Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: The key to unlocking your poems

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

The key to unlocking your poems

Monday, November 16, 2009

Poets, here is a brand new book you should know about. “Unlocking the Poem” is by my poetry teacher, Ottone Riccio (“Ricky”), and Ellen Beth Siegel, a student of his and former workshop classmate of mine.

Here’s my Ricky story: I was living in New York, about to move to Boston. I was finding myself drawn to writing poetry, but with no idea how to proceed. I could revise a piece of prose writing, but poetry was a different world, one that felt like a mystery. Where to start?

One day in a bookstore I was lucky enough to come across a book that answered many of my questions. It was “The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry” and it turned out that the author, yes, Ricky, taught at the Boston Center for Adult Education, just a few blocks from where I would be living. He became my teacher.

Ricky has always been known for encouraging students to make their poems as concrete and as tight as possible. One apocryphal story has him saying to the author of a three-page poem, “This would make an excellent haiku.”

But beyond the deep knowledge of poetry and the striking ability to grasp what the poet was trying to do, was always a great respect for the poet. He is most definitely not of the slash-and-burn-the poet’s-ego brand of teachers. He most frequently introduces his comments by saying, “This is your poem. But if it were mine, this is what I would do.”

One of his greatest gifts as a teacher has been the assignments. And that is what “Unlocking the Poem” is all about. The book is a collection of his assignments--provocative, sometimes startling, sometimes groan-inducing prompts all designed to get you writing in new ways. To get you to dig deeper, work harder, write better. (Blatant plug reality check: some of my poems are used as examples in the book.)

One of my first of Ricky's assignments was to write a poem using the words “wolf” and “skate.” It became, strangely, the first of several wolf poems for me and for other workshop members, too. Try it. Tomorrow I’ll post my wolf/skate poem, along with another of Ricky’s assignments for you to try.

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