February 2016 Inside: ▪ Writing without rules▪ Gina Williams on prose poems▪ Writing prompt: Morning ritual▪ Alaska memoir▪ Marketing tip: Rala

Kickstart Your Writing Blue

February 2016


Writing without rules
Gina Williams on prose poems
Writing prompt: Morning ritual
Alaska memoir
Marketing tip: Ralan.com
Lively local literary magazines
Nerdy Words: Point of view
Student showcase: “Nature Park” (excerpt) by Debbe Borders


Writing without rules

By Ann Sihler

“I’m not a poet!” That’s what one of my Kickstart classmates said recently—just after she shared a poem she’d written. Like so many people, she seemed intimidated by poetry. Maybe poetry seems too “deep" and complicated, or has too many rules about form, sound, and sense, for her to consider herself a poet.

But poetry doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the prose poem, which straddles the line between poetry and prose. People disagree about whether the prose poem is a subset of poetry or its own genre. Either way, this short, flexible form of writing is perfect for playing around with poetic thinking and writing, without getting boxed in by all the “rules” of traditional poetry.

What ARE prose poems?

Prose poems are like prose in that they appear on the page in paragraphs, without line breaks. They have no set rhythm or meter and often tell a story or present an objective truth. They have the sound and flow of natural speech.

Prose poems are like poetry in that they have a heightened sense of language. They lean on images and metaphor. They might repeat sounds, words, or phrases, or highlight the senses. There’s a pleasing (i.e., deliberate) cadence to the flow of words, like a gait.

It’s true that prose poems have to be compact—from a few lines up to a few pages long—and hang together, without any unnecessary material. They are focused and have some emotional tension.

Other than that, prose poems can be whatever you want them to be. You can experiment as much as you want, then rewrite until you get your desired effect. And no one can tell you to write it any differently because, with prose poems, there are no particular rules to follow.

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Gina Williams on prose poems

Joining us for a Q&A on prose poems is Gina Williams, a Portland-area writer, editor, and visual artist whose prose poems have been popular with readers and publishers. She just returned from a solo trip to Iceland and France and is now working on essays, fiber art, poems, and photo essays inspired by her travels. You can read her work and see her artwork on her website and Facebook.

What have you learned about your writing process that has been helpful to know?

I went through a long phase of trying too hard to fit what I “thought” would be appreciated by the world. In doing so, I lost my natural voice. I worked with a very patient editor to get that voice back. Since then, I’ve not only been much happier and confident, but successful as well. Authenticity goes a long way.

What is the difference between prose poems and “other” poems?

According to the Academy of American Poets, a prose poem “essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry…. it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.” I tend to approach prose poems with a top-of-mind dream-state style. I start the poem by free-writing and then go back later to work on style and language.

How did you first get started writing prose poems?

I read a prose poem in The New Yorker and challenged myself and my husband Brad Garber, who is also a writer, to give the form a spin.

What do you like about writing prose poems?

I really enjoy letting my mind go right from the outset. I often have to do some restructuring and tie up loose ends and make sure the reader will benefit from the odd particles from my brain. It feels a lot like painting and photography. [Because I am] a visual artist as well, I like writing forms that I can “see” as I am working on them.

What challenges do prose poems pose for the writer?

There are plenty of ideas about what makes a “prose poem.” I guess the challenge for writers is to simply make it yours. If you know the rules of poetry, the prose poem offers an excellent landscape for blowing all that up, without losing the beauty and richness of poetry.

What do prose poems offer the reader?

Prose poems can be delightful to read because they have a more natural flow in terms of how we are used to reading text in everyday life. They are also well-suited for reading out loud. I usually try to include at least one prose poem in a selection for reading at a literary event.

When you write, does a prose poem just happen, or do you sit down intending to write one?

I always start off intending to write a prose poem specifically because for me it takes a different kind of concentration. Telling a story with poetic language and structure and putting the words together in a narrative kind of voice without “wordiness” requires a different approach.

What misconceptions do people have about prose poems?

I’ve heard some discussion around the idea that writing prose poems is “cheating,” but in my opinion that’s only the case if you’re a lazy writer. Even though I start off in a top-of-mind fashion, it takes a lot of work and practice to succeed with this form and connect with readers—as much work as any other form.

Are prose poems a good way for someone to start writing poetry? Why or why not?

I would actually recommend learning the basics of traditional poetry first because this form doesn’t work very well without that base. As they say, “learn the rules and then break them.”

What tips do you have for someone just starting to write prose poems?

I would start off by doing a free-write and then look at the work for themes, paradoxes and stories.

Where are good places to read prose poems?

Watch The New Yorker for occasional prose pieces. One of my favorite magazines for prose with a twist is Step-Away Magazine, which publishes flâneur poetry, a form that includes prose and is dedicated to the sensory. Web del Sol has a nice selection of prose poems available online.

What types of markets are looking for prose poems?

Prose poetry is widely popular. Most literary magazines that I submit to, from small online publications to university MFA programs, publish the form. One of my favorite resources for finding good publications to submit to is Entropy.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Art is life. Write on!

Writing Prompt

Writing prompt

Morning ritual

Read Ron Padget’s prose poem, “The Morning Coffee,” and then write your own prose poem about your morning ritual.

Market tip

Ralan.com for speculative fiction and humor

If your writing veers toward fantasy, horror, the macabre, or sci fi, check out Ralan.com, a website of markets for speculative fiction and, oddly enough, humor. Listings are organized mostly by pay level—pro, semi-pro, pay, and token. For each market, Ralan provides info on genre, publication frequency, word limit, and response time, as well as a link to the market. The website also covers greeting card markets and contests.

Perhaps best of all, Ralan’s auxiliary “Writing Links” webpage provides an exhaustive list of links on everything to do with writing, from agents to software. Want to know about copyright? Writing associations? Editors? Writing groups? Marketing? How to write better? Ralan has links for you! But don’t go to Ralan’s when you’re in a rush. You’ll want time to explore.

Growin Up Alaska cover 2x3

Straightforward writing in Alaska memoir

In her recent blog post, author and writing coach Nancy Woods reviews a Far North memoir: Growing Up Alaska: Memories of a Town, a Time, a Place, and a People Planted in a Little Pocket of Wonderful. Woods, who herself has written a memoir of Alaska, comments on author Niki Breeser Tschirgi’s straightforward writing about “the beauty of the fireweed-festooned landscape and strong sense of community” that Tschirgi found in a small Alaska town.

Lively local literary journals

By Kathy Eaton

Editors of three local literary magazines—Brenna Crotty (Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women), Pam Wells (The Timberline Review) and Kim Winternheimer (The Masters Review: A Platform for Emerging Writers)—focused on the submissions/acceptance process during a panel discussion at the February meeting of Willamette Writers in Portland, Oregon.

The odds of being published in these journals can be long. Calyx, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in March, publishes 150 submissions a year from the 800 or so it receives, for two print editions. The Masters Review publishes less than one percent of the 2,000 submissions it receives for its annual 10-story anthology. Newest on the scene is The Timberline Review, a Pacific Northwest literary magazine now in its second edition. The Timberline Review has not gone digital yet. As co-editor and panel moderator Peter Field admitted, the journal is not “in the Kindle world.”

Panel members shared their top reasons for rejecting submissions. All three stressed the importance of following the submission guidelines available on their websites. According to Winternheimer, if a piece feels too personal (“syrupy, dense and doesn’t advance the plot”) and doesn’t fit the journal’s theme, it will not be accepted. A story also can get the boot if it lacks conflict or its characters don’t grow. Wells stressed the importance of a story taking the reader somewhere and writers demonstrating command of the language. Calyx seeks writers who do something new or approach a topic in a new way that is consistent with the journal’s theme. Crotty wants pieces that showcase emotional honesty, noting that an inconsistent voice is a red flag.

Wells said The Timberline Review is open to most forms that reach the range of human emotion or experience, but not politically oriented material. The Masters Review does not publish poetry, but seeks emotionally honest, poignant and well-written material. Calyx has a strong political bent, seeking material that is honest and emotional and not misogynistic or homophobic. All three editors said they would accept pieces containing overt humor, as long as it has a literary quality.

David Biespiel, an Oregon Book Award winner and founder of Portland’s Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, will be featured at the next Willamette Writers meeting, on March 1. He will talk about the journey all writers take into their imagination when they write.

Nerdy Words

Point of view

By Ann Sihler

How much do your readers know, and when do they know it? For writers, this is a key question—one that concerns point of view.

You probably remember point of view from school, especially the difference between first person and third person. In first person, the narrator is a character in the story—part of the action—and speaks from his or her own perspective, saying “I,” “me,” and “my.” First-person writing can feel very intimate and honest, as if we are actually there with the narrator, experiencing what he or she is experiencing.

But a first-person narrator may not be relating what readers would consider the objective truth. Everything is filtered through the narrator’s perceptions and biases, his or her own desires, abilities, and experiences.

Consider the first-person narrators in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Emma Donaghue‘s Room. Christopher is a young autistic boy, and Jack is a five-year-old who has grown up captive (with his mother) in a single room. The limited understanding of the main characters, which is reflected in the first-person point of view, contributes to the unique perspective and voice in each of those popular novels.

Second-person point of view, in which the writer addresses someone directly and uses “you,” “your,” and “yours,” is less common and sometimes frowned on as gimmicky. Yet I’ve had success publishing poems written in the second person, such as my poem “Leavings” (“Why couldn’t you leave cleanly? The arrogance of your oxblood loafers lying there …”). Second person is even how I started this article: “How much do your readers know?” So don’t discount second person if it is appropriate for your piece. (That’s an example of second person right there.)

In third-person point of view, the narrator is not a character in the story and in fact does not seem to be present at all. The story just appears, told with the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “it.” Third person can feel very objective and factual and is how most news articles are written.

What sometimes gets tricky when writing in third person is deciding how much the narrator—and therefore the reader—knows. The omniscient third-person narrator knows everything.

Omniscient narration is suitable for fiction but can sometimes seem jumpy or confusing (Which character are we following now?), leaving readers feeling distant from the characters. Thus omniscient third person often is used in novels and other longer works, where the writer can stay in a certain character’s head for a long time before switching to someone else.

More popular in short fiction is limited third-person point of view, in which the narrator’s view is restricted to that of a single character. Readers are firmly in that person’s head and hear from the writer only what that character thinks and feels.

In limited third-person narration, it is important to be consistent within a given scene, or even an entire piece of writing. If as a writer you choose limited third-person narration, make sure not to jump around or into some other character’s head (or heart). Stick with what your main character can know, see, feel, and do.

There is yet another point of view: objective point of view. More on that next month (maybe). In the meantime, how many different points of view did I use in this article, and what were they? Electronic bonbons to anyone who emails me their answer!

Student Showcase

“Nature Park” (excerpt) by Debbe Borders

Debbe Borders, a member of the Kickstart Your Writing program, has been an avid reader her whole life and enjoyed discovering unique word combinations, but she did not start writing until the summer of 2014, when she wanted to discover her creative side. So far her writing has been based on personal experience. For example, she just now is finishing up final edits on “Snow Day,” which describes her delight at waking up to a snow-covered neighborhood. Debbe says that poetic prose resonates with her more than anything else.

Dawn opens the day as an indigo-blue sky filters through vine maple trees. Lining both sides of the trail are ferns, hosta, poison oak and shrubs with small pink flowers, dark green leaves and red berries.

Ground from the creek banks changes from flat to slightly hilly before leading beyond, to areas with less brush but more trees. On a branch, an owl sits, one eye open. Its feathers are mostly white with patches of black and gray. Slowly extending one talon for a few moments, it then resumes a grip on the tree branch and closes its eye. The subtle movement sends bunnies scurrying for cover in the dense brush.

Butterflies and dragonflies dance in the sunshine amongst wild iris growing along the bank. Frogs croak from hiding places in tall grass. Nearby, a great blue heron sits motionless on an ivy-covered tree stump. Without sound, the majestic bird tucks in its neck, spreads large blue-gray wings and takes flight with slow, deep wing beats and long legs trailing behind.

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