A Riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art”

In late December, a string of rejections coupled with the endless gray days of the Midwestern sky, caused me to stop writing altogether during January and most of February. I felt uninspired, and even though I can usually pull myself through a slump pretty easily, I’ve struggled this time.

A friend of mine decided that rather than doing one big annual New Year’s Resolution, she would do a series of thirty-day pushes…thirty days without sugar, thirty days of hiking outdoors…whatever. I thought that sounded pretty good, and that I’d give it a try. I made a list of things I could do for thirty days straight. It seems a lot less daunting than something like, I’m going to write a poem every day this year, for example. I thought, it’ll  get me back in the seat in front of the white page for at least one month regardless of how I feel.

Last October and November, I decided I should start testing some of the poems I had written throughout 2015, by sending them to journals. Hence the rejections. What, I wondered? Had I just lost it? Was I entirely clueless? Maybe I’d simply forgotten how badly I take rejection and how frequently I get them. You can call it a character flaw, but it’s just human nature. It’s disappointing. And, some people have learned to deal with it better than me. The only alternatives are to either stop writing altogether, or to stop submitting, or to teach yourself to better deal with rejections, (and keep honing your poems). It’s a reality of the writing life.

The first thirty-days, I started with a daily yoga practice combined with journaling about the experience. I finished that a few days ago and it felt like success; so, I decided to go on to the next thing on my list which was writing 1,000 words every day for 30 days (that’s a lot for me!)—without fail. I decided to not limit myself to poetry or to a literary effort, but I did want to avoid pure journal-like entries. And, I decided that if I write poetry which is usually not 1,000 words, that I had to write up an analysis of what I’d written and what I was trying to accomplish in the poem in order to get to 1,000 words for the day.

The first day, I wrote a memoir piece about an incident years ago, when I—no kidding—brought an auctioneer to tears. It felt great to have written something. The second day, I wrote a review of Michael Moore’s new movie, “Where to Invade Next.” Neither of these were penned with publication in mind, but they felt satisfying nonetheless.

Today, for some reason, Elizabeth Bishop‘s poem, “One Art,” which is about “losing” kept going over and over in my mind, but instead of the word “losing,” I found I was saying the word rejection… “the art of rejection isn’t hard to master.”

Words In AirAccording to a letter written to Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop wrote “One Art” sometime early in January 1976, just a little less than four years before her death on October 6, 1979. She enclosed a copy of the poem in the letter dated February 14th, 1976, and spoke of it in the last paragraph.

“I’m enclosing the one & only villanelle of my life, written about 6 weeks ago” (Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton 784).

In Lowell’s letter back to her, sent on March 4th of the same year, he wrote:

“An aching subject, as the art even of losing must be. Your stoical humor persuades me that loss is an advantage” (785).

And, in his final paragraph, he wrote,

“I’ve been writing furiously in my doldrums, and always feel on the edge of being too raw…One needs to hold a shield before one’s feelings and the reader… Right now I’d like to borrow your villanelle armor” (786).

I don’t know if Lowell went on to write a villanelle, though he clearly identifies one way form can function in poetry, which is to help contain it’s matter–‘to hold the shield before one’s feeling and the reader.’ Somehow Lowell and Bishop’s brief exchange on the poem, spoke to me.

As I was thinking about Bishop’s poem, and my own silly mental twist on it, I decided to write a poem imitating the style, meter, and character of Bishop’s. I set out to do this for my own enjoyment, and in no way, do I hold my poem up to hers; but it’s the first poem—the first thing I’ve really wanted to write in a long time, and I had a lot of fun doing it.


Works Cited

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, Words in Air, The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowel. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

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Interview on Poetry – Miami Valley Voices – April 5, 2015

On April 5, 2015, I was interviewed by Ron Rollins for Miami Valley Voices, a podcast put together by WHIO, a TV and Radio station in Dayton, Ohio. You can hear the interview here.

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Browndress by Grace Curtis (Me, as a Child Poetry Series)

This out today at Silver Birch Press.

Silver Birch Press

by Grace Curtis


I’m a red bull, a thing in another time that might be called overactive. The world is eclectic, electric, electrified, and everything touched or seen or consumed emits something between static and full-blown electrocution—every change in weather, every porch-game, hose-sip! Drink up! Drink up little girl.

My father grips my chin and runs the edge of a comb across the top of my head to implant the memory of a part and I don’t mind that it hurts like hell. Now, here I am, prim, my unruly nest of a head flattened beneath a brown lid, feet in model pose. I will keep this troop 516 browndress forever and I will make new friends and keep the old, one silver, one gold, I actually believe I will obey the girl scout laws, and I am a kid who already loves smart turns-of-a-phrase, hearing music with…

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Listen to a poem on WVXU, Cincinnati

train1On November 20, 2014, I recorded a few poems and an interview for WVXU, Cincinnati, Ohio.  You can check out one of the poems here.

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Summer Poetry Series–Dos Madres Press & BonBonerie, Cincinnati, Ohio

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Teaching Poetry in an English Workshop–Sakhnin, Israel, Day Four

Mohammad reading a dramatic monologue

Mohammad reading a dramatic monologue

The seventh graders were on a field trip today so we doubled up our classrooms and team taught. Perry Brokow, a retired teacher from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, and I joined together to teach today. Perry is teaching drama and speech to the students. He is teaching dramatic monologues which gives the students practice with speaking English in front of the group. Later this week, he is going to have the students perform parts of Romeo and Juliet

Today I talked to the class about Sonnet 116.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Morsi reading a dramatic monologue.

Morsi reading a dramatic monologue.

We talked about the form of the Shakespearean sonnet and the fact that the poem is written in iambic pentameter. We also discussed the fact that this meter is easy for English speaking people to read naturally.


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Teaching Poetry in an English Workshop–Sakhnin, Israel, Day Three

R-L, Sara and Adan

R-L, Sara and Adan

Today, we talked about Haiku and looked at sample poems. All told me they had never heard of the concept. I had the students come to the board and mark the syllables as they counted them out. In Arabic, the word for syllables is mktua, so they were familiar with the concept, though many did not know the word in English. I quickly realized how valuable an English lesson it is for them to count out the syllables in the English words. I was also impressed that they were very good at hearing them.

It seemed it was a little easier for them to write Haiku than other types

L-R Shadin and Donia

L-R Shadin and Donia

of poetry since it is shorter. I told them that usually Haiku does not rhyme and that they should release themselves from the need to do so. Rhyming is something they have imposed upon themselves, even though I have encouraged them to not feel compelled to rhyme. I’ve tried to impress upon them that contemporary poetry written in English does not always rhyme.

Waterfalls are fresh.
A lot of water falling
as cold as the ice.

— Raya, 8th grade

The night, it is black.
Day is blue, but it always
leads me back to you.

–Donia , 9th grad

It’s a magic trick
about what the nature makes
to a human heart

–Arwa, 9th grade

Poem written by Shadin

Poem written by Shadin



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Teaching Poetry in an English Workshop–Sakhnin, Israel, Day Two

imageToday the students worked on poems about a body part. I asked them to write at least four lines and to try to include a simile or a metaphor. We had a lengthy discussion about these concepts and they understood them. In fact, they already knew about metaphors, but they were less sure about similes.

I am trying to teach them to write drafts that can be corrected for grammar and spelling before copying the poem into their chapbooks. I also asked them to put a Table of Contents in their books and to be sure to give each poem a title.

How to Enter a Poem

Many of the students struggled today with what I often struggle with: starting a poem. They sat in front of a blank piece of paper and couldn’t think of what to write. To help, I shared with them the poem, “Two More Papayas” from Thanhha Lai’s beautiful book, Inside Out and Back Again. In the poem, Lai writes:

“I see them first.

Two green thumbs
that will grow into
orange-yellow delights
smelling of summer.

Middle sweet between a mango and a pear…”

They noticed that Lai’s poem is descriptive and contains a beautiful metaphor of the small papayas starting out as two green thumbs. From there Lai goes on, in just a few short lines, to talk about the papayas’ color, taste, texture, and then how easy they are to eat.

imageI suggested the students identify a body part and then make a list of characteristics. That seemed to help. They began to shape their poem around the characteristics they wrote down, coming up with metaphors and similes quite naturally. Several were able to shape a decent poem.

Would it be too corny to say, my heart was full of joy throughout the day? Because it was, not just for how well they are doing with English and poetry, but also because I really like these kids! I’m starting to know them by sight at least, and though I often butcher their Arabic names, I’m trying. It amuses them. Their English is far better than my Arabic. The time goes too quickly and I end up having to rush themimage out the door to their next class.

Tomorrow they don’t have Workshop, so they are working on their poems at home for the next class. I am anxious to see what they write!


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Teaching Poetry in an English Workshop–Sakhnin, Israel, Day One

imageToday was the first day of the English Workshop at Al Bashaer High School in Sakhnin, Israel. There were four classes of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. The classes only last for 45 minutes and that seems too short The time went by quickly.  We imagebarely got started talking about Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody!” when it seemed the period was over.

Each of the kids decorated the cover of chapbook I gave them, and only a couple of them decorated it with the cover on the back (the back, if the book is to be read in English.)  Their grasp of English is impressive.

Talking about “I’m Nobody!” led to discussions about using comparison’s in poetry, about rhyme, lines, and stanzas. I was amazed at how deeply the students were able to think about various elements in the poem. They were able to express many complex concepts in English. One young man commented that it didn’t seem Emily Dickinson was a very happy person if she called herself a Nobody. We talked about the idea that the poet is not necessarily the “I” in the poem. We also talked about the variety of ideas that might be present in the poem.

Martha Moody, program organizer talked for a few minutes about art with a focus on the idea of line. That fit nicely into our discussion ofimage the concept of a line of poetry. The students seemed to enjoy the discussion.

I am looking forward to the coming days. One young man held up his book to me and said, “I love this.” I know he will love it even more when he has filled it with his  own wonderful poems.

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Poetry Lesson Plans and Life Lessons

Deir Al Assad MapOn June 6, I leave for Israel. Next Thursday, I will be in the classroom at Al-Bashaer High School in Deir al Assad teaching poetry to 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. The program is an English immersion experience for the students. I haven’t been in a classroom for many years, so I am both excited and nervous.

Our six-member team of teachers, led by novelist, Martha Moody, will arrive in Deir al Assad on Tuesday, June 10. We begin teaching on Thursday, June 12. Approximately 60 students will attend four classes per day for ten days between June 10 and June 26. We only have the students in one hour classes each day we teach, and each class is full.

When I first sat down to work on the lesson plans, I had grandiose ideas about teaching them all about American poetry and poets. I envisioned them writing sestinas and sonnets. In the course of my preparation, I realized that these are students who, even though they study English, don’t often get to hear English spoken by individuals for whom English is a first language. On top of that, we have them in our classrooms for such a short amount of time. I changed my plan.

Here is a summary:

Day 1  Focus: What is poetry and how is it different than prose?

Poem to share and discuss: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Emily Dickinson

Practice: Write a few lines of poetry in English describing a body part or personal characteristic but don’t say what you are writing about. Other will guess what you wrote about.

Day 2   Focus: Reading Poetry written in English, aloud

Poem to share and discuss: “Two More Papayas” by Thanhha Lai

Practice: Reading our poems aloud

Day 3     Focus: Haiku

Poems to share and discuss: Two Basho poems

Practice: Writing a Haiku

Day 4     Focus: Images in poetry—metaphor and simile

Poem to Share and discuss: “Fog” by Carl Sandburg

Practice: Write at least 4 lines of poetry that includes a simile or a metaphor

Day 5   Focus: Writing poems about pictures and objects of art

Poem to share and discuss: six lines from “ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats

Practice: Bring a picture from home and write a poem about it.

Day 6    Focus: Writing poems about pictures and objects of art

Poem to share and discuss: four lines from “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran

Practice: in-class writing sharing drafts aloud

Day 7     Focus: Making a Collage Poem—Does poetry have to make sense?

Practice: class is divided in to two groups, then the two groups work in pairs to come up with phrases or sentence clauses. We then come back together and make complete sentences out of our parts of sentences to create a poem.

Day 8     Focus: Continue working on a collage poem and copying it into chapbook

Poem to share: from “New Moon, a Collage Poem” by Kathryn Winograd

Day 9     Focus: Writing poetry about nature.

Poem to share: “A Bird Came Down the Walk” by Emily Dickinson

Day 10   Focus: Wrap-up, talk about what we’ve learned, say our good-byes.

I am taking blank, hand-made chapbooks for the students to fill in with the poems they write. Check back often for updates and any poetry the students let me post. Oh, and lots of pictures too!

Here are a few of the books I referenced in my preparation:

Stepping Sideways into Poetry Writing, Kathryn Winograd, Scholastic, 2005

Painless Poetry book coverPainless Poetry, Mary Elizabeth, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 2001

Poetry Matters,  Ralph Fletcher, HarperCollins e-books, 2002

Outspoken, Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook, Heinneman, 2006

Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Kenneth Koch, Vintage Books, 1990



Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

© 2013-2015 Grace Curtis

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