Literary collage workshop

I like me some good collage therapy–an art outlet disguised as life mapping or vision boards that allows for perusing beautiful images that I collect like a magpie for what I pretend is a work of art. But I rarely find the right images or collect too many disparate images, or don’t have time to arrange them all just so. But in a literary collage workshop at the MA Poetry Festival last weekend, I grabbed materials from trunks of colorful scraps, photographs, stamps, sheets of music, and lines from poems, and realized a sort of jungle theme had emerged organically: a bird, a bunch of bananas, trees.

Time was running out as it usually does when you’re knee-deep in art-making, but the pressure worked. With only five minutes before the next workshop would begin, I started slapping down images on a board in places that felt right, that all worked.

Instructors Missy-Marie Montgomery and Trish Crapo (check out her collages here) shared their own beautiful collage creations inspired by lines of poetry and encouraged us to layer both literally (materials) and figuratively (ideas and themes); one participant said she makes a drink and a collage every night; one young girl emerged with a masterpiece. I’m putting mine up on the wall and telling visitors it’s a rare work by a local artist.

jungle collage


collage with peach

In addition to pages ripped from books (shudder!), the artists brought some pages that had undergone a process using Citra Solv, a cleaning agent-turned-art material that blends the ink on a page to create colorful, abstract designs. You can read it about it on this artist’s blog.



With a minute or two left, each workshop participant introduced their collage, and I had the sudden feeling that everyone had been secret collage prodigies. Still, I loved the workshop, the creative process, the artists let loose from their poet selves. I’m eyeing my books with a new sense of possibility.

collages on display


Poetry is so . . . poetic

Roses are red
Violets are blue;
This poem is short
and so are you.

This original poem, my most creative I think, won best amateur poem in the Mass Poetry’s Festival’s newcomer category, which is not a real contest, but should be. I’d have it in the bag.

In reality, the festival breezed into Salem, set up its circus tents of inspiration all over town: workshop after workshop of scribbling poets and readings to recharge writers for months. So much to feast on. So much to plagiarize.

On Friday afternoon, the back yard of the Salem Athenaeum was one giant cliché: a circle of writers sitting under a tree in full blossom, creating poems amongst bird song, sunshine, and wind chimes. Saturday brought more sunshine and poets who could dash off a masterpiece in minutes. On Sunday, carpenter poets read their work, full of hammers and miter saws, in a dark room in the House of the Seven Gables where gables centuries old beamed to see their craftsmen. The day also brought rain, the kind of weather angsty writers need to cultivate a mood and to get down to the business of writing and brooding.

The Summer Day

During a yoga retreat this fall, the instructor read us a Mary Oliver poem during savasana, which, when you think about it, might be the best time to receive a poem. In a relaxed, supine position, you can let a poem wash over you and consider it in a way that is not academic; you can simply experience it. I especially love that the theme is partly about summer, a blissful season. Even the word suggests a certain sparkle and warmth and sunshine. So, on this especially cold day of winter, I give you a taste of summer.

The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So readers, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Will you kneel down in the grass, stroll through the fields, or snap your wings open? Will you take a chance, write your own poem, or enjoy each moment for what it is: a moment?

Beach musings

Is there anything more wonderful than cresting the steps to the beach when the horizon opens up and you feel all small? Why, yes. It’s amazing enough that you’re at sparkly Crane Beach, all sticky from the car and ready to trudge along the boardwalk to cool off down by the water, when you discover this ocean chalkboard. A poem unravels at your feet:


The letters erode along with the beach, and I like the faint whisper of words clinging to the worn wood.


A poem’s journey

I spent an inordinate amount of time today at work enjoying an extensive interview with Billy Collins in the Barnes & Noble e-newsletter, in which he talks about his poems and the world of Poetry with a capital “P.” In particular, I was intrigued by his style of beginning a poem with a familiar, concrete first stanza and finding a way, at the end, to a newly created space. The interviewer provides an example in the excerpt below after which Collins describes one poem’s journey that starts as a simple memory, landing us eventually in an imagined world, a deft movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown.

Interviewer: The poem in the new book that I’m thinking of right now is “What Love Does,” which starts out with a familiar entry point, love songs on the car radio: 

A fine thing, or so it sounds
on the radio in the summer
with all the windows rolled down. 

Collins: So we’re all with that, we’re all together in the same car. Right.

Interviewer: Then, with a little twist that’s poignant in the exact sense, we come to: 

Yet it pierces not only the heart, 
but the eyeball and the scrotum 
and the little target of the nipple with arrows. 

And you proceed through a small catalogue of love’s effects, in which each of the three-line stanzas might be the kernel of a John Donne poem exploring love as arrows, or love as wrestling, love as a flower-hopping bee, and so on. All of this imagery is recognizable and easily embraced. But at the conclusion of the poem, you set us down in a strange land indeed, with an unexpected evocation of the puzzling ominousness of love, setting off on a journey to a forbidding city: 

It will travel through the night to get there,
and it will arrive like an archangel
through an iron gate no one ever seemed to notice before.

You’ve led us from a summer joyride, listening to the Beach Boys or Frank Sinatra or the Supremes, and then deposited us at the gates of a bewildering city both promising and fearsome.

Collins: The poem wants to move from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place, in this case, an imagined city. The theme is the way love passes quickly from one person to another, like a bee going from flower to flower. Even as the ink is drying on the new beloved’s name, love is off to visit someone in another city. It’s one thing to leave it at that. But the temptation is then to imagine this city, to actually particularize it. Where is this city? What city? Well, it’s a city of the imagination, obviously. But then, it’s particularized. It has chimney pots, and a school with a tree-lined entrance. So suddenly, the convertible we were driving in is forgotten, and we’ve moved into the reality of this city, which is a kind of unreality, but it’s particularized as if it were real. Then you have this metaphor of the archangel arriving at this city, in the spectral way of archangels, through a gate that somehow no one in the city ever noticed before — and that would be the entrance to the heart, now that I think of it. To commit an awful act of paraphrase on the poem: you don’t realize you’re susceptible to love because you’ve never noticed the possibility of that door being opened. And yet it appears to you in the guise of an archangel.

Nicely put. Even if Collins feels paraphrasing his own poem is a sin, the idea that love is not only a door to be opened, but a door that you never even noticed is an intriguing idea in itself. I love how the poem evokes memories of listening to the car radio, but even more, I would like to visit this city of chimney pots and tree-lined streets. In poems, you can experience both on a single page.

Read this at my funeral, please

One of my favorite poems is “Otherwise” by the late Jane Kenyon. It’s a live-for-the-day and be grateful poem that reminds me to appreciate the little things, the everyday. I have it posted on my wall at work:


Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

I asked my friend to read it at my funeral, when it will be, well, otherwise. A few stage directions for her to refer to here: read slowly and clearly, sniffling at appropriate intervals. If you can manage it, drop to your knees and yell, “Why???” Thanks.

Poet love

Poets make it so easy to fall in love with them.

Take the charming Billy Collins, for example. The former U.S. Poet Laureate, a cross between Bill Murray and Kevin Spacey, read last night in Brookline from his new poetry collection, Ballistics.  Two lines into his first poem, I was swooning. The title, “Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles,” was followed by the line, “What is there to say about them that hasn’t been said in the title?” 

“Most poets would have stopped there,” Collins said, interrupting himself. “But I soldiered on.”

Collins’ poems are like that: funny and clever in the highest sense, but never at the expense of a beautiful image or a unique observation. You don’t want his poems to end, but then you do, because the endings are so marvelous. Collins himself remarked how much he enjoys discovering the unexpected ending to a poem, especially when writing.

His poem, “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” begins with a confession in that amusing Collins style:

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure--if it is a pleasure--
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


He challenges himself to write a poem about a dog that’s unsentimental and does. He reads a poem about driving past the cemetery where his parents are buried that’s well, humorous. He laughs with the audience; “You try writing a humorous poem about your dead parents,” he says. 

So, I’ve fallen for a poet: this former Poet Laureate who’s a charming wordsmith–someone I’d listen to talk about economics or eggs for hours. Someone who is age inappropriate for me, possibly, but who could write about our unlikely love, the fact that neither of us has even gone fishing on the Susquehanna: the stuff, after all, of poems.

Poet Billy Collins

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d

So begins the poem by Walt Whitman—an elegy to Abraham Lincoln but to me a tribute to the fragrant purple flower that blooms in May and fades too soon. I love lilacs; can’t get enough. Lilac fragrances and soaps come close, but nothing compares to the first scent to reach you on a breeze in early May. A hearty plant, lilacs are often found near old farmhouses still thriving, even if the farms are not.

The lilac bunches draping the fence below are on my morning walk along Brattle St. in Cambridge, at the house of fellow poet Longfellow. I want to grab a whole fistful and run but signs posted by the bushes ask people to refrain from poaching. Longfellow, I think, would want me to have them, but I’m no rule-breaker, so I stop to take in the scent and settle for a photograph.