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Marin Poetry Center Online Writing Retreat

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

Dwelling in Possibility with Prartho Sereno , May 25 - June 7, 2020

Day 14: Like a Swimmer in the Sky

Today’s Poem:

Pablo Neruda’s Autumn Testament

Autumn Testament

by Pablo Neruda

translation by Alastair Reid

From having been born so often

I have salty experience

like creatures of the sea

with a passion for stars

and an earthy destination.

And so I move without knowing

to which world I'll be returning

or if I'll go on living.

While things are settling down,

here I've left my testament,

my shifting extravaganza,

so whoever goes on reading it

will never take in anything

except the constant moving

of a clear and bewildered man,

a man rainy and happy,

lively and autumn-minded.

And now I'm going behind

this page, but not disappearing.

I'll dive into clear air

like a swimmer in the sky,

and then get back to growing

till one day I'm so small

that the wind will take me away

and I won't know my own name

and I won't be there when I wake.

Then I will sing in the silence.


First, a note about Alistair Reed as translator. Many years ago, I discovered that all translators are by no means alike. My first collection of Neruda’s work was a huge volume, which made me think I was getting more pages for my buck (!) Alas, the poems in translation rarely hit any notes in my heart. I can’t even tell you the translator’s name, as I soon discarded that book.

But when I discovered Alistair Reed’s versions—especially the collection Extravagaria, which ends with this poem—I fell in love. If asked to name my favorite poet, more often than not, my heart shouts, before I can even deliberate, Pablo Neruda. What is it that brings me back again and again to this poet-politician (almost an oxymoron, isn’t it?) I think this Autumn Testament both shows and tells why: He is

a clear and bewildered man,

a man rainy and happy,

lively and autumn-minded.

And he is willing to dive into clear air… and grow so small the wind will take him away.


Taking Neruda’s lead, for our last day together, let’s write our own Testaments. When I just now looked up the term, I discovered that Testament is defined in three interwoven ways:

1. one’s will (the distribution of personal effects)

2. evidence or a sign (of something on another plane/ in another time) 3. a covenant or commitment between God and His people.

And so:

1. What personal effects will you distribute into the world?

2. What evidence or signs have drawn you toward another dimension?

3. Describe the covenant you have made or wish to make with your god.


Oh, why not? Aim for the stars: The New Yorker !

Of course, only send the best of your best to what is considered Olympic Gold in publication. As encouragement, though, I’ve found the current poetry editor Kevin Young (we read at his poem Urgent Telegram To Jean-Michel Basquiat on Day 8) not only to be the most inclusive editor in decades, but (to my sensibilities) the most heart-based in his selections.


A Good Cup of Coffee

Pour-Over Style

One of my brothers is fond of asking people what last taste they would want to have before leaving this world. (His is a certain East Coast brand of frozen custard.) Mine, strangely enough, is a good cup of coffee. I guess I’m in good company. I’ve been told the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff often remarked that he could never trust a man who couldn’t make a good cup of coffee.

In my endless pursuit, here’s what I have learned so far:

  1. Buy whole beans, a weekly amount of which are kept in an airtight jar at room temperature. (I keep the rest in the freezer)

  2. Heat an insulated container (either single cup for one, or larger for several imbibers) by pouring in boiling water and covering.

  3. While kettle is boiling fresh water, grind beans to fine powder (NOT the extra-fine of espresso grind, a little bit coarser)

  4. You’ll need 1/8 c of grinds for a little over 1c of brewed coffee (NOT per mug, which are almost always 1 1/2 to 2 cups); currently I use 1/2 cup coffee (four 1/8c scoops) per 3 1/2 c water, serves 2 or 3)

  5. Wet an unbleached filter, set in a ceramic or glass cone (NOT plastic!), add the ground coffee beans

  6. Begin to pour in the water, “just off the boil” (I literally lift the electric kettle up with it still boiling, but wait till it subsides before pouring.) Pour around the outer edge of the filter first and work your way toward the center; fill the cone only half way for the first pour.

  7. I used to stir the soaked grounds, but my expert barista grandson says if you pour right, you can and should skip this step, as it can disturb the beans and increase acidity.

  8. Once the water has disappeared and the grounds have puffed up a bit, repeat pours. The number of pours depends on hour water to grounds ratio (see #4). I make 4 cups of coffee each day for my sweetheart and myself, which takes three pouring rounds. You can see when the beans have given their all, as the brew in the cone will begin to show less action…less tiny bubbles on the surface as you stir. (DON’T over-leach the beans… if you see very little action, take the cone off and stop adding water.)

  9. Cover and serve in pre-warmed (with boiling water) cups.

Drink slowly, contemplatively … and you’ll be at heaven's door!


Day 13: With a Child’s Heart & Soul

Today’s Poem:

Paul Fentress's poem, written in first grade

at Brookside School in San Anselmo

A Dark Sea of Magic

by Paul Fentress

A dark sea of magic

Five rocks fall off songs

One wise old man in a lighthouse

A sparkly fish in the air


In my 21+ years as a poet-in-the-schools, this poem represents one of the highest (among thousands) of moments that have moved me, for this was the poem Paul wrote during a Mothers Day workshop, just a few months after his mother had died.

As we sat criss-cross-applesauce style on the carpet and I announced that we would write about our mothers that day, the students informed me that Paul didn’t have one. It is difficult to describe what I saw and felt as my eyes met Paul’s and his fellow classmates’—I felt like I had been admitted to a circle of wise elders. Their eyes were steady and clear with what felt like true compassion, without embarrassment or sentimentality. We sat quietly together with the fact of loss—its solemnity and its power to bring us together.

When it was time to write, I suggested Paul might write his poem to his father. But he shook his head no. Later, I suggested he could write to his mother, but again he said no.

Awkwardly, I went on to write what I’d prepared on the board: Compare your mother’s hair to a vegetable. What are her hands made of (e.g., water or fire or feathers)? What do you see her doing in your mind? Crown her the Queen of something.…

I noticed Paul moving his pencil, deep into the process, and left him alone for a while. When I finally came round to his desk and read the poem I’m offering here, I was speechless before its mystery and beauty.

Eventually, I asked, “Who did you write this for, Paul?… Is this for your mother?”

He shook his head no.

“Your father?”

Again, no. Then he looked right into me and said, “This poem is for me. I wrote this poem for me.”


Although your main prompt today is to follow Paul’s open heart and forget any prompt I could give, I will offer this appreciation of the artistry of his Dark Sea of Magic: It eschews all explanation as it unearths its images. We are witness to an inner slideshow—his very own dark sea of magic where rocks fall off and sing. With no extra words, we are zoomed in to see one wise old man in his lighthouse (I love that he counts his characters—one!). And then, his unbelievably perfect ending… from that dark sea he brings up: a sparkly fish in the air!

Whenever I read this poem, which I consider a masterpiece (Paul is still writing, by the way. “Mostly songs,” he tells me when I run into him at Good Earth in Fairfax), I can feel the child that’s still alive in me. Doesn’t that happen for you too? She/ he is the one I’m asking to write your poem today.


Today, I’m going to ask you to follow in the great tradition of self-publishing. Uncle Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass came into the world that way. And he wrote his own glowing reviews for that book too!

Pick your favorite 12 to 18 poems, or find a theme that runs through your “collected works,” and create your own chapbook, using the “recipes” below!


from Poets & Writers

DIY: How to Make and Bind Your Own Chapbook

by Staff



Whether you end up distributing your own prose or poetry at a reading or collecting the work of your friends in limited editions, the following instructions on how to create and bind your own chapbooks offer hours of bookmaking fun.

DIY: How to Make a Pocket-Size Book with a companion video.

DIY: How to Coptic Bind a Chapbook with a companion video.

DIY: How to Stab-Stitch Bind a Chapbook

DIY: How to Make a Saddle-Stitched Chapbook


Day 12: Singing The Blues

Today’s Poem:

Langston Hughes’es Miss Blues’es Child

Miss Blues’es Child

by Langston Hughes (1902—1967)

If the blues would let me,

Lord knows I would smile.

If the blues would let me,

I’d smile, smile, smile.

Instead of that I’m cryin’ —

I must be Miss Blues’es child.

You were my moon up in the sky,

at night my wishing star.

I love you, oh, I love you so—

But you have gone so far!

Now my days are lonely,

And my night-time drives me wild.

In my heart I’m crying,

I’m just Miss Blues’es child!


The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance taught us that one of the best ways to transform the blues is to invite them in. To sit ‘em down and write a song together.

The Blues is a formal poem (or song); i.e., we are given a template which prescribes rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, into which we are to fit our blues. The form is simple on the surface: Three statements (as a poem, usually each statement is broken into two lines). The first statement is a clear delineation of your complaint; the second is an almost exact repetition of that complaint. (Almost being the chief operative here—a little variation helps the music move along, as Lord knows I would cry becomes I’d cry cry cry in its second iteration.)

The third statement brings a brief conclusion to the stated difficulty, with more linguistic freedom. It must stay true to the established rhythm and the last word must continue the rhymed endings of the first two statements; in Hughes’s poem child provides a slant-rhyme with the smile that ends the first two parts of the poem/song.

Langston Hughes was one of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in upper Manhattan, with famous musical celebrations at the Cotton Club. It was there that Hughes learned the blues form from singers and brought it into his poetry.


Here’s a few more examples, from blues songwriters to get you ready to sing your blues:

Green River Blues

Some people say

the Green River blues ain’t bad.

Seems I’m always hearin’

the Green River blues ain’t bad—

then it must not have been

them Green River blues I had.

Charley Patton

Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues

Last night a hoot owl

came to sit outside my door.

Last night a hoot owl came

and sat right at my door.

A feeling seemed to tell me

I would never see my man no more.

Ma Rainey

Special Rider

I got off my pallet and I laid down across my bed.

Got off my pallet and laid down

across my bed.

And when I went to eat my breakfast, the blues were all in my bread.

Skip James

Now, Try these:

  1. Name your blues… Keep revising it: the Green River Blues; them Sad Green River Blues; the Alligator Chompin Green River Blues… etc.

  2. Put your blues in strange places: blues all in my head; all in my bread.

  3. Let your blues be a spirit, capable of action.

Try to Write at least 3 Verses

A few places to begin:

Been so long ____________________________________________________

Only thing I know for sure_______________________________________________

I miss her/ him like_______________________________________________________

Seems this got off course when_______________________________________________

Know it might seem strange to you, _______________________________________


Salt Hill is the Journal produced by MFA students at Syracuse University, where I studied, taught, and wrote for 3 years, between 2010 and 2013. The team is small and intimate. This is their statement about submissions:

We are interested in work that represents a broad spectrum of experience. We believe it is critical to lift up the voices of writers and artists who have been traditionally underrepresented in the literary arts. As such, we feel an urgency to read and consider work by people of color, women, queer people, non-binary folks, and anyone else who has been marginalized by the institutions which have, for so long, dominated the publishing scene.


Left-Overs—my favorite ingredient!

Left-Over Saag-Paneer Quesadilla


1 multi-grain tortilla

Left-over Saag Paneer

(or Palak Paneer… same dish, both words mean spinach in different regions of India)

Handful of crumbled feta cheese (I prefer sheep’s milk feta)

Other grated cheese to help it all stick together

Place tortilla in lightly greased pre-warmed frying pan

Turn over and spread with saag paneer

Sprinkle in feta, (amount depends on how much paneer is left…I’ve usually eaten most of the paneer in the first round)

Sprinkle in other cheeses… which is what keeps the two halves sticking together, and what qualifies it as a quesadilla

I enjoyed this as my lunch yesterday, and decided to share it.


Day 11: All of Us, Boat People

Today’s Poem:

Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Oceans

Oceans by Juan Ramon Jimenez (translated by Robert Bly) I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down there in the depths, against a great thing.            And nothing happens! Nothing…Silence…Waves... —Nothing happens? Or has everything happened, and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?


First, a little meditation on boats: The boat is one of our most timeless metaphors. How often lately, have you heard (or said yourself), “We are all in the same boat now.”

But perhaps this has always been the case: one boat/ one ocean. It only recently occurred to me that the five oceans we’ve named to keep our bearings are really only one big body of water… there is no line to divide the waters of the world.

Our most enduring myths have us crossing waters in boats. Consider Noah, who was instructed to build his boat on dry land and to invite in the animals. How the seas rose and took him, piloting that noisy boat through a storm of 40 days and 40 nights.

It is now thought that the first immigrants to North America arrived not on foot as previously theorized, but from Asia, by boat. To this day, especially during crises, people leave their homes for better lives by boat. They are often called The Boat People, and the way is almost always very difficult.

When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive. – Thich Nhat Hanh 

Jimenez’s small poem with its huge title Oceans, begins in a boat, floating above the depths, and striking against a great thing.

The line-breaks here create a dramatic pace for… nothing to happen. —Nothing happens?/ Or has everything happened

Isn’t this exactly where the stopping of our world, which we all share in right now, has brought us: … standing now, /quietly, in the new life?


Today’s assignment is simple enough. Consider yourself, your life, your world, as a boat. Allow the boat and the oceans that carry it to be your poem’s commanding metaphor. Extend the metaphor... possibly with the help of the following lists (to jar your memory) of nautical terms and terms for the sea and its elements... until your vessel strikes against a great thing.

Nautical Terms

captain crew ship craft canoe sailing ship ropes

ark (offering protection) vessel sails mast anchor deck

engine oars bow stern cabin hull portside

wheel (for steering) rudder bow spirit (or figurehead) starboard

port dock bridge port of call (stop before destination)

Terms for the Sea and her Elements

high seas (beyond national jurisdiction) gale winds white-capped waters

salt water lagoon reef sandbank bay inlet

becalmed (when a sailing ship can’t move because the winds have stopped) calm seas

gulls albatross wandering albatross arctic terns dolphins

whales nets iceberg knots (measurement of wind velocity)

fair winds (perfect for sailing) open seas


The Bellevue Literary Review

From their website: The Bellevue Literary Review, founded in 2000, was created as a forum for creatively exploring a broad array of issues in medicine and society, using fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to better understand the nuanced tensions that define our lives both in illness and in health.

What better place to submit your poems at this time?


One of the easiest, yet somehow impressive, side-dishes I know

Curried Brussel Sprouts

  1. Steam Brussel Sprouts (preferably fresh, but frozen will do, follow cooking directions on package)

  2. Stir in a few dollops of our secret ingredient…ready for this?…mayonnaise!

  3. Add your favorite curry powder to taste.

  4. Reheat in a sauce pan, stirring constantly till warm

That’s it! This came from an old hippie friend who wowed everyone with her simple culinary skills. Whenever I’ve brought the dish to a potluck, everyone wants to know how I made such a delicious sauce! (shhh… now it’s your secret too. Don’t tell!)


Day 10: Our Verbs Know

How to Dance

Today’s poem:

The Ancient Christmas Dancers, written by Angel Mejia when he was in third grade under my tutelage at Venetia Valley School, San Rafael, CA

The Ancient Christmas Dancers

by Angel Mejia

On the longest night the moon fades the bells.

The trees fade in the darkness. The light of the ancient dancers sweeps, floats, flirts, somersaults. And I hear the wind say, Dance. Dance for the ancient dancers. For the moon, for your whole family and the Christmas spirit. And reveal that your great grandpa isn’t dead in your heart.


This is a poem that knows how to dance—a poem we can witness dancing its way into its young writer’s heart and opening his ears so he can feel the love and hear the voices of the Ancient Christmas Dancers.

I watched Angel write this poem… painstakingly at first, but once he found his verbs: The light of the ancient dancers/sweeps, floats, flirts, somersaults… Something took over his pencil. I love how he began to receive instructions from the wind—The urgent instruction to Dance. For the ancient dancers! For the moon (!) And soon enough, for everyone he loves, a dancing which performs the ultimate magic—bringing his late great grandpa back to life… in his heart.


Angel and his fellow poets were given two essential prompts for this poem; I am giving you the same:

1. To consider what happens, secretly, in the long and mysterious hours of the year’s longest night. (We were writing in December and began our session thinking together about the changes in daylight and nighttime throughout the year, with the imminent arrival of the longest night of that year.) I encouraged them to include what happens to the moon? The trees? The wind and light? The People?

2. We also spoke about the power of verbs to get things moving. I gave each student a list of Verbs to Move You, which I am including here. I think what makes Angel’s poem so remarkable is how generous he is with his verbs. Today, take his spirit, and the spirit of the ancient dancers, as your guide!

A List of Verbs… to move you:

veer skew teeter shuffle circle branch

lurch shiver lean swallow slog whisper

dilly-dally glance soften pour sprinkle dust

dig dive flick flutter plunge rock

flash drizzle bounce spring settle slump

hover brush sweep flow blossom bump

climb cradle touch sing darn mend

fan pluck collapse stutter shrink grow

drive duck release catch reach drop

scribble crack glue tape tremble sigh

uproot upstage reroute wade float rise

sink soar sail slosh fly flirt

fumble flit race rustle row wrangle

engulf envelop vanish relinquish dissolve disintegrate

balance shape carve hover hide flare

jump linger loiter lag land stretch

flap flounder scatter tumble mumble open

close pass blaze brighten plow blur

stitch scribble smooth rumple scatter mar

bellow sip saunter limp creep sway

drift scuttle inch sidle launch parse

tip flip flap turn scratch cartwheel

somersault skateboard splash grumble squish crumble

swing save jitterbug foxtrot skate slide


Barrow Street Review was founded in legendary Greenwich Village, in New York City.

One of my dearest friends lived on tree-lined Barrow Street for more than 40 years, which was what first drew me to this high quality journal. Their next reading period is a ways off… Gives you plenty of time to polish those poems!

From their website: Send your submission during the reading period by using our Online Submission Manager. Our open reading period is from Dec. 1 - Dec. 15. Dec. 16 - March 15th there is a $3 charge per submission. Submit up to five pages maximum. Name, address, and phone number should appear on each page. Submissions that exceed the maximum cannot be read.


The Good Old Green Banana Smoothie

(Not with green bananas, but a banana smoothie suffused with green!)

Put all ingredients in blender:

1 frozen banana, cut into cubes (freezing it is the secret!)

1 c. plain low-fat yogurt

Other fruit (optional… whatever’s in the fridge or kitchen bowl)

1 Tbs. wheat grass or other green powder (or a few chard leaves)

1 tsp. vanilla

5 to 6 ice cubes, crushed

(my method for crushing: put cubes in a bag and wack with the back of an ice cream scoop till the pieces are quite small)

Blend on medium until all ingredients are fully blended. I make mine with only the sweetness of the fruit, but ice cream or sweeteners, such as maple syrup or agave juice or honey, can be added to taste.


Day 9: Let the Songs of the Night Touch Our Bodies

Today’s poem

Kosrof Chantikian’s A Meditation on the Poem

from his forthcoming collection The Songs Inside of You (Kosmos, July, 2020)

A Meditation on the Poem

by Kosrof Chantikian

The poem’s deepest foundation is love

which is why it is revolutionary

the poem transmutes our lives in the world

it restores us to ourselves and each other

each time it does so history rises from its dull sleep

washes its dirty hands and feels itself breathe again

the poem undresses us

we become aware of our own and each other’s skin

this is how we invented the kiss

love in its true state is erotic

as moss slowly touches and enters the heart of the flower

love and eroticism are inseparable from each other

they are the original subversives

the poem asks nothing from us except that we remain true

to our dreams our work ourselves

this is the original insight of all poets the poem creates the poet

of the poet the poem requests nothing

but exacts everything

it is impossible to go beyond without language beyond words

the heart would choke and die if words

were shot at sundown

even the sparrow sings

as it waits to touch the wind

a poet’s intuition music as the sky

as songs of the night touch our bodies

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum must be undressed by the poem

I think, therefore I am must be forged by our lips into

we imagine and invent ourselves

and each other

we love

and become

is it necessary to prove the value of your laughter the sky your kiss?

and why the fields of wild iris at twilight

call to hold you tightly?


This poem, which opens Kosrof Chantikian’s forthcoming collection, is most obviously an ars poetica, a self-reflective poem about the art of poetry. But what sets it apart from legions of other poetic meditations on poetry (almost every poet has written at least one!) is its unabashed sensuality. For Chantikian, love and eroticism are the original subversives, and from this sensibility we are urged to love and become… to let the songs of the night touch our bodies.

The speaker instructs us to be undressed by the poem, to become aware of our own and each other’s skin. Almost every image speaks from and to the body—even history must wash its dirty hands and breathe again.

The wonder of this poem is that its sensuality and eroticism bear no hint of the pornographic. Spoken with transcendent tenderness, from a voice beyond the poet himself, these images and words are infused with love. They enter our bodies, and open us to the resplendent world lurking behind the one we have dulled by intellectual habits.

As Naomi Shihab Nye testifies on the back cover of The Songs Inside of You: So much love lives in the beautiful poems of Kosrof Chantikian - read them with a wide open soul and prepare for restoration! ~ Naomi Shihab Nye, Young People's Poet Laureate, The Poetry Foundation


Today, let’s let our bodies be the muse. You may want to write your own ars poetica… or not. Whatever theme is calling to you today, approach it with all your senses, and your heart, open—as a lover.

Let in smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings on the skin, but also let in the creatures that share your world—birds, wind, the night sky. Your assignment today is to fall in love, with all of it!


The literary journal Rosebud declares its mission as publishing the under appreciated. They featured one of my poems and illustrations from my collection Causing a Stir: The Secret Lives & Loves of Kitchen Utensils, and later dedicated the visual art in one issue to paintings from that book. They have eclectic taste; give them a try!

Recipe (for 96 pages of insPiration):

Here is all the info you need to order Kosrof Chantikian’s collection, The Songs Inside of You.

Publisher: KOSMOS

Publication Date: June/July 2020.

Distribution:  Books will be available through:

1. check and order note to:


     20 Millard Road

Larkspur, CA  94939

2.   Amazon

     ISBN/ Price:

978-0-916426-163   The Songs inside of You  —  Paperback, $19.95

978-0-916426-194   The Songs Inside of You  —  Hard Back, $35.95

Details: 96 pages, 88 pages of poems

Both the paperback & hardcover are stitched.


Day 8: Urgent Telegram

Today’s Poem:

Urgent Telegram To Jean-Michel Basquiat by Kevin Young

I chose this poem today because of my deep outrage and sadness for what has continued to be a horrible legacy of treatment of our African American sisters and brothers. I feel it is urgent that we express our solidarity from the bottoms of our hearts. Who better to help us find our way in this than the huge-hearted bluesman Kevin Young?

Urgent Telegram To Jean-Michel Basquiat

by Kevin Young


[* SAMO is a graffiti tag used on the streets of New York City from 1977 to early 1980. It accompanied short phrases, in turns poetic and sarcastic, mainly painted on the streets of downtown Manhattan. The tag, written with a copyright symbol as "SAMO©", and pronounced Same-Oh has been primarily associated with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, but was developed mainly as a collaboration between Basquiat and Al Diaz, with help from a few friends.]


First, I would like to apologize for my illustration (circa 1967), which in no way meets the wild chaotic imaginings of the late painter and intended recipient of Kevin Young’s Telegram-Poem. (His images are protected by copyright, but you can view them here, on the website Artsy, who sell some of the painter’s works: )

The bio from that page: A poet, musician, and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat had honed his signature painting style of obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery by the time he was 20. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he once said. “I think about life.” Basquiat drew his subjects from his own Caribbean heritage—his father was Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent—and a convergence of African-American, African, and Aztec cultural histories with Classical themes and contemporary heroes like athletes and musicians. Often associated with Neo-expressionism, Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years, showing alongside artists like Julian SchnabelDavid Salle, and Francesco Clemente. In 1983, he met Andy Warhol, who would come to be a mentor and idol. The two collaborated on a series of paintings before Warhol’s death in 1987, followed by Basquiat’s own untimely passing a year later.

And so, after visiting the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat, we are better prepared to enter the urgency of jazz poet extraordinaire (& current poetry editor of The New Yorker) Kevin Young’s “Telegram Poem.” Although Basquiat died in 1988, at the age of 28, Young’s poem was published in 2001 in his collection To Repel Ghosts, and was most likely written a year or two before that publication. In other words, this urgent missive is to one who has not been with us on this earthly plane for a while.

The form of a telegram does incredible work here. Because of the sizable efforts and costs of transmitting them, telegrams were only sent in emergencies; the form itself reflects that. For any of you too young to know, telegrams were hand-delivered in envelopes. Inside was a small piece of tissue-thin paper with a message composed for brevity. Due to the technologies of the day, they were typed in all caps with no punctuation. STOP was used for periods; the final period was replaced by the word END.

Because of its strange form, it takes a bit of time to sort out what is being said in Young’s Urgent Telegram To Jean-Michel Basquiat, but we need no time at all to sense the urgency. The irony, of course, is that a dead person likely knows no such urgency, as he no longer resides in our “time zone.” He also has no mouth or voice box with which to answer. Still, this missive, flung into the Timeless, arrives, doesn’t it? It hits the target Young’s poems are always aiming for—the very bottom of our hearts.


I suggest today we write to someone who has passed on—this could be a cultural icon (like Jean-Michel Basquiat), but it could also be a personal friend or family member. The main thing is to write to this person with a sense of urgency.

You might notice that Young doesn’t reveal the reason for his urgency, but we feel it, and the poem is all the more compelling because of what the poet has left out. It is your choice how much (or little) backstory (or none at all) you want to include in your missive. Exploring what wants to stay hidden and what asks to be exposed is an important part of today’s prompt.

In terms of form, you might want to imitate a telegram, as Young did. But you could also borrow from one of our more contemporary forms: a series of short texts, emails, or tweets, for example; or a service you need or are offering on Craig’s List. These days, we have our own ways of taking shortcuts with language—use them! You might even write a descriptive note to conjure the emoji you are pasting in (e.g., red un-smiley face with tear at one eye).

Most important: Sincerely try to reach the one you (we) have lost. Where that takes you might surprise.


Poets Respond, weekly online publication, sponsored by the literary journal Rattle:

Our solution is Poets Respond—a poem written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week will appear every Sunday. Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome. Selected poets will receive $100. To have your own poem considered for next week’s posting, submit at the link below before midnight Friday PST. Any poems sent before the midnights of Sunday and Tuesday will also be considered for bonus postings mid-week.


Today, let’s do it all in pictures! Offered by the cook in our house, my sweetheart Dennis Ludlow!

Pan-Fried Japanese Ginger-Tofu

Itadakimasu! ... (Let's eat!)


Day 7: Reimagining our Myths

Today’s Poem:

Kay Ryan’s The Fourth Wise Man

The Fourth Wise Man by Kay Ryan

The fourth wise man

disliked travel. If

you walk, there’s the

gravel. If you ride,

there’s the camel’s attitude.

He far preferred

to be inside in solitude

to contemplate the star

that had been getting

so much larger

and more prolate lately –

stretching vertically

(like the souls of martyrs)

toward the poles

(or like the yawns of babies).


Kay Ryan’s ingenious use of poetic license is on display in all of her poems. (It’s no accident she is among our nation’s MacArthur Geniuses.) Her brilliance is not only her ability to bring the immeasurable into very small spaces (the fifteen short lines in The Fourth Wise Man are representative), but also her offbeat slant on unusual subjects, an understated ever-present humor, and a penchant for craftily hiding her rhymes where you don’t expect them (i.e., rarely at the end of a line).

Here, Ryan takes on one of our culturally shared stories and stretches its boundaries to reveal a reluctant player backstage. This is poetic license at its best. Of all the imaginative freedoms poets get to explore, perhaps being able to re-write our myths and legends is one of the most liberating—for both writer and reader. We enter age-old cliche-ridden territory and tip the landscape on its side.

The very idea of the fourth wise man (our title character), puts us off-balance; then the opening lines tip us into laughter. He disliked travel, and then there’s the gravel (catch the rhyme?). Another way of camouflaging rhyme—slant or imperfect rhyme—was sneaked in between the camel’s attitude and solitude.

Opened by laughter—the work some of the best poems do—we easily sink into the more profound possibilities of: He far preferred/ to be inside in solitude/ to contemplate the star…

Then Ryan does it again—now the star is not only growing, but stretching towards the poles, inexplicably pulling together the souls of martyrs and babies’ yawns.

We are left with a little, Huh? It’s as if, as Emily Dickinson famously described her experience of being inside a poem, the tops of our heads have come off.


Yes. Today you get to use that poetic license to navigate the loopdeloops of your imagination! Begin by choosing one of your favorite well-known stories. Think Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grim. Think the Garden of Eden or Mother Goose. Try a story that won’t take any introduction for the reader.