Posts Tagged ‘negative space’

Poetry Challenge 52

July 30, 2010

Last night several local poets and I gave a panel for the Alaska Book Festival in which we each read poems of other Alaskan writers whose work we admired.  It was fun and daunting.  I had heard the poets I chose read their works many times–I know their voices, their cadences, the stories behind the poems, and the bits not spoken.  How to read them and do them justice without preempting the other poets’ voices?

Along those lines, find a line or a phrase or a word from a poem written by someone whose work you admire and build your own around it.  If it helps, break the phrase apart and use the words in a different sense than in the original.  Let the poem take on your voice, with echoes of the other poet’s voice.  If it helps, find an unsuspecting word like lupine or hail or sandhill crane or clutch cable  find its way into the poem.

Send it as a comment to this post and I’ll post it here.

Poetry Challenge 36

December 28, 2009

This time of year, we gather with family, seeking the continuity that contact brings.  For some, this is a time to return to the nourishing environment we grew up with.  For others, a time to test how far we’ve come from the struggles of adolescence.  And every family has its stories–the comic, the tragic, the darkly mysterious.

So here’s  a variation on a challenge I often give my basic writing class as a journal prompt:

Write about a story that’s told in your family.  Who tells it?  When?  What else is going on in the room–or below the surface?  Start with a single detail of the moment of telling, then run with it from there.   Include food.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 22, 2009

The solstice has turned—now, incrementally, we’re heading to brighter days. It has been a tough fall in the Interior. Each of us has experienced it in different ways that have accumulated gradually, but definitely, so that any two of us meeting at Fred Meyers near the mesh bags of tiny oranges, would find ourselves saying, “It’s been a rough fall,” and nodding, saying nothing for a beat, then moving the conversation along to the turning year.

I’m not sure where the run of bad luck started for me. Was it returning from two weeks in New Jersey to find an old friend and ally struck down in his dining room—the true meaning of stroke—and getting there in time to attend his cremation ceremony? Was it the day I knew the whole stack of hay had molded? Was it learning that my dancer son had been sucker punched while doing a good deed? Was it the other deaths and illnesses that seemed to accumulate as we head into the dark time of year?

Living in the Interior makes us survivors. We think nothing of going out and living our lives at twenty, thirty, forty below. We layer up and plug in our cars. We leave no skin exposed. Walking out to feed the horses in the dark of morning at twenty below, I begin to judge temperature by what freezes. Nose hairs: twenty below, eyelashes: thirty below, scarf to face, including nose and eyelashes: forty below. We know how far we can go without danger of hypothermia. We know how long our fingers can manipulate the metal hooks on the horse blanket before we have to run for the warmth of the house to warm hands and gloves, so we can go out and blanket another horse.

It makes a difference to my attitude to spend time outside. Though I rarely see Mattie and Sam in daylight as the fall semester winds down, there are those moments in the morning when I trudge out sleepy-eyed, yawning in the cold air, and watch the light spread on the southern horizon over the fold of the Alaska Range. It’s just past night at 9:30 or 10, on the days I can sleep that late, and the horizon is a deep smoky orange, the sky nearly black.

Today, the last day of grading final papers, I woke even later, still tired from finals week and the near constant reading of student writing. As I walked out, there was a blue-gray light in the sky, just enough to see without turning on the floodlights. Jeter, the still-adolescent poodle, went bounding on ahead as I got Mattie and Sam’s morning armfuls of hay. The air had warmed to nearly zero, and I could feel the returning moisture in the air. Mattie’s back was covered with frost and shavings as she waited for me to toss her hay.

After I threw the hay to each of them, I ducked under the fence, dog in the lead, and walked over to scratch Sam on the neck under his mane. His coat is out to my second knuckle now, dense and warm. I took a flake of hay and divided it into two parts to tuck in two old tires in the corral. They like to eat from the tires, then flip them in the air, looking for scraps of hay. As I walked back into Mattie’s side of the corral, I heard a sharp “Caw” and sensed motion above me. I looked up to see a half dozen ravens circling in the air.

The sky was lightening, the ravens dark against the gray sky. They circled on an eddy of air, catching up to and tumbling around each other. It seemed like one raven led the circling—a choreographer of air—as they glided and flapped and glided again, all in a slow gyre above my head.

Later, I read a poem by Yeats that used that word, “gyre,” his word for the order or was it disorder inherent in the world. These ravens didn’t seem to be playing, though they didn’t seem dreary or even to be hunting. They almost seemed to be circling me and the horses and the dog, as if we were an audience for their art, and all they wanted was to be seen by us. It was as if they were caught in the eddy at the heart of the turning year and were dramatizing it—the essence of solstice—right above my corral.

Or maybe they were waiting for us to leave so they could snack on manure. In any case, a happy solstice to you: the return of light, the slow draining out of darkness from the coming new year.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 28, 2009

The day after Thanksgiving.  The weather has warmed so that going outside is comfortable again, though the paths and roads are slick.  All day yesterday, we could hear the snow sliding off the roof.   We sat and ate turkey and pie and talked about the sorrows that have come into our community lately—too soon in winter for so much inexplicable pain.

It’s hard to write about, so here’s a poem.

The way “November”

settles in the mouth:

the dark “n” and “v”, the chilly

“b” and “r”, the hum of “m”

at the heart.  The name of the month

rumbles through our days,

dragging the shadowed season

with it.  Snow falls and packs

beneath our feet.   The moon hangs

half-hearted in the dark afternoon

sky; the night a tunnel we

plunge into with hope

that when daylight comes,

we all wake from darkness

to morning, rich with coffee,

the air tart with cut oranges,

with deep umber light

spreading to pink in the sky.

Poetry Challenge 30

September 29, 2009

A Birthday Poem

It’s always a challenge to write an occasional poem without getting totally sappy.  So take the challenge–write about an event or occasion: birthday, wedding, farewell to travelers, etc.–without getting, well, mushy.  This works for me as an exercise in negative space–writing about what surrounds the occasion, such as details, objects, images, rather than about the occasion itself.

I’ll post my attempt at this tomorrow.  Send me yours.

(Happy Birthday, Ira)


Here’s a poem in response to the prompt–for all September birthdays.  There seem to be a cluster of them. (By the way, I’m not sure what happens to the formatting of these poems when I place them in a post.  I’ll keep working on that! For now, I’ll try to trick the formatting with extra periods.)


The Way the Season Goes Sometimes:


a flock of yellow warblers

fills a willow just as a few commas

of yellow leaves appear;

then yellow in the birches,

on the hearts of zucchini leaves,

in the ring of petals of a late sunflower,

or an agate shaped tomato.


Then the sky: yellow to orange

to deep rose, the dusky smudge

of clouds on the horizon, above white

peaks, the jig-saw at the edge

of our sight.


We should have known. The season

teeters on brilliance; noon

gleams with light, the blue

stretch of sky, the tease–near

warmth–of September.


In our hurry, these days,

to stack wood, put away

the hose, eat all the lettuce

we can, something falls

from a pocket, or flutters

from a car door to the ground.

A few white flakes zig-zag

down. The things we drop

get buried in forgetful fluff

for months to come, wait


for our return,

shaking off the journey

through winter,

to emerge.


And this from Claire:


A vegan sheet cake cooked with love
before I even knew you
braces, bowl cut, tie-dyed shirt
a photo that didn’t capture the beauty of the moment

the cook since married and gone
mother of two, distant and unknowable
those singing to you, now scattered across the country.
It is the last day of September and I’m in California
watching the fog push up against the hills
and reveling in the last days of summer.
But superimposed on the San Francisco sun is an eastern fall
and despite it all my mouth fills with the memory of melted wax on frosting.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 6, 2009

Yesterday I went with Mary Beth and the kids from Effie Kokrine Charter School who are taking part in a “Climate Change and Creative Expression” class to the Large Animal Research Station to visit the musk ox herd. The day was bright, warming to around zero, and we stood by the heavy metal fence and watched as a student worker drove through the herd of cows and calves on a four-wheeler, dropping off rubber dishes of musk ox food (they prepare the pellets there especially for the musk ox diet).

Like horses, musk ox have a herd hierarchy, and these animals–like giant dust mops with horns–played a game of musical food dishes, chasing each other with growly grunts, the one chased in turn chasing another lowlier cow. As the adults kept busy with the work of maintaining herd order, the calves slipped in to eat from the dishes, enacting their own hornless dominancy. The smallest calf stood alone in the middle of the herd, looking through the fence at us, waiting till a dish was left unattended before he bent his nose to it.

These are such ancient animals. With their long brown guard hairs and thick quiviut underlayer, they look like large hay bales from a distance. Up close, they look like tussocks covered in long lichen or dead grass, but moving slowly while grazing or quickly when dashing across the field to chase away a rival. They have large faces, like the cartoon faces drawn for cows-big gentle-looking mouths, brown eyes, and droopy horns that seem to melt down the sides of their heads like lop-ears on a rabbit. But the look is misleading. The ends of the horns curve up to a sharp point and they have the ability to stomp their foes with their hooves and half-ton weight. Observing the males, we saw several pairs line up and run at each other, whacking the flat horn at the top of their heads with a loud crack. And, though these musk ox are familiar with humans, they have no instincts of friendliness with the weaker creatures who feed them, only a watchful tolerance.

After watching the musk ox and the reindeer for a while, we were thoroughly cold-some of the teens were colder than others, wearing hoodies and tennis shoes rather than boots and parkas, so we went inside to the classroom where Lindsey made us all hot chocolate. We sipped the warm sugary chocolate and I gave the students a writing prompt, and. for fifteen minutes, the room fell into silence. Outside the window, the white fields edged with spruce, dotted with the humped backs of musk ox. From time to time, one would pass below the window, brown fur fading to frost along the back, startling to see, like a moving bush or a small hill passing by.

They wrote some wonderful fragments in the short time we had. I look forward to seeing what they produce when they have time to revise. More on this project as it progresses.

Poetry Challenge 5

January 30, 2009

This comes from a Creative Movement exercise today at the Effie Kokrine Science and Creative Expression class with Ruth Merriman from North Star Ballet. 

Negative space:

In art, this involves drawing what’s around the object, rather than the object itself; in dance, it’s using the shape of the space made by the movement or gesture of the body; in a poem, it’s writing about everything but the thing you’re focusing on–the objects, background, shadow, sounds, smells, textures, rather than the thing itself.  For examples see Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

So, choose an object.  Write about what’s all around the object or what it displaces.   Don’t mention the object.

Feb 3–

Here’s the poem I wrote today while working with the kids (we selected objects from a bag; mine was a horse bit):

Light glints on metal:
a bridge, a curve,
a circle of cold.
No leather attaches
but the soft gums
in the mare’s mouth
remember it even now.

The air chills
to its chill, light
bends to it;
a horse’s neck arches
and turns. Weight
and firm touch,
a bitter taste:
pennies, nickels
turned in the mouth,
a hard pebble
through which we
speak, then
trot on.


Glow sent this:


making love under a ceiling fan,
my Beloved asked,
“what is that sound?”
A rattle, a misplaced hum,
a rasping breath,
an uneven gasp.
On the bed in the corner,
orange as a persimmon,
lay purring contentment.
Not a loose bearing after all.

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