Poets Who Write Prose



An Interview with Tom Daley: A Poet Writes a Play about Gerard Manley Hopkins

by Jackie Malone

Tom Daley is at it again: he has written another play about a poet, this time Gerard Manley Hopkins, which features Hopkins poems as well as his own. He has a flair for all the artistic elements that a one-man performance of a play requires. An earlier one-man show about Emily Dickinson elicited this response from a critic: “Whether by Daley’s poetic gifts, his persuasive delivery or a combination of both, the audience was powerfully moved—some to tears.”

As the date for the Hopkins play nears, we asked Tom these questions about his forays into playwriting and performing:

What is the title of your play?
In His Ecstasy: The Passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Where and when is this play being presented?
The play (which had its debut at the Mass Poetry Festival in May of this year) will be performed as a one-man show by me, the playwright, on Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 3 pm at Follen Church, 755 Massachusetts Ave, East Lexington, MA 02420 (near Wilson Farms and right off the Minuteman bike path). The play is sponsored by Lexington Community Education.

Spots ($10) are available by calling Lexington Community Education 781-862-8043. Their office hours are weekdays, 9 a.m.-3:30 pm. Seats are also available at the door.

You have already written a play about Emily Dickinson. What made you choose Emily and Gerard Manley Hopkins to dramatize?
Both Hopkins and Dickinson have an electrifying effect on me. I remember my first encounter with Hopkins’ famous poem, “The Windhover,” and it gave me the same unnerving, exhilarating shock that I received when I read Dickinson’s poem that begins “Because I could not stop for Death.” Both poets manage a hard-to-emulate combination of musical inventiveness and startling vision. Many of their poems achieve something even beyond communicating before being understood, as T. S. Eliot said a poem could do. They arrest, encircle, invade, penetrate, and reach into corridors of the brain to haunt and charm.

The two poets’ very unusual biographies provide rich fodder for a playwright’s cannon. In Dickinson’s case, her complicated connection with her Irish servants offered fascinating possibilities, both narrative and thematic, for setting her work in the context of her privilege and her prejudices, some of which she overcame. She suggested, when she was young, that her brother kill some Irish boys he was teaching because “There are so many now, there is no room for the Americans.” Later, she appointed an Irishman her chief pallbearer and asked him to recruit five other natives of Ireland who had worked for her family to join him in carrying her to the grave.

Hopkins’ poetry is a testament, sometimes suppressed, sometimes overt, to his struggles with issues of faith and belief. Documented in journal entries, his attraction to men led him to scourge himself after he had been wracked by lascivious thoughts. His joie de vivre is counterpointed by his depression; his militant advocacy of Christian belief undermined by serious doubt. These contradictions make for lively material for theater.

What draws you to unite theater with poetry? Do you have a theatrical background?
“A poem is an event,” Robert Lowell once told his students, “not the record of an event.” Poetry has a long history as performance, in spite of attempts to stifle it out of that realm and freeze it onto the page, or to deliver it aloud in “neutral” cadences so as to not “influence” a listener’s interpretation. This annoying habit is particularly true among certain poets of the academy in the United States whose readings might be characterized, as some wit recently quipped, as “an American drone strike.”

While a poetry reading can have a dramatic impact, even some of the best performance poets resort to predictable formulae when they are reciting their poems. The possibilities available in the presentation of poems in the context of a play give them a richer context, make them living, breathing moments that speak to the action and the dialogue of the play. For example, in my play about Emily Dickinson and her Irish servants, Every Broom and Bridget, Emily Dickinson, as channeled by her Irish pallbearer, Tom Kelley, recites “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” after her Irish housekeeper, Margaret Maher, reads a letter to Kelley. In this letter, a draft of which was discovered long after her death, Dickinson writes to Judge Otis Lord, a man she is presumed to have been in love with, about her utter horror at discovering that he has become gravely ill.

I don’t really have a background in theater per se, although I come from a long line of hams, cut-ups, mimics, and storytellers. I did perform in a readers’ theater production of Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine in college in which I played the judge. I lost my place in the script when it came time to deliver the verdict.

Although I am not a slam poet, I have had a lot of exposure to performance poetry as an audience member in the slam world, and through participating in Dr. Brown’s Traveling Poetry Show, a troupe led by Michael Brown, former Slam Master of the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. I produced and performed in several gala productions—“The Musician and the Muse” (with Regie Gibson, Nicole Terez Dutton, Kent Foreman, James Caroline and others) at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center and “The Poetry Vaudeville Show” with Alana Sacks, Rick McIntyre, Trish Ginese, Su Millerz, Lilli Lewis, and others at the Boston Center for Adult Education.

This play has some heavy themes -- Hopkins' theology, his spirituality, sensibility and sexuality. How easy was it for you to unite those elements? + What elements grab the audience and pull them through to the end of the play?
In In His Ecstasy: The Passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, four aficionados of Hopkins’ poetry in a 21st century reading group are suddenly joined by a spectral priest resembling Hopkins. Some are convinced it is Father Hopkins himself, from beyond the grave. Others are skeptical. But they all engage with the character as if he were Hopkins himself.

One of the characters, a young man who is struggling with burgeoning homoerotic feelings, baits Father Hopkins about Hopkins’ savage repression of his own similar impulses. He then confesses to Father Hopkins that he is a “thrall of lust” in the same way Hopkins was. The character, a self-proclaimed “militant atheist” (his mother remarks that his “militancy” is “rather of the armchair variety”), challenges Father Hopkins and the believers in the reading group on matters of faith and creed.

The characters, including Hopkins, are all performed by me. Four different accents enliven the dialogue. An Irishman who is a bit of a card often interrupts the more serious discussions with a generous sprinkling of Irish wit and with spicy anecdotes that irritate the very proper English matron who is in charge of the reading group—but which bring a smile to Father Hopkins’ face. A woman from Glasgow recites Hopkins’ poem about a stream that flows into Loch Lomond. The matron taunts her son to read Hopkins’ poem, “Tom’s Garland: Upon the Unemployed,” in his “wannabe Cockney” accent. He retorts by wondering where she got her Margaret Thatcher-style of intoning.

The matron and the Scottish woman take turns reciting a few stanzas from Hopkins’ long poem, The Wreck of  the Deutschland, by way of response to the atheist’s question, “Why does a merciful and omnipotent God allow such suffering in the world?” The Glaswegian challenges the atheist’s reliance on a scientific outlook against religious faith: “The same method that brought us hydrogen peroxide gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” There are no winners in this debate, and Hopkins relies on his poems to stake his positions.

The matron, Teresa McCloskey (daughter of Irish immigrants turned perfect English lady), laments the ravages of age with a few lines from Hopkins’ poem, “The Leaden Echo”: “Is there no waving off of these . . . sad and stealing messengers of grey?” Hopkins replies: “Give beauty back . . . to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” In heaven, he consoles her, “Not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost.”

Mrs. McCloskey takes on the question of the difficulty of Hopkins’ poetry when she complains that she can make no sense of Hopkins’ poem, “Harry Ploughman.” She enlists the critic and poet, C. Day Lewis, who wrote a witty send-up of the poem, in her complaint. 

The play begins and ends with two of Hopkins’ most famous poems, “Spring and Fall”  (“Margaret, are you grieving”) and “The Windhover” (“I caught this morning morning’s minion”), respectively. All in all, over twenty Hopkins poems, either in their entirety or in excerpts, are recited or quoted in the play, including the so-called “Terrible Sonnets” (poems of despair), perennial favorites “Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur,” and the lighthearted “Miss Story’s Character.”

Richard Hoffman: On writing in several genres

I have been writing in several genres for a long time now, and I cannot for the life of me see the point in privileging one over another.

Mostly I write whatever I can on a given day. Later, I gather things together. Whenever I try to plan more than that, whenever I set myself a project, I’m in danger of seeing it as homework. I always hated homework. So if I’m supposed to be writing prose (as I was until recently, with a book under contract and with a deadline) then all I want to do is write poems and/or stories. I am ever the rebellious schoolboy.

A few years ago, when our house was full with 5 adults and a baby (my grandson), I rented a studio because I had no place to write. It had three walls; a little wedge of a room made of leftover space in an old industrial building. No one else wanted it so it was cheap, but it seemed perfect for me! I set up tables for fiction, nonfiction, and poems. I worked in a desk chair on rollers and whenever I’d get stuck for more than a half hour or so, I would push off across the hardwood floor — whoosh — and see if anything was happening at one of the other tables, if any of my other projects seemed “alive” that day.

I’m always working on several things at once, as if I’m gardening, tending several different kinds of plants growing from the same soil, and when I finish anything it has probably been in the works and carried forward, draft after draft, in my notes for a very long time. Maybe I’m just making the best of what would otherwise be called ADD, but it’s the only way I know how to work.

My first book, the memoir Half the House, began as a series of prose improvisations on the fourteen Stations of the Cross, iconography I grew up with as a blue-collar altar boy. Now I had never written prose except for school assignments, and this was one of them: my MFA mentor, Stephen Tapscott, had insisted I do it. At the time I was writing poems, poems about nothing, poems that were studiedly about only how clever I could be in the process of thoroughly puzzling my reader. Stephen was sick of reading them, and I was too locked in my cerebral — and defensive — conception of a poem to know what else I might write. So when I took out my Sunday Missal from grade-school and turned to The Stations of the Cross, I was looking to reconnect with that affective layer of my past, not what happened, but the feel of that mid-century, American, working class, Catholic world, all in order to excavate material for poems. But as the pages began to mount and I found myself typing and typing, always in pursuit of something just beyond my reach like the proverbial carrot on a stick, I began to enjoy myself, even as I wrote about things I’d sworn I would never speak of, grief and abuse and violence and dread. Imagine enjoying prose, I thought, which seemed at the time somehow strange, especially given the ever darker subject matter I was writing about. But I also came to realize, as these improvisations began to suggest a story, that I could write that story the way I knew how, i.e. like a poem, not like a “biography,” that I could focus, as I was doing with The Stations of the Cross, on one image, one moment at a time, and then assemble these into a narrative. The demands of that assembly kept raising important questions, both literary questions and life questions, and I kept at that project for the next fifteen years.

Flash forward to about six years ago: I was working on an essay, a short essay I thought, about my father, in the months after his death. I was feeling some guilt at what I thought had been the inadequacy of my eulogy. At his funeral I’d spoken off the cuff and only briefly, and I hardly remembered what I’d said. So I resolved to write an essay that would be an act of mourning, a tribute, and a good-bye. I went away on a writing retreat, staying alone in a friend’s house in the woods for a couple of weeks, determined to come home with the essay. On the eleventh day of wrestling with it, on all fours on a carpet strewn with handwritten pages, notecards, printouts, a newsprint pad in front of me where I’d tried to make my thoughts and feelings cohere in headings, sketches, diagrams, boxes, circles and arrows, I rocked back — I recall this despair vividly — and cried, aloud, “Oh fuck! It’s a memoir!”

George Orwell said “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” I don’t take that as an overstatement. Orwell was not given to overstatement. Here is a photo of the work about four years into the process of figuring out how to tell the story:

A long bout of some painful illness? A mental illness, maybe; a few people who saw that wall thought I’d gone off the deep end. In any case, I agree with Orwell. Now, six years after that bout of illness began, that book is coming out. It’s called Love & Fury.

It’s my attempt to understand as deeply as possible the life I have lived, not just to savor it like some epicurean dandy — although I do a bit of that — but to understand what meaning I might derive from it, what I can learn by deeply considering my life and times, our life and times. That, of course, means examining war and violence and patriarchy and family and marriage and money and misogyny and sexuality and class and all the ways these things intersect.

For me, the model was some kind of fugue, or maybe — to put it in three dimensional terms — a kind of dome that these themes have been set bouncing inside like so many rubber balls, intersecting, changing trajectory, each acting on and affecting the other.

All while compromising with the need for a narrative of some kind, some sense of a story unfolding. Fortunately, I was in fact living in a story and it was questioning the story that offered me the themes in the first place.

So, without giving away the story, I will say that Love & Fury is centered on a year in which my father died and my grandson was born. I felt that the events of that year afforded me a certain vantage on our common life, and I wanted to articulate, as compellingly as I could, what I felt I was able to see from there. I hope it is both beautiful and useful.

Richard Hoffman is author of the Half the House: a Memoir, and the poetry collections,Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Storieswas published in 2009. His new memoir, Love & Fury, is just out from Beacon Press. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.

J.D. Scrimgeour: A poet writes a musical

I didn’t discover musical theater until my sons did. My parents didn’t take me to musicals when I was a child, and my exposure to them through most of my adulthood was limited. While I gradually found my way into writing, I came by way of sports more than the arts—I’ve probably written more poems about basketball than anyone.

But when my younger son, Guthrie, got interested in musical theater, I did, too. Over the last decade, I’ve taken in a lot of shows. Perhaps because I came to the genre late, I wasn’t jaded by it. It seemed full of possibilities, especially comic campy possibilities; Also, because I wasn’t accustomed to it, it seemed, well, weird. People, in unison, bursting into song? A dramatic moment immediately followed by flamboyant dancing? What the hell?

And so, in collaboration with my sons, who are both musically inclined, I took a little break from writing poetry and nonfiction and wrote a musical, Only Human, which will be premiering June 26-29 at the Ames Hall Theatre in Salem, Massachusetts. Working in a new genre has led me to reflect on my “old” genre: poetry. Here are a few musings:

  1. Writing the musical, particularly at first, was pure pleasure. I was writing to entertain myself and others. Ideally, I want the experience of writing poetry to be similar, but too often I get stuck trying to impress some imaginary reader (Robert Pinsky? My teachers from graduate school? My friends? Elizabeth Bishop?). Is this smart enough? Difficult enough? Yes, there’s a rigor, a discipline, to writing poetry, but there must always be pleasure—an abandonment to joy in the act of making.
  1. Writing the musical was something risky because it was something so new. Part of what was exciting about this musical, especially once it seemed like it would get staged, was the fact that it could—it still could!—be a disaster. While the early drafts were motivated solely by pleasure, my revisions had the urgency and intensity of any risky act. And, while those rewrites were nerve-wracking (What the hell am I doing? Why do I think I can do this?), the experience has been thrilling, too, like competing in a high-stakes sporting event.

How does this relate to writing poetry? It’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m reminded of the writer David Shields’ comment that once he knows what genre a work is that he’s reading, he starts to lose interest. The risk of writing a musical made more visible what I don’t like in a lot of poetry—mine or others: the fact that it is a genre, and that once, as a writer, you accept that genre, you are mitigating risk, limiting what can happen next. Writing in a different genre made me aware of how much I chafe working in—or reading–the genre of poetry (and “experimental” and “conceptual” poetries have, in my eyes, as many tiresome expectations as more traditional verse). The concept of “poetry” is a means toward making a good piece of writing, but it is not an end in itself; the ultimate goal is not to write a poem, but to write something that makes you and others think and feel. Taking risks, resisting boundaries, should be part of any good writing.

  1. Writing the musical reminded me of the beauty of logic, the thrill of clicking scenes and characters together, finding the proper words for one moment to set up another. I have a mathematical mind, and figuring out the musical was like doing a engrossingly challenging Sudoku. This experience made me realize that what I value in reading and writing poetry is something very different than logic: surprise. Sure, writers of all genres, and perhaps especially poetry, might say that their writing requires similar mathematical attentiveness—think of poetry’s obsession with form—but for me, so much of the pleasure of poetry is the surprise of it, a different kind of surprise than that of a well-constructed play. What I value most in poetry are the juxtapositions, the leaps of thought, the way an image or feeling or idea is made to connect to some other image or feeling or idea in an original way. Yes, I’m getting at something similar to Ben Jonson’s famous line about John Donne: “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” That “violence” needn’t be logical (is violence logical?), as much as it fulfills the poet’s need, or personal, passionate vision.
  2. Finally, there was the thrill of collaboration! How remarkable it has been to work not only with my sons, but with director Peter Sampieri, music director Karen Gahagan, choreographer Meaghan Noel, as well as the incredibly talented cast. This makes me want to make more art (including poetry) collaboratively, and to experience others’ work that is collaborative.

How can I live with all the contradictions in the above observations? That’s simple: I’ll keep writing about them, keep writing through them, mixing prose and song, dialogue and verse; and I’ll try not to do it alone.

J.D. Scrimgeour is Coordinator of Creative Writing at Salem State University. His two poetry collections are Territories and The Last Miles. He’s also the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Spin Moves and Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, the latter which won the AWP Award for NonfictionWith musician Philip Swanson he formed the performance group, Confluence, and released a CD of poetry and music,Ogunquit & Other Works.

Michelle Gillett: On poets who write prose, journalist edition

A woman standing in the back of the room approached me after my poetry reading at the local community college. She complimented me on my poems then asked, “Have you ever thought about writing a newspaper column?”

I hadn’t, at least not since high school when I was editor of the newspaper and would impose my views on my fellow students about their indifference to issues more important than the football team’s success. I wasn’t sure what about my poems made her think I might succeed as a columnist—were they too prosaic? Too opinionated? Her husband was the editorial page editor of our local newspaper; she suggested I send him something.

Was it possible to be a poet AND a newspaper columnist? I identified with Elizabeth Bishop not HL Mencken. Poetry was my first love and I worked constantly at learning it, writing it, reading it. Would writing an op ed column make me disloyal, less poetic? Would I end up being a Jill of all trades and mistress of none? In my graduate school program, we identified ourselves as “Poetry” or “Fiction.” There were some cross-writers, but most stood firm in their identity and fierce in their fidelity to their genre.

But I decided to give it a try. My first column, written almost thirty years ago, was about my then twelve year old daughter’s English essay about a hypothetical nuclear attack on America – all the parents are sleeping and don’t wake up in time to prevent it. As a poet, I am always looking for a good metaphor. Pushing that metaphor into a larger meaning and making it universal came easily. The woman’s husband, my soon-to-be editor, published it and asked to see a few more. After a year, the paper hired me as a regular op ed columnist. I still had young children at home, a full-time job, and never enough time to write poetry. But there was something about that deadline, something about the license to write about anything I wanted—(except my birdfeeder, my editor said—they already had a nature writer), that kept me focused and thinking about writing.

What surprised me was that rather than interfering with writing poetry, writing an op ed column complements it. I have to get my ideas across in a limited number of words which means every word counts as it does in good poetry. In a 700 word column, there is no room for rambling. While cross-pollination might not always be obvious, I know that the clearer I am in my prose and the deeper I go in my poetry make me a better writer of both.

And then there is the pleasure of immediate gratification. More people read and respond to my column than to my poetry. My column is in print as well as on the newspaper’s website. My poetry is in books and small magazines that few people even know exist. As William Logan wrote in a New York Times opinion piece not long ago, “The way we live now is not poetic.” Maybe that is why there is more prose poetry being written, more narrative verse being published, why a number of poets I know are writing memoirs and personal essays and novels.   “We live prose, we breathe prose, we drink, alas, prose,” writes Logan. But poetry is what shows us “what language can do.” “Always be a poet, even in prose,” Charles Baudelaire advised. It is poetry that makes me conscious of the rhythms and music of language, of finding the right word, of the most effective way to communicate meaning. And no one has ever suggested I leave the country after reading one of my poems.

In his collection of essays, Best Words, Best Order, poet and fiction writer, Stephen Dobyns explains, “One writes a poem when one is so taken up by an emotional concept that one is unable to remain silent….and what one does is to make a small machine out of words that re-creates the same feeling in another human being… .”

By definition, an op ed piece gives a perspective on current events, something I have done only occasionally in a poem. I have never written a poem about gun control or women’s right to choose or the affordable health care act, but I have numerous columns about them.

“What do you mean by this?” my editor might ask about a column. The same question can be asked of a poem that isn’t succeeding. What I mean, how well can I communicate my intention to a reader are my goals in both genres. An op ed has to second guess an argument, convince the reader that my perspective is, of course, the correct one. Sometimes I write a slice of life piece – about my dogs, or grandchildren, a trip I have taken, an event from childhood. Those columns always get the most responses because, I think, they come closest to what poetry does—they allow the reader to re-create the emotion and, as Dobyns says, “make it his or her own.”

I will always be grateful to the woman in the back of the room who suggested I write a column, and always grateful to her husband, an exacting and attentive editor who didn’t let me get away with anything vague or sentimental. Poetry will always be my first love, but I can’t imagine not having a romance with prose.


Michelle Gillett is a regular op ed columnist for the Berkshire Eagle. Her columns and articles have also appeared in The Boston Globe, Art of the Times, and The Women’s Times. She has published three books of poetry.

Lauren Wolk: On poets who write prose, novel edition

If fiction is a fist, poetry is a finger.

When I write a novel, I both clench that fist and am caught in it. A good novel (which is always my goal, if not my result) is a weighty and powerful thing that can leave a lasting impression. It is also a world in which I live as I write it, captivated by my characters and their unfolding lives.

When I write a poem, I both point that finger and follow where it beckons. A good poem (again, my constant goal) has the capacity to draw a reader’s taut and sustained attention, even as it leads the poet herself on a journey of faith and intuition that has no map and makes surprising, sometimes shocking turns.

Fiction, with its broader scope and greater length, is more forgiving. More patient. Lets me take more liberties. But if I get lazy and presumptuous, paying too little attention to word choice or pace or tone, it hits me hard with that fist and makes me pay the price with long and arduous revision.

Poetry asks for less time and commitment (though the best poems can take years to perfect). But its relative brevity and tighter focus make poetry more stern and demanding. It insists on the perfect words in the perfect order, and failure to comply means that a single shortcoming, like a dropped stitch, can ruin the entire fabric.

As both novelist and poet, I must change how I think and write to match my master. But there is no immutable border between them. When I write poetry, I often tell a story. And when I write a story, I twine it with lyrical language when the works asks for it.

Sometimes, this merging of my masters creates problems. My fiction is sometimes too heavily lyrical and my poetry too much like prose.

But if a good piece of literature is layered and therefore interesting and complex, so is a writer/poet who observes life on many levels and in a range of lights, expressing her observations in a variety of ways, and leading a more fascinating life as a result.

My advice to others? Look at life from all angles, pick the genre that suits the subject best, and define yourself by the work you’ve undertaken … but never be afraid to trace a little poetry on the palm inside that fist, or to ring that finger with a band of story.

I find that the piece itself always lets me know what it wants. All I have to do is pay attention.

Lauren Wolk’s poems have appeared in roger, Nimrod, PrimeTime, Cape Women: A Place of Her Own, Off the Coast, Naugatuck River Review, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Those Who Favor Fire, was published by Random House in 1999. Her second, Forgiving Billy, won the Hackney Award and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Editor’s Book Award. She is currently at work on her third novel, a collection of poems, and the assemblage art she exhibits at several galleries, including one at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, where she is Associate Director.

David Giannini: On prosepoems


Prosepoetry (as I spell it) is a sort of Dutch door on a cabin in the woods. The larger, heavier, lower half is prose; the upper shorter half is poetry. One key unlocks both, while a vertical bolt unlocks the poetry that then can swing on its own hinge. One may look in or out upon things, but the same things viewed from the top door take on different significance since the bottom half, if remaining shut, may serve to protect. For instance, one may vocally chase a bear from the upper door while feeling protected by the lower one; or one may invite a dog or an owl to come closer and, if friendly, the dog may come through the door of prose, an entry-point no self-serving owl would ever enter. Owl enters through the top. It enters through the opening of poetry, silently at first, then what a hoot! There may be more owls in poetry, therefore. One makes an attempt to invite dog and owl at the same time, train them until they desire to go together, not exactly like lovers, but steady. It seems an impossible relationship, but it is really one on the path to the resolution of paradox, and it has a certain scruffy plausibility in training. Neither dog nor owl will speak of marriage, only sex and syntax. The wag occasionally ruffles feathers. The beak is mightier than the muzzle, and more precise. They are contained in a rectangle, a page, but their true shapes, when viewed together, live inside it as one from which the shadow of an angel is sometimes cast. To view is to listen. Listening is also a door.


Not everyone can take daily injections of snake venom, as one Mr. Haast did, receive 173 venomous snake bites in his lifetime, and live to age 100. That ambition aside, there is always a desert to cross in a paragraph or so, those blocks. Entering such terrain, poetry is the embedded reporter in the blocky vehicle called prosepoem; without the vehicle that poetry could not be found; even when found it may be blown apart, leaving some of the sentences transformed, wriggling and venomous, phonemes with fangs. Not everyone can take daily injections, many are bitten and die early; but some of the poetry might live to age 100 or older. That ambition aside, why not sing of frittatas in the kitchen? Or else just hide.


David Giannini’s most recently published collections of poetry include AZ TWO (Adastra Press,) a “Featured Book” in the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival; INVERSE MIRROR, a collaboration with artist, Judith Koppel (Feral Press/Prehensile Pencil, 2012;) WHEN WE SAVOR WHAT IS SIMPLY THERE (Feral Press/Prehensile Pencil, 2013;) and RIM/WAVE (two full-length poetry collections in one book from Quale Press, 2012) and SPAN of THREAD, a full-length collection of his prose poems due from Cervena Barva Press in 2014. Awards include: Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Awards; The Osa and Lee Mays Award For Poetry; an award for prosepoetry from the University of Florida; and a 2009 Finalist Award from the Naugatuck Review. He co-founded Compass Center, the first rehabilitation clubhouse for severely and chronically mentally ill adults in the northwest corner of Connecticut. He is the Coordinator of Writers Read, an ongoing series of monthly readings by poets and fiction writers presenting at The Good Purpose Gallery in Lee, MA.

Jade Sylvan: On memoir

If you’d asked when I was twenty-five if I thought I’d ever write a memoir, I would have said absolutely not. Memoir, as far as I saw it, was masturbation. Poetry and fiction held real truth. I didn’t see any value at all in this type of navel-gazing. Who would want to read about me

Besides, I was shy. Super shy. I’m a very queer, very kinky, very polyamorous genderqueer who grew up in a conservative Catholic family in a conservative Republican state. I was bullied a TON, and felt like I had to hide a lot of who I was from my community. I grew up with a lot of shame and learned how to disguise my inner world by turning it into safely disguised art. I used to write stories and poetry that were far, far away from me. It was much easier to write about the secrets in my heart in metaphors and allegories than concrete descriptions. A man who died after having sex with a horse was easier for me to write about than my own kinkiness. A pansexual vampire stripper was safer for me to imagine than to look honestly at my own pansexuality.

When I started to write more personally, I was terrified no one would be able to understand what I was saying. I was so used to feeling like a freak, a deviant, and an outcast. I was sure that writing autobiographically would lead to my being shunned. Surprisingly, the opposite happened. The more honestly and clearly I wrote about these intimate parts of myself, the more passionately people seemed to connect with my work. This reaction was beyond validating. Eventually, this honest, introspective roll led me to write a full-length memoir, Kissing Oscar Wilde, which was largely about my relationship to my sexuality.

Thing is, I wasn’t wrong. Memoir is masturbation. When you write a memoir, you are stroking yourself, penetrating yourself, and exposing your innermost regions for your own perverse pain and pleasure. It is inherently self-absorbed and obsessed with private fetishes, desires, and embarrassments. Thing is, if you check out any internet porn site, you’ll find that people love to watch other people masturbate.

When you publish a memoir, you enter into an exhibitionist/voyeur relationship with your readers. This is not for everyone, but some people truly do like to be watched. I found that the more I exposed the parts of myself that made me cringe, the happier I was. The more people loved and lauded me for these previously secret shames, the fuller I felt as a human being. Is this exhibitionistic? Sure it is. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all.

A good memoir provides a private-yet-connected release to the writer and the reader. What makes a good memoir? Like porn, memoir works best when it’s honest. Both the camgirl and the memoirist are most effective when they’re having fun. So look deep inside, open up, and above all, don’t fake it.

Jade Sylvan, called a “risqué queer icon” byThe Boston Globe, is the author ofKissing Oscar Wilde(2013 Write Bloody Publishing), TEN(2013 Launch Over Publishing), and The Spark Singer (2009 Spuyten Duyvil Press). A genderqueer writer, producer, and performing artist based out of Cambridge, MA, Jade has been on the cover of The Boston Globe Arts Section,ScoutCambridge, and DigBoston. The author has toured throughout North America and Europe performing poetry, and has produced and performed in a number of acclaimed shows in the Greater Boston area, including, The Literary Roast, All You Need Is Myth, and Encyclopedia Show Somerville. In 2012, Jade cowrote and starred in the indie feature film, TEN, which is currently touring the film festival circuit. Publications include pieces in: The ToastBuzzFeedPANKDigBoston, Carve MagazineMudfishWord Riot, and many more.

Jacquelyn Malone: On tech writing

When I say that being a technical writer made me a better poet, I can almost see you raise a cynical eyebrow and say, “Oh, yeah!” I should perhaps add that being a technical writer in a company that subjected writing to usability testing – and placed technical writers close to the usability labs – made me a better poet. Nothing hammers into your head the subtlety of how words are received better than sitting behind a two-way mirror and watching some poor soul struggle to complete a task you’ve written about.

But I didn’t start out to be a technical writer. Years ago on a whim I went to a one-day conference about jobs in high tech. At the end of the day, I was offered a job writing video training scripts for a high tech company. I knew nothing about computers, but I was told that being a novice was good – the people who were being trained to use business software were computer illiterate, too. The next morning I handed in my resignation as a high school English teacher and jumped head-first into the tech world.

There were many surprises for a naïve young writer, the most serious of which was that six months after I’d burned my bridges and quit teaching, the company I joined decided to do away with its video training program. The four of us in the department faced being out of a job. But my boss liked my writing and decided to keep me on as a technical writer.

A technical writer! Ugh! I had just started writing poetry, and tech writing seemed to be in another galaxy. But I had little choice since I hardly had enough experience as a video script writer to be competitive in the job market. So I trudged on, moving in a couple of years to another company. Little did I realize how fortunate that move was because the new tech writing department worked closely with the usability department. Writing was user-tested before it went out the door.

I quickly learned there is a tremendous difference between these three statements:

  1. Before you begin, make sure your computer is in a well-lit place.
  2. Find a well-lit place for your computer before you begin.
  3. Place your computer in a well-lit place.

Before I explain which is best, think about the mood you are usually in when you are seeking computer instructions. I can bet you’re not thinking “Oh, what fun!” And if you don’t believe number one above is irritating, you haven’t watched a usability test. Why is it irritating? Two reasons: it’s too long to easily scan, and the task is almost concealed in excessive words.

Oh, but you think, “I can read! I’m smarter that that!” Don’t count on it. Remember your mood.

Two is better, but three is best – if the step has the number one in front of it.

How words are received by the reader

Writing is usually taught from the point of view of expressing yourself well, but technical writing is all about how your words are received by the reader. The technical writer has to set the stage for the procedure or has to know the specific place and issue that brought the reader to the procedure. In other words, the writer has to label the procedure in the table of contents or in the index in the language users will recognize as their problem. And if you set the stage by numbers, readers will know exactly where they are – if the writer has diagnosed their problem properly.

How poetry is received by the reader

I’m not saying that poetry should be like tech writing. But poetry, too, is all about how your words are received. It may be that a poet wants readers to discover the meaning, a meaning that comes not through logic but through an emotional center that conveys a meaning difficult to put into objective language. What language structure best promotes that emotional center? Why didn’t Frost write. “I think I know whose woods these are”? Why didn’t Eliot write, “When the evening is spread out against the sky, let us go then – you and I”? Both rewrites are probably the way you would express the thought in prose. But in both cases the poets’ order suggests a subtle mystery, which stirs an understated emotion. Notice how the word order makes Frost much more tentative and makes Eliot’s destination much more open-ended. Those hesitant enigmas set a subtle tone completely missing in my rewrites.

When you find a language structure that sets the major tone you want to convey, you’ve found the core of how you want to relate to your reader.


Jacquelyn Malone is the writer/editor for masspoetry.org. She has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship grant in poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Beloit Poetry JournalCimarron Review, Cortland Review, and Poetry Northwest. The poem published in the Beloit Journal was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. One of the poems published in Poetry was featured on the website Poetry Daily. Her chapbook All Waters Run to Lethe was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012.

Timothy Gager: Going Wherever Time and Writing Takes Me

        Timothy Gager’s latest book is "The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan," his first novel.

I never chose to write in different genres, but rather the genres chose me because of various points in my life. Turning the clock back fifteen or twenty years, to the late 1990s, it was the time I decided to become more serious about writing. At that point, I was writing what I felt the classic short story writers wrote, clocking in at about three-thousand words per piece. Then in 1999, my wonderful daughter, Caroline, was born. Writers, as many of you know, have odd routines for how they write and how they are able to construct and finish a piece. For me, the way I worked was to complete an initial first draft during the course of a day, and preferably, as much of it at one sitting as possible. Having a newborn blew that plan right out of the water.

In an odd form of post-partum depression, I missed sitting down and writing something to completion. In fact, I felt it was close to impossible. I considered shorter forms, categories and styles of writing I felt I had previously failed at. In 1983, I had taken a poetry course as an undergrad at the University of Delaware, mostly to improve my ability to write lyrics for the songs I’d been writing. The professor was a well-known, big-time poet, (name not to be mentioned) who panned my novice work and absolutely discouraged me from thinking I had any talent for poetry at all. At that time, he probably, in all likelihood, was correct. His critiques affected me and my mind-set became, well if “famous poet” thought my work was of poor quality, who was I to question that?  I never started a poem for another fifteen years.

So, meanwhile, back in 1999, I felt the only writing I had time for, that allowed me to write the way I liked to, was poetry. I did it for me, because of my earlier experience, thinking that it would keep me sharp until I had more time to go back to fiction. I joined an online writing workshop called Scrawl, which at the time housed a few writers and publishers I had heard of (Rusty Barnes, Sue “the other” Miller from GUD, Nadine Darling, Cami Park, David Bulley, Roy Scarbrough, Helen Pederson) and started getting decent feedback. I realized I didn’t suck as much as I thought I did. Then, gratefully, I started getting published. Doug Holder accepted my first published poem, “Insect” into Ibbetson Street #13, and it was only then I started to realize that maybe poetry and I had been handled incorrectly. 

I now very much enjoyed writing poetry and in general writing shorter and smaller pieces. The Scrawl group was heavy into Flash Fiction, so naturally I was led there.  By working in multiple genres and writing as much as I could, I was unknowingly getting the bad shit out of my system: the typical clichés, the worn and over-used metaphors, the predictable surprise endings, which I needed to write in order to not write those mistakes in the near future. Writing daily, I was completing an average of fifteen pieces a month. Balancing the genres was fairly easy because I tried not to be rigid, thinking I had to force a line and go in one direction or another with it, because good lines were popping into my head, and I needed to place them immediately into the genre that they fit best into. As part of finding my writing voice, I found I just instinctively knew. I also found that the ability to place something more poetic into my fiction and more narrative into my poetry was a gift I had given myself.

Years later, in 2009, I started on what would become a novel, “The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan.” I dropped nearly every other form of writing in order to work on this, giving myself 500 words a day, and then stopping myself.  Poetry economized my sentence structure in a way I’d never realized it could, and flash fiction allowed me to write to 500 words and then stop so the novel never, in the process, dried up for me.  My journey also allowed me to overcome my fear of other genres, which made my own writing universe boundless. Mentally, a switch was pulled and a jump was made that we are not to be classified as poets, writers, novelists, musicians, playwrights or any other stilting categories. We are writers and we are allowed to be taken wherever we need to be taken.   


Timothy Gager is the author of eleven books of short fiction and poetry. His book of poetry, The Shutting Door was nominated for The Massachusetts Book Award. He hosts the successful Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over thirteen years and is the co-founder of Somerville News Writers Festival. His work appears in over 300 journals, of which nine have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been read on National Public Radio. His latest, "The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan," is his first novel.