Tag Archives: poetry

The Graduate

I don’t have a long entry in me today since I spent most of my evening touching up a creative project that I ended up entitling “The Graduate.” I had originally posted a preview of it here as “The Gambler,” but adjusted the title so as to better reflect some of the themes of the story.

The story is about two individuals reflecting on a college graduation ceremony that they both attended. One has good memories of it, and more generally of her overall carefree attitude toward her college work, reflected in the fact that she never took any notes in her courses. The other person, a man, is more pensive about that same time, thinking about how so little had happened between his own graduation (further in the past) and the current graduation at hand. It’s sort of a fictional version of the non-fictional history I fleshed-out in an entry on here back in January.

I used some of the cut-and-paste and randomization that I have so far used in my other short stories. There are some snippets of poetry, plus an entire mid section that is a lecture that one person is listening to and not taking notes on. The mini sections near the photos, with the text “The notes:” are perhaps the notes that the more pensive of the two speakers (James) would have taken if he had been there (maybe he was there).

About the photos: I took them of my actual college notebooks from 2004 (you can see the date on one of them as 9/21/04 – my first month in college).  I’ve always liked using handwriting in my creative projects, such as for this poem I once wrote in iA Writer on a Mac and then transcribed by hand and filtered through several apps:


I like the idea of having a dialogue between typed text and written/pictorial text. I had a lot of fun when I used photos of a printed version of the middle section of my first ever short story, “The Loop,” as the actual middle section of the piece (i.e., I didn’t even type it into the Tumblr entry). It lets me put visual art and writing side by side.

With four stories now written, I’m going to do a fifth and then work on self-publishing them as a collection. So far I have enjoyed the no-pressure atmosphere of Tumblr, but I am in love with the idea of collecting them all in a physical volume that I can distribute or even sell.

Stylistically, I feel that I’m still feeling out my limits and preferences. I like the concept of recycling old text, notes, lyrics, and other textual scraps into something that sort of moves like a narrative. Perhaps I’ll settle into more linear narratives eventually but my love of poetry seems like it’ll always pull me back toward making some sort of hybrid.

How cutting and pasting can work for creative writing

“Somewhere, out in America, it’s just starting to rain”

I didn’t get much reading done today, but I heard that lyric in a live version of a Counting Crows song from 1998. The words are originally from  1996’s”Have You Seen Me Lately” and in this were inserted into 1993’s “Round Here.” The former song is a decent cut from the band’s sophomore album, Recovering the Satellites, while the latter is the stormy opener off of their debut, August & Everything After, which I mentioned in my previous entry about “One for Sorrow.”

Copying that line from a good song and pasting it into a great song made me hear the poetry in a fresh way. The image of rain just starting – “somewhere,” perhaps out in Nebraska or elsewhere in rural America – amplifies all the small town ennui of “Round Here,” where the townsfolk described in the lyric aren’t merely bored or suicidal (as in the original album version), but now confronted with overcast skies and downpours. The verse found a new home, better than its original one.

What struck me about the lyrical transplant here was the continuity of the band’s songs (even across albums and styles) and how it was a literal literary cut and paste that worked. The idea of lifting portions of one’s old writing – an email, a draft that never really worked out, or even a nonsensical piece of business writing – and dropping it into a creative piece is hardly a new idea. Entire novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (described by one reviewer as “Eisensteinian“) and Will Self’s Umbrella seem predicated on cut-and-paste logic, with sequencing only barely mattering and scenes of violence and alienation opportunely cutting through the head-in-the-clouds narrative.

I’ve tried this technique before, throwing around passages from traditional folk songs, early versions of white papers, loosely transcribed podcast monologues, and lightly rewritten website copy. It’s hit or miss for me, but it’s a lot of fun trying to write around the insertion so that it (kinda) makes sense. I think cut and paste can work if you let yourself be led, rather than trying to lead and find the perfect quote/passage-to-imitate. Basically, it’s the opposite of doing research, which is good enough for me.

“Six for gold”: The long shelf life and deep riches of nursery rhymes

There’s an English nursery rhyme called “One for Sorrow” that is about the superstitions associated with watching magpies. If you haven’t read it, it is simplicity itself:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

The rhyme is strange, only hitting at “joy/boy” and “gold/told.” It doesn’t put on the airs of high poetry, but it succinctly covers a vast range of the human experience, including feelings, both genders (one more than many novels, poems, or short stories deal with), money, and uncertainty. Moreover, its superstitiousness masquerades as the domain of children – e.g., “if don’t go to bed early, Santa Claus won’t come,” likewise if I look at the magpies the wrong way there won’t be the number I want to see,” a feeling that every neurotic knows – yet it is of a piece with the arbitrary customs, symbols, and religious rituals of say the Book of Leviticus, making it as mature a piece as possible. It distills the idea of a world beyond willpower and an unknowable afterlife.

“One for Sorrow” was written around 1780, more than decade before the first experimentations with telegraphy, which would lead to the telephone and then the Internet, unlocking the poetic potential of the phrase “bird on a wire” along the way. It also came on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s innovations in the novel through in his epistolary works Clarissa and Pamela. More than 200 years later, though, this little nursery rhyme has long since outlived the telegraph’s relevance, will outlive the declining landline telephone, and now has more popular culture relevance than any of Richardson’s catalog.

At least two fantastic songs, both more than 200 years the rhyme’s junior, have used this song to tremendous effect, as the centerpiece to their dark poetry. Counting Crows, on “A Murder of One” from their extraordinary debut album August & Everything After, used “One For Sorrow,” with minor changes, to flesh out an image of, well “as you stood there, counting crows.” It’s the heart of the song and an explanation of a the band’s name in one package. Patrick Wolf, in “Magpie” from his The Magic Position, enlists Marianne Faithfull to give a haunting reading of the old poem. Having listened to the Counting Crows song so many times, it’s easy for me to imagine Faithfull as the female lead in the story of “A Murder of One,” reciting her side of the view.

The rhyme is beautiful and bewildering. It’s enough to make  writer throw up his hands and wonder why she couldn’t just write something as straightforward and be immortalized, instead of toiling on a complex novel or paper that no one will read. If anything, the insane instant gratification culture enabled by smartphones et al makes these nursery rhymes, with their snappy conclusions and showy phrasing, more relevant than ever.

“Little Miss Muffet” and “One For Sorrow,” to name but two, will be with us long after “Infinite Jest,” but creating something similarly universal and monocultural will be so hard, if only because of the current media saturation (ok, I’ll stop with the dairy puns). “One for Sorrow” was a brilliant foil to the excessive art and writing that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries – a mere nursery rhyme, going up against complex novels, albums, and films. But with all those latter forms seeming in decline thanks to the “too busy” mindset of today, its shortness is still a virtue but in a fresh new way, as philosophy condensed for pop music and bite-size attention spans.

Writing a poem in 15 minutes

I came up with the following process while writing an email. Poetry can be daunting to write. Writers may think they need to know meter, need fancy writing software, or deliver profound insights about the universe in order to be good poet. None of that is required! A readable poem can be produced in 15-20 minutes by just being aware of your environment.

For recreational poets, it’s easy to produce a poem a day by following these steps:

1. Download and install TextWrangler (Mac) or Notepad++ (Windows)

These free, barebones text editors are ideal environments for writing poetry. Since they were designed for writing computer code, they also help the writer by numbering each line and eliminating the hassle of wrangling with fonts, colors, and sizes (since they don’t allow you to). Better yet, write it in an email client.

2. Pick up any book, magazine, or go to a website that you read frequently

Writing poetry is easier when you have just read something/are reading something. Anything will do, from a verse from Shakespeare or the Bible to today’s New York Times headline or Reddit front page. Think about the words used and the syntax. For example, a NYT headline – “Fresh from the printer, that new car smell” – is a good jumping off-point. With a little rearranging, you could write “My car’s smell, fresh for the morning ride home…”

3. Write and arrange your line breaks

Once you have material to work with, more ideas will start flowing. Look around you and incorporate details you notice in everyday objects into your adjectives. Colors are always good, evocative descriptors. For the line breaks, don’t feel that you have to end each line with a complete thought – be playful and cut them off to leave them nicely incomplete. So, “going downstairs, to see if I can ever be free” is a little less magical than “Going downstairs/to see if I can ever/be free,” since the latter construction creates a ton of suspense with the powerful line-ending “ever.”

4. Polish it up and publish

I like to save poems as Markdown files in Dropbox for easy Web publication and backup. Another possibility is to screenshot the text and then process the screenshot with a simple photo editor like Pixlr Express. Add some filters and colors to create a visual mood to go with the text. Then post it to Tumblr or your own blog. I do this with my own Tumblr.

Using TextWrangler to write poetry

One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.

This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.

I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.

Text editors
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:

Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.

This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.

Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:


A commented poem written in TextWrangler. Note the gray side margin.

I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.

Stylistic agnosticism
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.

The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).

One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:


An example of a poem screengrabbed from TextWrangler and then edited with Pixlr Express