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Make Writing Your New Year’s Resolution

By: Breany L. Pfeifer

Happy New Year!

Ringing in the new year is a great way to start 2018 off on the right foot. With that being said, what are your goals for 2018? More specifically, what are your writing goals for this fresh new year?

As writers, it is important to set valuable and realistic goals for yourself. You may often have peers, mentors, instructors, or other writers tell you to “write every day,” and they are right. What better way is there to improve your writing besides practice?

I get it; it’s not easy to feel inspired to write every day, and it may be difficult to find the time. However, writing is a great way to relieve everyday stress, and is an amazing way to vent or escape reality. Consider making writing each day your new year’s resolution.
Here are five things to help you keep writing—whether it’s journaling, writing poetry, making short stories, or writing a full novel:

1. Set a daily word count. Whether its 500 words or 2000 words. Give yourself a challenge, but keep it realistic. If you know you don’t have time to write 1,600 words per day, set your goal to 700, and don’t stop writing until you reach that number.

2. Make a specific writing time, and find a comfy place. Perhaps you have free time at 6:00 p.m. every day. Spend that time writing non-stop, until you feel ready to be done. Also, find a spot to write. Whether it’s in your living room, kitchen, the coffee shop down the street, or your roof (be safe up there), find an inspiriting location you love, and make it your writing space.

3. Don’t push yourself too hard, but stay persistent. As previously stated, make sure your goals are realistic, but challenging. If you find writing 500 words per day too easy, bump up to 700 or 1,000. Challenge yourself to write in a genre outside of what you usually write. For example, if you normally write fiction, try a day of poetry. You could even spend a day revising some of your previous work. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing!

4. Determine what plotting method works for you. This doesn’t only apply to only story or essay writers. Poets can choose a “topic” to write about. This is when you must ask yourself: “Do I prefer to create outlines and plot out my work? Or, do I want to put the pen on paper and let my hand and mind soar freely?” Knowing which method you use may help you create your best work.

5. Surround yourself with other writers. You don’t have to know New York Times Bestselling authors to find yourself some writing buddies. Look for a local workshop group, or a writer’s group on Facebook to make some new friends. Find a workshop pen-pal to share your work with and discuss ideas. If you’re a student, join a writing club. If you already know some other writers, take the initiative and invite them to have coffee one day and talk about writing. Getting involved in a writing community will inspire you to do more with your creations.

‘Afterland’ by Mai Der Vang: A Review

By: Maison Horton

Smoke rising, black birds a-blur, all flight and dispersion through a grayscale wasteland—-this is the cover image that greets readers of Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, an enthralling debut deserving nothing less than acclaim and admiration. The collection is lush with the shadows cast by history, in which the speaker yearns to understand their ancestral origins and, by the end of the collection, completes their journey to the “afterland.”

Afterland is also timely in that it addresses themes of immigration; these themes about journeys are present throughout the collection. In “Transmigration” the speaker extends a branch of empathy to refugees alike: “I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep. // We walk out the door.” This declaration comes amidst the first of the poem’s six sections, titled only by the lines “Make me the monarch / morphed from suffering.” What follows is a series of poems that explores the grief (and mere slivers of hope) surrounding the Laotian “Secret War” of the 1960s.

Each section of the collection is organized similarly—-that is, each section is preceded by two lines on a single page, followed by poems covering similar subjects in their respective sections. An example of this structure occurs in the poem’s penultimate section titled, “My mouth is nocturnal.” A word like “nocturnal” is (easily) evocative of the night and its connotations, which encompasses all the senses; “nocturnal” means black, dark, waking in the night, but also quietude, ambience, whispers. The fifth poem in this section “Progeny” seems to reflect all things “nocturnal”: “Night comes in dyads: / Ravenlight, / Drumlands.” Vang challenges the reader to see the duality (“dyad”) by introducing compound words that appeal to more than one sense, just like the single word “nocturnal.” Throughout the collection, the reader encounters lines that say just enough, due to the poet’s careful attention to diction.

On duality, one of my favorite moments is in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos.” Terms from the Hmong language—-the tongue of an Asian indigenous group—exist alongside Vang’s English lines. Vang talks about one particularly important image in the poem in the Notes section of Afterland:

“In ‘Final Dispatch from Laos’ the Hmong word ‘txiv’ means both ‘father’ and ‘fruit’ in the Hmong language.”

Let’s take a look at “txiv” in the context of its parent line, in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos”: “A sweet leaf unable to father any txiv.” Note that “father” is used as a verb in this line; if we were to use Vang’s literal English translations, the line could read two different ways, either: “A sweet leaf unable to father any father,” or: “A sweet leaf unable to father any fruit.” Simply including txiv adds a pleasing dimensionality to just one line that unifies a natural image with the plight of being unable to bear children. There are no wasted words in this collection; Afterland is built on line after complex line, each one being integral to the speaker’s transformation as they journey to meet their ancestors in the “afterland.”

I strongly recommend Afterland for readers interested in ancestry, history, or even the spiritual tones and colors of our existence. Mai Der Vang’s shamanic voice is enchanting, and the visions in Afterland will leave readers breathless.

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Afterland, by Mai Der Vang. Graywolf Press. 2017.

Additional Links:

Songwriting for Everyone

songwriting-2757636_960_720By: Virginia Gallner

When I started coaching for Omaha Girls Rock last summer, I found myself stumbling to find words for the process of songwriting. Standing in the Holland Center, surrounded by campers with so many of their own stories to tell, I struggled to find a way to explain how to unearth those stories and turn them into songs.

We started by being silly. Songs about potatoes, favorite colors, beloved pets. After much laughter and fun, we started to get more comfortable with the idea of digging deeper. Sometimes you have to give voice to the silly things, the jokes and absurdities, just to get comfortable with your voice as a songwriter.

But that’s just for getting started. If you want to write songs, the best advice I can offer is to listen.

Listen to all different kinds of music. Music that you might not normally enjoy. Listen to the way the words roll around each other, the way the melody chooses certain syllables to sustain and others to cut short. Songs are a very different beast compared to poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, because they have the added variable of melody. If you have ever performed slam poetry, you might know some of these techniques already.

Listen to the people around you for a taste of their stories. Songs, just like poems, do not have to be written from your perspective. Some of the greatest songwriters of our time—think of John Prine, for example, or Bob Dylan—wrote many of their songs about other people, sometimes even strangers. I invite you to sit in a coffee shop and listen to the conversations of strangers, and craft them into a ballad or lament spun out of your imagination.

Listen to your instincts. This process is an excavation, perhaps even more so than writing prose or poetry. Music is something primal and deep. But how do you take these very personal things and turn them into something universal, without saying something that hasn’t already been said before?

Everyone experiences the human condition. If you write about your own experiences, chances are, someone will connect with your story. It is all too easy to accuse a songwriter of being unoriginal with their choices of words and metaphor. But the most predictable songs, the ones that are loved and remembered, are the ones that speak to the human condition that we all know.

As we like to say here at 13th Floor Magazine, everyone has a story to tell, and I firmly believe that anyone can tell their story through song.

Poetry – Titling Your Poem

The poem floats on the page, an amalgam of your hard work, love of language, and intense feeling. You feel serene and somewhat spent, ready to share your creation with someone – almost. The poem is complete, except for one thing – the title. For many poets (including myself), this is one of the hardest parts of writing a poem. How do you choose the right title? How do you know what kind of title would work best for your poem? Here are a few kinds of titles that I always consider when I’m stuck for what to name a piece:

 

  1. A title taken from inside the poem

One simple way to title a poem is to take something from inside the poem itself. This kind of title is often thematic, in that it reflects the poem’s central image or idea. Many poems are named in this way, and examples are thick on the ground. One such poem is “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath. (You can read it here.) These kind of titles are effective and efficient – they get tie in with the poem and give the reader a taste of what is to come.

  1. An explanatory/contextual title

A title like this can be extremely useful, particularly if you fear that the poem itself could use a bit of context. Try for a title that can give the reader some insight into how they should read and understand your poem. Consider Geoffrey Hill’s poem “In Memory of Jane Fraser.” (You can read it here.) Jane’s name is nowhere inside the poem, but by giving it that title the reader is aware not only that it is an elegy, but that it is an elegy to a specific person. An explanatory title can be a great way to add just a touch of much-needed context without having to add it into the poem itself. It needn’t be overly explicit or too informative, of course,

  1. A lead-in title

Sometimes, you have a title, but it feels like a brick, sitting heavy on top of your poem. Other times, you can’t find a title that doesn’t interfere with the musicality or lessen the impact of the first line(s). In these instances, a lead-in title may be just the thing, because they let you get to the heart of the matter right off the bat. A good example of a lead-in title is Robert Duncan’s poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” (Read the poem here.) The title sets the scene, but also pulls you right into the body of the poem. There is no disconnect or space between title and poem, which creates an immediacy that serves the piece well.

  1. A refrain title

If your poem has a refrain, you may consider that for a possible title. Though you want to be careful about overdoing it, just as you have to be careful when using refrains inside the poem, a refrain title can be the best topper for a musical poem. For a good example of the refrain title, check out Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain, My Captain.” (You can view the poem here.)

  1. A sensory title

Sometimes, you don’t want to use language that is in the body of the poem, nor do you want to try something that explains too much. Perhaps your poem doesn’t need any extra context, but it needs something before you dive into the body of the piece. In these cases, you may consider an image or association that can grab the reader’s attention without exposing too much of the poem’s intent right off the bat. Look at Audre Lorde’s poem, “Coal.” (You can read it here.) In this poem, the title is a concrete image that ties in with the poem, but isn’t necessarily directly related to it. Rather, it adds to the visual detail of the piece, and brings with it the connotative weight of the word to bear on the reader’s interpretation of the poem.

  1. The dreaded “Untitled”

There are times when a title of any kind feels like a streak of spray paint on the Mona Lisa. Of course, many writing professors won’t allow an untitled poem in the classroom, but when you are writing your own work, you may decide to ditch the title altogether. Untitled poems can be effective if the non-titledness fits with the poem’s atmosphere (unless you happen to be Emily Dickinson , in which case you need never title anything). Tracy K. Smith eschews the title to great effect in her Terza Rima which begins “What happens when the body goes slack?” In this poem (which unfortunately isn’t available to view online but can be found in her collection Life on Mars, available here.), the lack of title adds to the sorrow and confusion of the poem, which deals with death and the yawning gap of loss. A title on such a poem would be too pat, too solid. The words need to drift, much as the speaker of the poem does. If you have a poem where a title would only hurt the piece, you may consider simply leaving it off.

 

Hopefully these ideas will get the gears churning when you’re confronted with that blank space above your piece. If you need more inspiration, here are some other articles that might help:

http://magmapoetry.com/archive/magma-51/articles/working-titles/

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/69116

http://canuwrite.com/article_titles_poems.php