Finding a magnetic lexicon


From mentor Kaysey Price, a great exercise to beat writer’s block:

Another break from school is upon us and that means there is ample time for creating! This winter break I have made it my personal goal to write 20 new poems, which sounded great until the writer’s block set in…

Creating a lexicon at our last meeting got me thinking about how I sometimes feel like my own vocabulary is inadequate. Sometimes the words are right on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t seem to find the right one. I think this feeling of inadequacy is what leads to a lot of my writer’s block (maybe I’m not alone here).

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Lexiconic, a prompt


This prompt is adapted from Zach Carlsen’s exercise that he led at our December session. I think this will work just fine on your own, though it’s probably not quite as much fun that way.   –Scott

  1. Set a timer and write freely and continually for five minutes about a vivid memory or dream. Pick your topic before you set the timer.
  2. Go back and mark the following types of speech in your writing:
  • Circle nouns (persons, places, things)
  • Box adjectives (describe persons, places, things)
  • Underline verbs (action words)
  • Squiggle around adverbs (describe or modify verbs, usually end in “ly”)
  1. Make a list or chart of 10-12 of the most interesting words from each category. This is the word-bank or “lexicon” for your poem.
  2. Write a five-line poem that only uses nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs from this lexicon. You can add other types of connecting words as needed:
  • articles: a, an, the…
  • pronouns: he, she, it, they….
  • conjunctions: and, or, but….

Remember that poems don’t have to “make sense” in the literal, everyday sort of way! Do you think your five line poem is influenced by the memory or dream with which you started?


the Legendary Zach Carlsen in action


Notes: Session w/ Zach Carlsen

I hope you enjoyed our session last week with Zach Carlsen as much as I did! The room seemed to hold an abundance of quizzical smiles, animated voices and strange imagery as I circulated—all good signs for sure! Here are some notes I took as the session sped past… Scott

  • Whether we’re just starting out or have years of experience, we’re all


    writers and share a lot in common.

  • Zach gets some of his best ideas from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. For example, in the dentist’s office he recently heard someone say, “They took the star down and gave it to the little girl, and everyone wept.”
  • For Zach, poetry is not just a genre of writing. “Being a poet is a way of seeing and being in the world.”
  • Finding similarities and differences between animals on our brainstorm list got everyone thinking about making comparisons. “How is life like an aardvark? How is poetry like a frog? How is that take-out cup beautiful? How is X like Y?” Comparisons (think similes and metaphors) are at the heart of poetic language.
  • Most of us have experienced some form of the dreaded Writer’s Block, when we are stuck and can’t seem to get started with our writing. Zach stressed doing some writing every day and not worrying too much about whether it’s good or not. Think like an athlete and stick with your exercise program. He says that he finds 30 minutes here and there, whenever he can, like while he’s waiting in an office or for dinner to finish cooking.
  • “If I had waited until I thought I was Good before I sent any work out, it would have never happened.” Whenever you get interested in sending your poems to contests or magazines, talk to any of us and we’ll help you figure out how to do that.
  • One thing that keeps Zach from avoiding his writing is having projects that he invents and takes on. For instance, writing poems with 100 lines and 10 syllables in each line. Did he really say he’s writing 1000 of those, or did I hear that wrong?!
  • And let’s not forget, Desolation Bedspread would be a great band name…

‘I slam, therefore I am’ this week

Hi all, just a quick reminder of a fun poetry event in Winona! The Black Sheep poetry group is hosting its monthly poetry night this Wednesday, December 16, at 7 p.m. at the Mid West Music Store, 168 E Third St. One of our Teen Voices mentors, Ben Strand, is an active member of the group.

Come on by to check it out, listen to some great poems, and read or perform one if you’re so inclined.


Poem ideas, number 1


Hi wonderful poets! It was SO GREAT to make poems with you all this week at our meeting with guest Zach Carlsen. You all brought freshness and excitement, and I love that poetry happened as a result.

As promised, we’ll be posting more poem ideas/nudges/thoughts on the blog these next few weeks. You can find them all collected in the Poem ideas category at the bottom of the home page. Not all prompts work for everybody, so if this doesn’t help you, throw it away and make up your own. (It’s a dreary Saturday as I type this, which is reason enough to write a poem!)

Dorianne Laux is one of my favorite poets, and her work is brave and zesty. She has a great poem called “What’s Broken,” which you can find here. In it, she combines a list of apparently mundane broken things into a totally amazing picture of what it’s like to have a broken heart.

So, give Dorianne’s poem a read, then make your own poem about broken things. Or riff off her idea, and make yours about heavy things, green things, dead things, perfect things, dark things, wet things, or expensive things, or…

Happy trails,


Suggested reading: Sandburg, Patchen, and the Surrealists

One of the many things we discussed at our lively session last night was posting some reading suggestions on our blog, and Ken has just contributed the first installment. I was pleased that he brought up Patchen,  who was also one of my favorites back when I was in high school and first exploring the edges of poetic reality. Enjoy! (I put his attachments down below the text of the Babylonian Baboons.) –Scott


Good morning!

I’m sure you’ll all agree it was a very stimulating session yesterday. I’m going to refer you to some material that relates to what Zach read to us. His Ragboy and Spoonmender reminded me a lot of two books by Carl Sandburg—Rootabaga Stories and More Rootabaga StoriesIf you go to the you’ll hear Sandburg reading a story titled “How the Three Wild Babylonian Baboons Went Away in the Rain Eating Bread and Butter.” The story is meant to be a children’s story but there’s enough of an element of absurdity to appeal to adults. I used to read this story and others from these collections to my sandburgyounger son when he was little and he always seemed to be amused, though he wasn’t always sure what the stories were about. Ragboy and Spoonmender goes beyond Sandburg’s stories in their sophistication—and they are meant to be read as poems whereas Sandburg’s are meant to be read as stories. Sandburg had a wonderfully droll way of reading, which adds to the stories. When I reads them to my son, I always read them in Sandburgian style. If you go to Carl Sandburg youtube you will find other examples of Sandburg reading these stories. I’ve attached some more information about Sandburg. I’ll type out the text to Wild Babylonian Baboons when I have a little more time, so you can see how it looks on the page. On a related note, part of reading aloud is incorporating reading styles from other people. Maybe you will borrow something from Sandburg. Cheap copies of the two books I mentioned are available through Amazon or at the library. Read More

Our December guest poet, Zach Carlsen

Zachary Carlsen is our guest poet for the next Teen Voices workshop, 4:15 PM this Wednesday, December 9th. Carlsen’s poetic concerns include the velocity of language, gleaning poetic cadence out of the everyday dialects of ordinary Americans (as misheard or misunderstood), strong aesthetic architectural forms and cross-pollinating connections, the literature of ecstasy, apocalyptic and fantasy worlds, mathematical form, and the lyric poem. The following excerpt is from an interview he did in 2010, while presenting a workshop at Surrey University in the UK.


What is your understanding of American poetry in its broadest sense? How do you feel your writing takes part in that?
Real American poetry will always reflect the movements, patterns, and momentum of “our” English—the U.S. brand. It will always turn the simplest breath into fire. Our poetry (and/or language) is a dragon that doesn’t know it is a dragon—one part fantasy, one part danger, one part romance, one part precision. Even if one doesn’t “understand” our dragon, when you are in front of the real thing you have no choice but to take it seriously. THAT is how I know when I am reading real American poetry. My own writing is in many ways made up of what I overhear and mis-hear from my fellow Americans, day to day. In that way, I tame the fire and re-shape it into breath.

Give a general overview of your work. What are your main concerns? What images do you find yourself using over and over?
I always work on big projects. I need an architecture to work within or else the possibilities of the imagination are all too much—for example: 100 poems/each with 10 lines/each line with 10 syllables. Or, a long narrative poem that gives the entire arc of a couple’s existence in a fantastical world. My main concerns are investigating a certain element/theme/idea until it is exhausted and inside out, WITHOUT sucking the life from it and beating a dead horse, as they say. The images I keep coming back to these days are: darkness, asters, heroin, and “what does devotion look like” (if that is an image).

What line do you think poetry walks between “’truth” and “The Truth”? Do you feel responsible to tell things as they “are” or are you more invested in something else?
The first and only “rule” I ever learned about poetry was that American poetry is not a receptacle for hidden meaning; rather it is the vehicle through which human emotional complexity is constantly revealed. If a poem does that, it does everything—truth, The Truth, everything, Everything. I think poems should avoid didactic impulses and philosophical muscle-flexing.

Interview excerpt from:

Ken’s family piece

Here’s where Ken arrived as a result of Diane Jarvenpa’s prompt in November. As you will notice right away, it’s not a poem! (Not even a prose poem–something we’ll probably discuss at this week’s session). Ken explains that “the prompt merely acted as a trigger, then the piece went in its own direction.” He started out using the formula/format that Diane suggested, but he felt that the material wanted to become something different. Besides enjoying Ken’s prose, I hope your take-away here is that prompts are intended as springboards. Once you’re airborne, you’re in charge of what happens next.

It is a tinted photograph; my grandfather’s cheeks have a slight rosiness and my six-month old face has the glow of infancy. I am looking up at the sky, mouth open, exuberant. He is looking directly at the camera, his eyes squinting against the sun. A breeze lifts his graying hair. He is wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up a couple of laps and a dark tie. He has an expensive-looking belt—the buckle demonstrates that he has some sense of style. He is wearing dark trousers, maybe from a suit. I have no idea if the family had just returned from church or some other occasion, or that he always dressed up. My grandfather has a regal bearing—though he is not smiling there is a crinkle at the corner of both eyes indicating that he is experiencing a happy moment. He is holding his first grandchild—me. And I have a perfectly contented look on my face. I am in the cradle of his arms. His forearms look strong. His facial features are distinctly Midgley—every other Midgley I ever met, from his generation and before and the one to follow had those same features. Read More

Responding with a poem

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.02.00 PM

With news of another mass shooting in the U.S., it’s hard to put my emotions into words. So many things seem not-right in the world, and I feel powerless to address any of them. I know this sounds a little somber, but maybe some of you feel this way too.

Rattle magazine has a great series called “Poets Respond,” where you can read a poet’s take on the news of the week. Poetry by itself doesn’t get us to a solution to society’s problems, but it helps us, the readers, be more human. Maybe I will try to write a poem about San Bernardino tonight.

Check out the series here.

–Marcie R.

Some ‘you bring out the __ in me’ poems

Back in October, our assignment was to write a poem exploring our identity, using a framework Ed Bok Lee gave us. For a refresher, you can click here.

Scott, Ken, and I worked on the prompt too, of course, and we wanted to share those drafts with you here. I think each of us found something unexpected in the process, and we hope you will too. -Marcia


You bring out the funky black-eyed peas in me
with bacon and a splash of vinegar
The fried chicken on Sunday after church
as only my father could cook it
The fried okra dusted with cornmeal
the grits, the sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Oh, Vardaman, the sweet potato
capital of the world!
You bring out my father’s garden in me
that grew leafy and strong and plump and ripe
him standing among his peach trees
pruned perfectly
singing in his deep bass
You bring out Aunt Grace’s lemon ice box pie in me
watermelon dripping down my chin
home-made ice cream
churned in that wooden bucket
And then church again and the women
singing high and a cappella
The sweetness of honeysuckle
outside my bedroom window as I said my prayers
and my mother read to me
And then the fireflies. And the whippoorwills
all through the night




You bring out the crew-cut white kid in me,
the crew sox & blue bumper tennis shoes in me–
with my just-enough-to-comb-on-top raked quickly back with a shot of Vitalis,
my neck scrubbed nails trimmed teeth brushed,
my Madras sport shirt tucked into clean Lee jeans and out the door,
out of the gray haze of cigarette smoke cooling bacon grease re-warmed coffee mildewed basement
shower into the clear light of day,
drawn forward by the beacon of Sister Elizabeth B. Kenny Elementary School,
that bright hygienic castle, built from bricks & blocks as numerous and clean and interlocking
as all those rules that I understood, all those words I could spell and define, all those numbers on which I
could operate skillfully,
all those pieces of a game set up for me to win without much sweat or pain,
without much thought of those who were not, would never be winning.

School, you bring out the crew-cut white kid in me.

You bring out the crew-cut white kid in me,
the screen door slamming & the “What’s for dinner, Mom?” in me–
hoping meatloaf, with a carmelized ketchup crust,
or chicken pan-fried in Crisco, warm grease wicking into paper towels on the counter, potatoes chuckling
in their murky Revereware & ready for mashing,
even stovetop Creamettes and Cheese Whiz on an off-night, looking like bright orange Elmer’s glue
but not too bad with a hot dog and sweet pickles on the flowered Melmac plate,
hoping for any of those, and not their opposite:
breakfast dishes sunk in the sink, Mom sunk in bed lights off Dad home late
with takeout chow mein to coax us all into feeling normal again, without needing to talk about
any of it all over again.

Dinner, you bring out the crew-cut white kid in me.




You bring out the idea woman in me
the maroon quilt with faded pastel flowers, ripped from years of use in me
the lackadaisical hiker in me
the sort of runner in me
the scent of my mom’s hair goop on Sunday mornings in me
Dad’s dusty newspapers in stacks all over the house in me
the rich apology
for spilling the zucchini bread dough in me.

For you
I would make my mother’s stone buhr bread
but it would never last long enough in our freezer
so I make cookies instead.
You bring out the daughter in me
the baker of food my family loved
the pleaser of palates in me
the descendant of coal miners and Greek immigrants in me
the middle child in me
the connectedness in me

With you I walk in the valleys of maples
in October, sharing the fiery leaves, and with you
I keep going on the path I started.
You bring out the looking for God in me
The faithful doubter in me
the liberal Christian in me
The conservative hymn-lover in me
The classical music and poet’s almanac in me
The French horn and trombone and marimba in me
Strong voice, alto or soprano or something

Sweet husband. My forbidden lover.
You bring out the glutton in me.
The taster of every beer in me.
The complicit chuckler on smelly couches in me
The part-time cusser in me
The lover of dogs,
Outdoorswoman in me.
When we read the paper in the mornings
and talk about the most recent bloodshed or debt
you bring out the justice in me.
The blank pages in me
and the full ones.
The mourning sister in me
The liberated noisemaker in me

Love, we’ve missed each other all week,
talking in phrases and hugs.
Waiting for each other to get home or dreading the leaving.

Let me love you the way
only an idea woman can.