Friday, May 31, 2019

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~


Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.

The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate’s “Long years ago we made a tryst” land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter . . .
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

– Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Some of us who also play over at dVerse Poets' Pub, particularly in this year's 'Poetry Form' series, are currently trying our hands at the ghazal, an ancient Persian form which has also been adapted into other languages such as Urdu and Hindi.

So I thought I'd look for one by a famous contemporary exponent. Though originally from Kashmir, Ali, who lived and worked in the United States from 1976 until his death, wrote his poetry in English; perhaps that gives those of us who write in English an even better idea of the ghazal form. Then again, I think his style must be unique, even when the form is traditional. In the Introduction to his book, Ravishing Disunities, featuring ghazals in English by a number of other poets, Ali is firmly in favour of the traditional form, including the connections of theme.* 

Kashmir, where he grew up, a disputed territory between India, Pakistan and China, became so war-torn that eventually it was no longer feasible for him to make return visits home – all the more sad in that previously Kashmir had long been famous for its great beauty. His beloved homeland was the subject of much of his poetry.

His personal sadness about his homeland seems to inform this poem, along with an expatriate's ambivalence as to which country is 'home'. From this he seems to extrapolate to sorrows, disappointments and blights of various kinds pertaining to other lands; for instance some of his lines make me think of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other references are so personal that we can't know any details beyond what is mentioned – yet that doesn't matter, the point being the moods of the various moments in the various lands, adding up to overall beauty, love and grief. That's my reading, anyway.

Wikipedia describes the ghazal as 'a form of amatory poem or ode. ... [which] may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain'. It seems that they are often sung, as you can discover on YouTube. Ali was greatly influenced by the famous – described as 'legendary' – Indian singer of ghazals (and other classical Indian music) Begum Akhtar, with whom he formed a friendship.

As well as becoming a noted poet in English, he had an academic career in America. His Wikipedia entry lists his occupation as 'Poet. Professor.' and adds: 'Ali taught at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst, at the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College as well as at creative writing programs at University of Utah, Baruch College, Warren Wilson College, Hamilton College and New York University. He died of brain cancer in December 2001 and was buried in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to his beloved poet Emily Dickinson.'

Despite his sad, early death, he made his mark on the world with his own poetry, which won various awards, and with his translations from the Urdu of another renowned ghazal poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

In his obituary the KashmirWalla newspaper notes: 'To commemorate his legacy, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has constituted an award in his name — Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, for young poets and writers.'

Books by and about him are at Amazon, and you can find here a series of quotes from his work.


*He says (in a much longer context): 'When poets go crazy with the idea of composing thematically independent couplets in a free verse poem, they manage to forget what holds the couplets together—a classical exactness, a precision so stringent that it, when brilliant, surpasses the precision of the sonnet and the grandeur of the sestina (I do mean that) and dazzles the most untutored of audiences. The ghazal's disconnectedness must not be mistaken for fragmentariness...' and, 'If one writes in free verse—and one should—to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?'

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). The photo of Agha Shahid Ali, from his Wikipedia entry, is used according to Fair Use.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Poets United Midweek Motif ~ Peace

"Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace." ~ Nhat Hanh

"There is no way to peace; peace is the way." ~ A. J. Muste

“I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; 
I was trying to disturb the war."
~ Joan Baez


Midweek Motif ~ Peace

I want a peace so large that I can not reach its boundaries.  I have experienced this a few times in retreats, more times alone.  But I want even more than personal peace.  I want social and political peace ~ and not just any peace ~ peace with justice. Yet until that comes, I won't scoff at personal peace.  It helps me through the life we have.  What about you?

Have you known peace?  What was it like?  How large a peace can you imagine?  How does that change when we imagine peace ~ or create peace ~ together? 

Please write and post a new poem, addressing how you know peace now. Make us feel it.

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. 
 ~ Black Elk


I Many Times Thought Peace Had Come (739)

by Emily Dickinson

I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—

And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor be— 


Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea.

I am the pool of blue
That worships the vivid sky;
My hopes were heaven-high,
They are all fulfilled in you.

I am the pool of gold
When sunset burns and dies--
You are my deepening skies,
Give me your stars to hold.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. ~ Jesus

"Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace."
~ Gautama Buddha


Please share your new poem using Mr. Linky below and visit others in the spirit of the community— (Next week Susan’s Midweek Motif will be ~ Plastic Bags. )

Monday, May 27, 2019

BLOG OF THE WEEK - How To Write a Poem When You're Blocked: A Reprise With Elizabeth Crawford

There are times when the words won’t come, when our cupboards are empty, and there is not even a bare old bone for the dog to be had. I had such a time in 2016, and our friend, Elizabeth Crawford, who writes at Soul's Music,  offered me a step by step exercise in how to write a poem when you’re blocked. As I followed the steps, and produced a poem, it occurred to me that this info might be very handy for many of you. So we did a chat about it. Recently, I was looking through some of the chats we have done here at Poets United, and happened upon it again. I thought it might be nice to re-visit this exercise, for those of you who are more recent members. And those of us who have been around a while can always benefit from a refresher. Let’s dive in!

Elizabeth: How about I walk you through a step by step process of building a poem? Giving you the steps one at a time, maybe three or four steps.

First step is a stream of consciousness list. But you must make some preparation. Make sure you are in a place and time where you won’t be interrupted. Have clean paper and pen. Have some kind of timer near at hand and set it for five minutes. Sit down and relax. Breathe in through your nose, then slowly release it through your mouth as though you are blowing out a candle gently. Do that three times. It is a signal to your subconscious that you are ready to begin.

Sherry: Ready!

Elizabeth: I’m going to give you a word.

Let it float through your mind and begin your list. One or two words, a short phrase, whatever comes into your head. Try to be specific. Use actual names of whatever you see or feel coming at you. People, places, feelings, things, animals….whatever. Continue to write for as long as you can, but for no more than five minutes. No going back to look before you are finished. This is a stream of thoughts, associations, reflections, feelings, nothing more. No sentences, just a few words to remind you.

(For those following this at home, I have a couple of suggestions. 1. What I call word roulette: open a book, or a copy of a favorite poem and after closing your eyes, drop your finger on the page anywhere. Use the word your finger is pointing at. 2. Call a friend and ask them to give you a word, any word that pops into their head. 3. A dictionary works fine, or a thesaurus. 4. Go to past Wordle list posts and do the same thing. 5. Spend a few minutes thinking about your favorite season of the year and create the list of sense imagery from that. Then select a second word from a stream of conscious writing about your favorite activity. 6. Choose a favorite color and write about what it says to you and how you feel about it. Then use that stream of consciousness writing to find a second word by closing your eyes and simply dropping your finger into those contents. 7. Last, but never least, write about writing. What you like most, and least about it. And I also find that words in opposition often work into quite interesting pieces. Choosing the first word and then using an antonym for the second word brings out some very challenging and entertaining ideas.

When we originally did the exercise, I chose your two words very deliberately because you use them more than any others to define your own person, so I knew you wouldn’t have a difficult time relating to them and would have a wealth of material to choose from. I also knew it would make you laugh and that in turn would relax you and make it far easier to write.) 

Sherry: At my end, I followed Elizabeth’s instructions to the letter. She sent me the word and it made me smile. It was “Wild”. I started writing and word after word flowed across the page. In four minutes I had written 27 phrases!

I was amazed. Since I was not inspired, not writing at all at that moment, that week, that month, I was impressed at how this process revealed itself to be so productive. This is when I began to think, if an actual poem resulted from this exercise, we would bring it to you to help you through your own thorny moments.

I emailed Elizabeth. What’s next?

Elizabeth: Another word, of course. And the same process repeated with the second word. I will send the word separately, so you can do it at your own convenience. Follow the same instructions that you used for the first word. Just jot down impressions, associations, memories, images, colors, feelings…..

Sherry: I dutifully printed off the second word, eyes averted, and set it aside till I had some time.

The second word was: “Woman”. LOL.

I cracked up! I did my five minutes of word-gathering. Along trotted the words, like eager little puppies. I dutifully wrote them down. Not inspired. Just whatever came: seventeen phrases, full of wildness. I was rather thrilled.

Elizabeth: Next Step: Take each of your lists created from the words and study them. Choose three to five from each list that best illustrate your personal sense of the word itself. Sense imagery is best, what we can touch, feel, taste and smell. But don’t eliminate something that you respond to strongly because it doesn’t seem like sense imagery. This is your poem, your words, thoughts and ideas. Choose items from both lists that best express that reality. 

Sherry: I went back and looked at my lists. I took those words and phrases that spoke to me most strongly, and listed them on a separate page from top to bottom, with lots of space around each. I was ready. It was Go-Time.

Elizabeth: The next step is the first line of the poem…..using the two words. Your first line is:

This poem is a wild woman…

And, yes, it may take the boomerang form, or go wherever you wish, using some or all of those items you got from your list.  Above all…have fun.

Sherry:  I applied myself to my list. What emerged on the page was a first draft. Then it was time to get serious. I didn’t have to work very hard before the poem was complete. A poem I was pleased with – and rather amazed by - emerged easily after the requisite trying, discarding and substituting of any repeated words.


Poet friends, this process absolutely works. We are excited to share this with you again, in hopes it may spark some poems when you need a little nudge.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your wisdom and techniques, for the love of poetry. You are a wonder. And thank you, Sister Wild Woman,  for all these years we have been so privileged to read your wonderful and amazing poems and chat with you about your dragons!

Elizabeth: Sherry, I haven’t been writing anything new for months. Thanks for this reminder and shoulder tap of invitation. My focus has been completely absorbed by the manuscript I'm working on. 

I’ve had a few things pop into my head that might go in the direction of poetry, but dismiss them because of that other Call. I just want to thank you for this opportunity to remember that I am a whole lot more than a “Book Maker.”

Sherry: Indeed you are. You are a very talented poet, and teacher. Thanks for a second look at this highly effective guide for writing a poem when we're blocked. 

We hope you enjoyed this, poet friends, and find it useful. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Poetry Pantry #481

Good morning, fellow poets! For the past couple of weeks, I have watched, with wonder and delight,  these tulips turn from closed green buds to open purple blooms. I thought I would share them with you this morning, hoping your day is sunny and your heart content.

On Friday, I featured a West Coast poet and friend of mine, Derek Hanebury. His book of poetry was written to honour his sister-in-law, tragically one of Canada's missing and murdered women. I hope you didn't miss it; the story and Derek's poetry are compelling.

Tomorrow, we are chatting with Elizabeth Crawford. The topic is How To Write a Poem When You're Blocked,  handy information to have during those times when the words are balking. On Wednesday, Susan's prompt at Midweek Motif will be: Peace. There are likely to be inspiring responses to this topic. And next Sunday, Magaly will offer her monthly prose prompt, From the Point of View of Trees, so let's get our pencils and pens all sharpened up for that!

For today, let's dive into the Pantry and see what goodies we can pluck out! Link your poem, leave us a few words to let us know how you're doing, and do visit your fellow linkers. Thank you for being here! We appreciate you!

Friday, May 24, 2019

I Wish I'd Written This


Out of the rubble you come
crusted with dust--
cockroach, pickaninny--
your clothes bundled in a blanket
barefoot, faceless
you walk the ditches north
or trust your body
to the smugglers,
wedge inside a sweatbox,
board the overloaded trucks and boats--
shark chum, flotsam, face down
petals on the grit-sand beach.

At night you climb the fences,
thicken their dreams
with your dark-skinned hunger,
swim the river into the promised land--
wetbacks, ragheads, the hired help
to do the heavy work, dirty work.

Inside you that other too,
the one we fear and long for:
devil/god, doppelganger,
shadowed brilliance bloomed
and gone, a kiss and other shifts
to lover or brother, now they’re unfolding
your body from the wheel carriage
of a 747—runaway, refugee---
death your sole asylum
you become the blossom
on a crush of baby’s breath
in God’s most perfect vase.

Derek Hanebury

Sherry: This poem was written by Derek Hanebury, who lives in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Literary Writes contest, on the theme of “the Other”.

When I saw the announcement, I asked Derek if I might feature him here. This feature is longer than usual, as I know Derek, and the subject matter of his book of poems touches on the issue of murdered and missing women in Canada, that I have covered in this column before.  I know this story will touch your heart.

I was fortunate to take Derek’s creative writing class some years ago at North Island College, where he taught for 30 years. He recently retired with an Emeritus distinction.

Derek, congratulations on being shortlisted, and on the Emeritus distinction! “By Any Other Name” carries a powerful message. I especially resonate with the refugee being the blossom in “God’s most perfect vase”. Would you tell us about this poem?

Derek: I wrote this poem in response to the contest prompt but mostly in response to the demonizing of the migrant caravans coming up from South and Central America. Of course, that broadened out as the poem got going, as it seems to me that human migration has become one of the top global issues. (Sadly enough, if climate change continues its trajectory, this humanitarian crisis will only deepen as sea levels rise and habitable land begins disappearing.)

What I wanted to get at is how we use labels to shift our perceptions away from the humanity of other people. Fear is often the first response to anything different from ourselves, and it doesn’t take much rhetoric to stoke that fear, especially when it comes from people in positions of power. In the end, people are going to have to get past that fear because the blending of cultures is not about to stop or be reversed as much as they may want to curtail it. 

In the latter part of the poem, I try to dig a little deeper to connect that fear to the fear we all have of parts of our own inner being. You could use the Jungian term “shadow” I suppose for those energies that we all work hard at repressing and denying, but I wanted to express some optimism too for the possibility of embracing those outcast energies and bringing them into our inner families, just as the migrants can be included in our intimate lives and treated as equals in the human family. In the poem, of course, (and too often in real life as well), those treated as “other” are only elevated after death, becoming the metaphorical roses in God’s vase. Sadly, it often takes startling images of dead or dying children in the media, to return the humanity to these people fleeing poverty and oppression, at least in the eyes of the developed world. 

Sherry: Those images of children do touch our hearts, and make us more aware. We are bombarded with so many crises, I hope we remember people are still suffering, once the news media moves on to the next pressing crisis.

Would you tell us the meaning behind the title of your poetry book, Nocturnal Tonglen? 

Derek: Tonglen is a Budddhist practice where a practitioner sits with another and uses his or her inbreath like a vacuum cleaner to draw out all the negativity trapped within the person, and his or her outbreath to return the purified energy to that person. Typically, the practitioner will visualize breathing in black smoke and breathing back white light. It can be a very powerful healing technique and seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for what artists do when they tackle dark subject matter, as my book of poetry does, and try to create something beautiful out of the horror.

It also seemed to be a good metaphor for what the human psyche does when it processes traumatic experiences. This can happen consciously through hard inner work, creative effort, and therapy, or unconsciously as we go about our daily lives. I pay close attention to my dreams and found much in the symbolic content of my dreams reflecting how I was processing the disappearance of my sister-in-law, hence the “nocturnal” part of the title. In fact, I had finished what I thought was the whole book of poems, and then I had a powerful dream that became the raw material for what became the first poem in the collection. All of the imagery in there came like a gift from my subconscious, highlighting exactly what the book was documenting in my journey from trauma to healing.  

Sherry: That’s amazing, Derek. Would you please share with us the story behind this collection of poems?

Derek: This book of poetry, as I mentioned earlier, came out of that horrible loss our family went through in 1984, when my 19-year-old sister-in-law was abducted and never found. On one level, it tells the physical story and the healing journey we went through, but it broadens out to explore the bigger issues of violence against women and men’s difficulty reconciling with their own feminine sides. In my short life, I’ve seen some great strides being made on the latter issue of masculine/feminine integration, but the violence against women carries on despite the #metoo movement and the public’s increased awareness of the problem. As I say in one of the poems, it’s way past time for us to say “Never again, not once, no more!” when it comes to violence against women, let alone all the other forms of misogyny that have predicated so many relationships and interactions between men and women.

On a positive note, my sister-in-law's cold case has recently been taken up under a new RCMP program that uses highly sophisticated software to re-examine all the evidence available from old investigations and suggest new avenues of exploration. Apparently, it has led to the resolution of four other cold cases already, so who knows. One can always choose to accept things as they are but still continue to hope, which is where I land by the end of the book. 

I had a profound few minutes in my life, where I was shown how perfection glides behind everything that happens in the world. I knew the truth of that with a certainty I had never had about anything else and have never had since. That revelation led to a deeper commitment to the meditation practice I had already begun and, ultimately, to some reconciliation to the fact that Carolyn was never coming back in that form again and that it was okay, despite the tragic nature of what happened. All of this gets explored in the poems, though often not so directly.

Sherry: It takes deep practice, and a wise soul,  to reach that level of awareness. I love the idea of perfection gliding behind everything – especially now,  when so much of what we witness seems so unjust.

I would love to share the following poem, from Nocturnal Tonglen, if I may. 


After seven years they say
we can call her
dead but what to bury by then?

We could box this
pair of earrings ceramic
mask of tragedy the photograph
that fell from the shelf
and shattered us with glass.
Add the hair the RCMP
scrounged from her brush
a collection of Lawrence
her drama award…

all I can hear is her giggling
Guinevere unearthed and the downpour
of her voice over the phone
saying she would be the best damned
Ann Franks the world had ever seen,
still nightied at noon and cracking up
over what happened in the last act.

Carolyn, with tulips

Sherry: This poem helps me see her, the giggling Baby Sister, heartbreakingly absent from the family who loves and mourns her still. It is beautiful, Derek. So sad.

Would you like to say something here about your sister-in-law, and this poem?

Derek: Yes, Carolyn was the surprise afterthought arriving a full eleven years after her next oldest sister, and consequently she was truly the baby of the family and cherished by all of us. She had an irrepressible joy for life and that joy would often spill over into giggling laughter that swept everybody up with it. She had just finished her first year of a degree in drama when she was murdered, and like many actors, she had that kind of outgoing personality that drew everyone’s attention and sparked a lot of fun. Her disappearance kicked a huge hole in family gatherings, but it’s true what they say, after enough time, it’s the good memories that stay, and I tried to catch some of those in this poem. 

Sherry: Thank you, Derek. She definitely lives, in all of her youthful joy, in this poem. Are you working on a book at present?

Derek: I have enough poems for another collection (or two), but I’m working to select the ones that will link up thematically and create some kind of overall effect beyond their individual ones. It’s a process I enjoy, but I’m finding I can’t rush it. In the end, I think I’ll be glad I took the time, rather than hurrying out something I’ll have regrets about.

Sherry: I look forward to it, when it comes out. As well as poetry, you also write fiction (your first book, the novel Ginger Goodwin: Beyond the Forbidden Plateau),  creative non-fiction, short fiction and even drama. When did you begin writing poetry? What do you love about it?

Derek: Poetry started early on in my life, when I was eleven or twelve, but gained momentum through my hormone enriched teens, culminating with my enrollment in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria in my twenties. That’s when things really began in earnest as I learned what poetry could do and immersed myself in the work of so many great poets. I loved the more romantic poems from poets like e.e. cummings and W.B. Yeats, and went through serial monogamy with a long list of poets after them. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were in there along with Rumi and Robert Bly, Gwendolyn MacEwan and W.S. Merwin, to name a few.

To me, the joy of discovery is what keeps me writing poetry. An idea comes, and I do my best to get out of the way and start throwing down whatever words come until they stop. Then I come back to earth and try to figure out what my subconscious was trying to write, which is sometimes a bit like going on a treasure hunt. Once I figure that out, I can start revising to that end. I love that tinkering and tweaking, and can do that forever if I let myself. In the end, it’s such a satisfying art form when something as compact as a poem can speak to someone else’s heart and move them. When you feel like you’ve really captured something, there’s nothing quite so rewarding.  

Sherry: Rewarding to read, for your readers, as well. Are you enjoying retirement?

Derek: Retirement is awesome. It’s so nice to live more in tune with my natural rhythms: to eat and sleep when I feel like it, to write when the inspiration strikes, and to not have the weight of prep and marking hanging over me. I did miss the student interactions in class sometimes. Seeing poets like you catch fire was always a treat, Sherry.

Lately I’ve started monthly meetings with a few of my favourite local writers and that seems to be filling the void. We share our work over tea at the Steampunk Café and give a bit of feedback to keep each other growing, and then there’s the monthly Words on Fire open mics at Char’s Landing to test new work aloud on a live audience.

I’ve also been leading some workshop events, including a poetry workshop  on May 4th at the Federation of BC Writers Conference Spring Writes in Nanaimo. Between that, other reading gigs, and some private mentoring I’ve been doing online with some talented young writers, it’s been easy to keep inspired. Yes, retired life is highly recommended!

Sherry: It all sounds wonderful! If I were still in Port, I’d pull up a chair at Steampunk!

Derek: Thanks for this chance to introduce myself to your readers, Sherry. I hope I haven’t rattled on too long about things, but I think we agree that poetry is one subject that deserves to be talked about way more. Thanks for all you do to keep people inspired and talking!

Sherry: Thank you so much for allowing me to introduce you here, Derek. When I read Nocturnal Tonglen, I knew this is a topic our readers are very concerned about, as we are about the refugee situation unfolding at the southern border, and globally.

Derek can be contacted, for mentoring or book purchases, at

 Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.

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