own baseball poems, shows all the magic, grace and grit of the game from “Prayer for the Umpires” to “How to Spit.”

As we’ve said, collecting around a theme of one’s own poems is an instructive and rewarding project. So is making an anthology around a theme of other poets’ work.* Imagine Jerome getting to read lots of dog poems by other poets. And him, as editor, deciding what poems he would include in this collection. Why this poem? Why would I put these poems together in a collection? Do they fit together in some way? Do I want a variety of style? Length? Tone? In what order will I arrange them? What’s a good poem to begin? To end? What title will reflect this collection as a whole?

Recently, I was asked to submit a poem to a future anthology called Amore: Love Poems being edited by Johnny M. Tucker, Jr. Such an engaging project for me to peruse some of my poems asking: Is this a love poem? What makes this a love poem? Can love lost, or love denied, be considered a love poem? Can it be a love poem without reference to a person? Looking through the lens of “love,” poems took on new meaning. A couple were obviously love poems from the title on—“Love, Off Guard.” Others, like “Selfies of Autumn,” may not be as obvious to a reader until the epigram is considered and the story beneath the text blooms.

This poem appears in a new book, Acrylic Angel of Fate (2016, Finishing Line Press, KY).

Selfies of Autumn
(for Barbara Caldwell)

The day drips with the elixir
of autumn—a dark honey
of orange, a sadness of red,
the steadfastness of green.

A rainpool of birds slap
the summer’s heat from their wings;
beaks strip their feathers as if
to neaten up for a brave new day.

In the garden, I pose with the ghosts
of spring peonies. I can still breathe
their ambrosia heavy as wine, still feel
their heads lean.

Along the woodpath, squirrels
tear and leap, leap and tear, delirious
with an onset of primal intuition.

Above them the bittersweet vine,
blood-burned, still wants to reach,
to wind.

A windburst stirs the leaves
to the gripping point. One golden
soul, all lightness and fluttering heart,
twists and soars.

But time just won’t, I think,
allow for drift. I’ll snap a picture
for eternity, I say. You and me
against the starry cold.

—Shirley McPhillips

(Turn to p. 278 of Shirl’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers for a list called “Gathering of Flowers: Anthologies of Poetry.”)

Add comment April 19th, 2016

A picture and a poem: An intimate connection

We are happy to celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse’s resident poet and author, Shirley McPhillips. In this guest post, Shirl talks about finding connections between paintings and poems, about creating “art from art.” At the end of her post, be sure to look at her paintings and try your hand at writing a few lines inspired by the images. Share it in the comments section for a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s book, Poem Central.

A picture and a poem: An intimate connection
By Shirley McPhillips

I’m growing more and more to believe that our fundamental task as human beings is to  seek out connections—to exercise our imaginations.

—Katherine Paterson, The Spying Heart

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It’s all about making connections, both in learning and in life. When objects and activities of the outside world meet an inner world of consciousness and imagination, there is a chance for new perspective, new possibility. In this exchange we develop a sense of self, an anticipation of finding new ideas.

Recently my friend Molly and I had the opportunity to set up an exhibit of our art work for a month in a local library: watercolor, acrylic, found-wood sculptures. Being poets as well, we wanted viewers to find  connections between the visual and the word.

We mounted some of our original poems along with one or two established and student poems and placed them among the paintings. The content of poem and art may have suggested a direct alliance—e.g., “Birdhouse on the Old Outhouse” next to a watercolor of that scene. Or a loose connection like a sound poem next to the abstract “Rooster Ruckus.” Or a random juxtaposition with no obvious connection. Better, we thought, for reaching. Or head scratching.

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Poems and art together on display

As an added opportunity to interact with the art work, we set up a “Poet’s Corner.” A place for viewers to invite the muse. To sit in a quiet place, contemplate what they were observing and reading and to compose a short poem of their own. They could write off things around them in their lives, or think off a mounted poem or work of art in the exhibit. If the muse was busy right then, folks could compose at home and put the poem in the book later.

It was important for us to make the “corner” writer-friendly:

-A framed invitation to write, with a quote from Seamus Heaney:

Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it;

            –a small bistro table;

-a Tibetan bench:

-a blue, glass pen holder for pencils (If any disappeared, we imagined they were greatly needed elsewhere, and just replaced them.);

-various types of Post-It notes and paper;

And most importantly, an elegant, flat-lying, “guest book” for poems and art with a photo of a George Bellows painting we mounted on front.

As the book opens, Jack’s hand-printed poem graces page one. He writes of a painting by Eli Rosenthal. His poem encourages those who come after, eliminating “first page shock.”

On Poetry Night, visitors browsed the exhibit, chatted with one another about the art, the poems (and the “nuance” of the Pinot Noir), then settled down for an evening of presentation. Presenters responded in various ways: Expressive readings, movement inspired by a painting or poem, a reading with shamanic drum interpretation, telling a memory connected with a painting, and so on.

At the end of the evening, a few folks who had contributed to the “Guest Book” read their poems and told about connections they had made which resulted in this work.

 

Scan 2016-4-7 0005People who participated in “A Picture and a Poem: An Intimate Connection” said it best:

Ted: The painting of the birdhouse on the old outhouse cast me right back to my grandmother. Visiting her in the summer.. The weathered boards. Wasps’ nests inside! Her standing outside humming a tune so I wouldn’t be scared. A big hug afterwards. I haven’t felt that safe since.

Marley: “Ah sunflower weary of time.” Blake’s poem. We had to memorize it in high school. I went up to that painting first. Sunflowers are my favorite flowers. I wanted to think about why. Their faces. The connection to the sun. The casting off of so many seeds.

For lots more ideas about making art from art, you might refer to “Poets Facing Art: Ekphrastic Poems,” on page 196 in Shirley’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers.

HELLO READER.

Take up the pen. “Dig with it.”

We invite you to look at Shirley’s paintings below. (Or choose an artwork you like.) What do you notice? What does that make you say? Ask? Remember? Pretend you are sitting or standing somewhere inside this painting. Look around. Write a short poem and leave it in the comments section or e-mail it to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. Have fun with it!

Scan 2016-3-5 0002-1 Scan 2016-3-5 0002-5 Scan 2015-7-27 0017-1

6 comments April 11th, 2016

The Results of Our Twitter Poetry Contest

We are excited to announce the winner and honorable mentions of our Twitter Poetry contest. The challenge was to write a poem in 140 characters or less. Shirley McPhillips, poet and author of the recent book Poem Central, served as our judge.

And the winner is….

HER by Erika Zeccardi

curved back
leans against the maple,
bare branches outstretched.
Faint whispers of red river valley
dance across the yard

IMG_1747

Honorable mentions:

BROTHER LUCIEN EXPLAINS THE VOW OF SILENCE AT FONTENELLE ABBEY

Allowed to speak? Yes.
Of course. But always we must
have something to say.

–Carol Kellogg

Phoenix rises from ashes
Memories in flashes
Fall hard on ground
Voices call her
Daggers take her
A new day begins

–A.T.

Clairvoyance?
Tomorrow’s mystery today?
Please, no.
Now needs full attention.
I can’t afford spending
today with tomorrow.

–Chris Kostenko

Congratulations to Erika, as well as to Chris, A.T., and Carol! Keep writing!

3 comments May 8th, 2015


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