How PowerPoint can help you write a better poem

And how poetry can help you build a better PowerPoint deck–

I’m not joking.

It’s all about the images–and the metaphors.

Poems become much more vivid when they give  their readers concrete images–things you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste, even in your imagination. If you want to talk about time or despair, what’s the best image to say that? Not the obvious image (a clock or a …), but the best?

PowerPoint decks most effective when they have very few words (you can stick all your talking points in the Notes section) and attention-grabbing images. Put an image up on the screen, and people are listening to see how that image relates. Throw up a slide full of words, and people read the words (maybe with an eye for typos) instead of listening to what you’re saying.

Here’s my example from a deck I made recently. These slides needed to persuade people, and stick in their heads. I needed to talk about diving under the surface. This was not easy. Type “dig” into a search engine and you might not get what you want. I kept searching, trying different words to get at what I wanted, and found a big machine under the ground.

Big digging machine in a tunnel; image from

Then I needed a slide that said, “empathy.” Try typing that in a search engine. I ended up choosing a guy on the beach with a golden retriever. You know, dogs are loyal and they look at you with those big eyes as though they understand everything you’re feeling.

A guy and his Golden Retriever on the beach

It’s the same thing with a poem: You might think “desolation”–but to find a concrete image, you might need to search. What does it mean to you? You might want to say “spring,” but what do you see and hear and smell that says “spring”? And after the first few thoughts, which might seem obvious (my first go-to image is fresh-cut grass) push a little further.

See the connection? Both PowerPoint and poetry are about connecting with your audience. (Brief caveat: Writing a poem is also about connecting with yourself and exploring your experiences–but if you want to share that poem, it shares better if it connects).

How do you find images that work for you–for your slides or your poems? How do you lead yourself deeper to find those connections?

5 writing tips from my cat

Gilbert the cat by a sunny windowWhat can our pets teach us? Compassion. Certainly patience. Generosity. And unconditional love (with cats, as long as the food arrives on time). I know, because I’ve seen it in the movies.

In our house, Gilbert the cat swings between extremes–the sweet, cuddly cat purring near my ear and the ever-rebellious teenager (If they don’t see me it’s okay, and if I don’t get caught, it’s okay).

But what can his cat shenanigans tell me about writing? Here’s the short list:

1. Eat everything

Gilbert the cat devours the world. This has been hard on his digestive tract–including those four surgeries to remove inedible items, like rubber bands and watch bands, from his intestines.

Maybe not such a good idea.

But the lesson: Embrace life–all of it. Gobble it up. All the world’s experiences are food for writing.

I confess I’m still working on this one. I’m better at scarfing food than new adventures.

2. Jump on the counter

Also known as “Do whatever you want.” It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission. Gilbert the cat has a lot of practice at this.

And in writing? Write the poems and the kinds of poems that you want to write–right now. Follow rules only when they’re working for you. Otherwise, they’re rules for someone else.

Again, for me this is a lesson in progress. After a lifetime of trying to be good and fit in and make the right shapes, I’m trying to let go and listen for what’s really inside me.

3. Chase the catnip mouse

Bat it around. Pounce! Pick it up in your teeth and carry it around a while.

Play around with your writing a while–see what it does, how fast it skitters across the kitchen floor. Take some time to experiment with it, stretch the lines, shorten them up, kill an adjective or two, find the trapdoors and go through them. Enjoy the fun. Your writing won’t get away–too far.

4. Claws help

Sharpen your tools! I’m not talking about the catty scratches that draw blood. But Gilbert the cat will curl his claws to pick up that catnip mouse.

Keep your writing tools honed–your cutting verbs and your connections for metaphors, your quickest road into the zone. Use them.

5. That square of sunlight has your name on it

Warm up to chill out. All that good time stretched out in the middle of the afternoon  helps you relax into your next best metaphor, your next knock-out poem.

I know a lot of times I think I should be working as hard as I can–but look at that cat sprawled out across the carpet! Consider it your invitation.

Where do you find writing reminders? Can you keep your cat off the kitchen counter?

To do: Laundry and poetry

basket of laundry
Clean laundry waiting to be folded

Last week, I mentioned Robert Lee Brewer’s suggestion to make a list of daily activities to do in May. So far my list has a few gaps in it, but it’s mostly filled in.

But when I took another look at my list, I realized that a lot of the activities focus on to-do items–kind of my poetry version of laundry and grocery shopping. It includes things like sending out poems and picking a poem to go take to my poetry group and reading Smoking Poet submissions and writing this blog post.

Those activities help me get things done–but maybe I need a second list. I want to get things done, but I also want to focus on craft–how you open yourself up to new ideas, how you generate work, how you stretch and cut push and pull and gently nudge that work into focus, into the kind of poem you want to write.

What kind of poem do I want to write? One that grips me and leaves a note in the air–one with music and a story and knock-out imagery. One that the reader can’t put down. One that an editor wants right away!

I think about image and metaphor. The startling. The unexpected. I guess those two mean the same things.

Lately, I think about the poems that tie a personal experience to a universal experience–sometimes a personal experience of a big and terrible event, like Katrina or 9/11 or the Hanford nuclear program. I haven’t had those personal experiences–and I’m very grateful for that, as grateful as I am to the people who have and who have written those poems. So how do I write the kind of poem I want to write?

When I think about the kind of poem I want to write, I often come back to “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom Above My Father’s Deathbed,” by Kevin Stein. I first encountered this poem in 2005, and I keep coming back to it.

This poem tells a very personal story–and a story that moves easily into universal experience. At the same time, to me it’s even more poignant because it’s told by an observer–a son who is at this moment the center of his mother’s and father’s lives and at the same time outside of the bond between them.

So she fluffs his pillow, adjusts the blinds,
      and blankets the word no one will say.

The interweaving of old sayings twisted and turned–words that are almost right but not quite–emphasizes both a familiarity and the sense of being in an unknown territory.

… Franklin says a word
      to the wise breaks your mother’s back.
No, a needle a day keeps the doctor away.

And the music–and the way it moves from image to image.

Creek creek, the floor says, like water through
      oak woods. Creak creak, it says, little strokes
fell great oaks. She leans to him as the red rose

I can think about craft and talk about craft (I like to do both!), but the best way for me to get closer to writing the poem I want to write is to read the kind of poems I want to write–and this is one of them.

What kind of poems do you want to write? How do you get closer to them?

At Emily Dickinson’s house

Standing outside Emily Dickinson's house
I'm holding a copy of Open Me Carefully, a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters to her best friend and sister-in-law Susan, compiled by Martha Nell Smith and my friend Ellen Louise Hart.

 A week ago, I was at the Emily Dickinson house. I felt a sense of wonder standing in the hallway–maybe there more than anywhere, because I could imagine people bustling through the house. The hallway, with its pale green wall paper of delicate swirls, and the stairs, truly held that sense of possibility.  And then upstairs, Emily’s room–so perfect for light.

And the white dress–because we have only the one picture of Emily (when she was 16!) and it’s very dark. But now I can imagine her managing the household or sitting at her writing table in her corner room (such a perfect room for light) in her white dress.

We took the full tour, walking across to The Evergreens, where Austin and Susan lived. Such a different house! (And shambling–and the stories of that house!). There, we  got to see the dining room and the kitchen and climb upstairs (hoping the stairs would hold) to see the nursery.

Then the moment that sears me–Emily coming across to the Evergreens, like another ghost the night her nephew Gilbert died, and collapsing beneath the trees. I come back to that image and then I return to the hallway, with it’s pale wallpaper, its flood of sunlight, and everything hasn’t happened yet.

In one of the rooms of the Dickinson homestead, the museum has set up an interactive display to show Emily’s variants. According to the tour guide, it isn’t known whether these were revisions (a process of changing) or just options to switch in and out.

But what really struck me was the poem they used to show these. Here it is in a slightly different version than in the museum:

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer house than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

I’ve been struggling with poemness–what makes a poem a poem and not just lines broken. What differentiates a poem from prose. The other day, I was driving to the store and hearing someone on the radio and it sounded maybe like a poem, but maybe like a story, and because it had already started I didn’t know. It was lovely–so vivid and poignant–and it turned out that it was a poem. But I couldn’t tell just by listening. I suspect that if I heard this poem on the radio, I’d know immediately that it was a poem.

Poetry has room for all kinds of voices and all kinds of writing, but in my current quest for poemness, this poem helped a lot.Now I need to get a Franklin edition so that I can read truer versions of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

Write-O-Rama is tomorrow!

Really, what could be better than writing all day? And with lunch in the middle?

Hugo House is adding a March session of its popular fund-raiser.

When: March 3, 10:00 – … (lunch and an open mike at 1:00, and another open mike at 5:00)

Where: Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, Seattle, WA, 206.322.7030

You can register ahead of time or at the door, and you can see the schedule here.

I’m leading sessions at 10:00 and 11:00 on breaking up the narrative. Here’s the description:

Starting with images and seed texts, we’ll fly through rapid-fire prompts–a fast way to get out of our comfort zones and generate fragments and sections. Then we’ll take some time to collage those parts into poems or prose pieces that tell a story in or out of sequence.

And Karen Finneyfrock will lead a session at noon on using broken form.

Should be a smashing good time!

And it’s 9 days until NYC…