This year I've had excellent luck picking up how-to books at random at the store and discovering some wonderful resources, but I don't always go to the how-to aisle to find what might be useful to mention on the blog. Sometimes I head there just for me and my eternal quest to clarify, understand, and address my writing life.
Last week I spotted a new release, Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen, and the title immediately snared me. So did the cover copy, the table of contents, and the first three pages I read. I figured it would be inspirational to me personally, as my poetry of late has been squashed under the pleasures, pressures and madness of writing fiction, but not something I'd talk about here on the blog. I'm rarely willing to inflict my poet-self on my writer friends.
Fortunately Sage Cohen doesn't feel that way, and opened herself up as she extended through the book a no-strings-attached invitation to read and write poetry. The result were short chapters on all the things poets wrestle with: what to write, word and structure choices, metaphor, voice, writing rituals, art, experimentation, and anything else you can think of. She offered some amazing poems of her own and by other poets to exemplify her topic, and also included practical suggestions and interesting exercises for the reader under a Try This! banner at the end of a section.
It's not all exercises and mechanics, though. In the chapter Convenience Kills (pg. 134), Ms. Cohen discusses how our high-speed turbo-powered culture is killing creativity, which affects all of us, as evident in what Charlene wrote in her blog post that I quoted for the May Thought for the Month over there on the sidebar. In Trusting Your Instincts (pg. 208), she discusses all this writing advice that comes at us from all directions, and how we can decide whether or not to follow it. One chapter, From Dysfunction to Duende (pg. 61) explained something I've fretted over as a poet and a writer for the last thirty-four years, but could never even put a name to, much less find an explanation for. That alone blew me away.
While reading this book, I didn't get bogged down in a lot of pretty theory and lofty notion that so often is associated with composing verse. One goal Sage Cohen mentions in the book is the hope of taking poetry down off the academic pedestal and putting it back in the hands of the people. I thought this was accomplished, and rather brilliantly. It's also very non-partisan in how it addresses the creative life. I didn't have to lock up my fiction self in a cage while absorbing the information and ideas. There was as much in it for me the novelist as there was for the poet.
I've always felt writing poetry makes me a better fiction writer, but this is the first time I've found a how-to book that speaks to both sides of my writing life. And if I never wrote another poem for the rest of my life, I'd still consult with this book. In many ways it's not so much about what you write, but the life in which you write.
As always, you don't have to take my word for it. In comments to this post, name one of your favorite poems or poets (or if you're poetry-deprived, just toss your name in the hat) by midnight EST on Friday, May 15, 2009. I'll draw three names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners an unsigned copy of Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.