The goal is to introduce readers to an eclectic selection of poetry by offering some personal reactions and a line-by-line analysis that may or may not be accurate, insightful, helpful. It’s all very personal interpretations, with all the limitations that implies.
Who Am I?
I’ve taught literature and creative writing at Orange Coast College since 1976. I’ve written over 50 published books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I’ve sold screenplays and a television show. I’ve written a graphic novel and was a writer on the reboot of Veronica Mars.
I love pop culture, which you’ll figure out soon enough through some of my eccentric notes on the poems.
How Did Poems That Move Come About?
Every other year since 1998, I have been taking a group of students to Cambridge University for a semester abroad program. During my 2016 trip, I found an anthology of poems, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.
The collection featured a wide spectrum of famous people introducing a poem that particularly moved them. The people presenting these poems included professional writers like John Ashbery and Billy Collins as well as actors like Daniel Radcliffe and Patrick Stewart and director J.J. Abrams. I was instantly struck by how heartfelt each of their introductions was, so much so that it made me eager to read the poem.
The poems didn’t always live up to the hype. Part of the problem was that some of them had a personal connection to the poem—a context that made the poem have special meaning for them. Like Kane’s sled “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, it’s just a sled until you get the context. Also, because many of the men selecting poems were older, a lot of the poems were about the detritus of aging: death, dying, loss of family and friends, aging, etc. So, while I very much liked most of the poems, I couldn’t read too many at once without my mood darkening considerably.
Nevertheless, I bought the companion book, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, which had the same mix of famous people (from Joyce Carol Oates to Vanessa Redgrave to Yoko Ono.)
My experience was the same with this book: the personal introductions made me eager to read each poem and I came away with an appreciation for a whole group of poems I might not have even noticed before. Even though there were many poems I didn’t care for in both collections, I was still affected by the contributors’ candid descriptions of why those poems moved them to tears. Sometimes, those introductions were more memorable than the poems.
Because I found that experience so enriching, I wanted to make use of my many years as a literature teacher and writer to introduce readers to some poems they might not know and offer some ideas about some poems they do know.
How Are the PoemsSelected?
Most of my life, I’ve focused my interest on contemporary poetry. That’s because when I was first starting out as a writer of poetry, I wanted to listen to the voices of people my age. I was under the arrogant impression that only these younger poets spoke my language, understood my emotions —indulgent crap like that.
The older I got, the more my appreciation for poets beyond my own time grew. Maybe because “my own time” was expanding at an alarming rate.
Now I am excited to hunker down with poems from before my birth because now I understand so much better how there is no “my own time” when it comes to humanity.
The poems in this blog are selected purely based on whimsy. First, I have to be moved by it on some level, have some sort of emotional reaction. Second, I have to believe that I have something to say about the poem, enough to do it some sort of justice. Some of the poems will be old, mostly within the last hundred years. Some will be contemporary.
Who Is the Audience?
I teach my creative writing students that they need to be aware of who their audience is when writing in order to maintain some consistency in tone, language, and thematic depth. When I sent my first entry (“The Cool Web”) to Bill McDonald, my former college professor and friend for 48 years, he reminded me that knowing my audience was key for the success of this blog. He was right, of course.
However, my secret power is that I’m not concerned with its success nor with being consistent. Originally, I imagined compiling an anthology of my favorite poems and short stories with hand-scrawled notes that I would pass along to my children, now 20 and 15, so that they would always have some part of me to share. Sappy, I know, but age tends to bring the sap to the bark’s surface. This blog is some sort of hybrid of that anthology for my children extended to include a larger though untargeted audience.
One of my favorite plays and movies is THE HISTORY BOYS, written by Alan Bennett. A particularly poignant scene takes place when a student (Timms) sits in a classroom with his teacher (Hector) and expresses his frustration with poetry.
TIMMS: Sir. I don’t always understand poetry.
HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
HECTOR: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying. Smile! We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
I’ve always loved that exchange because literature has been a guide to me throughout my life. It has been the antidote to maladies I didn’t see coming. I pull those works out of my mental filing cabinet and they have comforted and instructed me. I try to make students see that it can do the same for them.
The big idea is that we are all going to die, but when that time comes will it be a Good Death (we feel happy and content that we were the best person we could be) or a Bad Death (we are filled with regret at having never made those human connections) Poetry can be that third rail that powers us to the person we want to become.
It’s become something of a joke in my classes that whenever we discuss a particularly challenging poem or story about marriage, parenting, death, or other topics they find far away from their own experiences, I proclaim,
Now Write! contributors are extremely prolific. Here is a small sample of books that came out in the last two years.
God: A Human History by Rezla Aslan (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Random House (November, 2017 – hardcover)
The bestselling author of Zealot and host of Believer explores humanity’s quest to make sense of the divine in this concise and fascinating history of our understanding of God. In Zealot, Reza Aslan replaced the staid, well-worn portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth with a startling new image of the man in all his contradictions. In his new book, Aslan takes on a subject even more immense: God, writ large.
Music Is Power by Brad Schreiber (Now Write! Screenwriting and Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Rutgers University Press (November, 2019 – hardcover)
A guided tour through the past 100 years of politically-conscious music, from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to Green Day and NWA. Covering a wide variety of genres, musicians take a variety of approaches to fight for a fairer world. Shines a spotlight on seminal, politicized artists, and offers a new appreciation for classic acts such as Lesley Gore, James Brown, and Black Sabbath, who overcame limitations in their industry to create politically potent music.
Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor)
Riverhead Books (May, 2019)
A novel about what happens when an already sprawling family hosts an even larger and more chaotic wedding: an entertaining story about family, culture, memory, and community.
One of The Washington Post’s ten best books of the year.
A look at one family led by a charismatic, defense attorney father – a lovable, impossible man of gargantuan appetites and sloppy ethics, a criminal defense attorney who loved his drug-dealing clients a little too much and went to prison as a result.
Blood Prism by E.E. King (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Flying Feline Productions (January, 2018)
Penny Dreadful meets American Gods. Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Blood Prism is a blend of history, fantasy, and Americana. A cast of real and mythological traverse the Catskill Mountains, the River Styx and into an alternate San Francisco during the start of the AIDs crisis, where love might just be stronger than destiny…or maybe not.
William Morrow (hardcover and Kindle, August, 2019; paperback August, 2020)
Called “a modern-day Nancy Drew for grownups” by actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
Emily Harlow is a professional organizer who helps people de-clutter their lives and she’s married to man who can’t drive past a yard sale without stopping. She distracts herself from marital problems with new clients who have a mess that might be too big for her to clean up. “Careful what you wish for,” as the old adage says . . . Emily might lose her freedom, her marriage, and possibly her life.
Now Write! anthologies belong on every writers’ bookshelf – the perfect gift for the writer in your life. Now Write! contributors have a number of their own writing books that can make the ideal companion gift to encourage your favorite writer.
(Note: Now Write! editor Laurie Lamson was the host of International Screenwriters’ Association’s free teleconferences for four years. Many Now Write! contributors were guest speakers – podcast links provided below when available.)
A practical study of how classic film genre components can be used in the construction of a screenplay. Based on Jule Selbo’s popular course, this accessible guide includes an examination of the historical origins of specific film genres, how and why these genres are received and appreciated by film-going audiences, and how the student and professional screenwriter alike can use the knowledge of film genre components in the ideation and execution of a screenplay.
Explaining the defining elements, characteristics and tropes of genres from romantic comedy to slasher horror, and using examples from classic films, Selbo offers a compelling and readable analysis of film genre in its written form. The book also offers case studies, talking points and exercises to make its content approachable and applicable to readers and writers across the creative field.
My First Noveledited by Alan Watt (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor)
contributors incl: Cheryl Strayed, Rick Moody, Aimee Bender (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror contributor), Janet Fitch, Jerry Stahl, David Ulin, Merrill Markoe, Dan Fante, Sheri Holman and many more
Writer’s Tribe Quest (Aug. 2013)
Have you ever wondered how your favorite authors got their start? How did they make the leap from closet scribe to published author? In My First Novel: Tales of Woe and Glory, twenty-five authors recount the variety of hurdles, both internal and external that they had to overcome on their journey.
Designed for both beginning and established writers, this is a complete writing workshop in just one book. From first draft jitters to completing a polished manuscript for publication, the material is presented in a fun and informative progression filled with ideas for brainstorming plus checklists and writing exercises. Chapters include full coverage of characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and marketing and query letter techniques. Besides end-of-chapter writing assignments, the book concludes with a strong question and answer section.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor) Da Capo Lifelong Books (August, 2012)
Offering new ways of understanding the genre, this how-to guide from the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction” (Vanity Fair) helps writers of all skill levels thoroughly expand and stylize their work.
What is creative nonfiction? It’s simple: true stories, well told. And yet—it’s not so simple. Telling true stories can be hard work, but worthwhile. It’s the hottest genre in the publishing industry.
Frank, to-the-point, and always entertaining, Gutkind describes and illustrates each and every aspect of the genre with depth and clarity. Invaluable tools and exercises illuminate key steps from defining a concept and establishing a writing process to the final product.
The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty Moore (Now Write! Nonfiction contributor) Wisdom Publications (April, 2012 – hardcover)
Explores how a lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity helped open me to the path of Buddhism. The book explores these ideas through sixty writing quotes, from Buddhist writers such as Pema Chodron and from others, including Flannery O’Connor and August Wilson. Each of the quotes is discussed in a short page or so, revealing the similarities between artistic awareness and mindful thought.
Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten) by Pen Densham (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror contributor)
Michael Wiese Productions (2011)
An artist-friendly screenwriting guide to success, with a non-dogmatic approach to finding your own personal creative process.
Pen draws from his own extremely simple breakthrough techniques, shares his inspiring philosophy of finding a personal well of creativity from your inner voice, to overcoming the many challenges in a unique business, managing stress, the real secrets to selling your work, finding the right agent and being true to one’s nature to create a lasting and passion-filled career.
Most books approach character development using a winnowing process involving general categorization and list-making. Dating Your Character focuses instead on the importance of the individuality of characters: their eccentricity, drive, and relative “basis in fact” inspired in part by people you know or you yourself.
The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within, 2nd edition by Alan Watt (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor) The 90-Day Novel Press, 2010
Get the first draft down quickly! The 90-Day Novel is a day-by-day guide through the process of getting the first draft of your novel onto the page. The 90-Day Novel was workshopped at LA Writers’ Lab over three years and has helped hundreds of writers complete their work. Some of Watt’s students have gone on to become bestselling authors and win major literary awards.
New York Times best-selling author shares the secrets to crafting an unforgettable mystery. The essentials of craft and the plan to execute them. This completely revised and updated edition features solid strategies for drafting, revising, and selling an intriguing novel that grips your readers and refuses to let them go.
Breaks down the art of pitching in Hollywood step by step. From choosing the right idea, to selling it in the room, this book tells you how it’s done, in clear language, suitable for the beginner or the seasoned Hollywood professional.
With decades of combined experience working in Hollywood as buyer, seller and teacher, the authors, Douglas Eboch and Ken Aguado, have created the definitive book that will demystify the pitching process, supported by a reasoned, logical point of view and supported by numerous specific examples.
If you want to work in the Hollywood creative community, you must know how to pitch. This book will show you how to succeed.
Unlock the unique secrets and techniques of writing comedy. Kaplan deconstructs sequences in popular films and TV that work and don’t work, and explains what tools were used (or should have been used). While other books give you tips on how to “write funny,” this book offers a paradigm shift in understanding the mechanics and art of comedy, and the proven, practical tools that help writers translate that understanding into successful, commercial scripts.
The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script, 5th Edition, Expanded & Updated by David Trottier (Now Write! Screenwriting contributor) Silman-James Press, 2010
One of the most popular, authoritative, and useful books on screenwriting, this is a friendly guide through the Hollywood morass. The new edition offers expanded coverage of dialogue writing and character development, the latest in proper screenplay format, a new section on jumpstarting your career, new advice on creating and delivering pitches and much more.
Rewrite 2nd Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in your Screenplay by Paul Chitlik(Now Write! Screenwriting contributor)
Michael Wiese Productions, 2008
A step-by-step process to take your script from first draft to submission draft. Chitlik reveals the hidden structure of screenplays, sequences, and scenes, as he guides you through the process of examining your draft, restructuring it, and populating it with believable, complex, and compelling characters. Along the way he outlines how to make your action leap off the page and your dialogue crackle.
Learn the secrets to writing a great screenplay from a major movie studio Story Analyst. Master the structure and principles used by 95% of commercial movies by studying detailed breakdowns or “Story Maps” of several recent and classic hits in all different genres.
Story Design analyzes the dramatic structures found in some of the most commercially successful and popular movies ever produced. This second edition includes detailed analysis of WIZARD OF OZ and AVATAR.
* An essential and inspirational hands-on guide for creating and crafting compelling characters
* An invaluable resource analyzing and referencing over 220 Hollywood, independent and foreign films, offering 34 screenwriting exercises, and providing six templates from fictional scripts
* Accessible, fun, and thought-provoking screenwriting exercises geared to develop characters in each vital element that comprises a successful screenplay.
Learn how to create believable, compelling and gripping characters with distinct characterizations, motivations, and behaviors, and how these people can best drive your plot forward in a meaningful and plausible journey.
If you’re a Now Write! contributor with a writing book not listed here, please post the details as a comment here. Thank you!
Harlan Ellison left the earthly plane on June 28, 2018. He was a beyond-prolific writer and legend, and probably one of the most notorious contributors to the Now Write! series. When I consulted film industry friends on approaching Mr. Ellison about contributing to Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, the response was invariably, “Don’t bother.”
Harlan’s philosophy: “We’re all stupider than we should be.”
Harlan had a reputation for being, er, um, ah, difficult. He once sent a dead gopher to a publisher (an incident he recounted with glee during my visit.) He’s also known in the entertainment industry for being lawsuit-happy, most famously settling out of court with James Cameron over Cameron’s admitted use of one of Harlan’s Outer Limits episodes for TERMINATOR.
Despite the warnings, I was undaunted in my quest to include him in the book. Still, I was a little surprised when he graciously agreed to allow a reprint of an article he wrote in the seventies, with the new addition of a writing exercise that would make it fit for our Now Write! format (“First, There Was The Title” in the Theme and Meaning chapter.)
I honored his specifications – including the registered trademark symbol after his name – and we never had a problem.
After the book came out we had a phone conversation in which he gave me a lot of good advice as an editor. He then invited me to his home for a face-to-face visit – an offer I couldn’t refuse.
THE LOST AZTEC TEMPLE OF MARS
“Harlan’s home, high in the hills above Sherman Oaks, is a work of art and a wonder to behold. My meager talent at tippy-tapping out words falls far short of coming to grasp with the idea of the concept of describing Harlan’s home. Even Ray Bradbury would pause and frown in thought. This is Ellison Wonderland, and evidently, it has undergone a re-christening, as Harlan’s address, as listed in _Contemporary Authors_ Vol. 46, New Revised Edition, 1995, reads ‘The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, CA.’”
(Quoted from his website, where you can find a lot more Harlan FAQs.)
MY VISIT WITH HARLAN
He had suffered a recent stroke, and I found Harlan physically weak, but mentally quite strong. He wasn’t able to give me a tour but still allowed me to roam his domain, which really is a work of crazy art: the décor and mind-boggling collections of books, art and kitsch, custom ladders, odd-shaped rooms, secret entrances and Aztec exterior made this a fitting home for a one-of-a-kind eccentric genius like Harlan.
These pictures can’t possibly do it justice, but may serve to give you some idea:
Harlan can quote from his thousands of stories and books, as well as rattle off how many of each glass, knife, comic book or action figure he’s collected. Despite his recent stroke, the man’s mind remains sharper than a steel trap, which he claims is both a blessing and a curse. I believe him.
During several hours of candid conversation we hit it off better than I expected, including an in-depth discussion of philosophy and relationships.
I learned he had a close friendship with Robin Williams, who he said was too gentle and kind to ever be at ease in the cutthroat entertainment industry.
He spoke glowingly of Roger Dean, designer and artist best known for fantasy posters and album covers for conceptual rock bands, and who shared a common experience of suing James Cameron – in Dean’s case it was for his paintings being the inspiration for much of the look and feel of AVATAR.
Harlan also introduced me to Pen World Magazine, which we both sort of drooled over before his lunch arrived. I had been invited to stay but didn’t want to wear out my welcome.
Harlan is a true character, a bit of a curmudgeon, definitely not the type to suffer fools. I’m grateful he didn’t deem me as such – it was a surprising and memorable visit indeed!
I was deeply saddened to learn that Jack Ketchum passed away on the morning of January 24, 2018. He left quite a legacy of real-life horror inspired by his deep humanity. See below the conversation I had with him at Center for Fiction and more about his work. He will be missed.
You might think a true-life crime and horror speculative fiction author, who Stephen King has referred to as, “the scariest guy in America”, would be intimidating. But meeting and speaking with Jack Ketchum was quite the opposite. He is a warm and caring person who uses his skill as a writer to exercise (and probably exorcise) his imagination, expose evil in the world and entertain audiences with a fascination for the darker side of life.
He was generous in sharing his insights about craft and answering a lot of thoughtful questions from the audience:
More about Jack Ketchum
Jack Ketchum is the pseudonym for novelist Dallas Mayr. As a teenager, he was befriended by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho) who became a mentor to him. He supported Ketchum’s work, just as his work was supported by his own mentor, H.P. Lovecraft.
Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as a private garbageman, a lumber salesman, a copywriter, editor of the paleontological magazine “Fossils,” and as a literary agent for Scott Meredith, Inc., where he served as agent for author Henry Miller. He also worked in off-off Broadway and summer stock as a reviewer, playwrite and director.
In 1980, Jack Ketchum published his first novel Off Season, about a real-life family that lived in a cave and had a lifestyle of murder, cannibalism, and incest. Mainstream reviewers hated it, but fans felt otherwise.
Some of his most powerful novels have been turned into films: RED, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, THE LOST, THE WOMAN, OFF SPRING.
Two short stories were made into short films: “Mail Order” and “Olivia”. By the way, you can hear Jack read an excerpt from “Olivia”. He also wrote a book that is auto- and biographical of influential people in his life called Book of Souls.