Sister Oustider Poetry

This Thursday I attended a poetry reading by Denice Frohman and Dominique Christina. Their poetry was moving, important, and powerful, but I feel my words will not do theirs justice. So, check them out – two wonder spoken word poets who talk about what really needs to be talked about. Here are two of my favorites of theirs:

A Poem a Day Keeps the Writer’s Block Away

I write poetry. I scribble it on buses, in the middle of class when I should be paying attention, in the middle of the night when I can’t get a line out of my head, and (embarrassingly enough) on that little note function on my cell-phone when no paper is to be found. Poetry, I guess, is my “thing”. But for the past couple of weeks I’ve had the most excruciating, soul-crushing bought of writer’s block and it SUCKS (I can’t even think of a better adjective because of it).

But then, a few days ago, a friend in my poetry workshop told me about a nifty little feature on the Poetry Foundation’s website called Poem of the Day. Now I read at least one poem a day and I can already feel my writer’s block fading away! It’s a beautiful thing, really. Not only does it provide instant inspiration plopped straight into your inbox every day – it also provides that exciting “you’ve got mail!” sensation. Sign up and read (and write) away, fellow word junkies!


M. Hoban: The Journal

Here’s a confession: I don’t journal. I didn’t think it was unusual for writers to not journal until I found myself in a room full of writing-minded peers, all of whom regarded journaling as an invaluable part of their creative process. They all seemed to think it was a number-one tool, an all-important record of feelings and observations and ideas which they could use like a big reference book when they later sat down to write.

This got me thinking, and it’s a question that every writer should ask themselves at least once: is journaling something that would help me in my creative endeavors?

So I did a little research, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that most people find journaling immensely helpful and cathartic. It’s a place to practice your skills, to free write, to record interesting observations. Others regard it as a waste of time or something that simply doesn’t fit with their personal habits and style, and that’s okay too. It’s something you have to try—and put some real effort and commitment into trying—before you can say yea or nay. In the worst case scenario, you have spent a little extra time practicing your writing.

For those of you who, like me, are a little late to the journaling party, here’s a nifty article on how to get started (and it has some neat tips for the already-journaling crowd too).

J. Frank

I read poetry (not quite as often as I should), and I read shoddy gossip (more often than I should), but I rarely expect those experiences to intersect. Which is why it was something of a shock when my daily browsing of a tabloid blog turned up an article about a poem written by a celebrity. As you’d expect from a tabloid website, it was pretty cruel- the headline declared the actress’ poem to be “worse than she is”. And while I must confess I didn’t exactly love the poem, I can’t endorse insulting someone’s poem. Or, for that matter, insulting the poet (though which crime is worse depends on how seriously you take poetry). It did get me thinking, though: what is good poetry? Is there an easy way to figure out whether a poem is good or not? I want to say that there isn’t, because poetry is so subjective. But saying that would be taking the easy way out-which is a pretty bad thing to do in a blog post. So I might as well give it a shot.

I rarely use absolutes, but I’m going to use one here: good poetry has to be surprising in some way. It doesn’t have to feel like a slap in the face, though it can. But a good poem has got to stand up and make you take notice of it. It doesn’t have to be loud or boisterous. But if it’s going to be quiet and subdued, it has to be quiet and subdued in a way so distinct that it becomes noticeable. Poetry that lacks surprise is literary elevator music. It can be beautiful, elegant, nice to listen to, but ultimately it’s going to be completely unmemorable. There’s lots of ways to make a poem surprising. It can be an unconventional subject (I’ve recently read poems about severed heads and raw chicken, and you’d better believe that I haven’t forgotten those). It can be a completely conventional subject approached in an interesting way. It can be the use of a single word that seems out of place, or a word that seems unexpected yet not out of place at all.

In the fruit aisle at a supermarket near my hometown, there’s a sign that details the method for determining whether a melon is ripe or not. You first shake it to see if any seeds are rattling around (a bad sign), then smell it to see if it has a pleasantly sweet smell. Checking for surprise in poetry is a lot like that. When we read, our eyes glide smoothly along the page, like a car on the highway. When we encounter something surprising, it’s like a speed bump.

If you can read an entire poem in one smooth ocular motion, without your eyes stopping suddenly in their tracks or looking away from the page for a moment of relief, it’s not surprising. If it’s not surprising, it’s not going to make any sort of mark, and I can’t fathom calling a poem that doesn’t leave some sort of mark-whether it’s an imprint or a bruise-good.

Of course, poetry can be surprising and still be far from good-it’s the easiest thing in the world to write a poem that’s surprising and bad (although it’s actually difficult to write a surprisingly bad poem). All good poetry is surprising, but not all surprising poetry is good. Because of that, this test of mine might not be all that useful-but it’s the best I can come up with. It’s not quite as good as the melon test, though… that’s practically a science.

L. Stachew: Story Time

Oh, how I love stories. Is there anything quite as ancient, quite as magical as the story? If you have ever been anywhere, and I mean anywhere, then you’ve told a story. We are all storytellers. We all have a story inside of us – a story to share with others.

I think there’s something to be said about orally sharing a story. It’s one thing to read words on a page, but to hear those words – each sound articulated with such crispness and eloquence – there’s something inherently magical about it, which is lost when those words are sewn to the pages of a book.

This was something I learned when I attended The Ark’s 27th Annual Storytelling Festival last night. I braved the frozen night air and walked the 27 minutes from my dorm room to the theater. I really had no idea what I was getting myself in to. I had never been to The Ark, nor even a storytelling festival before, and here I was on a Saturday night, by myself, sitting in a small theater with unfamiliar faces. I was met with something much more different, much more inspiring, than I was expecting.

This year’s festival featured three astounding storytellers: Jane Fink, Tim Tingle, and Donna Washington. Three storytellers whom I have never heard of, and each with their own beautifully unique voice. The first storyteller, Jane, enraptured the audience with her poetic, whimsical words, bursting with images of snow, of memories, and of pure joy. Her hands twisted in the air like she was forming magic spells. As I listened to Jane tell a story of her parents meeting her college boyfriend, I realized how much storytelling is a reciprocal relationship between the speaker and the listener. The laughter, the applause, the shrieks, and the shouts that flow throughout the theater are all unique to the story. As fun as it is to imagine the sounds of a story that you read, to actually hear the shrieks of a peacock or the shouting laughter of children throwing snowballs, as Jane tells in her stories, makes the listener feel as if they are inside of the story.

The second storyteller, Tim, was a true master of stories. Armed with a Native American drum in his hand, he shared with us stories of Choctaw boys, including himself, growing up in the rural south, facing hardships of racism and discrimination. His stories were filled with such fantastic detail, I almost began to wonder if these events he told of had truly happened. I thought back to what the presenter said before the show began: “Stories and truth are very different from stories and fact.” I realized that it wasn’t the facts in the stories that I admired; what I admired was the magic of the story itself. Out of curiosity, I looked up a few of the names that Tim mentioned in his stories and realized what he told was really true. Tim was such an impressive storyteller, he had made real events seem too fantastic to be real. The very last sentence he spoke to us was so moving, it is still taking time to sink in: “If you speak to the goodness in someone’s heart, they will speak back to you, and you will live in it.” What beautiful, touching words.

The last storyteller, Donna Washington, was the treat of the show. Her voice, beaming with life and enthusiasm, filled the stage with such a surge of vitality. She articulated each word with a velvety richness, I felt as if I could have reached up and captured her words in my hands. She told us stories of “relationships gone sideways”, like the classic Wife of Bath story from the Canterbury Tales, and a ghost story her 10-year old son wrote. Even though I was familiar with the Wife of Bath story, hearing it spoken was an entirely new experience. I knew what was going to happen next, but I could feel myself sitting at the edge of my seat, anxiously waiting for the next scene to be told. In between her stories, Donna told us about her experiences as a writer, saying, “As a writer, I know that only ten percent of what’s in your head makes it onto paper.” I think as writers, we can all agree with that statement wholeheartedly!

From that wonderful experience I had at The Ark’s Storytelling Festival last night, I hope that I have been able to show you at least a bit of how magical storytelling truly is. I encourage you all to become collectors of stories and keep them nestled in your pocket, ready to share with others. We are all storytellers. We all have a story inside of us. Let’s keep this ancient tradition alive and keep the magic flowing.

Submit to Fortnight’s Theme Issue: The Secret Issue!

Got poetry, prose, art, photography, sheet music, experimental writing samples, or anything else evocative of secrets and secret telling? Have you always dreamt of being published anonymously or under a cool pseudonym? Submit to Fortnight Literary Press’ Secret Issue by sending it to (authorial identification optional). Deadline: March 7, 2014.