Dear Rebecca Seiferle:
I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for “A Table Full of Wasps.” (We’re grateful that you’ve allowed the poem to live online at Verse Daily.) It just so happens that I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at LeMoyne College in 2007. I had just been accepted to my MFA program and was going to literary events to try and start immersing myself in what would soon be my world. I enjoyed your reading and talk a great deal and I greatly admire the poems in Bitters.
One big idea that I’ve borrowed from you is…well…I guess I knew it before. You and your book just slammed the idea home for me. In Bitters, you borrow a lot from mythology in explicit and implicit ways. You helped me realize that writers are never at a loss for material. We’ve all been there; we’re sitting at a coffee place with a steaming cup in front of us. A notebook opened and pen in hand. We tap our fingers on the table wondering what we can write about, hoping a story or a poetic image just taps us on the shoulder.
Next time we’re stuck, why don’t we just retell a story from Chaucer?
Why not write a poem whose central idea is taken from the work of Sappho?
But on to the main reason I’m writing. “A Table Full of Wasps” (also available in your book Wild Tongue) is a narrative free verse poem in which the first person narrator (who may or may not literally be Chana Bloch) sits at a table in a restaurant and bears witness to the sadness that women can feel when they are in an unhappy relationship. (As I’m sure you’ll agree, that sadness is just as powerful when the gender tables are turned.)
One of my eternal struggles in writing is to truly understand the machinations of free verse. (I’ve written about my exploration of the topic before.) What I love about the lines of “A Table Full of Wasps” is that they seem like their own individual breaths of thought. The great liberation of free verse, it seems, is that each line demands to be considered on its own merits. Meter and rhyme aren’t necessarily at the forefront, but the reader (and writer) are invited to appreciate the beauty of the words and their sounds in isolation.
What are some of my personal favorites?
he reads poetry to her each morning, soft with wit
a potbellied, disheveled, middle-aged Dionysius,
to curry favor, or as a horse, caught by a bag
Another facet of the poem that I love is that there IS meter and rhythm running through the lines. I tend to write a lot of blank verse, but I’m always experimenting because, well, it’s fun. (And experimentation is the point of being a writer, isn’t it?) There’s iambic pentameter streaking through the poem like a line of gold in a mountainside.
For example, there is tight meter in the middle of these three lines:
and a huge white carp motionless
in that lead murk. But nothing in her
rises up to meet me; she is cooler than
I’ve bolded the crisp iambic line. The effect seems musical to me, like the moment in a symphony when a favorite theme is reintroduced by the composer. Maybe, as I continue building my free verse muscles, I can think about your poem to understand the many rules that do apply when we compose outside of a recognized form.
So thanks again for unintentionally being a big part of my pre-MFA months and for all of your great work. (Not to mention all of the kindness you’ve shared with the rest of the poetry community during your laurel-rich career.) And thank you for your service as Tuscon’s poet laureate! I wish more municipalities would follow your city’s lead.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Smash writer’s block by writing your own version of a great work from the past. What if you go to a random page at Project Gutenberg and see what happens when you borrow from Beowulf or cadge from Cabell?
- Ensure that your lines represent their own individual breaths of thought. Your free verse should consist of a bunch of individual one-line poems.
- Enhance your work with a sprinkling of elements from other forms. Free verse can be imbued with some moments of metrical purity. Nonfiction prose can be improved with brief flights of poetic fancy.
Here is Ms. Seiferle’s page at the Poetry Foundation. Here is an interview that the Tuscon Sun conducted with Ms. Seiferle. And you know you want to hear Ms. Seiferle read her work:
2007, Rebecca Seiferle, WriteAWriterDay
Dear Robin Brande:
I just finished Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature in a single blaze of reading and I simply had to write you to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. I bought the book from my local independent bookstore and I hope all of my cool readers follow suit.
I should be a little cross with you! =) I sat down yesterday to write the last 3000 words or so of the first draft of my own young adult novel. I figured that I would just read a little bit of Evolution and get back to my work…but your book distracted me. I didn’t resume writing until I found out what happened to Mena and how her story would end. (Don’t worry; the first draft is finished.)
Mena Reece is a very charming character; she’s a high schooler who begins the year in a tough place. All of her old friends hate her because of a letter she sent the previous year. (Read the book to find out what it said.) She’s no longer welcome in her old church and sending the letter has put her parents’ insurance agency into jeopardy. Her life is at a low point, all because she did the right thing. Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant and stellar science teacher who could make a lot more money doing…other sciency things. Instead, she teaches high school because she wants to shape the minds and hearts of the next generation. Mena is also increasingly psyched about her lab partner, a young man named Casey. The two work on a big project together and, as you might expect, grow to care about each other a great deal. There’s a cool science vs. religion showdown in the classroom and a very sad scene that occurs when Mena returns to her church. In the end, of course, Mena finds a way to improve her life and to be happy by following Polonius’s greatest advice: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I read the first two short paragraphs of the book the night before I read the rest.
I knew today would be ugly.
When you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.
I loved the paragraphs so much that I shared them on Facebook. Why? Because you did a great job of setting up the story and preparing the reader for his or her journey. You are extremely economical in the opening:
- “I” – Okay, now the reader knows that the book is in the first person.
- “today” – You’re letting us know that the book begins on A BIG DAY. A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER. This is good! We know we’re not going to be bored! We’re wondering what you mean by that.
- “would be ugly” – Cool. Something nasty is going to happen today. Thankfully, the ugliness will only be in the book and not in reality.
- “you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars” – There we go. There are HUGE STAKES for the character. People are getting sued and for LOTS of money.
- “you expect to make some enemies.” – And there are HUGE STAKES for Mena as a character. Good! This story MATTERS.
- “Fine.” – Oh, and the protagonist has some personality and is (eventually) a bit of a fighter. Fantastic. This will be fun.
Once I read those two paragraphs, I knew I was in good hands. (And yes, I did look back at the first bit of my own YA novel. It seems to me that the emotional stakes are clear and huge, but I’ll take a closer look once I type everything up.)
One of the reasons that I bought the book in the first place is that you set your story against the backdrop of the perpetual and extremely American conflict between science and religion. I happen to have been tangentially involved in this field; not in a big way, unfortunately. (I did have a piece in Skeptical Inquirer and that was a big thrill.) I was a little worried that the book might not be…compatible with reality. So I skimmed the acknowledgements and saw that you thanked Kenneth Miller. I felt better immediately. Dr. Miller, as you know, is a brilliant scientist who is also extremely devout in his religious belief. (Maybe things have changed in recent years, who knows? I’m sad to say that he’s not an acquaintance of mine.)
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature succeeds for the same reason that evolution “succeeds.” Life is complicated and messy. There are no easy answers. The only way to determine truth is to scrutinize your own beliefs and subject them to rigorous analysis. Mena is surrounded by people like the big baddie, her former friend Teresa, who see things in black-and-white. Well, the world is not black-and-white and neither is Mena’s psychology. She’s a teenager, so she really has a lot of work to do in the book to figure out a complicated representation of her identity and thoughts. Does Mena lie to herself in the book? Sure. (Especially with regard to how she feels about Casey.) But she’s always striving to reach a deeper understanding of self and of the world around her. ALL of our characters must be as complicated and as messy as possible because that’s what we all are, when you really think about it. There are no absolutes in the way people think and act, only shades of gray.
It’s a bit of a personal tangent, but I also want to thank you for the book because it took me back to 2007, when things were a little…different in the skeptic community. Things are a little…tense at the moment and I miss the way it was.
So thanks again for such a wonderful couple hours of reading. If my YA book ever gets published–don’t hold your breath–it will be fun to look back to see if any of the emotion of your book rubbed off on the ending of mine. I wish you the best of luck in the future and I admire that you’ve become such a prominent YA writer…and it all started with Mena.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Ensure that you have HIGH STAKES in your story and that you establish those stakes quickly. The events of your narrative need to mean something BIG for your characters. That’s the only way that the reader will care about your make-believe world.
- Allow your characters to be as complicated as real people are. Remember those shades of gray. There are no absolutes in the world when it comes to people and why they act the way they do.
Find Ms. Brande on Twitter @RobinBrande. Here is Ms. Brande’s page at Random House Teen. Here is an interview she gave to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a cool book blog.
And you just know you have to check out this cool video interview:
Are you curious about skepticism and how important it is that people understand how to think critically? (This is a big theme in the book.)
Check out the James Randi Educational Foundation. Those hardworking people have been fighting irreality for a very long time. Just look at how fun and interesting Randi was on The Tonight Show. He’s demonstrating how “psychic surgeons” ply their trade. (And Randi should know; he is a world-class magician…he’s also honest about the fact that he’s doing a trick.)
What’s the Harm? is also a great resource. The next time your friend tells you that he or she is going to pay a bunch of money for “cupping,” you can find out what that is and why having it done doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Harriet Hall is an MD who writes about alternative medicine and the like.
And no critical thinker should be without the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We may not always agree with everything a great thinker says, but we ignore them at our own peril.
2007, Christopher Hitchens, Robin Brande, WriteAWriterDay
Dear Chana Bloch:
I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for
“The Little Ice Age.” It’s very kind of you to let people read the poem on your web site after its appearance in the Spring 2011 issue of Field. (Readers can also access the poem through EBSCO.) I also admire that you’ve posted an MP3 of yourself reading the poem; what a great way to help writers understand the difference between the written and spoken word.
You’ve done an awful lot of good for the poetry community and young writers are certainly advised to emulate the spirit in which you share your work and your thoughts. I happen to be a writing teacher (of far less renown, of course) and you must get a great satisfaction out of knowing how many thousands of writers have improved their craft because of your generosity.
As for your work, I love poems about history and science. I’ve written a few myself, though I don’t think any have been published. “The Little Ice Age” consists of two five-line stanzas. In the first, you paint the picture of what human existence was like during that event. In the second, you describe a beautiful and unintended consequence of that massive chill.
I love the way that you populate that first stanza with those two-word stings in the midst of the two longer sentences. Each of these phrases (but one) have the same construction: noun + verb.
This technique seems effective to me for at least a couple reasons. The “noun + verb” is very direct and very clear. Yes, these were the terrible consequences of the cooling across Europe. Alternate sentence constructions may not be as direct and convincing. Further, the “noun + verb” settles the matter. You’re letting us know that the poem is not part of a debate between climatologists; you’re just telling us what happened. Further still, the simple construction puts emphasis on those sad and powerful verbs. “Shivered,” “froze,” “failed,” “starved” …these are generally not happy verbs.
Goodness, and you use such a wonderful verb in the second stanza to describe the sound of a Stradivarius. Here is where you can hear a Stradivarius “cry” (albeit filtered through digital compression):
I admire the overall construction of the poem, as well. Two stanzas. Cause, then effect. The harshness of the climate resulted in the kinds of trees that Stradivarius needed to create his instruments. “The Little Ice Age” teaches scribblers such as myself how each stanza should contribute to the poem as a whole.
The baseball season is nearly upon us. A pitcher can’t think of each pitch as an isolated throw; he must decide what to throw based upon a vast number of factors. One of a pitchers big weapons is a change in velocity. Justin Verlander, for example, will blow a 100-mph fastball right past a batter, then drop an 81-mph changeup. The hitter doesn’t have a chance.
How does this relate to your poem? I admire the way that your first stanza sets up your second in the same way that a pitcher on my team causes a batter’s knees to “buckle.”
Thanks again for your poem and for all you have done for other writers of poetry and prose. I wish you the best in 2014 and beyond.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Employ a simple “noun + verb” construction to solidify points that aren’t up for debate in your piece. This technique ensures your work will have brevity and allows you to steer focus to what really matters to you.
- Consider the function of your stanzas in the context of the work as a whole. Stanzas are to poems what paragraphs are to prose. Each of the smaller parts should contribute meaningfully to the operation of the larger machine. Follow a fastball with a slider or vice versa.
2011, Chana Bloch, Field, Ice Age, WriteAWriterDay
Dear Molly O’Brien:
I am writing to let you know that I admired your story, “Casual, Flux.” I found it on Paper Darts and I think they did a fantastic job with the design of the piece.
Science fiction stories happen to have been my first love and your story has a decidedly SF flair. One of the big problems that a writer has when composing this kind of piece is that he or she must create a whole new world and a unique society in the space of only a few sentences. I admire the way you hit the ground running in “Casual Flux.” Here are the first few sentences:
Girl 23 and Boy 41 are sitting in Boy 41’s kitchen. It is 3:24 a.m. Boy 41 swirls warm bourbon in an IKEA drinking glass. They are recapitulating a humorous conversation from a party that occurred earlier tonight.
Two months ago, I made my initial 5-day observation and entered the assessment data into the Orcon database.
I love that we meet all three characters: Boy, Girl and the voyeur in the first sentence. You offer all of the details we need to know that the watcher is doing so in some kind of official or scientific context. You give us the time and phrases such as “5-day observation,” “assessment data” and “Orcon database,” the last of which makes it clear that the narrator is working for some kind of shady company or extraterrestrial agency. (I’m fine with either one.)
The point is that you are wise enough to set up the “unusual” aspects of your world in an efficient manner, allowing you to get to the actual STORY. And what a fun story it is. Even though I’m retired from the game myself, I love a good love story. What’s the problem? There are so darn many love stories out there! Have you done something completely new with this story? Of course not. There’s simply no way to write a brand-new romance. But I wanted to tell you that I admire that you clearly looked at a very normal situation (a boy and a girl taking their relationship to a new level) and looked at it from a different perspective. Instead of making Boy or Girl your first person narrator, you’ve added a little spice to a story that may otherwise be a little bland.
Do you like Sara Bareilles? I like Sara Bareilles. She’s incredibly talented and she writes great songs. From what I understand, her record company encouraged her to write a love song that they could turn into a quick and easy single. Did she come up with an “I Will Always Love You” or a “Without You?” Nope. She came up with “Love Song.”
Like “Casual, Flux,” Ms. Bareilles’s “Love Song” can be classified as a love story, but you and Ms. Bareilles keep us interested by doing something special with the concept. Something that we can’t get from every other Celine Dion ditty.
So thanks again for such a cool story; I truly enjoyed spending a little time in the world you created. Best of luck in your future endeavors!
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Establish your unexpected conceit as quickly as possible. When you are working in a world that is different from our own, you need to orient us immediately.
- Put your own spin on a story that may otherwise be formulaic. There are no new stories under the sun; what should make us want to read your spin on a human event that has happened many times before?
2014, Molly O'Brien, Paper Darts, Sara Bareilles, WriteAWriterDay