Fun with Random Phrases, Part II


Phrases can come from catalogs, newspapers, magazines, or even conversations!

As promised, in celebration of National Poetry Month, I am continuing to post sample poems from our workshop last month. This time, with kind permission from our poets, I will post two poems created through random phrases, one of my most favorite ways to generate poetry. I love random phrases for many reasons but primarily because it helps the poet free herself from the usual writer’s block of a blank page.

For our exercise, each poet drew two cards blindly from a pile of assorted random phrases that I had been collecting for some time. The poet had the option of uniting the phrases into one poem or writing two separate poems.

Jen drew a quote by Roger Ebert and a quote from an article about Lake Superior State College’s unicorn questing privilege program. She chose to write two separate poems. I’ll post the unicorn poem.


If you believe in fairies and smurfs
and life beyond the stars
then you might be eligible
for a “Unicorn Questing Privilege.”

The Lake Superior State University
Is granting licenses now, first come
first serve, to all those interested
in hunting unicorns.

Did I say hunting? No, no
not hunting. This is a “questing” license
A catch and release program.
All unicorns must be returned
to the wilds of your imagination.

So I ask again, are you one of them?


Jen’s love of animals, even imaginary, and her sense of humor are clearly apparent in this gem!

Rosalie drew cards on a brand of cigar (taken my husband’s cigar catalog) and the phrase: “Hello, my name is.” She was inspired to combine both phrases and being Italian, she chose to put her own spin on it!


Ciao, mi chiamo Rosalie
You say you’re on your way to the cabaret—by the beach? Rte. 64?
Yes, I’ll come along.

Isn’t that where the old carved Indian sits outside of the cigar store?
They sell La Perla Habana.
Ohhh—so you smoke them?
Yes, yes, quite an aroma!

Does it linger on your fingers?  Your clothes?

What say we stop there—together—
to inhale some interesting smells

What?—-my name?
Again, my name is Rosalie
What’s yours?


Thanks to Rosalie’s imagination, I can just smell cigars by the beach, can’t you? I have been transported without having to leave my house. And this is the beauty of poetry, and art in general, don’t you think?

In addition to exercises on imagery and random phrases, at our workshop we also created poems out of a series of questions. Next time, I’ll post a poem created by Jane that demonstrates just how the simplest of questions can create another kind of journey, equally evocative.

Celebrating April: National Poetry Month!

collageNot only does April bring us warmer weather, this month also brings us 30 days to celebrate poetry! We’ll be celebrating in a number of ways, from an interview with Scott Wiggerman (poet and co-editor of Wingbeats I and II, two of my favorite poetry-writing books) to samples of the exercises we created during our poetry workshop last month.

Today I’ll share a sample from our exercise on metaphors, what was inspired by Chapter 4 of Poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge. To get us started, I read a short work of my own (below).


When in November a candelabra of tiny pink roses
pushes up through a mound
of brittle brown leaves

I then asked everyone to draw blindly from a pouch containing cards bearing a single word, an abstract noun such as love, envy, pity, sorrow, and anger. Next, I asked them to choose one of the items on the table (pictured above) and use it as a metaphor for the word they drew. What was fun about it was that a couple of people chose the same word but ended up picking very different items. Mary and Rosalie each drew “Anger” but Mary chose the beaded purse as her metaphor and Rosalie chose the rolling pin! Judith chose the men’s tie for “Envy” and Jen chose the ring for “Pity.”

Jane, who drew the card for “Sorrow,” knew immediately that the half-burnt candle was the perfect metaphor to describe the  recent loss of her beloved Maltese. With her kind permission, I share her poem below.

Sophie Jill

Once a flame was burning bright, so full of love and joy—
A candle of life, so sweet and strong
A white, fluffy baby girl, sharing my life with unconditional love
Remembering those kisses, stored in my heart
Knowing that each day is a gift, we savored each precious moment.

Then all at once, the candle of life was no more.
The sorrow I felt was overwhelming, and I cried out
to the heavens for help
As time has healed a little, I know that the tears I cry each day
are not tears of sorrow but tears of love
Sophie’s flame of life will live in my heart forever
and there is no doubt that her spirit is still with me
She is still in my arms, giving me kisses.

—Jane Craven Thomas

What a comfort poetry can be, giving us words for those things, like sorrow, that are so difficult to express! Susan Wooldridge makes a habit of labeling concrete items with metaphors. In fact, she and her children regularly go around the house with a roll of what she calls “word tickets” and affixes them to items they find in their drawers and cabinets such as an antique globe, a piece of driftwood, even an old pair of shoes.  What fun! Bored on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Try it yourself!

April also brings good news for my fellow writers. Ralph Earle, one of my favorite poetry teachers, won the 2015 Sable Books February Chapbook Contest for his poetry collection, “The Way the Rain Works.” Available now as a pre-sale from Sable Books, Richard Krawiec, writer, poet, and esteemed judge for the contest, had this to say about the book:  “This is a deeply felt book about a family in crisis that lives inside you and lends itself to multiple readings.” Just as I did, order your copy today by contacting Sable Books!

I was also thrilled to learn that two of my poems, which (not coincidentally!) originated from exercises in Ralph’s class last fall at Central Carolina Community College placed in contests sponsored by the N.C. Poetry Society. “Phalaenopsis” (which came from his prompt to write about an incident that happened to us during the previous week) won second place in the Mary Ruffin Poole Heritage Competition and “Napoleon and Antosia” (write a poem on anything and then use different line breaks on 2 versions) won second place in the Carol Bessent Hayman Poetry of Love Award. They will be published in the 2015 edition of Pinesong and I will read them at the May 30 meeting in Southern Pines.

Stay tuned for more poems. Next, I’ll share poems penned by Jen and Jane on smoke, unicorns, and runaway brides, all products of exercises on random phrases!

To List or Not to List?

Today we’ll discuss the pros and cons of one of the most popular contemporary poetic forms, specifically, the “list” poem. Some of us decry it, calling foul for the lack of a clear narration or think it’s simply an easy shortcut around the work it takes to create a traditional poem. I can understand the naysayers, having both read (and penned!) some odious versions myself!

But now and again, I will come across a list poem that takes my breath away. One that tells a story even more concisely through the conscious choice of each list item. One that uses the list format itself in creative and unique ways that would not work as well any other way. And as W.H. Auden wisely said: “The formal structure of a poem is not something distinct for its meaning but as intimately bound up in the latter as the body is with the soul.” Leave it to the master to say in one sentence what took me two paragraphs to say!

Today I’ll share three examples of what I think are successful list poems and well worth studying. The kind I wish I had written. What do you think?

As many of you know, April is National Poetry Month. In celebration, I have a special treat. Several of the participants in my poetry workshop last week agreed to allow me to share their poetry with you. We had a great time and experimented with many poetic prompts, including, you guessed it, the list poem.

So stay tuned here while I share some of these works, which come from both experienced and novice poets alike. I’ll space them throughout the next few weeks so we can enjoy a constant stream of poetry!


Poetry Workshop Just Two Weeks Away!

If you could see my dining room table, you’d think I’m a hoarder. The primary function of such a table should be eating but for weeks now, it’s become a planning station for the upcoming workshop I’m leading on Saturday, March 14 at the Pittsboro campus of Central Carolina Community Collegebluebird-2: Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination. Scraps of paper, dog-eared books, and notebooks cover the surface, and frankly, I’d be ashamed for you to see it. That’s why instead I’ve posted a picture of a male bluebird in flight against the snow, caught by my husband on Thursday.

In spite of the clutter, I certainly feel like a bird in flight. I’ve been having the time of my life! I’ve been selecting poems by others to inspire us, and I’ll be honest, I’ve had to make some tough decisions. But I think I’m done. All poems are contemporary in nature, and go back as far as Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound but some were published as recently as 2014.

From sad to joyous to humorous, these poems cover the seemingly simple fabric of life–from eating fruit to reading the news to observing backyard birds. But as we’ll see, these experiences are merely the lens through which we experience life’s complexities–love, death, loneliness, and hope, just to name a few.

The exercises are what I’m working on now and it is my hope with these that participants will understand (or deepen) what I’ve come to know–how the act of reading and writing poetry can help you feel more connected to the outer world. We’ll focus on imagery, have fun with random phrases, and stoke our imagination by making up stories about ourselves. Most importantly, and this is my greatest hope, we’ll have FUN!

I’ll close with a quote. While I’m not familiar with the writer, her words are timeless and set the stage beautifully for our workshop:

“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

Looking forward to seeing you on Saturday, March 14.  If you’ve not signed up, whaaat? It’s okay, it’s not too late. You can easily register today online or by calling 919-545-8044, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F.

A Magical Evening with Billy Collins

Ashley Memory and Billy Collins

Posing for a picture with the delightful Mr. Collins

On Thursday, Jan. 27, I had the honor of hearing America’s most beloved poet, Mr. Billy Collins, give a reading at Swasey Chapel at Denison University in Granville, OH. I am forever grateful to my dear friend Jen Kretchmar (who so generously drove 7 and a half hours each way) and her brother Matt (a professor at Denison) who helped make my dream come true.

Truly I hesitated to blog about this experience so soon because I am still rather starstruck and I worry about my powers of expression in my current state. For the sake of my fellow writers, who surely understand, I will do my best.

To a packed audience, Billy read some of my most favorite poems, including “The Revenant,” “Litany,” “Why I Don’t Own a Gun,” “Suggestion Box,” “Nostalgia,” and “To My Favorite 17-Year Old High School Girl.” And while I know that a poet writes for the reader who will most likely read the poem in solitude (which has its own delights) I have to admit that there is indeed something special about hearing the words spoken by the man who wrote them — his own particular voice, his own particular cadence, and his own particular rhythm.

All of this I was lucky enough to hear from the second row — and to dream that that mellifluous voice was meant for me alone but the experience was capped off by the opportunity to chat with my idol at the reception. I wish that the world’s most witty words would have graced my lips and that I could have told him that I too, adore Nabokov, that I’ve known what it’s like to have to deliver a beloved pet to the “needle of oblivion” and to ask him questions about the craft but all I could do was speak from the heart. And I have tears in my eyes even today. “Mr. Collins,” I said, “I cannot tell you how much joy your words have brought to my life.”

The more cynical (me among them) are justified to think that I’m sure he’s heard that before but…he was incredibly gracious and appeared honored to have heard it yet again. I have read an interview where he humbly said that meeting an author may be one of life’s most disappointing experiences and that between the poet and the man he believes the poet might be the better of him but I have to disagree on all counts. I was not disappointed and I can verify that the man lived up to the image I had of the poet. Sadly, however, he told me that a visit to North Carolina didn’t appear to be on his docket any time soon.

I then queued up with the other faithful pilgrims–the college students and the locals–to have our books signed. Jen (whom he kindly acknowledged by saying “I suppose this is THE friend”) snapped our picture and then he blessed my dog-eared copy of Aimless Love with his signature. His parting words were the most magical of all so this is where I will end my recap.

“North Carolina, you say,” he said, with a mischievous light in his eyes. “Well, well. You never know.”

Case Study # 3: Revise Your Poetry By Translating It!

For our reference, I’m going to start numbering my blog entries featuring poetry prompts as individual case studies. And by my count, we’re up to number three (Random Phrases being #1 and Inverted Stanza #2). Today’s exercise (#3) may be my most favorite so far. I learned about it in The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse by Tom Hunley.

Here’s how it works. You take a draft of a poem of your own, and with the power of Babel Fish or another translation tool, translate it into a foreign language and then back again. For example, English-French-English again.

This exercise might seem silly but it’s awfully fun….I promise….and you end up with some interesting style and word choices that may help as you revise your poems.

Here is an example from my files. My poem in the beginning:

A Grudge

is like an anchor
to your ship—

The water is clear,
the water is calm,
and you are free to bask
in the sun of your anger
while the waters of some distant
storm lap gently at your hull

To let go of your grudge is
to go back into that storm—
the turbulent sea of
forgiving and forgetting

over and over
and over

First, I went to French. Beautiful language no matter what you’re doing! While I loved the version of my poem in French, when I turned it back into English, I saw very little difference. However, because the word for “over” and “again” is the same in French (“encore”), my final line came back as “again and again and again.” Lesson learned? I probably could do without one or the other.

Next, I chose Danish. Because of their Viking roots, the Danish have a long tradition with the sea and I thought it might be interesting to see what connotations turned up. Here are the results.

A Grudge (English-Danish-English)

A grudge is as an anchor
for your ship —

Water is clear,
water is calm
and you are free to laze
in the sun
on your anger
while water in some remote storm
laps gently on your hull

To let go of your grudge
is to go back to this storm —
the turbulent sea to forgive and forget

again and again and again

Fun, fun. I loved the idea of dropping the word “like” in the first stanza and the substitution of “laze” for “bask” in the second. See the different connotations? And the same thing that happened in French on my last line happened here.  I feel sure the final line needs to be “again and again and again.”

Next, I thought, why not try a non-Indo-European language? So I went to Arabic.

A Grudge (English-Arabian-English)

A grudge is as an anchor
to your ship—

Clear water
and the water is calm
and you are free to receive the sun your anger

While some distant storm waters lap gently 
on your hull for letting your hatred is back
to that storm-troubled sea of forgiving and forgetting 

Again and again and again

Again, here we turned up some exciting new word choices. “You are free to receive the sun your anger” and “storm-troubled sea of forgiving and forgetting.”

Because I was having so much fun, I decided to end with an Asian twist and translated it into Japanese. Check it out!

A Grudge (English-Japanese-English)

Your ship is resentment
like the anchor

Water, clear water is calm,
you free to bask in the sun of your anger
back to the storm water lapping gently
let go of grudges you your ship some distant
storm-sea turbulence of forgiving and forgetting

Again, again, again

Wow–the differences in grammar yield almost “word pictures” here, just like Japanese characters. This version has almost a stream of consciousness feel to it, doesn’t it?

So…what did I change? A few tweaks here and there. See below and let me know if you think it’s improved from the original. At any rate, this is an exercise I am certain to do again!

A Grudge (Final Version)

is an anchor
to your ship—

The water is clear,
the water is calm,
and you are free to laze
in the sun of your anger
while the waters of a distant
storm lap gently at your hull

To let go of your grudge is
to return to the turbulent
sea of forgiving and forgetting



Seeking Last-Minute Gifts? Give Someone the Gift of Creative Writing!

Wondering what to give that “certain someone”? Perhaps they’ve seen it all or they’re notoriously persnickety and whatever you get them, you just know they’ll be returning it.

Consider giving the gift of creative writing and signing them up for a Spring 2015 class at Chatham Central Community College! And if you happen to be that “certain someone” yourself, sign yourself up.


1. The college’s unique Creative Writing program on the Chatham County Campus is the only Continuing Education program of its kind in the state. And we have something for everyone—from 10-week classes or one-day workshops in poetry, fiction and non-fiction led by celebrated authors Ruth Moose, Ralph Earle, and Judith Stanton, just to name a few. Considering what you’ll get in return, the price is nothing short of a bargain.

2. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You’ll make new friends worth knowing! And the wisdom you pick up will be priceless. Warning: these classes are addictive.

3. You’ll have a new hobby worth bragging about. Instead of things like “I learned how to change the oil in my car” or “I learned how to julienne a carrot” (as important as those things are), you’ll get to say things such as “Just finished up a flash fiction piece about my day at work” or “Wrote a poem today about the cardinal in my yard.”

4. You’ll never look at life the same way again. If you already enjoy creative writing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But if you’re a newbie, the opportunity to share your unique experiences with others will bring you boundless joy. You’ll feel more connected to the world and the people around you.

5. Need inspiration? Okay, here’s Warning #2. Here comes a shameless plug. Sign up for a workshop lead by yours truly!  It’s called “Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination: Stop, Look, and Listen.”  You can find inspiration for poetry everywhere – from reading newspapers and periodicals to mining your daily life and memory. In my workshop, we’ll improvise on sample poems written by other poets and participate in fun and collaborative exercises meant to spark your own imagination.

For more information, check out the Spring 2015 Creative Writing Course List for Chatham Central Community College. Register today by calling 919-545-8044, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F.

Hope to see you there!

Cold Weather Blues? Warm up with Poetry!

Here in the North Carolina Piedmont it seems winter is intent on making an early arrival. With unseasonably cool temperatures and rumors of a snowflake here or there, I’ve been shivering since mid-November.

Hot cocoa, vegetable soup, and a snuggly dog can do wonders for the winter blues, but when you add a healthy dose of poetry, you’re grateful to be inside.

Just for your reading pleasure, I’ll share 5 of the best poems to come my way these days.

Missing the beach? Read Low Tide by UNC’s own Alan Shapiro

Still missing the beach? Try Pelicans in December by J. Allyn Rosser

And on the subject of birds (sort of), try On Leaving the Bachelorette Brunch by Rachel Wetzsteon

Celebrate life, no matter where you are, with Late, in a Time of Splendor by Cate Lycurgus

And finally, just to make you chuckle, check out Tucson, Monday Love by Norman Dubie


Try the Inverted Stanza

If you’re ready for something different in poetry, try the inverted stanza format. It’s basically one stanza followed by another one that repeats exactly the lines of the first but in reverse. I learned about this format from Cleopatra Mathis in one of my favorite poetry writing books, Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry. According to Ms. Mathis, and I concur, this exercise “encourages surprise and invention.”

Below is my attempt, which was written for my beloved doctor. Hint: Keep your sentences short and consider the first stanza as an argument and the second as a reply, which will give you reasons to re-use the same words. As you will see, I chose words that could double as a noun or verb. Have fun!

Ode to My Neurologist
A Poem for Both Sides of the Brain

Dr. Freedman requests
a poem. He shall have. Why
not? Because he’s my doctor?
Due to our friendship?
We debate literature and
travel freely, yet he cares
and offers counsel.
My doctor leads me
into a world where I dance
like an angel. I can wear heels!

Like an angel, I can wear heels
into a world where I dance.
My doctor leads me
and offers counsel:
“Travel freely!” Yet he cares.
We debate literature. And
due to our friendship
(not because he’s my doctor!),
a poem he shall have. Why?
Dr. Freedman requests.

For examples of more inverted stanza poems (and poetry prompts galore!), check out Wingbeats II.

No Time for Poetry Today

No Time for Poetry Today

The floor needs sweeping but just
like the voice of my mother on the answering
machine something keeps saying
It’s me. Where are you?

A cloud of dust sparkles in the sun
and I’m distracted by a vision of
fairies playing wiffle ball

I open the screen door to air out the
house but the peppery scent of clover
takes me back to my barefoot summers

As I tidy the books on the mantel
I think of the great aunt
in Florida who decorated hers
with poison sumac because
the red berries looked so pretty

It’s time to fold the towels—do it like my
mother, in half twice, roll over one, two, three
—and then there’s that voice again
Honey, please call me
I’m getting worried.



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