My Prose Poem: Taste

In terms of creating new material during a pandemic, poetry is where I turn for inspiration.  What about you?

According to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor of English, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 1976–90. Poet Laureate of the U.S., 1988–90,  Poetry is literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.

Do you find reading and writing poetry right now is how you are able to express yourself during a troubling time?

Phyllis Klein from Women’s Therapy Services puts it this way:  “Turning to poetry, poetry gives rhythm to silence, light to darkness. In poetry we find the magic of metaphor, compactness of expression, use of the five senses, and simplicity or complexity of meaning in a few lines.”

This is my pre-pandemic poem ‘Taste‘ first published in Quadrant magazine May 2019. Have a read. Hope you enjoy it.

Taste:

I rather like poems about minor calamities, bursts of tiny delights, the sun warming the tender skin of the elderly. Also, the way palm fronds conduct themselves during a southerly, dishevelled, exposing the softness of their billowing arms. Pastries in display cases do something for me too. Even cupcakes iced in gelato colours, adorned with miniature decorations … Can you see my preference for the words ‘miniature’ and ‘tiny’, an inclination towards the distilled in a world favouring often the big and the overwhelming? People with the patience to follow a complex recipe – well, that’s not me, but I like to taste what they cook.  Babies in prams kicking chubby legs make me hover – how difficult not to take a bite. If you write something about a paper straw, I will be fascinated. You could try a ladybird, a pocket-size umbrella. The generalised angst of the human condition, however, may be hard for me to get a handle on.  Watch that man with the disabled daughter moisten his finger after her cupcake is eaten and relish the last crumbs. Consider the rainbow-coloured wristband tied to a letterbox on the way to the park or the miniature plastic bucket and spade we found half-hidden on the beach at Bronte and packed with us for years on every visit to the sea.

Copyright © 2019 Libby Sommer

My Prose Poem: ‘Taste’

woman sitting on chair while reading book

In terms of creating new material during a pandemic, poetry is where I turn for inspiration.  What about you?

According to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor of English, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 1976–90. Poet Laureate of the U.S., 1988–90,  Poetry is literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.

Do you find reading and writing poetry right now is how you are able to express yourself during a troubling time?

Phyllis Klein from Women’s Therapy Services puts it this way:  “Turning to poetry, poetry gives rhythm to silence, light to darkness. In poetry we find the magic of metaphor, compactness of expression, use of the five senses, and simplicity or complexity of meaning in a few lines.”

This is my pre-pandemic poem ‘Taste‘ first published in Quadrant magazine May 2019. Have a read. Hope you enjoy it.

Taste:

I rather like poems about minor calamities, bursts of tiny delights, the sun warming the tender skin of the elderly. Also, the way palm fronds conduct themselves during a southerly, dishevelled, exposing the softness of their billowing arms. Pastries in display cases do something for me too. Even cupcakes iced in gelato colours, adorned with miniature decorations … Can you see my preference for the words ‘miniature’ and ‘tiny’, an inclination towards the distilled in a world favouring often the big and the overwhelming? People with the patience to follow a complex recipe – well, that’s not me, but I like to taste what they cook.  Babies in prams kicking chubby legs make me hover – how difficult not to take a bite. If you write something about a paper straw, I will be fascinated. You could try a ladybird, a pocket-size umbrella. The generalised angst of the human condition, however, may be hard for me to get a handle on.  Watch that man with the disabled daughter moisten his finger after her cupcake is eaten and relish the last crumbs. Consider the rainbow-coloured wristband tied to a letterbox on the way to the park or the miniature plastic bucket and spade we found half-hidden on the beach at Bronte and packed with us for years on every visit to the sea.

Copyright © 2019 Libby Sommer

 

Autobiography in Fiction

book cover, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

When people ask me where I get my ideas from, I tell them I use the world around me. Life is so abundant, if you can write down the actual details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else. Even if you relocate the French doors, fast-spinning overhead fan, small red Dell laptop, and low kneeling-chair from your office that you work in in Sydney into an Artist’s Atelier in the south of France at another time, the story will have truth and groundedness.

In Hermione Hoby’s interview with Elizabeth Strout in the Guardian newspaper, the Pulitzer prize winner said her stories have always begun with a person, and her eyes and ears are forever open to these small but striking human moments, squirreling them away for future use. “Character, I’m just interested in character,” she said.

“You know, there’s always autobiography in all fiction,” Strout said, referring to her novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. “There are pieces of me in every single character, whether it’s a man or a woman, because that’s my starting point, I’m the only person I know.” She went on to explain:

“You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t. I’ve seen it with my students over the years, and I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful. So many times students would say, ‘Well, I can’t write that, my boyfriend would break up with me.’ And I’d think, you have to do something that’s going to say something, and if you’re careful it’s just not going to work.”

At the launch of one of my books MC Susanne Gervay OAM said: “Libby’s level of detail creates poignant insights into character and relationships. If people know Libby they may find themselves subtly entwined in one of her stories.”

On Goodreads’ website they locate The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath under “Autobiographical Fiction” and describe the book as Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity:

“Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.”

My advice to you, dear writer, is to be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. “So here it is. I’m at a Valentine’s Day party. It’s 33 degrees outside. The hostess is sweltering over a hot oven in the kitchen. She is serving up cheese and spinach triangles as aperitifs.” Relax, enjoy the party, be present with your eyes and ears open. You will naturally take it all in, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to remember just how it was to be eating outside in the heat under a canvas umbrella, attempting to make conversation with the people on either side of you, and thinking how you can best make an early exit 🙂

In the interview with Elizabeth Strout in the Guardian, Strout said:

“I don’t want to write melodrama; I’m not interested in good and bad, I’m interested in all those little ripples that we all live with. And I think that if one gets a truthful emotion down, or a truthful something down, it is timeless.”

A cheque in the mail lifts the spirits of poor struggling writer.

Blue Quadrant magazine with Poetry, Libby Sommer on the cover

There’s my name on the cover of September Quadrant. First time I’ve made it to the cover under Poetry. This month it’s a prose poem titled AMBER PUPPY. I share the honour with poets Jamie Grant, Isi Unikowski, Francine Rochford, James Ackburst, Tim Train, Ugo Rotellini and Andrew Lansdown.

white envelope beside blue Quadrant September 2019 magazine cover

And there’s the white envelope containing my cheque. Halleluja!

So what is a prose poem?

Dictionary:  a piece of imaginative poetic writing in prose.

Poetry Foundation:  A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry …

WikipediaProse poetry is poetry written in prose form instead of verse form, while preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis, and emotional effects.

Academy of American Poets:  Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.”  While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

I love writing prose poems. They are definitely my preferred writing form just now.

Have a read of AMBER PUPPY. Quadrant magazine is available in newsagents, some book stores, online and in libraries.

Quadrant magazine cover September 2019

 

 

Things Raymond Carver has said about the short form in writing

blur book stack books bookshelves

‘My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. … I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’

‘Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.’

‘It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent.’

‘Isak Dinesan said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.’

‘”Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” Ezra Pound.’

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.’

‘That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.’

‘I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories.’

‘I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.’

‘V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Notice the “glimpse” part of this. First the glimpse.’

‘The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry, if used right, they can hit all the notes.’

Raymond Carver, Fires, Vintage 1989

So who is Raymond Carver?

Raymond Carver, in full Raymond Clevie Carver, (born May 25, 1938, Clatskanie, Oregon, U.S.—died August 2, 1988, Port Angeles, Washington), American short-story writer and poet whose realistic writings about the working poor mirrored his own life. – Encyclopedia Britannica

Are First Lines That Important?

toddler reading book

Opening lines are the most important part of your story.

“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” – Stephen King

Some of the best opening lines in literature according to Tony Zeoli are:

1. The Bell Jarby Sylvia Plath

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

2. Gravity’s Rainbowby Thomas Pynchon

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

3. Cat’s Eyeby Margaret Atwood

“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.”

4. Blue Nightsby Joan Didion

“In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.”

5. Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

6. David Copperfieldby Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

7. The Book of Strange New Thingsby Michel Faber

“Forty minutes later he was up in the sky.”

8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegasby Hunter S. Thompson

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

9. Middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenides

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

10. The Wavesby Virginia Woolf

“The sun had not yet risen.”

11. The Time Machineby H.G. Wells

“The time traveler (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.”

12. Lolitaby Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

13. Slaughterhouse-Fiveby Kurt Vonnegut

“All this happened, more or less.”

14. Sellevisionby Augusten Burroughs

“You exposed your penis on national television, Max.”

15. The Trialby Franz Kafka

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

16. Anna Kareninaby Leo Tolstoy

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

17. Valley of the Dollsby Jacqueline Susann

“You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”

Good luck!

For further reading, check out my posts Writing Tip: A Change of Pace and Writing Tip: To Plot Or Not To Plot.  And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

Short Story: At the Festival

pexels-photo-167491.jpeg

My short story ‘At the Festival’ was first published in Quadrant May 2016. It was inspired by my yearly visits to the Canberra National Folk Festival. The music is really world music rather than folk. A happening event. 60,000 people. Lots of colour and movement for a writer who likes to get ideas from the world around them – though this is a work of fiction.

It was six o’clock in the evening when she finally passed the wind turbines.  There, at last, stood Lake George, where long-woolled sheep grazed the field and to the west the Brindabella mountain range was coloured grey and pink by the setting sun.   On she drove along an ink-black strip of road where, on either side, tall green-grey eucalypts had formed a welcoming archway.  The way flattened out then curved into a narrow empty road.  Not one person did she see, not one building, just a handful of brown-bellied cows and later a group of kangaroos standing formidable and still in the headlights.  The turn for Watson wasn’t clearly sign-posted but she felt confident in turning east along the row of liquid ambers in autumn bloom that took her to the cabins.

Twice on the journey she had pulled into a service station and shut her eyes and briefly rested but now, as she neared Canberra, she felt wide awake and full of energy.  Even the dark length of road which progressed flatly to Reception seemed to hold the promise of a new beginning.  She sensed the towering, protective presence of the mountain range, the forested hills and, further on, just past the turnoff, the clear, pleasant thump of music coming from the festival.

The receptionist gave her a key, and eagerly she drove further on to cabin number five.  Inside, the room was renovated:  the two single beds replaced by a double.  The same compact kitchenette set into one end of the room but a new television secured to the wall by a multidirectional wall bracket.  In between, on the bare linoleum floor, stood a small table laminated with melamine and two matching chairs.  She set her keys and mobile on the table and reached for the electric jug for tea. Continue reading

Writing Tip: Don’t Tell, but Show

cartoon illustrating angry boy with red face

 

An old one but a good one: don’t tell, but show.

What does it mean exactly? It means don’t tell us about loneliness (or any of those complex words like dishonesty, secrecy, jealousy, obsession, regret, death, injustice, etc) show us what loneliness is. We will read what you’ve written and feel the bite of loneliness. Don’t tell us what to feel. Show us the situation, and that feeling will be triggered in us.

don't tell, but show

When you take your child to school on their first day you may find yourself teary and relieved at the same time. Put into words what you see: the child’s face, the wave at the gate, the other mothers saying their goodbyes, another child coming up to take your son by the hand. We will get what you’re trying to say without you telling us directly.

don't tell, but show 2

When you write, be conscious of the senses and how they connect to the experiences you are writing about. Use sight, sound, smell, touch to create concrete pictures. The senses allow you to get as close as humanly possible in words to the wedding, the sunrise, the dog, the suitcase. It’s the best way to penetrate your story and breathe life into it. Don’t tell us about something, drop deep, enter the story and take us with you.

I hope this post on show, don’t tell is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

Path to Publication

Libby Sommer holding a copy of The Crystal Ballroom in book store

Interviewer: I would like you to tell me about your Path to Publication from first idea to finished book. I’d like to know your inspirations and how The Crystal Ballroom became more than an idea. I also want to know about your writing process. Do you sit at a desk 9-5 or at a cafe during snatched lunches? Did you write the book in a spurt of three months … how long did it take from start to finish? Did you have cold readers, send it to an agent or to a publisher? Were you accepted straight away? How many rewrites and drafts?

Me:  I usually write stories about places and people that I know well. I take real events and characters but change things around and shake them all about and make things up. So, for The Crystal Ballroom, I had been dancing Argentine tango, rock and roll, jive, swing, Latin American and ballroom dancing for many many years. I used to dance five nights a week. I’d drive all over Sydney for technique classes and to dance at different venues. The place, ‘The Crystal Ballroom’, is a fiction but this dance hall becomes a character in the novel. I was inspired by the people I met at the dances and the politics of the ‘dance scene’.

I don’t sit at a desk 9-5 but I am extremely disciplined with my writing. I write 7 days a week. I treat my manuscript like an old friend, someone I need to stay in touch with regularly. I also exercise 7 days a week. So my routine is to go to a cafe before the gym with a print out of the previous day’s work. I edit from this hard copy and write the next scene. After the gym I walk home, type out the revisions, print out, go to another cafe in the afternoon. Repeat the process. I only work in the AM on a Sunday 🙂

It took me 4 years to write The Crystal Ballroom. The chapters are self-contained, so I was able to send some of the discreet episodes out to Quadrant magazine for publication.

I belong to a weekly feedback writing group where we critique each others’ work. So I write to that weekly deadline. In the early years, when I’d finish a manuscript I’d pay an editor or mentor to read it and give me feedback. I’d also ask a couple of friends to read it and give feedback. I never send a manuscript to an agent or a publisher that hasn’t been reworked 20 to 100 times – that includes the rewriting along the way.

My Year With Sammy was my first published book. It was accepted straight away by Ginninderra Press, a small but prestigious publisher (thought-provoking books for inquiring readers). It was my fifth book length manuscript. I had sent the previous books to agents and large publishers. All my confidence had been knocked out of me by all the rejections leading up to the fifth manuscript. Now though, I have Ginninderra Press who seem to like my work. They also published The Crystal Ballroom this year. The Usual Story will be published by Ginninderra Press next year.

It’s an extremely difficult road to publication and some people decide to self-publish rather than continue to be rejected. But other people are able to write a best-seller, an airport book that sells lots of copies, so big publishers like their work very much. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my books are classified as literary fiction, so a very small market. Big publishers are not interested in books that do not conform to the norm. Not enough money in it for them.

I am very grateful to have my small but prestigious publisher.

Writing Tip: Taste Life Twice

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

“Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg