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.



New Poetry Prompt – Fun with Random Phrases!

Seeking a new creative writing prompt? Here is a prompt I discovered for poetry but can be easily used for fiction as well. Within the course of a single day, simply make note of 5 random phrases — either overheard directly by you or contributed by friends, preferably not from movies or TV.  A poem or story devised around little snippets of the real world around you results in fresh and unusual word combinations. It’s also unbelievably fun.

Hint: It helps to start with at least a rough idea of some sort of action, if not a story, and as in the case of my poem, it can be lifted from reality or imagination. I think you’ll find that the “random” phrases you use will spark your imagination in many directions!

Let’s look at an example. Here is one I wrote last week with 5 phrases that came my way. At the very end you will see a “key” for the source of the phrases.

I Write the Book You Play the Fiddle

Do you ever close your eyes and draw
your finger down a state map—
any state but yours—and land
on a town with a name that sounds
a lot like a town in your state
 Jonesville or something like that
and wonder
 if the people in that Jonesville
are anything like 
the people in your Jonesville
and then 
imagine yourself strolling
down their
 Main Street and going into
a coffee shop only to
 hear those people say
things like not
 my circus, not my monkeys
or I write the book you play the fiddle,
and that’s a separate conversation
looking up at you like they know you
and having the waitress slide you a latte
just the way you like it with the cream
so high you have to swirl it before
you take a sip and
 then seeing the old man
who looks just like your grandpa pat
the seat beside him and tell you
the people in this place are as thick
as the hair on a dog’s back and you
not knowing whether that’s a good thing
or a bad thing but because everyone laughs
you decide it’s a good thing and the next
 you know it’s getting late so you say
See you tomorrow to your new friends
but add maybe because you’re not sure
 you got here in the first place?


I write the book you play the fiddle — conversation overheard by Ashley between two students at Lenoir Dining Hall at UNC
not my circus, not my monkeys – Melissa K., a co-worker
that’s a separate conversation – Melissa K.
people in here as as thick as the hair on a dog’s back – Brian W., another co-worker
See you tomorrow maybe – overheard by my son on a NYC subway

Fall Back To Another Hour of Writing…

Need another reason to be excited about fall? This weekend why not “fall back” into an extra hour of writing? That’s what I plan to do. I certainly won’t miss the time. What else would I be doing anyway? Laundry? Windows? Raking leaves? I can easily talk myself out of any of those chores—clothes and windows are going to get dirty again anyway and there’s certainly no point in raking leaves right now.

I’ll probably spend a little time on both prose and poetry—they are not mutually exclusive and as we’ve discussed at my writing group, a good idea can be expressed equally well in both. I’m toying with a project right now that had begun as a poem and is now nudging its way into flash fiction.

Fall is also a good time to be thinking ahead about your personal submission calendar. Many literary journals are only open for submissions during the academic year and there are plenty of annual writing competitions in progress and even more to come. My favorite source for these is the N.C. Writers’ Network (NCWN), so if you haven’t yet joined, use part of that extra hour to become a member!

I just learned that three of my own poems were accepted for publication in a special poetry anthology collection published by Silly Tree Anthologies, a publication I wouldn’t have learned about if not for NCWN.

Best of luck with your “extra writing hour!”

How to See a Ghost

Having just returned from an amazing trip to Ireland with my father, I can report that this beautiful gem of an island is indeed haunted. Haunted with ghosts you don’t need to see to know that they are there. As the victim of countless sieges, plunders, and atrocities—from the Vikings to the Anglo-Normans to the forces of Cromwell—in Ireland the ruins of fortifications abound. It is home to more than 3,500 castles in varying stages of decline. There are also thousands of abbeys and churches, many of them now in shambles, but even some of these ended up being fortified, with castellated presbyteries, towers, and stone wall enclosures.

As a writer, I prefer the ruins to the structures that have been shorn up and refurbished because these gently worn skeletons leave plenty of room for the imagination. Especially under a moody sky that will drop a gentle mist of rain to be shortly followed by sunshine, which reflects back on the dewy grass, hence the nickname, The Emerald Isle.

We spent 3 nights in Dublin but I have to say that my favorite part of the trip was the four days we spent in the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary.


We spent 3 nights in a bed and breakfast in Thomastown in County Kilkenny directly across from the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey.

The B & B itself was situated by a stream and the ruins of a 13th century mill and the view to the Abbey (from the front yard, left) was spectacular.

Originally founded as a 12th-century Cistercian abbey, what you see today came from the 15th and 16th centuries, although there are many examples of beautiful stone carvings from the earlier period, especially the cloister garden.

In Ireland I had many wonderful adventures, from the people we met to yes, the history, that inspired the writer in me. I look forward to sharing these with you in the coming weeks.

I came back from Ireland to learn that my poem, ironically enough, “How to See a Ghost” won second place in the 2014 INDY Week’s annual poetry contest. The ghost in this poem was not inspired by Ireland, but fair warning, I expect many more poems to follow. Since falling in love with poetry late last year, I can’t help wondering just what have I missed out on all these years…

I’ll read “How to See a Ghost” with Jeffrey Beam, the judge, and the other winners on May 6 at 7 p.m. at a special reading at Letters Bookstore in Durham. Hope to see you there!


An Evening with George Saunders!

ImageTonight my friend Nancy and I had the pleasure of meeting George Saunders, National Book Award Finalist, Guggenheim winner, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He spoke at Duke University. My head is still swimming with the experience, but I had to share a quick picture and my overall impression of the man who was named by Time magazine as one of the “World’s Most Influential People.”

It’s a rare experience to meet someone so brilliant yet so self-effacing and humble. His wisdom to his fellow writers was simple and pithy. Push yourself over the rapids and don’t shy away from writing about things that trouble you. And there’s nothing wrong with humor in literature! If you’re funny in life, your writing should reflect your personality.

He also spoke of his writing influences, which were esoteric to say the least: Esther Forbes, Monty Python, Chekhov, even the rock group Styx! He and I chatted for a few moments while he signed my copy of Tenth of December about the importance of memory to the writer, and his ability to bring his own characters to life by recalling his own experiences in similar situations. I’ll close by saying that I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life! Thank you Nancy!

P.S. If you haven’t read Tenth of December, his short story collection, I highly recommend it. Try “Victory Lap”, a story he read tonight that is at turns both humorous and gripping.

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