My creative writing students often find it difficult to compose effective titles.  In an attempt to get them to think emotionally and find their story’s emotional center, I had them draw visual representations of their stories.  Some students chose to draw literal objects, such as a pair of hands, while others chose to use abstract shapes and colors.  After they finished their artwork, I had them give these representations to their fellow students and had their classmates compose prospective titles for the short stories based on the images alone.

The moral of the lesson: when it becomes difficult to step outside the text, think in terms of images, of color, of shape and texture.  These images can often provide a new way of thinking about a story and allow you to find a title that otherwise you might not have been able to “see.”

All the World Is Green

For today’s creative writing class, I started my students off brainstorming “green” with the rhetorical modes.  In other words, I had them define green, describe green, divide and classify types of green, give examples of green, compare and contrast greens, discuss the causes and/or effects of green, analyze the process of how to green, tell the story of green, and present a green argument.  Then we discussed Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” and Tom Waits’s “All the World Is Green” before moving on to analyze Jericho Parms’s “Red“; their assignment is to write a work of creative nonfiction investigating a color of their own choice, examining it from angles of memoir/autobiography, history, science, psychology, religious thought, philosophy, and sociology.  We’ll see what they come up with . . . or up with what they come.

Donald Barthelme

In my ongoing attempts to turn each of my creative writing courses into a Donald Barthelme story, I walked into class last Thursday and wrote this on the board:

“This is death.”  The man reaches into his chest pocket, extracts a black balloon, places it to his lips, and begins to blow.  As the latex inflates, a white skull swells and begins to take shape.  “This is death,” the man repeats, tying the end.  “Be back in twenty minutes.”

I then pulled from my chest pocket and inflated seven black balloons printed with white skulls (surplus from Halloween), divided the class into seven groups, gave each group “death,” and sent them out of the classroom with the instructions to be back in twenty minutes.  When they returned, I had them finish the story…

Orientation by Nightlight

Many thanks to Deborah Sherman and the editors and staff at 580 Split for giving a home to my poem “Orientation by Nightlight” in Issue 18, which centers on the theme of Transcendence.  The journal is filled with works of brilliance and beauty, and I was especially struck by two poems by Terry Ann Thaxton: “Mud Song” and “In Memory of Me.”  Those poems rock.


Used Bookstores

If there is a heaven, I wouldn’t mind it having the textures and musty perfume of a used bookstore.  Here in Bakersfield, a town not usually known for its literary pleasures, we have the ruggedly sublime Bookhounds.  Today’s treasures, each of which I bought for $1.99:

Miller Williams’s The Ways We Touch,
William Matthews’s Flood,
Larry Levis’s The Selected Levis,
Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth,
and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Exposition Review

The Southern California Review, a journal that had been published through USC’s now discontinued Master of Professional Writing program, has –with issue nine– now become issue one of Exposition Review, and I am grateful to their editors for both providing a home to my poem “Tidal Friction” and inviting me to read at their launch party at Hennessey + Ingalls bookstore on Wednesday, March 30.

“Tidal Friction” has its origins, as many of my poems do, in the conjoining (or clashing) of otherwise distinct registers or contexts.  In this case, I was inspired by the fact (tragedy?) that the moon is moving farther and farther away from earth at the same speed at which our fingernails grow; the term “tidal friction” refers to the reciprocal interaction between the earth and moon, one aspect of which is this growing divergence. I took that idea and tried to write a poem that would reconcile that separation and the fact that I can look up to the night sky to watch the moon moving away and then look down at my hands to witness my fingernails growing outward and see (or not see) the act of separation as it is occuring.   The poem found its structure when I tried to adopt (adapt?) the language and cadence of an intervention in order to speak to the moon.  Or to myself.  Or to the universe.  I’m still not quite sure.


Inspired by my friend Greg Miller’s sharing of David Bowie’s 100 favorite reads, I decided to put together my own list of books that have influenced me and my own writing.  Needless to say, each text took me down a rabbit hole through which I emerged a changed writer… And now, in no particular order, the list:

  1.  Italo Calvino – The Baron in the Trees
  2. Anne Sexton – Transformations
  3. Scott Carrier – Running After Antelope
  4. Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son
  5. Mircea Eliade – Myth of the Eternal Return
  6. Russell Banks – Trailerpark
  7. Lewis Nordan – Lightning Song
  8. David Vann – Legend of a Suicide
  9. Brian Doyle – Mink River
  10. Susan Sontag – On Photography
  11. Craig Childs – Soul of Nowhere
  12. Fernando Pessoa – Book of Disquiet
  13. Martin Amis – Other People
  14. Joel Sternfeld – On this Site
  15. Rebecca Solnit – A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  16. Alexander Theroux – The Primary Colors
  17. Sjon – The Blue Fox
  18. George Saunders – Civilwarland in Bad Decline
  19. Raymond Carver – Ultramarine
  20. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Pulphead
  21. Pablo Neruda – Book of Questions
  22. John Berryman – Dream Songs
  23. Orhan Pamuk – The New Life
  24. William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  25. Ed Dorn – Gunslinger
  26. Leslie Marmon Silko – Almanac of the Dead
  27. Lewis Hyde – Trickster Makes this World
  28. Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore
  29. Jim Harrison – The River Swimmer
  30. Robin Robertson – Sailing the Forest
  31. Charles Simic – A Wedding in Hell
  32. Russell Edson – The Tunnel
  33. Olena Kalytiak Davis – Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities
  34. Jack Gilbert – Refusing Heaven
  35. Albert Goldbarth – Everyday People
  36. Dean Young – Fail Higher
  37. Homero Aridjis – Solar Poems
  38. David Berman – Actual Air
  39. Jaroslav Seifert – The Casting of Bells
  40. W.S. Merwin – Present Company
  41. Patricia Lockwood – Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals
  42. David Stannard – American Holocaust
  43. Mikhail Bulgakov – Master and Margarita
  44. Herman Melville – Moby Dick
  45. Edgar Lee Masters – Spoon River Anthology
  46. Howard Norman (trans.) – The Wishing Bone Cycle
  47. Richard Brautigan – Trout Fishing in America
  48. Bernd Heinrich – Mind of the Raven
  49. Luis Alberto Urrea – Devil’s Highway
  50. Peter Coates – Salmon
  51. Etgar Keret – Suddenly a Knock at the Door
  52. Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love
  53. Robert Frank – The Americans
  54. Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
  55. Gerald Vizenor – Griever: An American Monkey King in China
  56. Jared Diamond – Collapse
  57. David Quammen – Monster of God
  58. R.D. Laing – The Divided Self
  59. Henri Bergson – Laughter
  60. Miguel De Cervantes – Don Quixote
  61. Shakespeare – King Lear
  62. Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
  63. Donald Barthelme – Sixty Stories
  64. Sebastian Junger – The Perfect Storm
  65. Victor Pelevin – The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
  66. Eduardo Galeano – Walking Words
  67. Jerome Rothenberg, Ed. – Technicians of the Sacred
  68. Amy Gerstler – Dearest Creature
  69. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother and Other Stories
  70. Malcom Gladwell – David and Goliath
  71. Sigmund Freud – Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
  72. Bilge Karasu – Garden of Departed Cats
  73. Eugene Ionesco – Rhinoceros
  74. Robert Hass (trans.) – The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa
  75. Charles Bowden – Blues for Cannibals
  76. Jim Shepard – You Think That’s Bad
  77. Karen Russell – Swamplandia!
  78. Aimee Bender – The Color Master
  79. Cormac McCarthy – Cities of the Plain
  80. Matthew Zapruder – Come on All You Ghosts
  81. Judith Herman – Trauma and Recovery
  82. Jon Kracauer – Into the Wild
  83. Carl Jung – The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious 
  84. Dino Buzzati – Restless Nights
  85. Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire
  86. Victoria Finlay – Color
  87. Marina Warner – Monsters of Our Own Making
  88. Svetlana Alexievich – Voices from Chernobyl
  89. CAConrad – ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness
  90. J.M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians
  91. William Saroyan – Man with the Heart in the Highlands: And Other Stories 
  92. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
  93. Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
  94. Nicanor Parra – Antipoems
  95. Richard Flanagan – Gould’s Book of Fish
  96. Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot
  97. Austin Kleon – Steal Like an Artist
  98. Diane di Prima – Loba
  99. William Gass – On Being Blue
  100. Paul Shepard – The Others: How Animals Made Us Human

Writing Color

Many thanks to California State University, Bakersfield’s art professor Matthew Rich for inviting my creative writing students to collaborate with his art students.  My students wrote poems for his art students to illustrate as blocks of color, and then we reversed the process and my students responded to colors his students generated.  The whole endeavour was a worthwhile exercise in inspiration, connotation, and collaboration.  At the end, thanks again to Matthew Rich, we hijacked a gallery space on campus and exhibited the results.