Shel Silverstein, the Man Who Taught Me to Love Poetry

Shel Silverstein’s birthday seems like a good day to revive my blog that’s been hibernating for several months.

I was perusing Twitter earlier today and came across this article from Mental Floss about Shel Silverstein’s birthday and him writing Johnny Cash’s hit song, “A Boy Named Sue.” This wasn’t new information to me (though I had not seen the amazing video embedded in the article of Silverstein’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show).

Reading the article led me to reflection, and I realized that Silverstein is the person probably most responsible for me loving poetry. I don’t know if Northwest Heights Elementary School library still has the old, stamped check out cards resting in little manilla pockets inside the back covers of books, but if they do, you would find my scribbled name over and over again in A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends (and probably several instances when I returned them past due).

I think second grade (maybe first) was when I first discovered these gems and added them to my heavy rotation that, at the time, was dominated by Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I remember finding poems that were significantly more sophisticated (a word I didn’t know then) than the poetry I found in books by another favorite, Dr. Seuss. I felt refreshed by work that was more than smiles and rainbows and happy endings. I already knew that life included more than constant joy. I knew the pain I felt while bullied, the grief I felt when older family members passed away, the confusion of social awkwardness, and so on, and I knew that Silverstein knew those things, too.

Those difficult emotions were present but so was hope, beauty, love, and humor. He tied it all together in verse that was somehow both simple and complex. Isn’t that what all the great adult literary poets do, too? I could read his work lightly and take with me a surface-level understanding, or I could dig deeper (if you’ll forgive the worn out metaphor) looking for the gems he buried between the lines, in the puns, in the metaphors. I fell in love with his poetry and with the process of reading his poetry, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I fell in love with poetry itself.

And, you know what? Not much has changed in the years since then about how I read or enjoy poems. I still look for work that catches me immediately by stringing together pleasant sounding language, work that evokes images that fire up my imagination and take me to new places, work that allows me to dig deeper or not. Regarding that last bit, I also learned from him that digging deeper isn’t a burden as it so often seems in English classes but a pleasure. I enjoyed then, and I enjoy now, both what I discover and how I get to that discovery.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein, for taking me to “where the sidewalk ends” and beyond.

That Song in My Head

This is the first post in a new series I’m calling Method Monday, in which I will discuss aspects of my writing process. The posts won’t necessarily be instructive, as I’m only sharing how I do things, but feel free to adopt any methods that may benefit your writing. Today, I’ll be talking a bit about a particular type of inspiration.

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been getting this song stuck in my head.

Good thing I like the song. It’s torture to get a bad song in your head.

The same sort of thing often happens when I’m working on a new poem. A line or two comes to me and sticks. Sometimes I write it down and find the rest of the poem. Sometimes the process isn’t so easy. I write the line down in my notebook, then I keep coming back to it over a week or two. Or a month. Or a year.

Sometimes, just like those songs in my head, I have the line(s), but I just can’t seem to find the rhythm. That’s when frustration hits. If I could just get the right beat, I could finally sing this song out of my head becomes if I could just get the right beat, I could finally write this poem out of my head. Those latter poems, the ones that replay a thousand times and won’t seem to leave me alone, become my better poems. As well they should after all that trouble.

Poetry doesn’t always come to me this way, and it may not for you, but when/if it does, don’t let that line get away from you. It may be just what you need.

Crosswords, an Addiction

Hi, I’m Randall, and I’m addicted to crossword puzzles.

I was sitting in a cafe earlier doing some work. A guy came in, purchased today’s Tulsa World, and asked if he could sit in the empty chair next to me. I welcomed him. We sat in silence as he read the paper and I searched online job ads (my job is to help other people find jobs). He eventually noticed a seat open up farther from the door and having grown tired of the cold draft, he moved. As he got up, he tossed a section of the newspaper on the table beside me. It was the “Scene” section, which contains the comics (the most insightful page of the paper) and two crossword puzzles. I don’t know why he chose to leave this section behind. Maybe he has no interest in local food and music scenes, or he noticed, via ESP or something, that I was looking for a fix for my addiction. Either way, I’m thankful.

This won’t fix me for long, though. The Tulsa World crosswords, provided by the NEA and King Publishing, aren’t very good. They have a difficulty level that is usually a couple steps shy of a Monday New York Times puzzle, and the clues are often poorly written. Also, they don’t progress in difficulty like the Times. It’s fun to start with the ease of Monday and work through to the more challenging puzzles of the week. Monday puzzles usually take me 10-20 minutes, and Friday and Saturday puzzles may take me hours. Then there is the grand Sunday puzzle, what a jewel!

Crosswords puzzles are an appropriate addiction for a writer, I think, and especially for a poet. They are great for all writers, or anyone who wants a better vocabulary, because the solver must find the perfect word for the meaning that is implied in the clue. Sometimes a clue has a relatively easy answer, but the first answer that comes to mind doesn’t fit. We must then search the thesaurus of our minds for the correct synonym.

I say they are especially good for poets due to the mathematical processes of crossing certain words. This mode of thinking helps me see the meter of my poems better. If I need to count iambs, syllables, or rhyme scheme to fit a poetic form, I need to think both mathematically and creatively. Even free verse has a certain rhythm rooted in mathematics. Pardon the pun.

So if I ever tell you I’ve been sober from crossword puzzles for any length of time, stop calling me a poet. I am no more than a sad man.

On Inspiration

Haven’t heard from the 9 muses lately? That’s not a big surprise, is it? Greek mythological figures are notoriously unreliable. Do you really need them to write? Writing definitely feels easier and better when I feel inspired. There’s something inexplicable, mystical even, about being arrested by inspiration, by a glimpse of an idea that makes me pull the car to the side of the road and scribble in my notebook.

But it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes writing is hard work. Here are a few ideas to get you through those times when you can’t find inspiration:

1. Keep Writing. Giving up won’t get you anywhere. If you don’t continue writing regularly, despite this obstacle, you’ll lose both the mechanics of your craft and the ability to feel inspiration when it does resurface. When I don’t feel it, I switch from trying to force poetry to writing observations in prose. It keeps my pen moving and my eyes open.
A lot of my poetry is observational anyway, so it helps me to sit in a cafe or mall or park or wherever and simply jot things down. I might not have the perfect metaphor that I would so easily find under inspiration, but writing done during spells like this makes me a better writer. Sometimes what I collect turns into poetry later. I revisit my notes and find myself mentally returned to when I wrote them, and that’s when I can shape them into verse and add all those fancy rhetorical devices like simile, metaphor, alliteration, etc.
Lurking in the corner of the cafe and writing about people not your style? Try structured exercises. The internet has no shortage of writing prompts. Here are some from Writer’s Digest. Even though most of my poems are free verse, assigning myself forms is often helpful. Another way to play with the form idea is to assign yourself a different genre of writing. I write mostly poetry, so I may assign myself fiction or non-fiction prose writing.

2. Give Yourself a Deadline. Self-discipline is not my greatest virtue, so applying external pressure helps me a lot. Maybe your deadline can be self-imposed. I sometimes commit to a contest or submission deadline and, instead of sending something that’s already ready, I tell myself that I must write a new poem, story, or essay. One way to avoid giving in to submitting a previously completed work is to choose a contest/submission that is topical.
Another method of deadline setting I employ is telling my editing friends that I will send them something by a certain date or at a certain interval. This can be easy to skirt with excuses, so choose friends who won’t let you get away with that.

3. Read. If you care at all about you’re writing, you should read a lot anyway, but I think reading is especially important when you feel uninspired. I try to read a mix of books that includes authors who write in a similar style as I and authors who write quite differently. Challenge yourself.

4. Edit. Your work and others’ work. I have a few friends who share writing with each other. It makes us all better, I think. In regard to editing my own writing, I find that lack of inspiration can actually benefit the editing process. It allows me to look at the mechanics of writing. Even if you write free verse or prose, there are mechanics to consider. Your poetry may not have set rules for lines and stanzas, but it does have a rhythm that can be worked on with or without inspiration.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on the matter another time.