Why I Find Occasional Poems Tricky

Carrboro Town SealAs Carrboro poet laureate, I was invited to read a poem last night at the swearing-in ceremony of Carrboro’s new mayor, Lydia Lavelle, and re-elected alderpersons Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, and Sammy Slade at Carrboro Town Hall.

It was also suggested that I might write a poem for the occasion. And, while writing something for the event intimidated me, I did write my first occasional poem for the swearing-in.

Before I share the poem, let me comment on why I felt intimidated. As Wordsworth is oft (over?) quoted as saying, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Therein, for me, is the difficulty of the occasional poem—the poet has to anticipate the powerful feelings. The poet doesn’t get to recollect them in tranquility. She’s ideally part of creating the powerful feelings. And, by and large, I do draw on past events that are emotionally interesting and significant to me when I write. So undertaking an occasional poem flipped my usual writing process on its head. That and the strict deadline daunted me.

While I may envy them as poets, I certainly don’t envy Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco the task they each undertook to write a poem for a presidential inauguration. But working on my own occasional poem did give me new appreciation of what each managed to accomplish.

In any case, I feel lucky to live in a town like Carrboro has created and supported the position of a poet laureate and whose mayor values words enough to request an occasional poem.

So here it is, my first occasional poem.

Swearing-In Ceremony

by Celisa Steele

Swear comes from Middle English sweren
and may be akin to the Old Church
Slavic svarŭ, meaning to quarrel.

It doesn’t matter—although it may
help, when quarrels arise, to recall
the Slavic: what you do is ancient,

rooted in words you speak now. Neither
is history worth much tonight, whose
footsteps you follow irrelevant,

dry as etymology. Even
what you say tonight doesn’t matter.
Saying a thing never made it so

as every poet knows. Words are weak
and never change a world. But say them
still—because they should be, must be said

as all poets also know. Then go
do the work, stack action on action,
stone on stone, build the thing sturdy and strong.

Raleigh Review Workshop with Laux and Millar

Raleigh ReviewMemorial Day weekend I attended the Raleigh Review‘s first workshop in its Writers’ House series. The Raleigh Review is new—volume 1 (2010-2011) just came out at the beginning of this year, and volume 2 is due out early in 2012—but the board and staff, which include poets Rob Greene, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, come with street cred.

Laux and Millar, talented teachers and poets, led the workshop—and they donated their time so all the proceeds from the workshop fees could go to supporting the Raleigh Review. The workshop was generative, and we met for two-hour sessions over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The format for each session was simple:

  1. Get a writing prompt. (And if you don’t know The Poet’s Companion, which Laux wrote with Kim Addonizio, check it out—they know how to give some good prompts.)
  2. Write for 30 minutes or so.
  3. Read what you’ve written, listen to others read their work, and hear feedback from Laux and Millar. I was impressed at what astute comments they were able to provide based on hearing people’s raw material aloud one time—I’m a hemmer and hawer and a visual learner to boot, so I was truly awed.

Beyond the prompts, Laux and Millar also gave us workshop participants a resource that we can keep going back to. The idea is to document your personal universe, using all five senses. (I appreciate the senses as key to poetry—and learning in general—as “A Sense-full Approach to Learning” demonstrates.)

The personal universe is discussed in a piece by Laux posted on Read Write Poem. But the Read Write Poem article uses the personal universe as a prompt for writing one poem—and it’s great as a prompt—but the way Laux and Millar characterized the personal universe during the workshop was as more as an ongoing tool or resource.

They invited us to make a chart with the five senses as columns and, for rows, the major periods in our life (e.g., childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or whatever makes sense to you). Then you complete the chart by filling in words (five or more) for each sense at each time period. So under smell for childhood, you might have something like “Pop’s clove cigarettes.” Under adulthood and taste (or smell, depending on how you remember it), you might write, “pear wine.” You’re also supposed to pick words to go with an array of topics: “seasons, times of day or night, astrological signs, totems, heroes and heroines, nicknames, places in the universe, invented words or sounds, snippets of dialog.” You’re also to pick an abstraction: “Then find an abstraction, a word you might use to define what most motivates or controls your life.”

Again, the Read Write Poem article focuses on the personal universe as a prompt for one poem. And you can certainly use it that way. But I really like the way Laux and Millar presented it at the workshop—as an ongoing resource. I like the idea that I now have something I can turn to to help me when I get stuck in poem. If I’m at a dead end, I can randomly pick a word from the chart to use and get me going again. If I’m looking for concrete details and descriptions in a poem, I can look at my chart to jog my memory and senses.

There are prompts a-plenty out there—and I’m not knocking them because, Lord knows, I use them—but I find the personal universe an appealing more-than-prompt. I hope you will too.