Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Poetry Can Open Space for the Imagination

Susan chimes in: April is National Poetry Month, a time to read, write, and celebrate poetry in all its forms. In Wyoming, WyoPoets marks National Poetry with their annual Spring Workshop. The 2018 event, "The Art and Craft of Poetry," will feature today's guest contributor, Art Elser. Learn more and register on the WyoPoets website.

Guest post by Art Elser

In these times of constant connection to the world, waves of information that daily inundate us, fears many have because of the recent events, is there room in our lives for poetry? Can we measure its cost effectiveness? Its effect to the bottom line? Its return on investment? Since April is National Poetry Month, perhaps we should properly ask: What value does poetry add to our lives?

As with all art, we have difficulty finding a use or value or price we can assign to poetry, no schema that sorts it into an economic priority list. Art finds its value not in utility, ROI, or cost savings but in feeding the imagination, in creating a room or space in the human soul where we can be encouraged, nourished, calmed, healed by it.

The ancients knew the value of poetry. It was first the vehicle by which fathers passed knowledge to sons, mothers to daughters, elders to new leaders. Poetry told the farmer when to plant, harvest, how to tend the crops. It told the healer which herbs healed illnesses and where to find them. Youngsters learned the social customs, laws, and taboos of their tribe, shamen passed on religion to novitiates. As cultures became more sophisticated poetry took the form of oral history and legend, for example, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf. More metaphorical forms emerged like the Psalms.

A friend recently sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, never wandering off on a tangent.

But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet attempts to persuade you to take a course of action but is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence with him and wander through the "bee-loud glade." We see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose, the iris by the stock pond. We smell their fragrance and feel the warmth of the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees are making.

Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days and her lack of time to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed. She also mentions she has to take the dog to the vet and that suddenly reminds her of the homeless couple she saw on a street, their shopping cart stacked with their belongings. They treat each other with such love and respect that in spite of the stale-sweat smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their lives shines from their eyes through the dirt on their faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world unknown to us. To imagine the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion. We discover a reverence for all humanity.

Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's  beauty and joy as well as its pain, horrors, and disappointments. It helps us experience and better understand life happening around us. We learn to experience beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face glows with joy. Or we look up from the screen filled with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery that has made us see or feel something we have never seen or felt before.

Poetry helps to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, and also to imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives despite their hardships. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the of the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, sexual preference, country of origin. We learn empathy and to treat others with love and compassion.

Perhaps in this age in which, by many accounts, attention spans are getting shorter, people are isolated, spending more time online, and many want to get away from the violence and horror in the world, poetry can open up ideas and feelings to help assuage the pain that seems to fill our world. A short, effective poem that fits nicely onto a small screen may be more apt to be read than an editorial or op-ed piece.  Poetry that feeds our imagination and opens spaces in our minds for beauty and joy and truth and empathy and compassion and reverence can heal our anxious souls and help us see our way back to our humanity.

Art Elser is a poet and writer who has been published in many journals and anthologies. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, is a collection of 120 haiku selected from over 2,000 he has written. His other books include a memoir, What's It All About, Alfie?, and two books of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and A Death at Tollgate Creek. Art lives in Denver with his wife, Kathy, and their pup, Walker.  He will be the presenter at the 2018 WyoPoets Spring Workshop, April 27-28 in Cheyenne, and was the juror for the soon-to-be-released 2018 WyoPoets chapbook, This Box for Dreams.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


guest post by William Kent Krueger

Lynn here: 

Kent Krueger is one of the stellar authors who will be on hand at the 44th Annual Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference this coming June 1 - 3 in lovely Dubois, Wyoming. (Turns out Kent has been to Dubois, doing research for his novel, Heaven's Keep.)  

During the conference, Kent will be the keynote speaker at the banquet. At his breakout sessions Kent will provide insight on finding the soul of the story, creating suspense and elevating setting and place. 

Little known fact: Kent was born in Torrington.

For more information on the conference, visit the Wyoming Writers, Inc. website. Registration is now open! 

Without further ado... here's Kent:

I’ve just completed revisions of the manuscript for the seventeenth novel in my Cork O’Connor series. Seventeen. That’s a number hard for me to believe. In 1998, when Iron Lake, my debut novel, was published, if you’d told me there were going to be sixteen more (and probably then some), I’d have wondered what you were smoking.

Of course, I’m thrilled, and one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is how I manage to keep the series fresh and maintain my enthusiasm. So, for anyone who has launched into the writing of a series or is contemplating that move, I offer a few suggestions from my own experience.

The most important decision I made when I started out was to create a protagonist who would not be static. What do I mean by that? I believe you have only two real choices when considering the essential, central character for your series. You will create a protagonist who is either static or dynamic. A static protagonist is someone who never changes, who is the same story after story.

Think Sherlock Holmes. You read one Sherlock Holmes tale, and he’s the same guy in every other Arthur Conan Doyle story you read. A dynamic protagonist, on the other hand, is someone who does change, who ages, someone for whom what happens in one story affects how he or she sees the world in the subsequent entries. When I began my series, Cork was a man just past forty. In Sulfur Springs, the most recent entry, he’s in his mid-fifties. He’s aged fifteen years. His children were young in the first book; now they’re grown and one of them has a child of her own.

What this choice has done is to help frame the series as a journey for the O’Connor clan. Each time I sit down to write a new story, I’m writing about slightly different people. Events and time have changed them. They see the world and themselves a little differently. They may relate to one another with different dynamics. Which means that the series is a journey for me as well, and I’m always discovering something new along the way.

Here’s another thing to consider when writing your mysteries: Try putting at the story’s center an issue about which you feel passionately. At one time, there was a kind of story often in literature referred to as the Social Novel, a fiction created around a very real, contemporary social issue that the author wished to bring to the attention of a larger audience. Think Dickens or Victor Hugo or Upton Sinclair or Theodore Dreiser. We don’t really have the Social Novel anymore. What’s taken its place? To a large extent, our genre has shouldered this responsibility. Many of our fine crime novels today hit hard at issues important in our society.

In my own series, I’ve dealt with the on-going battle here in Minnesota over Native hunting and fishing treaty rights, the influx of the drug and gang cultures on the reservation, the sexual trafficking of vulnerable Native women and children, the rape of the land by uncaring corporations, and most recently, the tragic situation involving refugees coming across our border with Mexico. When you construct a story around an issue you feel passionately about, it’s not hard to create a compelling narrative in which you can invest your heart and your artistic sensibilities fully.

Here's another suggestion: Educate your readers. Without being didactic or becoming pedantic, offer your readers information about an area they probably don’t know very well. Everyone likes to feel that, along with a good read, they’re learning something. Tony Hillerman informed a huge audience about the Navajo culture. When you read Nevada Barr, you get the inside scoop on so many of our national parks. From Keith McCafferty you might learn everything you need to about fly fishing and wilderness survival. It’s fun to show off what you know or what you’ve learned through research, as long as you do this judiciously.

In my own work, for example, I continue learning about the rich and complex culture of the Anishinaabeg. With each entry, I try to offer readers something I haven’t previously, a slightly different perspective. This means that I have to keep learning myself, and I find that I continue to grow in my appreciation of these fine people.

Finally, I offer this: Write because it’s what you love to do. If you’re following your passion, that’s going to be evident on every page. There’s nothing more compelling than a story that comes from the heart.

I told myself a long time ago that I would write the Cork O’Connor stories until I had no enthusiasm left for them. I’m at work in my head on number eighteen in the series and I even have a glimmer of what number nineteen might look like. At the moment, the energy still flows, I’m excited about the possibilities ahead, and I feel very blessed.

William Kent Krueger: Bio

Raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger—he goes by Kent—briefly attended Stanford University, before being kicked out for radical activities, a dubious honor which he continues to be unduly proud of.

Before becoming a writer fulltime, he worked in a number of manly enterprises, including logging and heavy construction. Kent writes the New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor mystery series. 

His 2013 stand-alone novel Ordinary Grace was honored with several awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Desolation Mountain, the 17th entry in his series, will be released this August. He does all his writing in a couple of wonderfully funky coffee shops in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


post by Lynn

If I’m cornered and asked that oh-so-annoying question, “What kind of writer are you?” I’ll usually answer that I’m an essayist and blogger.

So then why do I belong to the WyoPoets organization, and why am I going to their 2018 Spring Workshop in Cheyenne on April 28th?

Because sometimes I write poems.

Because I learn so much from the poets I meet.

Because I love the way poetry turns my brain upside down and helps me see new things while I’m all upside-down-ey.

So I am going to try to convince you that even if you are primarily a prose writer, like me, you should consider dabbling in poetry.

Starting with… 

1. Writing poetry helps you learn how to capture emotion on the page. 

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat… a homesickness.” 
- Robert Frost 

Wordsworth called poetry "the spontaneous overflow of feelings." If a prose writer is occasionally accused of stilted writing, studying poetry will help him/her to overcome that tendency. I have found that if I can’t figure out what an essay is really about—what is at the heart of it—writing a poem can help me zoom in on the emotional core of the story.

2. Writing poetry encourages you to write in sensory language

 … and that’s good for all forms of writing.

“Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t often use enough. Poetry keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your tongue, your hand.” 
- Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing 

Bad poetry is abstract and unclear. Good poetry encapsulates a single moment or image and presents it to the reader intact and pulsating with life.

We need more of that in all of our writing, don't you think?

3. Poetry experiments with form

… and that helps a writer learn to experiment with form in other styles of writing.

Ghazel, sestina, rhyming (and not), cinquain, acrostic, haiku or sonnet--poets have, through the centuries, come up with thousands of ways to stitch a poem together.

As writers, we can all get stuck in certain styles, formulas and formats. Poetry encourages me to break out and try new ways of organizing words. Because of poetry’s (usually) short form (not a huge investment of time in writing a first draft) I’m more apt to be playful and experimental.

4. Poetry encourages you to pay attention to rhythm, sound and pacing in a piece of writing

In linguistics it’s called “prosody” and in poetry we learn to use intonation, rhythm, the sounds of consonants and vowels, stressed and unstressed syllables in ways that enhance the meaning of the poem.

Poets learn to use punctuation and line breaks to control the pace at which a poem is read (out loud or in your head).

They use assonance (putting words with similar vowel sounds together) to produce a flowing, musical effect, or sharp consonance (repetition of similar consonants) to jar people awake.

These are all skills that can absolutely be transferred to prose… hallelujah, amen.

5. Poetry pushes you to focus and condense 

Poems don’t allow for long lead-ins, so they teacg a writer to jump right in where the story-image starts. What's more, learning how to edit and revise a poem is great training for editing and revising longer prose pieces. 

Poetry also encourages you to read close, and slow, and in this all-in-a-rush world, that’s a very good thing.

 6. Poetry encourages you to play with words and all their layers 

Poets geek out on things like connotation and denotation. (See a post on the topic at This Itch of Writing.)

Poets are aware that using long Latinate words, with a multitude of syllables, will tend to impart more formality to a piece of writing, while short ones that sound like how folks talk are more informal.

I think Samuel Taylor Choleridge nailed it when he said, "Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order."

A writing friend chimes in… 

Jim Littwin is a writer I “met” when he submitted a poem to Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology. Like me, he is a big fan of studying poetry to improve your writing overall.

I quote from his comments…

Because so much depends on word choice in poems, because by its very nature poetry is a more concentrated and condensed form of writing, because poetry is necessarily imagistic, and because poetry is expressed in narrative, lyrical, metaphysical, and surrealistic manners (to name just a few) and in a wide variety of traditional (rhyming and unrhyming) forms, as well as in free verse, organic poems, prose poems, and other “experiments,” poetry in itself is a veritable "art institute" of many galleries, each one offering experiences that can awe us, enrich us, inspire us, and teach us about life and writing in a relatively small space, each poem a “canvas” that we can get lost in, then emerge from, changed forever as both persons and writers. (Whew!) 
Yes, yes, poems, by their very nature, demonstrate effective writing strategies and skills.

Yeah... what he said.

We could go on and on about how poetry can make you a better prose writer, but let’s not.

My co-blogger Susan, reading her off-the-cuff poem
at last year's workshop
So how about it? Will you join me and others at the WyoPoets 2018 Spring Workshop?

For all the reasons above.

And also because the workshop is so damned reasonable ($50 before April 14th, a mere $55 after).

And because Art Elser is the workshop leader. (You won’t find a more delightful combination of sagacity, sly humor and humility in a single person, I guarantee.)

Here's that sly fella I mentioned who will guide us through the
 "Art and Craft of Poetry"
and as a bonus, share his experiences in
publishing his own poetry.
And because the folks involved with WyoPoets are such an eclectic, welcoming and word-loving bunch. Just the kind of people I like to hang out with.

For more information on WyoPoet’s Spring Workshop, “The Art and Craft of Poetry,” visit www.wyopoets.org.


I often use poems as a writing prompt when it’s my turn to provide one to my writing group.

Try this poem/prompt and see where it leads you, and let's all say "Thanks!" to Jim Littwin for loaning us this fine poem.

Lost Gospel
by Jim Littwin

And at that time
Jesus broke away from us
and waded into weeds,
plastic bags,
and broken glass
under a billboard
and knelt beside
a drunken man
curled and cursing,
shivering in his own sickness.

There in the dirt
Jesus sat him up
and said words to him
we couldn't hear,
for we wouldn't go near.

And the man did not
stop drinking immediately
thereafter, but followed us
at a distance,
from that day.

And sometimes,
Jesus would wave us away
and turn to walk with that man,
to ask him questions,
then listen and listen.

--"Lost Gospel" was originally published in Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology

Prompt question:

What would you add as a "lost gospel"? Or what lost chapter, idea or element would you add to another work, such as the Chronicles of NarniaThe OdysseyCrime and Punishment or another classic?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

When Friends Have Asked Me

Art Elser will be the presenter at the upcoming 2018 WyoPoets Spring Workshop in Cheyenne April 27-28. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with us on how he became a poet. 

Art Elser
Guest post by Art Elser

I’m taking a poetry class this winter from an educational institute that caters to retired folks. The class is The Distaff Side: Seven Women Poets, and each week we hear background about and read five or six poems by a female poet. For homework we’re to choose one poem and use it as a prompt for our own poem to be shared in class.

One week’s poet was Lisel Mueller, a women who was born in pre-Hitler Germany Her family left for American when the Nazis came to power. The poem I chose, “When I Am Asked,” is her response to being asked about starting to write poetry. I chose this poem because it seems appropriate, as I’ve often been asked by those who knew me in one of my previous lives how in the world I became a poet. As I sat down to write my poem, I realized I haven’t often mentioned the real reason.

Mueller writes in the poem  “When I am asked” how she got started:

It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming. 

My tale is similar to Mueller’s, except it was the death of my mother-in-law, not my mother that got me started. I was closer to my wife’s mother than to my own, and her death combined the shock at losing her with my joy at seeing her released from the pain of her year-long battle with metastatic breast cancer. I was moved by my grief to write a poem about her death, and that got me started.

At the same time, I was having flashbacks and nightmares about my combat experiences in Vietnam. After realizing that writing about Mom’s death had helped me accept it and heal me, I decided to write poetry about the flashbacks and nightmares. This is what I have told my friends is what got me started, to heal from the trauma of war.

I was fortunate at the time to be in a critique group led by a poet in her 80s, Lois Beebe Hayna, who started writing poetry in her 60s. I was in my late 50s, early 60s, so I saw it was possible. Incidentally, she died this past April at the age of 104, and published three of her best books of poetry after turning 100.

I had read somewhere a poem by Mary Oliver that clicked with me, and I bought and read every book of hers I could find. I started to imitate her subjects and style. At the time I was learning to be a volunteer naturalist on the prairie, so her work was a good fit.

After I had written perhaps a dozen poems, I moved from Colorado Springs to Denver and tried to join a critique group to help me continue to learn to write poetry. I couldn’t find one and another poet who had had the same problem suggested WyoPoets. I joined in 2008 and was fortunate to learn from Barbara Smith in the workshop that year. Then I joined Wyoming Writers in 2009. I was fortunate that Ted Kooser was the leader of the poetry workshops for Wyoming Writers, and he helped me also. I had read several of his poetry books, so I knew his work.

I took Kooser’s and Oliver’s advice and read as much poetry as I could to see how others did it. I read lots in earning my degrees in English, but took no creative writing courses. I could dissect the frog but not create one for an imaginary garden.

I read books on writing by Kooser, Oliver, Steven King, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and many others. I wrote as much as I could, sent poems off, and finally got some published. I’ve now had over 120 poems published and three books of poetry, with a fourth soon to come.
Mueller closes by writing what I cannot write nearly so gracefully:

I … placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.  

My goal is to be like Lois, my first mentor, and help others learn the craft and joy of writing poetry. And oh yes, would love, like Lois, to live to at least 104 and keep writing poetry along the way.

Art Elser is a poet and writer who has been published in many journals and anthologies. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, is a collection of 120 haiku selected from over 2,000 he has written. His other books include a memoir, What's It All About, Alfie?, and two books of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea and A Death at Tollgate Creek. Art lives in Denver with his wife, Kathy, and their pup, Walker.

Want more from Art? Sign up for the WyoPoets Spring Workshop for a full day of workshops on poetic art, craft, and self-publishing. Learn more on the WyoPoets website.